August 12, 2019

Michael Twitty's Cooking Gene

by The Nod

In our last conversation with Michael Twitty, the chef and culinary historian told us all about his “Southern Discomfort Tour.” The tour, which he wrote about in his book, “The Cooking Gene,” involved travelling the south and cooking on plantations using the same methods that his enslaved ancestors would have used. (He even did it dressed as they would have dressed.) Since our conversation, Michael has won two James Beard awards  — the Oscar’s of the food world! — for his book and food writing. In a follow-up to our original episode, Brittany calls Michael to hear all about what it was like to win the food world’s highest honor, his recent travels all over Africa, and his unfiltered opinions on collard greens.
This episode is part of our summer podcast club series. We’ve put together a handy guide on how to organize your own podcast club. For more information, visit thenod.show/podcastclub.

Also, make sure to check out Michael Twitty’s book, “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South.” 

Transcript

[REMIXED THEME]


BRITTANY LUSE: Hello Everybody, welcome to the second installment of The Nod Summer Podcast Club. 


ERIC EDDINGS: Yes! Woop! Woop!


BRITTANY: The Nod Summer Podcast Club is where we are basically all month long, revisiting the episodes from our archives that are sure to spark some lively discussion, maybe a little spicy discussion among you and yours. Think of it like a book club, but for podcasts. 


ERIC: That's right. These are the episodes that really had y'all talking when the first came out. And here at The Nod we want to help you keep those conversations going with your friends and family. So, we put together a handy guide on how to form your own club. It's pretty simple. Just wrangle up some people you like. Everyone listens to the episode. Then you get together and talk about it. Snacks are a good idea, too. You can find that guide as well as questions to spark conversations and info on how to get free Nod swag at the nod dot show slash podcast club. That's the nod dot show slash podcast club.


BRITTANY: I am so excited for today's installment. It's from an episode called "Whole Hog" and it's an interview with Michael Twitty, a chef and culinary historian. He's also a historical interpreter. So, he's traveled the South, cooking on plantations using the same methods his enslaved ancestors would have used. He even did it dressed how they would have dressed. Michael's demonstrations are meant to teach audiences both about the history of American Southern cuisine as well as the history of slavery in America.


 When I originally had spoken with Michael he had just written a booked called The Cooking Gene which has since won, not one, but two James Beard awards. And seriously that's like the Academy Awards of food writing. And that's the only exciting update in his life. So, be sure to stick around after the original interview for an update from Michael. He tells me about what it was like to win the food world's highest honor, his recent travels to Africa, and his unfiltered opinions on collard greens. But first, here it is from the episode called "Whole Hog," our interview with Michael Twitty. 


From Gimlet Media, this is The Nod, a show about Black culture from Blackness’ biggest fans. I’m Eric Eddings.


BRITTANY LUSE: And I’m Brittany Luse. 


[THEME OUT]


BRITTANY: Welcome y'all to the second installment of The Nod summer podcast club—


ERIC: Yes!


BRITTANY: Where all month long we are revisiting the episodes from our archive that are SURE to spark some lively discussion among you and yours. Think of it like a book club—but for podcasts.


ERIC: That’s right. These are the episodes that really had y’all talking when they first came out—and here at The Nod we want to help you keep those conversations going with your friends and family. So we put together a handy guide on how to form your own club. (its pretty simple—you just wrangle up some people you like, everyone listens to the episode, and then you get together and talk about it! Snacks probably help too…) You can find that guide—as well as questions to spark conversation, and info on how to get free Nod swag at the nod dot show slash podcast club. That’s the nod dot show slash podcast club. 


BRITTANY: I am SO EXCITED for today’s installment...its from an episode called whole hog. its an interview with Michael Twitty—a chef and culinary historian. He’s also a historical interpreter. he’s traveled the South, cooking on plantations using the same methods that his enslaved ancestors would have used. (He even did it dressed as they would have dressed.) His demonstrations are meant to teach audiences both about the history of American Southern cuisine, as well as the history of slavery in America.


When I originally spoke with Michael, he had just written a book called The Cooking Gene—which has since won, not one, but TWO James Beard Awards. Seriously, that’s the academy awards of food writing. And that’s not the only exciting update in his life—so be sure to stick around after the original interview for an update from Michael. He tells me about what it was like to win the food world’s highest honor, his recent travels to Africa, and his unfiltered opinions on collard greens. But first...here it is, from the episode called whole hog, our interview with Michael Twitty.


[MUSIC STARTS]


BRITTANY: Eric, I wanna to tell you about this crazy project that I found out about.


ERIC: Okay.


BRITTANY: So, a few years ago when I was scrolling Tumblr, I mean a lot of us were, that was pretty much all I did back in the day. Anyway, I came across this Kickstarter project for this Black man. He was trying to raise money to tour the American South, growing and cooking Southern food like in the traditional like way back antebellum way on former plantation sites.


ERIC: Wow. That…sounds like…An adventure? 


