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Michael Twitty on Food and Social Justice

February 8, 2017, 5:46 PM UTC

If you have an extra six minutes and four seconds today, put on your headphones and enjoy this recently posted TED talk by Michael Twitty, the black, gay, Jewish and utterly charming culinary historian who has made it his life’s work to restore the legacy of African and African American food in this country.

In “Gastronomy and the social justice reality of food,” Twitty takes on racism in the food system explicitly, citing a 500-year history that has resulted in food deserts, chronic diseases and the tragic loss of cultural awareness. “When you exploit a people for their culinary heritage, take the best from them and leave the rest, that’s culinary appropriation,” he says.

“Growing up African American, you grow up with a sense that you’re not ethnic, you’re just racial,” Twitty tells raceAhead. “And racial doesn’t come with any sense of heritage.” The price is personal. “Like a lot of African American children, I grew up not liking who I was,” his talk begins. “I didn’t like soul food and I didn’t like being black. For most of my life, I’ve lived on the intersection of the illusion of race and the reality of food.”

In service of his fascinating quest, Twitty has traveled to historical sites — including plantations — recreating southern antebellum kitchens, wearing 19th century clothes, and serving historically accurate meals that would have been prepared by enslaved cooks, using ingredients and techniques that came from a land they often never knew. That work is being baked into a book, The Cooking Gene, which will be released later this year. (He even shared a recipe with us, here.)

Twitty believes that through culinary justice, we can celebrate the complex history we all share, but only if we make sure everyone has a seat at the table. “[It’s] the idea that oppressed people have the right to not only be recognized for their culinary contributions, but they have the right to their inherent value.”

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I had reasoned this out in my mind; there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty, or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other; for no man should take me alive; I should fight for my liberty as long as my strength lasted, and when the time came for me to go, the Lord would let them take me.
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