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At Colonial Williamsburg, Culinary Historian Michael Twitty Elevates Stories of Creativity and Courage

Culinary historian Michael Twitty works in the Randolph House kitchen at Colonial Williamsburg.
Culinary historian Michael Twitty works in the Randolph House kitchen at Colonial Williamsburg. The museum's first "Revolutionary in Residence," Twitty has developed historic recipes for area restaurants and is building a Sankofa Food Lab to further study and explore African and African American culinary techniques and ingredients. (Image courtesy: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation) The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

This month, Colonial Williamsburg launched the “Revolutionary in Residence” program. The first to hold the position is culinary historian Michael Twitty, author of the blog Afroculinaria and the forthcoming book The Cooking Gene: a Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South. Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.

Learn More: Read Michael Twitty's blog Afroculinaria including his post on being selected as the first Revolutionary in Residence. Learn more about his forthcoming book The Cooking GeneWatch Michael Twitty and Colonial Williamsburg Chef and Interpreter Harold Caldwell prepare the Madeira Ham in the Randolph House kitchen.


Michael Twitty is in one of his favorite places to cook. There aren’t any fancy gadgets here or even appliances. There is a giant, crackling hearth.

Michael Twitty: Anything you can do in a modern kitchen, I can do here.

We’re in the reconstructed kitchen of Colonial Williamsburg’s Peyton Randolph House. At a small wooden table, Twitty pierces a picnic shoulder ham. He rubs in generous amounts of salt, brown sugar and kitchen pepper.

Observer: More sugar?
Twitty: More salt.

Twitty’s making Madeira Ham, using the same techniques mastered by enslaved people living here in the 18th Century. He steps to the fireplace, where a large cast iron pot bubbles with aromatics.

Twitty: So there’s already bayleaf in there and carrots, celery, a little bit of onion, an onion studded with cloves which brings the flavor out of both.

Michael Twitty is a culinary historian, scholar and historic interpreter. He’s a TED fellow and author of the award-winning blog Afroculinaria. He’s traveled across the South, unearthing stories about enslaved people and their influences on the American plate. He traces ingredients and traditions to their origins in West and Central Africa and diaspora communities in the Caribbean and South America.

Twitty: Our Southern food heritage is really a multicultural act, it always has been, always will be. It is an act through which people of African descent have illustrated not only contribution but have also given a revolution in themselves. This is about the persistence of memory, our culinary culture, all of it. This is about where we come from, this is about preserving our roots and our routes. And, it’s act of resistance against a system that was meant to oppress us and take away our heritage. 

Michael Twitty has a long relationship with Colonial Williamsburg. He first came here when he was about six years old. His father wanted to see the guns and canons. But Twitty wanted to see the food.

Twitty: And we went out to I think Governor’s Palace and I must have stayed there for hours, two, three hours, watching them cook.

Decades later, Twitty says it’s a bit surreal to be Colonial Williamsburg’s first Revolutionary in Residence.

Twitty: My mother always taught me that cliche - if you do what you love, the money will follow, do what you love, the opportunities will follow. So, we’re getting there, we’re getting there. But it’s a little scary too, because I realized after a while, I’m one of the few people in the world who does this, in this specific subject matter all the time, as a livelihood but also just a mission and it’s very daunting.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s Penny Young-Carrasquillo says idea for the Revolutionary in Residence program came from a desire to reposition Williamsburg as a center of civil, interesting and innovative discourse.

Penny Young-Carrasquillo: Not that all discourse in 18th century was civil but we value that here in Williamsburg and we want to hear new ideas from a variety of different kinds of people. We want to really point out that the 18th Century was a very diverse place, America is diverse now and we want to hear from a wide variety of people and we want to hear a variety of ideas.

Stephen Seals: When I think of a revolutionary, a revolutionary of thought especially, the moment I met Michael he fit that bill.

Michael Twitty was a natural for the inaugural residency, says Colonial Williamsburg’s Stephen Seals.

