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raceAhead: The Hidden Racism in Industrial Kitchens

Michael Twitty Cooking DemonstrationMichael Twitty Cooking Demonstration
WILLIAMSBURG, VA-FEB 09: (L) Michael Twitty and Stefanie Dunn, a domestic arts specialist at Colonial Williamsburg, work to put the traditional meal together. Twitty is cutting up an onion and Dunn is breaking up collard green leaves. Culinary scholar and historic chef Michael Twitty did a cooking demonstration performed in the tradition of an enslaved person at the Great Hopes Plantation on the grounds of Colonial Williamsburg. Dressed in period clothes (mid-1700's) he made a meal from scratch using utensils and methods from the early slave era in the United States. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)Photography by The Washington Post The Washington Post/Getty Images

June 19th is Juneteenth or Freedom Day, an annual holiday which commemorates the abolition of slavery in 1865, first in Texas, then across the Confederate South to the surprising number of places where slavery still existed after the Emancipation Proclamation.

My colleague, Renae Reints, says it’s America’s second, and more factual Independence Day, and she’s right. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia have legislation officially recognizing Juneteenth as a state holiday, so I hope you find a way to mark the moment.

Most celebrations tend to be local affairs, but Juneteenth-inspired menus typically pop up in restaurants and corporate kitchens around the country. And that’s where things can get interesting. But for Michael Twitty, culinary historian, chef, TED fellow, and writer, it’s rarely interesting enough. Who gets to decide what’s black food and what isn’t is a complex bit of business. (Remember when Whole Foods tried to cook collards?) “People are trying to be sensitive by serving “classic” soul food dishes,” he says. “But we can do better than fried chicken.”

In service of his fascinating quest, Twitty has become a full-time explorer. He travels to historical sites—including plantations—recreating southern antebellum kitchens, wearing 19th-century clothes, and serving historically accurate meals that could have been prepared by enslaved cooks. He cheekily calls it the Southern Discomfort Tour. And his most recent award-winning book, The Cooking Gene, is an attempt to use serogenetics, which identifies genetic traits through the study of proteins in blood serum, to find genetic relatives to chart their collective history over time through food, and culture. “Forty percent of African Americans today had a relative who was sold through Charleston,” he says. “It’s all complicated.”

So, it’s no surprise that the complexity of history gets played out, in sometimes troubling ways, in modern industrial kitchens. “Who are the people preparing the food?” he asks. “What I know from my own travels is that the people who are working in the kitchens of the restaurants, corporations, schools and other big institutions are rarely the ones who are eating well.”

And Latinx and the other new immigrants who increasingly populate these kitchens, are losing access to their heritage and culinary traditions as they are forced to rely on cheaper, more convenient American fast food. “This is something we’ve become used to.”

The solutions must live beyond a holiday, he says. “Are we sourcing foods from ethnic communities or even giving them chances to bid on business?” he asks. Even small or seasonal mandates for local sourcing can make a difference to local economies and corporate cultures.

Next, big players can and should work with people who are doing interesting things with traditional food, and not just the white, celebrity chefs who currently dominate southern foodie culture. (He’s called out both Paula Deen and Charleston’s Sean Brock in spectacular ways.) “If I had pink skin, a beard, tattoo, and a beanie, I’d be rich,” he snorts.

But mostly he wants Americans to bond around good, true food.

Click here for two special Juneteenth recipes from Michael to raceAhead readers. Happy Freedom Day!

This column is an updated version of my Juneteenth column from 2016.

On Point

What if A-list investors insisted on inclusion riders?This is the big question Andrew Ross Sorkin is asking in his Deal Book column. He points out that for all their talk of inclusion, financial institutions across the board have been going in the wrong direction on diversity. What if pension, endowment and other top shelf funds only invested in private equity and hedge funds that had adopted effective diversity practices? He cites Goldman Sachs as one potential leader; the firm has been quietly funding women-led investment firms, in hopes of developing a more gender-balanced bench of talent. “[S]tudy after study shows that firms that include women on their investment committees empirically outperform their peers,” says Sorkin. “And even if the returns were simply the same, wouldn’t there be a moral imperative to improve the balance?”New York Times

