Culinary historian and chef Michael Twitty wrote an open letter to celebrity chef Paula Deen calling her out for not acknowledging the role of African American and African food in what’s called Southern cooking. In response to a question about why he did that, he said that when we get embarrassed about race, we can make an advance. Asked for an example, he points to the situation we’re in now.
“Our Fearless Leader decided to make an equivalency between people who were being fed up with being called epithets and those who were doing the calling,” Twitty said, referring to what President Trump said there was violence “on many sides” after white supremacists marched in Charlottesville. “Then, look what happened in Boston, with all these people marching against racism in one of America’s most racist cities. We’re forced into changing when things have to change.”
Twitty hopes there will be some uncomfortable conversations and some advances at the Diaspora Dinner he’s cooking at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora on Aug. 29. The dinner celebrates his book, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South, and he’l cook a multi-course dinner with MOAD chef-in-residence Bryant Terry and will have a conversation with food writer Stephen Satterfield.
Twitty hopes people will talk about the culinary histories of their own families.
“I like grandma stories,” he says. “Black grandmas, Jewish grandmas, Chinese grandmas, Persian grandmas. People go, ‘Wait a minute, that’s kind of what I grew up with.’ There’s something very beautiful about being nourished by others.”
With their guard down, people get more comfortable talking about hot- button topics like race, Twitty thinks. But he doesn’t expect them to all join hands.
“We’re not going to do kumbaya,” he said. “That’s not productive. We need to confront each other. I’m not looking for a brawl, but people can be at peace not agreeing on everything.”
This attitude is why Terry invited Twitty to the dinner.
“Like my food mentor, Alice Waters, says, you can use the sensual pleasures of the table to talk about larger issues,” he said. “Twitty is a friend, and he inspires me by his willingness to have conversations that make people uncomfortable like his open letter to Paula Deen and his critique of white chefs making black food. Sometimes we don’t want to talk about that — maybe it’s Southern politeness, but Twitty is willing to stir things up.”
In the promotional materials for the dinner, there’s a quote from Terry that says, “In addition to Twitty being a brilliant writer, he is a Black, openly gay, progressive Jew — pretty much the reason G-d created the Bay Area — the true embodiment of the diaspora.”
Terry laughs talking about it. “Come on, San Francisco, this is your guy!” he says.
Like its author, The Cooking Gene is unique, Terry says.
“It’s a food memoir and genealogical research, and it tells the story, not just of people of African descent but of this country,” he said.
Diaspora Dinner with Michael W. Twitty, Aug. 29, 6:30 – 9 p.m., Museum of the African Diaspora, 685 Mission St., $250