BRITTANY: Yes it is. So it turned out this guy was Michael Twitty. He writes a lot about Jewish and African American food traditions—he often goes by the name KosherSoul online on the internet. You know what I am saying, like kosher, soul. Get it? You get it? 


Anyway, he’s not JUST a food writer: This guy teaches Judaic studies. He is a culinary historian. So Michael you know he raised the money, and he went on this tour. He dubbed it the Southern Discomfort tour. And he spent a summer going all around the South, I mean like from Charleston to New Orleans, you know like pretty much any city in between and did these cooking demos for all types of people…All while wearing the same clothes that would have been worn by his enslaved ancestors.


ERIC: Wow—what—wow. 


BRITTANY: Yeah, no- he wasn't just like- he wasn’t just going to the places and cooking and talking to people. He was like- he was like doing, I mean, the whole- the whole thing. 


ERIC: That is ah- this is a level of commitment that I am not uh familiar with. 


BRITTANY: Right most of us aren't. Anyway, Michael Twitty just wrote about the whole experience in his new book The Cooking Gene, and you know of course, I had talk to him and about a million questions about you know just about what it must have been like to recreate the experience of cooking as an enslaved person—and you know to do it for a Southern audience. So, I called him up for a conversation. And he started off telling me what it’s like to get ready to cook on a plantation:


MICHAEL TWITTY: I'm all alone. I'm chopping wood. I'm putting on the clothes. I'm getting ready to smell like human bacon. You know for the next 24 hours 


BRITTANY: Yeah.


MICHAEL: Yes, you do your thing and-


BRITTANY: What you say you do your thing that I feel you skipped over a home and. 


MICHAEL: I got you my sister because I want people to really understand when you go to cook at home what do you do. You open the refrigerator in your pantry you get the ingredients you spread them out you wash and prep them and you just cook. I got to chop the wood. I got to wring chicken's neck. I'm going to pluck the feathers. I've got to dig the vegetables at the ground. I got to wash the vegetables off (laughs). I've got to I have- I have to light a fire. I have the lot of what craziness is as light a fire fireplace go and big fire. Cook the- cook the fire down a little coals put the pot on the back of the fireplace hearth so that I can get the pot boiling so I can make the soup or the sauce or the stock. I'm going to get this go on and then go and make sure these pots are clean and make sure they're ready to go. That's three hours before I even started cooking. I want people to understand that's what it was like. 


BRITTANY: And that's what you do when you're going to. You go from soup to nuts. Beyond soup to nuts. 


MICHAEL: That's right. In some days it's actually interesting to have it be in real time. In other words what it would be like to have the breakfast ready at at 7:30 8:00 o'clock. What would be like to then turn around within an hour and have the meal ready by 2:00. And knowing that it was like six seven eight nine ten courses if not 12. 


BRITTANY: What did you serve. Typically. 


MICHAEL: Oh that's a hard one because it varies by season. 


BRITTANY: What was your favorite thing that you would serve. 


MICHAEL: Well I love to make okra soup, I love to make barbecue. I love to make fried chicken and- and yeast rolls. I like to make red rice, which is like African-American descendant of jollof race and I like to make sweet potatoes roasted in the ashes. And watermelon preserves and okra, pickle and black eyed pea fritters and all that kind of good stuff. 


BRITTANY: Now I'm upset. 


MICHAEL: We did make we do fix that my sister. I make the best pound cake an open heart you ever had in your life. 


BRITTANY: I actually do I mean pound cake myself but in a convection oven. 


MICHAEL: Uh, I make- so when I make that sweet potato pie you- you going to lose it. 


BRITTANY: Well I'm coming down. I come to D.C. like four times a year so you don't have to tempt me with a good time. 


MICHAEL: Cool, cool. 


BRITTANY: It seems like you really know the traditions of your people and something that I think about a lot when I think about The Cooking Gene and the Southern discomfort tour is that there is a lot of beauty in knowing the traditions of your people and where those traditions came from. But creating that connection between the past and the present. You know I can't help but think that comes at a painful cost. Absolutely. It's reliving like a generational horror. You know I mean it kind of feels like a like a double-edged sword in a way. 


MICHAEL: If this were easy everybody would do it. I can only I can make it analogous to is have you ever seen the movie Ghost, by Whoopi Goldberg, right. Yeah. And she fakes being a- a medium. 


And then all of a sudden the gate gets opened up and she's a real medium and she can handle it. 


Because now everybody wants- Everybody has something to say come on come on we got something to say. That's how it feels. That's how it feels when you roll up on these places. Slaveholding properties feeling the energy of our ancestors going, "Please tell our story. Come on." That energy hits you from the minute you get there the minute you leave. And at first it's extremely scary. I don't mean scary in the eerie sense. Scary instance of the baggage because you know they're there they're waiting for you. 


I mean can you imagine sometimes when I pull up to a spot I close my eyes and in my mind's eye when we go through that gate to go in and long walk of oaks or whatever it is leading to the plantation big house and I close my eyes and I see the whole whole plantation community stand there wait for me children running beside the car wanting to see me mothers, sold from their children, men beat to death they want me to tell their stories. There's times when I go there and I put on my clothes and I just break down and cry. 