Ava DuVernay quietly enters the $100 million club
DuVernay is the first black woman director to earn more than $100 million in domestic box office for a film and the thirteenth black director. That it was for A Wrinkle In Time, a story about a girl searching for her place in the universe—and her father—was even sweeter. The film hit the mark on Father’s Day weekend. “Thanks to @Disney for believing in the film from Day One to Weekend 15,” DuVernay tweeted. “Could have easily written it off. They never did. And thanks to all the kids and families who’ve continued to see the film in theaters.”
Black Film

Chadwick Boseman gives his Best Hero award to a real-life one
Boseman was a fan favorite at the MTV Awards last night, and not just because he won one of the seven awards Black Panther was nominated for. Boseman took the time to thank his fans for their full-throttled embrace of the film, then took the opportunity to pay it forward. “It’s even greater to acknowledge the heroes we have in everyday life,” he says, asking James Shaw Jr. to come to stand and join him on stage. Shaw disarmed a shooter during a mass shooting event at a Waffle House near Nashville last April. “This is going to live at your house,” Boseman said to the shocked Shaw, as he handed him his award.

The world’s biggest advertiser wants women directing half of all its ads within the next five years
Procter and Gamble has set an audacious new goal that is sure to make brand managers sit up and take notice: By 2023, it wants at least 50% of its product commercials shot by women directors. Today, only some 10% are. It’s going to make an impact—the company spends some 7 billion a year on advertising. Only 30% of top marketing and creative roles are held by women in the advertising industry. P&G will also sign the “Free the Bid” pledge, which requires that at least one female director be included in any slate of final candidates to produce a commercial.

The Woke Leader

Who do you see when you think of an immigrant?
Researchers Emily M. Harris and Heather Silber Mohamed have published an analysis of a unique dataset of images they created of immigrants or immigration appearing in Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report from 2000 to 2010. Their mission? To prove a growing body of research that the “media develops a ‘threat’ narrative in coverage of immigrants, which portrays Latinos as immigrants unable or unwilling to integrate into the U.S.” The bottom line is, yes, the media frequently portrays immigrants as undocumented, unskilled, dangerous and criminal in ways that do not support actual immigrant demographics. They also find that the media unofficially contributes to the debate on immigration through words and image-making. “Our results lead to the question of why mainstream national news sources opt for such coverage,” they write. “As some scholars have demonstrated, profit-seeking motivations and competition significantly influence the content of different media outlets.”(If you don’t have an account, you’ll have to buy the article, sorry.)
Taylor and Francis Online

A new company in Flint, Michigan aims to create living-wage jobs while recycling water bottle waste
Many residents of Flint are still without clean water. To add insult to injury, the struggling city has had a plastic waste problem that others were profiting from—the empty bottles were being collected, processed, and refilled outside the state. But Detroit native Ali Rose Van Overbeke, who volunteered with the Red Cross during the initial crisis, had a different idea. She co-founded Genusee to turn the plastic water bottles into eyeglasses, manufactured by Flint residents. It was, she said, much simpler than she imagined—the plastic is turned into pellets that can be injection molded into pretty much anything. “We picked eyeglasses because we wanted to upcycle the plastic to a product with a purpose and need,” and that would last a bit longer. Overbeke and her partner are working with a local organization that helps formerly incarcerated and displaced workers return to the workforce to find potential employees.
Michigan Radio

Janelle Monáe: Getting free
Monáe deserves all the attention she’s been getting this season as a fearless artist, a creator with a specific vision for her art, community and herself. In this excellent profile by Ashley C. Ford, she also talks about how her success has amplified her need to speak up on behalf of vulnerable populations, and how her wanted her most recent album, Dirty Computer, to be rooted in love but grounded in reality. It was an album she nearly didn’t finish—credit therapy and Stevie Wonder if you’re a fan—at one point, she’d become too angry at the state of the U.S to continue. “This is real-life shit that I’m having to deal with. You strip away the makeup, the costumes, and everything you know about Janelle Monáe the artist, and I’m still the African-American, queer woman who grew up with poor, working-class parents. When I walk off a stage, I have to deal with these confrontations. I have to deal with being afraid for my family.”


No one tells you how your experience as an immigrant will begin with acknowledging yourself as less. You are a brown woman waiting in line at JFK, fumbling to make sure your papers are in order, wondering whether your name is too jagged, too Muslim, that it won’t roll off their tongue. You watch as people with fairer skin pass you by. Global Entry, they will say, for the “pre-approved, low-risk.” Remember: They said global, not equal.
Zarka Shabir