Genealogy and Food: What it all Means

There are four aspects to The Cooking Gene–Genealogy, Food History, Identity and Connection.  The campaign to fund the Southern Discomfort Tour begins February 1, 2012 on  I encourage you to make sure everybody in your network knows about it and passes it on!

My Great-Great Grandmother Hattie Mabry Bellamy born enslaved, 1862? Russell County, Alabama/Source: Stephen Townsend, THHMB Family Association

“Inside of me, my heart, inside of my heart, a museum, inside the museum, a temple, inside it, is me, inside of me—my heart…”

(Yehuda Amichai, “Poem Without an End,” paraphrase)

Food is an important part of who you are.  Kraft macaroni and cheese and pop tarts notwithstanding we all have heirloom dishes that speak to our roots–from the Feast of the Seven Fishes to Passover Seders to Ramadan break-fasts to Thanksgiving dinners–religious or not religious–our foods tell us where and who we come from.  They tell us not only about our ethnic origins, but where we are in history, its waves and trends.  I really don’t care where you come from or who you are–I want you to look at the foods of your heritage and the foods you love as situating yourself in the history of humanity, and I want you to learn about where you are and who you are based on all of that.  This is the start of my version.

I’m asking you to look at this as “contextual genealogy,” this makes the story richer.  This is the texture of your ancestors lives.  This is crucial when we talk about their journey from Africa or Pomerania or Vietnam.  We take food for granted–its the last thing to go as people assimilate or modernize.  It has its own tenacity. That’s why I’m looking at food–beyond DNA and a names–it is the most personal, the most real, the most material.

Making the Journey: Genealogy

I’m really glad I’ve spent the past two decades reading about slavery, the slave trade, enslaved people’s culture, history, experiences and the like.  All the possibilities are ahead of me.  I have dates, names, places, bits of personal histories.  I have looked over and pored over and obsessed over statistics for years. I have followed the dialogue over African ethnicities and early African American cultures…

I am lucky that I was blessed to have an uncle and several other relatives and cousins on both sides who have done extremely careful and dedicated research that has us at least to the earlier decades of the 19th century.  That’s relatively fantastic for most African Americans.  I shouldn’t be so nervous…

1815, 1823, 1835, 1839, 1840.  Maybe its its 1774 according to my Uncle’s research on one side.  We want to go back further.  We want to go back to a ship.  Every time I think about it, it makes me cry. It makes my heart burst with a mix of pride and wonder, but I need to get there–and I’m wondering if this is the way to go.

I am steel-boned to the fact that I will probably have a high degree of European blood.  If you have been reading the Facebook updates you know already that I’ve alluded to that reality.  It doesn’t make me feel any less authentic to the face that stares at me in the mirror.  On the other hand, the straight hair on my arms makes more sense as do the faces and people who raised me.  (I was once given the silent treatment for a day or two when I not so politically-correctly asked my Grandmother of blessed memory (z’l) if she was a white lady.)  So far I’m a British, Irish, Scottish, Scots-Irish African American—and counting.  Supposedly there is some European Jew in there—even though I converted for totally different reasons. Ok, so what does all that mean?  If you can’t readily see that heritage in me or my mother or father, does it mean anything at all?

Am I Creek? Great-Great-Great Grandma Arrye was supposed to have been a Muskogee Creek–is that so?) Am I Chickasaw? Am I Cherokee? Catawba? That’s another part I want confirmation on….What percentage of me is Native American?

I am hoping to test several male relatives in addition to myself to get a wide number or results on the different direct lines feeding into my own unique family tree.  DNA is not a completely sound way of going about identifying oneself the further back you go, but…and there it goes—but…it’s a hell of a scientific way to contextualize the story if you have that information.  If somebody is Mende and you are from South Carolina—that rice connection comes immediately to mind—as do the dates in which people from that region would have predominated the trade to South Carolina.  Knowing that ¼ of all African Americans go back to the port of Charleston is even more of a confirmation of a likely story.  So and so goes back to x conflict, arrived in South Carolina between this date and this date and lived miserably ever after on Master so and so’s plantation. Not the most detailed narrative but it beats nothing….

I know I shouldn’t speculate about what I’ll turn out to be, but for right now I am so emotional about this that its more-funner than worrying about the money for the project or if the scholarly/academic/media communities will take me and this project seriously or how I will feel if this all comes together and it’s time to deliver.  My Grandmother used to have a vial of mustard seeds to encourage her faith. I should take a lesson from that.

Hmmm—if she doesn’t turn out to be white through and through, I think my deepest maternal ancestor will have some connections to Senegambia or the Sahel.  My father’s mother—eastern Nigeria—without a doubt…Grandaddy—Central Africa (aka Kongo-Angola).  Like most African Americans I expect to be all over the map—and I’m cool with that because it means the totality of Africa is my heritage not just a little part.  I’m very aware that “Igbo” is only as good as the past 200-300 years; if that. These are not eternal identities, but ethnic and linguistic groups and polities that grew, waxed, waned and coalesced in response to trade, war, slavery, intermarriage between groups.

That having been said–I am still ready to be Kpelle, Mende, Fulani, Asante, Fante, Kongo, Mbundu, Duala, Yoruba, Serer–whatever life throws at me!

I’d kill for one or two or three—I could trace back to before 1750….hey Hannukah just happened, I prayed for a miracle—maybe, just maybe..that last candle worked.