I'll let nobody see me. I just break down and cry. Then sometimes when I leave I feel so light because they feel good now. They feel like oh thank you. Nobody. They were they were forgotten. And when your people were your mothers were your fathers. We're not just anybody is calling for your people your blood. Emotionally it's very draining. It's very powerful 


BRITTANY: And why do you say that? 


MICHAEL: Oh because they just hit you. They know you're there and they know what you're going to talk about. 


BRITTANY: It's like a lot of things and traveling through you. You know they always say children that they come for you not to you. Almost feels like the same thing. So you're feeling the spiritual essence of- of you know everything around you. You're wearing the representational clothing you're in these hallowed spaces and then you cook you during this for hours and then you feed people. Mm hmm. All types of people white people, Black people, older people, younger people and then you guys talk. So what were the conversations like at your demonstrations. 


MICHAEL: So one of the ones I point out in the book is when there were some white Southern ladies who were older and they were all hemming and hawing and looking around grinning and I thought this was so cute and so wonderful. Mm hmm. And there were some Germans and a German visitor says, "How do you feel than the clothes of your ancestors who were slaves." And I said, "Well, how do you feel being you know the generation after the shoah?" And he knew that was Hebrew for the Holocaust. And he goes, "the Holocaust was a terrible thing and never should have happened and neither should have slavery." At which point the White Southern ladies left.


When he grabbed the South by its collar and dragged it into this conversation about legacy, reparations, and the past and the present and responsibility, and never should have happened. 


And he rolled out. And then I had a nice little 20 minute talk with him, his wife, and his brother in law, all three of them were born roughly during or right after World War II. In the shadows of what was a national insanity. And I explained to them that I was Jewish and the man said to me, he writes in the book because I you can't write everything the man said to me, "You know something. I'm so glad that you were born now that I can talk to you instead of my parents because my parents probably would have had you killed." You know that kind of like- that kind of like I don't want to ever have this happen again. I don't like this. 


I know that my parents and my grandparents did some heinous things that weren't right and just not hearing that from you know our cousins our blood cousins white Southerners not hearing you know give it get have them give up on that. You know they're getting me wrong because progressive Southern people are white Southern people are some of the prime buyers of my work and I think part of it is that sort of like you know self-forgiveness thing which I don't- I don't have any problem with you have you have no problem saying never again and living by the credo and living up to that I don't hold you- I don't put blame on you at all because you're changing for the better. It's the people who like you know will fight to the death over an idol, a statue. 


I have serious issues with him because I know it's not just a statue for them. It's a symbol of voter suppression symbol of law enforcement overreach that was born in the days of slave catching. I think people have done this. You know we're cool thing with slavery as well. We have the issues now. 


We work whole thing with slavery. 


BRITTANY: What- what do you mean "we're cool thing with slavery?" Like post-racial America?


MICHAEL: Yeah this post-racial America began 1865. I really believe that for most white folks post-racial America began in 1865 it didn't begin with Barack Obama. 


It began with you know we don't own you anymore. You know it's kind of like I don't I'm not an avid “Family Guy” watcher. I watch it when you know somebody has them on the TV and I'm walking past the TV and there's one time I walk right by just at the right time. It was a vignette where this white guy is like harassing and beating on his enslaved person. Then all of a sudden emancipation happened and he goes, "oh we're cool right?" And that's how. And- and you know all satire and all plot, I think I get a lot of that energy like oh we can just drop it it's ok we can move forward, nothing to see here. 


BRITTANY: And so you say you created this tour to kind of-


MICHAEL: Yeah to combat that I'm subversive in my Insley people's clothing. I don't do this to celebrate the good old days and I don't do this and I don't do this to make white people feel guilty either. I think whether white people feel guilt or not is really up to them. I believe they believe there is a certain measure of national guilt that must be assumed. Germany does it. And if it's OK for Germany we all agree that Germany needs that national guilt to sort of you know assuage its historical tragedy then damn right where I feel that the same thing for America. I just want people to understand that I am coming at them from a place of perfect subversion. I'm not there to make anybody feel comfortable or comforted. 


I want to disturb their notions of what history is and improve their notions of what the future can be. 


BRITTANY: Some of your encounters were with people who were related to you. You know somehow can you talk to me about what it was like you know having done the research and knowing who your people were and where they came from and then coming upon someone who you know now reads and identifies as white who is also related to you you know while you're doing all of this work. 


MICHAEL: You know something. It's something to be able to go through the South to how white people go, "we're probably related." That didn't happen 30 years ago. Okay. It is something to look in the eyes of a white cousin and see if you see the faces or eyes of your people. 


And sometimes it'd be shock to death- they'd would just be like I can't believe like the French reporter we had, "He's like yeah my name is Cliff Bellamy and I said Bellamy my great great great great grandaddy was Bellamy," and see all the blood drained from his face like I thought I was just a cover your cute little or whatever story. 


BRITTANY: Wow. This reporter was white. 


