The Grounds on Which I Cook: What The Cooking Gene Project Means For the Past and Future of American Food
In 1996, one of my intellectual heroes, August Wilson delivered a pointed, powerful and inspiring speech called, “The Ground On Which I Stand,” in which he challenged critic Robert Brustein on his views on diversity and the theater. In that time, the heat of multiculturalism vs. the Canon war was hotter than ever before and August Wilson was responding to the idea that the multicultural artist had to fit the canon, rather than the canon stretching to accommodate the full range of experiences brought to the art by the artist. This essay, which I hope will become the signature expression of my vision for this project, is partially based on the ideas and concepts of August Wilson’s vision not only in his prized speech, but also in his art, and the art of others I admire–across diverse fields of expression and inquiry so that my message translates into the hearts and minds of all who read this blog and see the Campaign page asking, “But, what does this mean for our food future?” Some will ask, “Knowing the past is nice, but how will changing our perspective about it change us?” Others still will note, “Why do we need this now?”
Future, past and present. In the post-post-modern mind these worlds are more fraught with meaning than ever before. What I am asking of my donors, of scholars, of community elders, of students, of farmers, of chefs and of African American and Southern communities of all colors and backgrounds is to move beyond these categories and to embrace the complexity of acknowledging that these divisions of time and arbitrary notions of space are now, for us, meaningless. I welcome you to the Crossroads, the signature symbol of West and Central African spirituality, transcendent of any one belief system or even the imposition of other religious or cultural expressions. The Crossroads symbol is the cross of the sun, of the moon, of nature’s cycles and movements, including the journey of the human in and out of conscious existence. Standing in the middle of the Crossroads symbol we apprehend the future, past and present as ever-occuring states of being, mind and purpose. What we say and believe about the past will indeed affect our future, and how we progress towards that future is the state we call “now,” and if we are honest with ourselves and can embrace our own mortality—we will be the past and will pass on this ever wheeling cycle, most ironically perhaps to the generations of eaters to come.
Several hundred years ago a confluence of events led my ancestors—African, European and Native American to the path that led to me–and the majority of those people who define themselves today as “African-American.” It is baffling to think that people who never dreamed any other reality other than the one they had inherited would be present for a cultural and culinary collision that is ever moving and going even as technology in all its wonder and terror make this story even more complex. This story begins with the human desire for the rarest of natural taste experiences–sweetness—and sugar–in its green and grass form came to the forefront to answer this craving. Food is not an afterthought in the story of race–and slavery–and the origin of what it means to be “American,” it is the founding element in our story. It is seldom acknowledged that in the history of humanity’s relationship with slavery and subjugation, no people have transformed the food habits, tastes and relationship with the table as Africans did in the Americas. We are—all of us Southerners–the products of a strange and painful, joyous and regretless cuisine that is the confluence of mothers and men speaking over 100 languages haggling over the means to express a common culinary love in the middle of a heartbreaking and irrevocable exile.
The Foodie Faith celebrates the peasant and the rustic. It savors locality and seasonality, sustainability and sourcing. Food is as political as it can be delicious. We have been challenged to eat the guts and game that have lost ground to prime cuts. We are taken out into Central Park to gather naturally occurring delicacies. We are told that a homegrown garden is a matter of power, revolutionary and remarkable in the age of chains and corporations. There is nothing in the current contemporary rhetoric about food that the African American Table has not had to address in its nearly five hundred year existence. As the possessors of a culinary history alternative to the prevailing narrative, as survivors and sustainers, you would think that our presence and our voices would be inviolable and authoritative, and yet we are seldom key players in defining our role in that history and determining the destiny of our unique table and its culinary thumbprints on the story of American food to come.
Like Mr. Wilson before me, the ground on which I stand, is the “self-defining ground of the slave quarter.” I say without reservation that my own mission, which I hope you will share with me as a matter of passion and purpose, is to give honor to those Ancestors of the American culinary tradition who were in chains–physical and metaphorical. I cannot impose false delight on the way I imagine the past because it is inappropriate when one considers the intense and horrific degradation encountered by James Booker, Washington Twitty, Hattie Bellamy, Arrye Todd, Mary Dunn and Henry Hancock–only a few of my connection to the four million men and women of African descent held in bondage on the eve of the Civil War. They had no idea that they were the might and muscle behind ⅔ of America’s valued exports. I make my case for their inclusion and a new vision of this past for the sake of past, future and present standing on the ground where it all began–where I in essence, became an American centuries ago.
The plantations of the Deep South, specific to where my family originated are therefore the necessary place where this Project must begin even as it winds its way across the South to those places I have defined as scenes of culinary memory where it meets the civilization of American slavery. We have tired of the moniker, “the slaves.” We have tired of notions that our cooking can be summed up in sweep rather than substance..that 200 or 250 pages can do justice to several hundred years of culinary engagement. We have tired of the concept that our food was just about “make do,” or that the “Master” set our table. Themes of retroactive irresponsibility, physical over intellectual prowess, of bare bones simplicity and artlessness have plagued the gaze of society into African American culture, and I painfully confess these have infected the view of African American food as well, especially the foodways and traditions of the enslaved.
