Ever since our one on one phone call, I’ve received a lot of questions about the content of our conversation. You were up front with me at the time about a few issues in your life causing you to withdraw a bit and redirect. Until now I’ve held them close in the spirit of confidence and respect. Now that you’ve gone public about your condition, myasthenia gravis, and journey into sobriety I think we can have a slightly different conversation.
Fate has had you and I cross paths more than once in person. We have never met in person and perhaps that will change. Inshallah, as they say in Senegal—and thank you for the pictures and recommendations you sent along, they came in handy.
As I reflected not only on the recent profile, but on our sparse but pithy interactions and initial conversation, I gave myself a long time to think and reflect on matters. It grieves me that instead of my ideal meeting of the minds—in 2012 when I began The Cooking Gene project—that sensationalism had to intervene before we could get to the bottom of why either of us should give a damn about the other, let alone his opinions.
It has been pointed out by some that the current conversation in Southern food, especially over cultural politics and culinary appropriation is very male. You and I are both male, and with maleness comes a deep measure of privilege but I don’t apologize for the issues of masculinity at play here or at stake. I don’t want to in effect water down the bigger shadows behind us.
It wasn’t until some comments I made about Rick Bayless were re-mixed and taken out of context that I realized what people on either sides of “the debate” were really seeing. I was being incredibly naive. But my critics showed me exactly what they thought of me. I was a loud mouth, pseudo-intellectual, “social (culinary) justice warrior who just wanted to bring down hard working, accomplished white men. Oh, I forgot to add “Black,” loud mouth. The very people decrying my call for greater awareness of the racial politics of food put me in the “Black box.”
Our larger politics has been dominated by people salivating over whether or not our former president, Barack Obama, would be able to survive and come out alive in his various contests against white men. It still is a leitmotif in our current time with the election of The Great White Male Hope. The backdrop of our conversation is an age of an American racial cold war, although some say it’s far from cold, and even I would argue against my phrasing by saying it’s certainly not just tepid.
But to boil it all down to your whiteness or my Blackness is to miss the finer details. I would hope that whatever happens from here on out our efforts are known as more Reconstruction than ever brewing Civil War. “Us” and “them” is not a good look for two people who have never quite exemplified the part. I do not desire to see us portrayed any further as opposing teams or combatants but rather two Southerners grappling with what has been handed down and hopefully, poetically, tastefully leaving a legacy rendering future flashpoints moot.
Why are we here, in this America at this time? Why do we both have fond memories of moms and grandmothers and deep roots in the Southern soil? We both could have done what plenty other people did–gotten the f…. out. Instead we went deeper. We are about the same age. We both have notebooks going back to childhood scribbled with precious food facts that make us guardians of something indescribably transcendent.
We have had, with some very few exceptions, the same goal. We have the same Holy Land, with slightly different maps. We both care that this cuisine of survivors, Antean champions and storytellers be preserved. We both recognize more is at stake than the food. Sean Brock and Michael Twitty are among the many for whom the foundational truth is clear: The Southern path to salvation is within itself, and inasmuch as saving and healing can take place, so will go it’s original sins and with them the ability of America to truly fulfill itself. The South’s phenomenal ingredients, passionate scholars and brilliant culinary minds pave the way for something that can bring true egalitarian power, Appalachia to Lowcountry, Chesapeake to Gulf Coast.
At the same time our individual and distinct journeys to Senegal, West Africa, source of thousands brought enslaved to early America, especially Charleston; have taught us we are both heirs to a deep in the bone African legacy. In some ways you are more socially equipped to advocate for a greater understanding of just how much Africa lives on in contemporary Southernness. In breaking down that wall we are eliminating the idea held by a growing extreme right that purity is what makes Southerners distinct, or that a meaningful conversation can be had among folks of African descent in the South without reference to the largest groups of Africanized Northern European whites on the planet. It is our job to use our plates to revise the mental family tree.
I will say this. I stand by my advocacy against saviorism, against a food media and gatekeepers who privilege certain people and scrutinize others mercilessly. I did not like how some used your story to obscure the legacy of others. I am not sorry that I’m sitting with you at the welcome table by way of nudge, otherwise this important conversation could not happen. We’ve spoken about that. I wish to apologize however if my tone or words have in the past caused you excess stress or impeded your healing process or journey towards a new self. It was never my intention to cause you harm on any of those levels. I am sorry if the agendas of others were allowed to interject what really was a conversation of a personal nature and not as it were a 21st century stand in for Schmelling vs. Louis.
It brings to mind the hymn Amazing Grace, written by a man who formerly traded in human beings from Africa, John Newton wrote what has ironically become the most endearing American hymn if not the unofficial spiritual anthem of the South. Replete with metaphors about seeing the world with new eyes, renewed by spirit, transformed by heartache, it is a sufficient shelter for us both. Much like kintsugi, the Japanese folk art of healing broken vessels with laquer and gold, it is the life beyond our breaks and ruptures that is more powerful, more meaningful and sweetest to recall.
Any man who can take a needle in the eye is braver than me. You have chosen to make your way out a way in for many and this will join your legacy in food in sealing your place. You are right, suffering, is the root ball. In my own journey it is hard to sort out my personal demons from those handed down through the generations. It is difficult for men to discuss how we suffer and how we cope, because the expectations from within and without are so damn demanding. We often forget we didn’t get sick alone, and that healing need not be a solitary journey.
We all will look inside ourselves with you and will take a deeper look. We will all support you in your journey because it is important not just to you but to not. You are approaching 40, I’m already there, which is the season of wisdom. Nothing could be more on time than your seasons aligning. As any good chef knows, she must know her seasons wherever her feet may be.
You are at a moment where your Ancestors are key. I can tell yours are as present as mine in your life’s path. Perhaps when we meet we can pour some of that premium bourbon on the ground, talk to them, and get the healing we both need from the ground up.
In a spirit of healing, wholeness and health, your cousin,
Michael W. Twitty
July 5, 2017
Tammuz 11, 5777