MICHAEL: Yeah. It was the first press coverage we got on that on the tour and he came to my presentation in a- Chapel Hill, North Carolina and he turned out to be my cousin. 


BRITTANY: And how did how do you think. How do you think he walked away from that. 


MICHAEL: I don't go because he didn't write about it in the story. 


BRITTANY: Interesting. 


MICHAEL: He didn't write about it in the story which is- which is very telling. 


BRITTANY: What do you think it says. 


MICHAEL: I don't know if he was ready to put that energy out there to deal with that I think- I think so for some Southern white people I think for some blessed other people period white and Black. Let's be real. There is there is a certain amount of stigma because this is still a very thorny subject. Just because a good number of people get more- are going you know I'm sure we're related or whatever is not the same thing as blanket acceptance of this subject. 


There are still certain things you don't talk about in the Old South in company. Well the people I do those conversations on places where the conversation cannot be held to be had. You know it was not a conversation that you have you know down at the restaurant or at the store or the church but it is a conversation that you have on the historic plantation or museum where you know it's unavoidable. 


[MUSIC STARTS]


BRITTANY: This is like- this was a moment for me being able to talk to you, so thank you, thank you.


MICHAEL: Thank you very much, this was great.By the way if you want to if you want to be really sexy to the person you're with smell like human bacon. It works every time. That's one of the few benefits of this nonsense. 


ERIC: I love the smell of bacon. That actually is- would be- would be great if I could convince to Carla to wear the scent of bacon all day .


BRITTANY: You know actually, you really wanna know something. I can't believe I'm saying this- this is stupid. You know I used to go to the club a lot when I was younger.


ERIC: Okay. 


BRITTANY: Now, I wouldn't do this, but I've worn bacon grease as like perfume to the club. 


ERIC: To just- you just dab it on your neck?


BRITTANY: To see if it made a difference. (laughs)


ERIC: The sad thing- For some reason, I'm not surprised that this happened.


BRITTANY: I- I was pretty- I always met somebody when I went out. But you know, was it my personality or was it my bacon grease, who knows? 


ERIC: The world will never know. 


BRITTANY: Anyway, after the break, I call Michael up to hear about what it was like to win a James Beard Award:


MICHAEL: ... she said, “Michael Twitty,” and I fell out my chair and my [inaudible] dropped off me (laughs). But I told them, I said, “No, no, hold on. I'm not going to walk up with just dashiki, I'm going to wear the cloth in the proper way.” And I got out there and I was just like, "Whoa man." 


[MUSIC ENDS]


BREAK


BRITTANY: Welcome back. So, talking to Michael Twitty was seriously such a highlight for me, that I couldn’t wait to call him up and catch up on his life. And boy has Michael been busy since our interview. He received the food industry’s highest honor—the James Beard Award. He traveled to Africa numerous times to continue his work of tracing our culinary heritage. And also, (just like me!) he’s gotten engaged. Needless to say, we had A LOT to catch up on.


[Phone rings]

MICHAEL: Hello.

BRITTANY: Hello Michael, how are you?

MICHAEL: I'm okay.

BRITTANY: This is Brittany.

MICHAEL: I know.

BRITTANY: Actually my cohost Eric is sitting in here with me. He's producing the interview, but you can't hear him. I can just see him. He's excited to be here.

MICHAEL: (laughs).

BRITTANY: So that says hello. He's waving (laughs).

MICHAEL: Yay, I'm just gonna wave him back.

BRITTANY: I wanna to pat you on the back for a lot of things, which are going to get to some of your accolades in a second. But also I'm just really, I'm proud of myself that I was able to get to you before...now you's hot like fish grease. You know what I'm saying?

MICHAEL: Yeah. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

BRITTANY: I'm glad that I was able to talk to you way back when, and that you also that you also deigned to come on the show (laughs). So, uh-

MICHAEL: No, I, um, I w- I want- I wanted to support you because it's really important that we support African American voices and Black voices on podcasts, in media. It's a two-way street. It's a two-=way street.

BRITTANY: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

MICHAEL: I can't tell...this has been a- it's been a slog for me in terms of reaching our people.

BRITTANY: Hmm. Say more about that.

MICHAEL: Some people don't dig the- dig the fact that, you know, I learned this path through practicing historical skills, um, my body being a big Black man.

BRITTANY: Hmm.

MICHAEL: Um, some people don't dig that. Some people don't dig the fact that maybe it isn't centered in some other kind of narrative. My joke has been, "You know folks, I did not write Soul Food three, the resurrection Big Mama."

BRITTANY: (laughs).

MICHAEL: You know, and we can all cry and sing Babyface songs all night long. No, no. Just not what I did. People who were clamoring for recipes for example, if you want recipes, there are hundreds and thousands of Black cookbooks.

BRITTANY: Hmm.

MICHAEL: Support them. Go buy them, read them, and talk about them, and talk about their voices. But The Cooking Gene is um, you know Toni Morrison is really brilliant. She said something to the effect of there must be a record. She was referring to activists. She said "Well, well Tony, why aren't you in the, on the street? "Cause, 'cause I'm an editor at Random House and there must be a record. I'm here creating that record-

BRITTANY: Hmm.