What these ideas have led to is a lack of respect and an ongoing ignorance of what our forefathers and foremothers truly brought to the table. We seldom hear of them as pioneers. What do we make of the first African to relate the fruit of the ebony tree to that of the American persimmon? What does it mean that an African variety of rice, three millenia old, is still present in the marshes of South Carolina? How do we list the crops, animals, sea life, wild plants, fungi and other edibles and their gastronomic genealogy in the Afro-Atlantic world? How we experience the most fundamental element of food–through its ingredients— is by the stories of individual lives in the saga of the Peculiar Institution.
For those who think they have indeed mastered that part of the equation, it should be understood that African American food is more than that…it is the edible scripture of the African (American, Diaspora, Atlantic) aesthetic. In our edible jazz, our culinary answer to all other forms and modes of communication of spirit, law, soul, vision and movement known to our branch of the human family. We look in envy as the foodways and culinary traditions of others are designated matters of World Heritage and others get to, rightfully, legislate the use of terms, ideas, indigenous knowledge in the “branding” of foods, drinks and terroir, and yet we are still somehow caught in the act of demanding our right to similar language, legal protections, and to appellations and monikers like “hand-crafted,” “artisan,” “local,” and “slow,” to describe our tradition.
Do you know the songs to sing to beat rice or to cook a possum? Do you know the tree of words that had be redacted to create a language sufficient enough to exchange recipes among all those different African women? What is the sound the food should make? What is the way it should smell when its done? What does it look like? What happens when a Egba Yoruba runaway confronts food life in a Red Stick village among the Muskogee in Georgia? What glands must one take out to prevent the meat from being full of stink? When is a poke leaf too venomous to eat?
The people who have captivated my mind since I was younger believed in a celestial dance told in colors of life almost imaginable to us. Their diet had its own systems of signs, religious omens and folk beliefs. The white chicken cut for the funeral meal, slaughtered at the doorway where the souls of the deceased walks out into eternity; the guinea fowl that stood for the spirit of smallpox, the frizzled head chicken who rooted out conjure and trickery buried in the red clay…This is the man who pulled out the coon penis bone and strung it around his neck. These are the just samples of an entire way of looking at food that bridged African memory and American necessity into one experience.
When people ask me why I drive myself into the cotton, tobacco, rice and cane fields, I inform them that there is no way to know what food meant to an enslaved man or woman unless you’ve worked a day taken from the pages of slavery. Our ancestors took pride in garden production, in a good hunt, in a good catch, in a fat hog or fine chicken or guinea. They lived with separate rhythms than those that would come to define their lives in Reconstruction and beyond…..and separate notions of food than those enjoyed even by those who were their grandchildren. It is this indigenous knowledge path–this distinct and incomparable blending of worlds—African and Atlantic and American—that drives me into the Old South looking for the experiences and sacred acts that will allow us all to reclaim an authentic soul-portrait of Southern cuisine’s sidelined mothers and fathers.
It is impossible to understand these Ancestors without looking to West and Central, and sometimes South-eastern Africa. It is equally impossible not to look to Western Europe, Native America, and the Afro-Caribbean and all of the exchanges and interpenetrations that occured across 500 years. We would do well to abandon the notion of “exchange,” and focus more on the little moments that bind one tradition to the next. In this we can better hope to understand our own world where fusion can occur at any moment in any culinary setting just because a person has technological devices that allows for instantaneous culinary mongrelry.
If someone truly wants to understand the landscape of those foods, ingredients and history of early African America they must understand it within the contextual ethos in which African American cuisine was created….Read memory….exile…coercion, negotiation, migration, oppression, resistance and adaptation–the tool box of strategies for the larger slavery-civilization were as equally equipped for food culture. My role as a culinary genealogist is to trace our ingredients, dishes, culinary figures and moments back in time to these cultural collisions and measure the information against the battery of strategies used to keep the body alive and the spirit free during American slavery.
American food culture today is an intellectual and contested gustatory landscape in search of values, new direction and its own indigenous sense of rightness and self-worth. It is a culture looking towards American ecology, seasons and opportunities for new ways to invigorate and color the American palette. It is concerned with health, sustainability, local economies, environmental integrity and social justice. It is a cuIinary inquiry, a creative journey in search of ancestors, precedent, and novel ways to explore tradition while surging forward. We could not ask for a better season to harvest the fruits of our common food Ancestors–the cooks of kitchens high and low in the Old and Deep South. It is these men and women who I hope to champion, elevate, make monument to and commemorate–not just because the past needs us, but because we need the past, and the future needs us now.