For those with cultural issues—let me warn you now…I am no cultural illiterate.  I can’t be pigeonholed into any particular group or school of thought.  I grew up hearing 1,001 versions of “how we got to America” and “what makes us American,” here in suburban Washington D.C.   I am well read in African and African American history and for G-d’s sakes I’ve picked cotton, grown tobacco, hulled and winnowed rice, cooked at plantations in Virginia, Tennessee, Maryland and even New York–and built a traditional Swazi dwelling on the National Mall and a Virginia slave garden to boot—I’ve done my homework and paid my dues!  This is a well earned journey that I’ve paid with in terms of physical work, self-work, spiritual work, mental gymnastics.

To be African American is to be something of an orphan unless you are among the lucky few who have an immediate connection and fully drawn narrative.  Priscilla or Angola Amy or Arthur Ashe’s great……….grandmother—bought with tobacco in Norfolk—these Eve’s represent incredible stories of immediate connection with Africa.  Consider Tom Joyner’s roots in the Balanta people, another rice growing group—and his story of an ancestor caught in the last years of the legal trade to South Carolina, and his almost manumission in Alabama…just before the Civil War.

It’s not that I’m not in awe or respect of all that sits before me now.   I have absolutely no disrespect for my European and European American roots or those Civil War era ancestors.  It’s just remarkable to me to think that in these 18 or so lines that a few of them could yield that previous narrative that so many of us want—that connection to a ship, that closure, that sense of completion.  I have always been fascinated by the generation from say 1619-1808, because they have so much to tell us about who we are.  Sometimes I think they are extremely pissed off that we’ve forgotten them.  It was one thing to know nothing besides slavery. It was quite another to be born free, get caught up in forces beyond your control, be stripped of your clothing and dignity, have a brand driven into your flesh until death do you part, endure weeks on your back in filth and then to have generations later pronounce you somehow “irrelevant…” and remote because they didn’t understand what you went through to get them here…

I really hope that my forefathers and foremothers aren’t getting my hopes up  I hope they’re nudging me so that when we do get to the nitty-gritty I’m elated, I feel calm, I feel complete.

Now that I got that out of the way, I am proud beyond measure of great-great Grandpa Will Twitty who left sharecropping behind, bought and owned his land and passed it down.  I am proud of the Bookers for owning their land and passing it down.  I can’t help but acknowledge the courage of my great-grandmother, Mary, the schoolteacher and her husband, Joseph who bore his shotgun against the Klan, living in Birmingham before the television camera’s showed up to show how bad things were.  I can’t be prouder of the courage my Grandmother and Grandfather showed when they left Alabama and never looked back.  Knowing how my grandmother would cry at any Folgers holiday commercial or hymn, I always wondered how she felt when the train pulled off towards Ohio and she left the only place she’d ever been—and her father’s grave—behind.

Grammy and Granddaddy did more than that—they took their children and lived in England, and Kenya—and came to Washington D.C. I remember an article about my Grandfather as he did negotiation work with railroad unions—he was described as coming from the “racial battleground” of Birmingham.  By the time Granddaddy was being written about, he had lived in Denmark and England; Liberia, Ethiopia, Tanganyika and Zanzibar and Kenya.  He had seen France, other parts of Europe and studied every language he could—from French to Spanish to Brazilian Portuguese.  My other Granddaddy went back to the Deep South and worked in Civil Rights and was instrumental in the integration of his county—where his forefather’s had been enslaved since maybe the late 18th or early 19th century.  He founded an organization for Southern Cooperative farmers and served on the state board of the Democratic Party.  Not bad for a man who saw many a hanging tree as a boy.

There are more stories though.  I love my grandparents.   I love the stories they left me.  I love their recipes and the foods they loved to eat—except for chitlins-which I can’t eat in any case….

I have felt, however, a quiet gnawing at my soul from the time I was very young and began to learn about all this slavery stuff.  Imagine a more Afrocentric, erudite version of Poltergeist.  They’re here—and they’ve always been here.  In me, around me, above me…And that’s why I’m hear trying to make a food-journey through my family tree.  Who the hell does that?  I guess I’m about to.

This brings me to my next point.  If you aren’t one of the wonderful multicultural people who follows me on Twitter or Facebook or has subscribed to Afroculinaria; let me give you fair warning.  I’m working within my blood and my culture and history but my message and what I’m trying to do has implications for people who aren’t of African descent, who don’t come from the legacy of slavery and segregation, and who aren’t necessarily bearers of a heritage steeped in eternal mysteries and oppression.

ALL of our ancestors had food-steps.  Yep I coined it—so you read it here first!   Those food-steps manifest every time we eat and we pass them on. It’s one of the most intimate elements of being human and participating in a culture or a society. Sometimes everything else we do is generic until we sit down to eat.  And then, and only then do those bones, mushy peas, musky tropical fruits, eyes, tails, fiery chilies take on a meaning besides mere flavor and savor.  They become us and what we become when we eat them is our cultural identity.  This story I’m trying to pull together is not just for Black Americans.  It’s for all Americans.  It’s for all humans.  Selective consumption is what distinguishes parts of the human family from each other in the most superficial way; but the reality comes down each day—several times a day—eat we must—and when we eat—we become.

When we look at nature, all is descendant.  To me, it’s the most remarkable part of existence.  Every tree comes from another tree; every animal, every blade of grass.  We are all children of the primordial.  Even pebbles and rocks, can be seen as the grandchildren of mountains.  (Quiet you geologists; I’m going for a moment here! Just nod!) I just want to find my mountains so I can be one step closer to the Source of All things.

There is a tradition on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, that we welcome in our ancestors into the temporary shelters we put up outside.  Those ancestors are the usual suspects–Abraham and Sarah, etc.  A few years ago I began putting up pictures of my ancestors to go along with Abraham my father and Sarah my mother….Maybe that way I get to taste heaven.


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