MICHAEL: ...both through my writing, through my editing." So for me the record is, what are the facts behind the recipes and the history? What grounds us as a people? I don't regret putting myself on the cover. I don't regret wearing my historical clothes. I don't regret being in the spaces I was in. You know, once you do your DNA, once you find out where you come from the continent and once you make all the historical links and once you show other people how to do it for themselves, there is no question about where we are, where we come from and what ground we stand on.

BRITTANY: Hmm. I think a major thing that we need to mention about the book is that it won the 2018 James Beard Award for best book.

MICHAEL: Yass!

BRITTANY: James Beard Award is like, I mean that's like, that's like the Oscar of food.

MICHAEL: Yup. It shocked the hell out of me (laughs).

BRITTANY: Did you cry Halle Berry tears?

MICHAEL: You know what? Here's how was it went down.

BRITTANY: (laughs). I was on a mega bus sorority from DC to New York.

BRITTANY: What?

MICHAEL: I was in the back of the mega bus looking like Eminem before he went out an battled in 8 Mile.

BRITTANY: (laughs).

MICHAEL: I got this expensive ass hotel room for no reason-

BRITTANY: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

MICHAEL: ...'cause I was only going to be there for like 18 hours.

BRITTANY: Yeah.

MICHAEL: I put on every ring I bought in Ghana and Nigeria and Senegal, I wore my dashiki, I wore my dress pants, I wore my kente cloth, the full kente cloth.

BRITTANY: Uh-huh (affirmative).

MICHAEL: And I was scared to death. I knew I was walking into a room where there were people who told me no, who told me that I could not be the master of my own vision-

BRITTANY: Hmm.

MICHAEL: ...or vision when it came our history.

BRITTANY: Mm.

MICHAEL: And then leading that for my category which was food writing-

BRITTANY: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

MICHAEL: ...she said, “Michael Twitty,” and I fell out my chair and my kente cloth dropped off me (laughs). But I told them, I said, “No, no, hold on. I'm not going to walk up with just dashiki, I'm going to wear the cloth in the proper way.” And I got out there and I was just like, "Whoa man." And I was book of the year, first Black American.

BRITTANY: Wow. Wow!

MICHAEL: The very same people who were in that room who were like, "Nah, we don't want you to be Jewish. Nah, I don't like the gay thing. You shouldn't be representing fucking food cause look at you." And now guess what? They had to watch me up to get that medal.

BRITTANY: Mm.

MICHAEL: Yeah.

BRITTANY: How does that feel? You do not get so many American foods without us.

MICHAEL: Right.

BRITTANY: So, like how does it feel to be the first Black American to win that award?

MICHAEL: Extraordinary. For me, the most important thing was being able to get up there and just say the names of my ancestors. When I got up there, I mentioned to my, um, fifth great grandmother, Sarah Bowen-

BRITTANY: Hmm.

MICHAEL: ...who is the only person in my family tree who I know made the middle passage.

BRITTANY: Wow. Wow!

MICHAEL: I let them people in the audience know. They were not just seeing me. They were seeing the thousands of people that led to my creation and every other Black person in this world who shook the world and not only gave it a soundtrack, but gave with a cuisine. Andrew Zimmerman and Francis Lam like stood right up and gave me a standing ovation. And then like Padma Lakshmi, oh my God Padma, oh. She was just like, "I've been waiting to meet you." And she like took a selfie with me-

BRITTANY: What?

MICHAEL: And I was like, "Oh, great." I was like, "Awesome."

BRITTANY: That's so dope.

MICHAEL: It was one of the best things of all life. But you know what I did the next morning?

BRITTANY: What'd you do?

MICHAEL: I got on a train. It's three o'clock in the morning-

BRITTANY: Uh-huh (affirmative).

MICHAEL: ...from New York to Williamsburg, Virginia to do my historical interpretation. It felt like the people who I interpret, who I bring to life, it was like victory day for them. I was like, "Hey y'all, not only did that come back to you, but this is for you."

BRITTANY: Hmm.

MICHAEL: This is your story. This is how people will know your names. People will never forget who you are. The fact of the matter is not my accomplishment. It's where the people come after me, people came before me.


[MUSIC STARTS]

That's the African way. Knowing that we are the descendants and we are also the ancestors.

BRITTANY: Hmm.

MICHAEL: That is our culture.

BRITTANY: Coming up after the break, Michael continues tracing his culinary roots—and his actual roots—...all the way to Africa.


[MUSIC ENDS]


BREAK


BRITTANY: So since Michael was on the show, he’s gone to Africa for several culinary tours. He tells me the tours are meant to rejuvenate and to educate. Basically, Michael and the other chefs that he takes with him go to different countries in Africa learning traditional methods for sourcing and cooking different foods. Michael tells me he’s traveled to Africa five times, visiting six countries.

MICHAEL: The last trip was Benin, Togo, then before that uh, was Cameron before that Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal.