Seals: The fact that Michael is looking at all these years of culinary history, not just African or African American culinary history but culinary history. And he’s looking at it and he’s going, all right, the historians that came before me did a lot of work. But we now know more information so let’s now take that work and look at it in a different way and maybe bring some other voices into it so that we can figure out, even more so, what it truly means. I don’t know what’s more revolutionary than that... taking the ideas of the past and turning them on their head or looking at them in a different way, and going, okay, let’s now see what that means and how that can affect or change the way in which we look at our identity and look at ourselves. I can’t think of anything more revolutionary than that and Michael does that everyday of his life.

Dressed in period clothing as he cooks, Twitty goes beyond African ingredients and recipes. He discusses gender roles in the kitchen and fertility rituals connected to black eyed peas. Chipping flakes off a brown sugar pyramid, he puts himself in the shoes of an enslaved adolescent.

Twitty: That’s the rich folks sugar. This is also pretty valuable. You can imagine a time when confections weren’t available to the common person. Can you imagine what it would have been like for an enslaved kid to somehow get their hands on a cone of yummy brown sugar like this? How many deals and wheels you can make with this one cone of brown sugar, with all the kids in the neighborhood, black and white?

Michael Twitty’s research brought him to plantations across the South. He’s labored in cotton and rice fields. He discovered his fifth great grandfather was a white slaveholder in North Carolina. Other ancestors lived across Virginia.

Twitty: Southampton County, Virginia; Henrico County, Virginia; Prince Edward County, Virginia; Appomattox, Buckingham. My ancestors were here in 17th and 18th Centuries, onward. Some were sold out of Virginia but a lot of them stayed. So telling that story has been for me really foundational. It transforms us from being what other people did, what they did, to what my people did. And once you uncover those stories and narratives, you can connect the dots, and know the places and people they were with. It really makes it personal, transforms it for me from being something not just in your intellectual interest, but it’s a part of you.

As part of the Revolutionary in Residence, Michael Twitty’s working with Colonial Williamsburg foodways staff and historic interpreters. Part of the collaboration is testing historic recipes and adding some to the menus of local restaurants. Visitors can now learn about African-American culinary history by trying Madeira ham at King’s Arms Tavern. Chesapeake Crab Gumbo is being served at Sweet Tea & Barley and Virginia BBQ Mop Ribs at Chowning’s Tavern.

Twitty: Showing people that a lot of the things we consider to be Southern food start right here, in the Tidewater of Virginia, this is the heart of it all. People spread out from this region across the country, across the map. Those recipes emphasize the fact that this is where so many of that food lore begins, and not just the recipes themselves, but the ideas about the food that go to the edges of this country and make food tradition what it is today.

Michael Twitty’s new book, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South, will be released in August. He hopes it will encourage people to acknowledge uncomfortable histories, and talk about them; and see how food can be a powerful vehicle to bring people together.

Twitty: In 2013, we did a dinner at Stagville plantation in Durham, 150 people. I did invite Paula Deen, she didn’t show up after my infamous letter to her.  It was about bringing people together and it was in shadow of the slave cabins there. Almost all the food was prepared 19th Century style, open fires, cast iron skillets, wooden utensils. And we sat down to eat in the shadows of these four remaining slave cabins and this plantation had 900 enslaved individuals across its history, it just dawned on me that the ancestors who had worked and lived and died there could never have dreamed that we would be honoring them in that way, with this many diverse people. So I think we achieved a miracle, knowing it or not. So that’s my whole mission behind this, to uncover pieces of myself but use that to really transform the way people look at race in America, to move the conversation beyond this is mine and this is yours, to this is ours and this is we and this is us.

Twitty’s work at Colonial Williamsburg also continues. He’ll be developing the Sankofa Food Lab, a research station and test kitchen to further explore “the raw edible materials, culinary traditions and culinary techniques of the African Atlantic.” For Virginia Currents, I'm Catherine Komp, WCVE News.