RACE. We are fascinated by it and imprisoned by it, frustrated by it and endlessly debating its meaning. Since 1492, few issues have complicated the human journey like the way we have braided categories of color, character, creed and class into the illusion of “race.” We are weary and we need a way into more constructive dialogue and world-changing action.
FOOD. We are fascinated and imprisoned by it, frustrated by it and endlessly debating how it should function in our lives, culture and personal identities. We have braided our feelings about culture, history, race, class, gender, health and sexuality into the reality of food. Waves of human migration, innovation and cultural collisions have created a global food culture where regional food identities are capital in the marketplace of ideas.
FAMILY. We are fascinated by genealogy and genetics, imprisoned by our upbringing, frustrated by our heritage and the shortcomings of our kin, and endlessly recounting the importance of family—blood and otherwise—in our lives. It’s hard for us to see ourselves outside of the nexus of family and even harder for us to embrace the idea of the human family. And yet, the meaning of family and kinfolk is elastic—and we can find family where we least expect it.
In 2011, I started planning a never-ending journey to finally answer nagging questions—“What are my roots and where do I come from? How does all of it impact my work as a food writer, a culinary historian and a historic interpreter who educates people about America’s second original sin—the enslavement and oppression of Africans and their descendants? And how does food tell the story of my family and my people-from Africa to America and from slavery to freedom?”
I set out on the roads of the Old South to look for places of cultural memory and culinary importance—fields, towns, coasts, swamps—where cooks—both enslaved and free people of color stirred the pot that became Southern food. I began taking a series of genetic tests—each one peeling back the layers of time to reveal what the records I pored through could not—my Old World origins and place among the wider Southern family. I talked to elders, planted seeds with children, visited farms and battlefields and cooked in kitchens where I saw tears, ghosts and realizations…
Not the least of which was that I was inextricably connected to a bigger family than I had ever dreamed possible.
This book is part food memoir, part genealogical and genetic detective story, and a love letter to the culinary story of my Ancestors and their food-steps across the Southern landscape—from their arrival in chains to their day of liberation and Jubilee. Ten years ago I set out to become the first antebellum chef in 150 years—bringing the historic traditional foodways of the South back to life. Now I set myself to the task of telling my story and my family’s story through food—exploring every angle of our American journey through the meals, ingredients, flavors and delicacies that defined our dynamic, ever changing identities that lead to this moment, now.
To do this I ate dirt–specifically–I sucked on red clay. I picked cotton and primed tobacco, plucked rice and cut cane. I shared a drink with Confederate army re-enactors and cooked at Southern synagogues. I met a 101 year old man who was born in the days of Jim Crow but lived to see and vote in 2008 and 2012. I cooked meals alongside black and white and Native and Asian and Latino chefs searching to understand their role in the flow of Southern history and culture. I met kinfolk of all colors and my family—blood and bone and kindred spirits—became wide—from Ghana to England to Sierra Leone to Alabama to Canada to the ends of the world. I searched for culinary justice and opportunities for uplift using food, farming and tradition to improve our lives. And I ate.
This journey is not about kumbayah—it’s centered in confrontation and digging for the truth. And yet, our confrontation takes place at the table of brotherhood. This book is an account of me confronting the illusion of race and the reality of food. This work is about confronting history, confronting my heritage and its misrepresentations, confronting my health, my future, my family and my pre-conceived notions. This is an account of my confrontation and conversation with my region, my nation, and with Southern whites—my cousins rather than combatants—and in all of it–food is the vehicle.
I don’t know if what you’ll be reading in November will change your lives. However I hope it starts a conversation of how we got here and where we need to go and how we can help each other on the way. It is first and foremost a love letter to my people and my country on the eve of our 400th un-official anniversary as a people born in pain raised to an uneasy triumph. It is second, a message of reconciliation and healing to the Southern family in a time when we desperately need it on a national and regional level. It is third an offering to my Ancestors—from the kingdoms and villages of West and Central Africa to the kitchens high and low across her Diaspora where a great cuisine was forged in chains. And lastly it is a prayer for our humanity and the hope we can sit as a global family at the feast of peace.