BRITTANY: Wow. How was it different to go to Ghana versus, you know, traveling throughout the South?

MICHAEL: I guess one of the biggest differences is that you are submerged in a Black world.

BRITTANY: Hmm.

MICHAEL: You go to the planes, Black folks everywhere. The money has Black people on it. You're never allowed to forget that at one point in time, all of your people, their center was themselves.

BRITTANY: Hmm.

MICHAEL: When you spent like three or four days in the heart of West Africa-

BRITTANY: Hmm.

MICHAEL: ...the last time you see a white person and you're like, "What the hell is that?"

BRITTANY: (laughs).

MICHAEL: You're like, wait a minute. You- you freak out because they look, they stand out, after you've been in the village, after you've been in the countryside. And when you go the village, Brittany-

BRITTANY: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

MICHAEL: ...that's when you...that's when all the things you, you picked up from the deep South come to life. The way the elders interact, the way the children behave. You go to Africa and you go, wow, that's the same kinda of vibe-

BRITTANY: Mm.

MICHAEL: ...as when we're in the South. The funniest thing for me was this a little boy in the village.

BRITTANY: Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative).

MICHAEL: And as we go, we were at a car where it was like speeding past this household. And this poor little boy is screaming and hollering and his mama has him in this big towel being bathed.

BRITTANY: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

MICHAEL: And I joke with, with one of our guys and I said, "Man, y'all get everything but the Vaseline."

BRITTANY: (laughs).

MICHAEL: And he says, "No, no. We got the Vaseline too." And it was funny because he got me, I got him, we both had that same experience growing up of when you were little and mom will give you a bath and scrub your skin raw. You know, you don't know how Black you are till you go to Africa.

BRITTANY: Hmm.

MICHAEL: Your Africanness is maybe different, but your Blackness is definitely intact I assure you.

BRITTANY: I still have yet to have that fully enveloping experience of being not just in all Black space 'cause I went to an HBCU. But when you're in all Black space, you're in all Black space that's within a larger mainstream white majority structure.

MICHAEL: Right.

BRITTANY: But what is it like? Like how, I guess I'm wondering like was it disorienting being in this like all Black country?

MICHAEL: You know what? You get used to it real quick (laughs).

BRITTANY: (laughs).

MICHAEL: You get used to it real quick. And it's funny because I think we have all these myths about Black versus African versus Caribbean-

BRITTANY: Uh-huh (affirmative).

MICHAEL: ...what those words mean, you know? Um, one of the, one the like endearing moments was when we were in Senegal and I started singing this spiritual.

BRITTANY: Hmm.

MICHAEL: And all of a sudden all the young men who were working behind the desk, all four of them started clapping in unison on beat-

BRITTANY: There you go.

MICHAEL: ...in a Muslim country. Like, they, they do, they, they have the same-

BRITTANY: (laughs).

MICHAEL: ...like thing in them that I had in me and it didn't matter. But when I was in Nigeria and we go into the Eze, the king's house- in Igbo country.

BRITTANY: Uh-huh (affirmative).

MICHAEL: ...a neighbor country and they're like, "Oh, we have this wonderful foreign beverages for you." I'm like, "Okay, that's cool," cause it's hospitality, right?

BRITTANY: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

MICHAEL: And they give us malt liquor.

BRITTANY: (laughs).

MICHAEL: And I'm looking at them and I'm trying not to laugh. And they look at us like giggling. I'm like, "What, what's so funny?" And then like the king just like gets us a leopard print and like these gold chains everywhere and we're just like, "Oh Lord, we don't come to the heart of niggadom."

BRITTANY: (laughs).

MICHAEL: Yeah, there's, there's that. There's that. But there's also this, there's also this. It was very emotional for me. Very emotional for me. I mean, Africa will make you cry, the min- from the minute they tell you welcome home when you go off the plane. It's really impactful and powerful. You know, when we got to there, when got to the castles where the- where our ancestors were taken away-

BRITTANY: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

MICHAEL: ...that's devastating. I couldn't go into the women's dungeon. There was nothing keeping me from going in that dungeon except this invisible wall of pain I felt. I said, "You will not go in there 'cause it's gonna hurt. It's gonna hurt so bad, I cannot touch the space." I had a grandmother in this space that she suffered and she doesn't want me going in there.

BRITTANY: I can actually understand why aspects of it would be draining. And I don't know a single Black person who's traveled to Africa, especially a Black American person who's traveling to Western Africa whose like, "I went there and I took photos. I drank pina colada and I went surfing (laughs)-

MICHAEL: Right, right, right.

BRITTANY: ... and it was relaxing." So I underst- I get it. But I'm wondering like what's on the other side of that coin? Like what's on the cool side of the pillow?

MICHAEL: The good side, the [crosstalk], the happy side?

BRITTANY: Yeah, yeah.

MICHAEL: Oh the food (laughs).

BRITTANY: (laughs).