I am asking you to send me back to my culinary roots. I am asking you to send me back to the cotton fields, rice fields, tobacco fields, sugarcane fields, for the sake of seeking both culinary and racial redemption and reconcilliation. I believe food can and should be the starting place for a meaningful and healing dialogue between the South’s pillar cultures, and yet it is beyond the story of “red, white and black,”; it is a story that opens its arms to the Southerners from East Asia, the Middle East, South Asia, African immigrants, and Latin America. We are bound, inextricably through a food culture and the lore behind it, which was bought and paid for with the blood and sweat of the enslaved. None of us, not even their descendants are exempt from saying we owe a fantastic cultural debt to those who came before us. “We must go back and retrieve,” as the Akan proverbs of Ghana state, Sankofa, “to move forward and make things anew.” When we embrace this new narrative, get back to the source of part of the Southern aesthetic.
It is critical that we celebrate, honor and perpetuate the genius of the cooks in kitchens high and low, because with them lies the secret to Southern cuisine. They were more than contributors, they were innovators and perhaps most importantly, melders of three distinct approaches to food covering a diversity of food voices. I want to put a face to this history, to embrace and own the past–with all of its pain and promise so that future generations can know and understand that the smile of Rastus, Ben and Jemima are lies, and that the some 6.5 million enslaved people of African descent known to mainland North America from colonial times to the Civil War had an impact far out of proportion to their numbers, a contribution that must not remain vague, but fully fleshed and formed into something cohesive that we can proudly call, a legacy.
I have no shame in saying that the legacy of slavery itself has been painful and enduring in my own life and journey to this moment. Although political and academic pundits dare we historically concious people of color to “blame it on slavery,” I own the fact that my great-great-great grandfather, a white man, could go to the University of Georgia at Athens; but the path of his descendants were not so easy to obtain the same things that the institution of slavery guaranteed him; namely an education, a home, land, propery, and a financial inheritance. While others are able to use status, privilege, access and personal advantage to write, travel, learn and critique the culinary landscape, I approach the table on my knees, eager to stand and participate in the feast. This project, funded by an interested public amounts to a vote of confidence on the part of my donors–not only that such a project should come to light, but that someone like me should be able to undertake it. It would be irresponsible of me to say that anyone “owed,” my team and I their donation; but it would be equally irresponsible to pretend as though the playing field is even, equal, or advantageous to people of color in the field of food writing and historical culinary inquiry, or the definition and academic study of Southern history and culture.
This story, this journey is partly about discovering my roots in the white South. That I am the descendant of Southern white planters as well as enslaved people means that both sides of the table are my heritage. What do you do with that? How do you comprehend that heritage through food? Who does that make me?
I encountered a woman at a professional conference who suggested that I research her husband’s family and their wagon of slaves and talk about how “the slaves,” cooked for them; and that I should write it like, “The Help.” I have received a sea of pursed lips and eyes of denial in reaction to the idea that I am focusing the lens of history on my family. I have been at historic plantations and been told that “the Master made sure that his slaves knew how to grow their own gardens and raise their own crops, so they would be prepared for freedom.” I have been the black guy in the funny clothes at a historical site told to limit my historical facts to just saying, “I’m the cook, Sir and Madam….” I have seen people ask more about the wallpaper and windows of a Southern mansion and nothing about the people who likely built it or sustained the life of the people within. I have seen my people reduced to a crude painting on a wall, or a fleeting memory of faithful slave wallowing in happy poverty while the slaveholder got to embrace the American dream. I have been told, “Who would really care about your family’s story?” I don’t want to believe that those voices are representative, but they are certainly frightening because they speak to the ongoing obfuscation and amnesia regarding the enslaved and their place in Southern civilization.
I want to give you faces and names and stories you will never forget. I want children of all colors to work together so that the seeds are planted for death of ignorance. I want to give you recipes and new ingredients and heirloom seeds. I want to give my community access to a voice that can reach the larger world and speak to the crushing economic pain that our farmers and fishermen, food producers and restauranteurs feel in a time of uncertainty and doubt. I want to connect my story to the stories of the people who bear my names and the people who gave us those names. I want my family back, my blood family, my culinary family, my Southern family, but most of all I hope this tour, fully funded by you, the spirit of love and respect for our mission, will turn us all into a family, an American family, informed by our complexity but confirmed in our faith that we have done our best to leave the future of American food in educated, tolerant, and creative culinary hands.
This is my dream, and I hope that in its execution will be fruits to bear that we can all enjoy. I seek the Old South and Africa of my forefathers and foremothers. I seek the love and support of Southerners of a thousand different shades of human. I want to see the land and know intimately the soil, sun, and water and all they produce. I seek the iron pots and wooden spoons, skillets, spiders, ovens and pits of the Ancestors. I seek the knowledge and faces of Susie Pate, Emma Brant, Adeline Twitty, and I seek the self-defining ground of the slave quarter, the ground on which August Wilson built his art, and the ground on which I wish to cook.