MICHAEL: Like in Senegal the food is so delicious, but the fresh seafood, the lamb, this is the school called dibi and dibi is like lamb barbecue. I mean roast a lamb whole on a stick in this like firey hole in the ground and they pull the mean out and then they slice it really, really, really dip and chop it up-

BRITTANY: Hmm.

MICHAEL: ...like barbecue and they give you mustard sauce and hot pepper sauce and, and a maggi b- bouillon cube crushed up and all the other things and you go to the bakery, you get your boulangerie, you get your French bread and baby you chow down.

BRITTANY: Oh, that sounds incredible.

MICHAEL: Oh yeah. It's the best thing ever.

BRITTANY: On a more personal level, I saw that actually both of us have reached a specific milestone in the past year, which is that you and I are both engaged. Congratulations to you.

MICHAEL: Thank you so much.

BRITTANY: I've been engaged since last November. And let me be honest, I haven't done shit as far as wedding planning is concerned.

MICHAEL: I hear you. I hear you. I'm on a long engagement too—ain’t no thing.

BRITTANY: Look, I've opened a spreadsheet. We have opened a spreadsheet together and we have selected the city that we will get married in.

MICHAEL: I'm getting married at Colonial Williamsburg.

BRITTANY: Really?

MICHAEL: Yup. And I'm getting married. Hopefully, we're, we're figuring this out now, um, for permission to get me, to get married at the Randolph House where I did all my cooking.

BRITTANY: Wow. Why, why that location I mean?

MICHAEL: For me that's a very um, very transformative, very spiritual space.

BRITTANY: Hmm.

MICHAEL: But also like for us as a couple, like he got up through all those mornings, would come to me at the Randolph-

BRITTANY: Hmm.

MICHAEL: ...and you know, helped me with the setup and then run around disappear and then come back just when it was time to eat (laughs).

BRITTANY: You know, it's interesting getting married on a plantation. It just makes me think about like, you know how it's kinda like a popular thing for white people to get married on plantations in the South.

MICHAEL: Yeah. But a little, a little bit different. It's a little bit-

BRITTANY: Yeah, talk to me about that. I know it's gotta be different.

MICHAEL: Yeah. It's a little different 'cause I don't want to, I don't want the columns. There'll be, there'll be none of that. There'll be no list of...The Randolph House is one of the oldest houses in Williamsburg. I'm guessing you know this or not, Williamsburg was majority Black.

BRITTANY: I didn't know that.

MICHAEL: 52% of Williamsburg was Black. We're not even counting the two to 3% native mixed Muslim and Jewish that was also living in the city of Williamsburg. So Williamsburg was a 54, 55% non-white town. We ran the show, the market, the labor, the transportation, our languages were heard on the street more than white people language.

BRITTANY: Hmm. Knowing what you know about Colonial Williamsburg, what does it feel like for you to come back to this place for an event, a wedding, a wedding for you, a wedding that celebrating the union of a Black man. That's an event that they never would've been able to have on that land back then.

MICHAEL: Right. Right.

BRITTANY: What does it feel like for you to come back there and host that sort of event in that space?

MICHAEL: Reclamation, because in that space, the Randolph Property-

BRITTANY: Uh-huh (laughs).

MICHAEL: ...they had the most influenced people in the city of Williamsburg. Behind that big house was a Black community of almost 27 individuals. I mean, can you even imagine?

BRITTANY: Hmm.

MICHAEL: And then those folks, what can folk to the Randolph offsite plantation, which had like another ADP, these were the largest solid Black community within Williamsburg. This space is not only a space of Black creativity.

BRITTANY: Hmm.

MICHAEL: It's also was a, it was a Black community.

BRITTANY: So I'm wondering, what you're going to eat.

MICHAEL: Oh, girl, we going have west African brisket.

BRITTANY: Uuh-

MICHAEL: We gonna have fried chicken, girl, we gonna have it all, but I'll tell, I promise you this much. I ain't doing the cooking.

BRITTANY: (laughs).

MICHAEL: Nope. And everybody be asking me, "Oh Twitty, you gonna do the cooking at your own wedding?"

BRITTANY: No, why would you do that? No, no.

MICHAEL: No, cause that's crazy. I'm excited. We're gonna be doing a lot of different customs. My mentor, my...I call him my uncle Robert Watson, he's going to make the broom-

BRITTANY: Hmm.

MICHAEL: ...cause and I'm gonna jump over. I'm gonna have a door knocking ceremony from Ghana.

BRITTANY: What's the door knocking ceremony.

MICHAEL: You give the family of your spouse a couple of trinkets saying, "Hey, can we do this transaction?"

BRITTANY: Like a dowry?

MICHAEL: Yeah, exactly. But they ain't get nothing (laughs).

BRITTANY: (laughs).

MICHAEL: Nothing of value in American terms. There'll be no dishwashers being delivered, you know.

BRITTANY: Oh boy. Michael, I got one more question for you on the topic of food.

MICHAEL: Yes.

BRITTANY: So, since I interviewed you two years ago, we have this segment now call to go plate where we will interview different Black folks and ask them sort of what's the Blackest food to them. So I want to ask you, since I didn't get the opportunity to ask you before Michael Twitty, what is the Blackest food to you?

MICHAEL: Greens, collard greens.

BRITTANY: Collard greens.

MICHAEL: I'm going to tell you something. Other folks eat them because there was a Black woman at some point in their family history who made them.

BRITTANY: Hm.

MICHAEL: Let's not even, let's not even play around. I judge the, the Jewishness, the Blackness, the, the Koreanness of a food by outsider resistance reaction.

BRITTANY: (laughs).

MICHAEL: Black eyed peas are a close second.

BRITTANY: Hmm.

MICHAEL: Everybody eats barbecue and fried chicken now.

BRITTANY: That's true.

MICHAEL: I'm gonna tell you right quick, those are dear to my heart. But if the dreadful, delicious funkiness of greens-

BRITTANY: Yes, yes.

MICHAEL: ...that is so soul and it's, it's emblematic of our history. If I may give you this one mini-history lesson-

BRITTANY: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

MICHAEL: ...the West Africans were eating 30- 60 different types of greens no matter where you were from in West Africa,

BRITTANY: Wow, wow.

MICHAEL: So collards, they are from Eurasia. When the Portuguese climb with the slave trade to West Africa, they bring collards and kale with them.

BRITTANY: Hmm.

MICHAEL: They take off like wildfire. One of the early chroniclers in Ghana said Black people go crazy over these green. They love the, the green soup that the European, it means Portuguese blood. And they make it violent with heat. All I can think about with my grandmother with the greens in the plate, with the soda bottle that had been, you know, the- the pricked to popped. If you put those peppers in there from the garden-

BRITTANY: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

MICHAEL: ...and sprinkle that hot pepper vinegar in greens. And so for me greens are us. They a symbol of our, our resilient, a symbol of our personal transformation that make us uniquely Black diaspora people. So these traditions, we're already changing in the coast of Africa. It came with us. We, we, we were such a brilliant people. We still are brilliant people and that brilliance comes to the fact that we can take anything of Black of fire.

BRITTANY: Hmm. I mean, what do you say to that?

MICHAEL: Yass!

BRITTANY: You know what I'm saying? One thing I will say is that the last time I talked to you, you talked about making pound cake on the open hearth...

[THEME MUSIC IN]

 ...making red rice, and I haven't had any, I haven't had none.

MICHAEL: We, gon', we gon' have to, we gon' have to hook you up, my sister. 

BRITTANY: That's what I'm saying. Truthfully, I might come down there and we might have to cook collard greens together.

MICHAEL: Oh, I, I believe this.

BRITTANY: I'm ready. Anyway, thank you so, so, so much Michael, and we'll be talking to you soon.

MICHAEL: Thank you. Thank you, Nod.

ERIC:I want some greens too.

BRITTANY: Uh, Eric is yelling in the background. He said he wants some greens too.

MICHAEL: Ah, love it.


BRITTANY: See look at that. I interview Michael Twitty two years ago. I set-up a nice rapport and then as soon as I go in to ask for some collard greens, who pipes up in the background but Eric. This is very typical. This is very typical behavior. Now, look this episode, I mean it's just full of everything from like history to food to family lineage and Michael's obviously hilarious. He's also so knowledgeable. 


There is so much for you to talk about with your own podcast club. So make sure you get your group together to talk about this episode ASAP...and don't forget to check out our handy guide on how to start your own podcast club the nod dot show slash podcast club. So, talk! Talk amongst yourselves. Tell us what you talk about. We wanna know. Contact us to let us know what you're talking about with your podcast club on Twitter at the nod show. 


The Nod is produced by me, Brittany Luse, with eric eddings and Kate Parkinson-Morgan. Additional production assistance on this episode from James T. Green. Our senior producer is Sarah Abdurrahman. This episode was edited by Annie Rose Strasser and Sara Sarahson.


The show is mixed by Cedric Wilson. Our theme music is by Calid B. 


For additional music credits, check the show notes.


[THEME MUSIC OUT]


BRITTANY: So I understand like the emotional significance of getting this award for you, but I'm about to ask you a question-

MICHAEL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

BRITTANY: ...that I think people ask anybody who wins an award that has like a physical element to it. Like you get the medal when you win the James Beard Award.

MICHAEL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

BRITTANY: Where do you keep it?

MICHAEL: Well, first of all, when I was going down to Virginia, to do little Kunta Kente routine-

MICHAEL: ...trust and believe me, I had the medals on my neck.

BRITTANY: You did not call it a Kunta Kente- You did not...hold up. You did not call it a Kunta Kente routine (laughs).

MICHAEL: Yeah, that's it. I had, I had my medal swinging honey. Hollywood's swingers. Like Kool & the Gang back in the day. I was like- I was like clanging.

BRITTANY: (laughs).

MICHAEL: When I got back, I got in the business class section, the white folk's looked at me like, "He got Ja- I got uh-huh I do." James Beard awards' swag. I was swagging girl. I was hard pressed to take the medals off. I really was.

BRITTANY: I bet.