Author stirs history into culinary mix

Michael Twitty, historian and author of the James Beard award-winning book, “The Cooking Gene,” addresses the Food for Thought audience on Jan. 24 at the University of Chicago’s Gordon Parks Hall. It was the second event in the series.(Photo by Spencer Bibbs)

Contributing writer

Michael Twitty, author of “The Cooking Gene,” views history and culture through a culinary lens, focusing on the essential contributions enslaved Africans made to American food culture.

Twitty’s appeared Jan. 24 as part of the Thought for Food program at the University of Chicago Lab School’s 2018-2019 Kistenbroker Family Artist in Residence Program.

Twitty has a blog,, and won the 2018 James Beard Foundation Book Award for book of the year.

“You cannot be American without being part African,” he said. “The soundtrack of the modern world is African-based.”

Twitty said instead of using the world slaves, he prefers to say enslaved. “Our ancestors were not slaves,” he said. “They enslaved the culture that enslaved them.”

Twitty said that he comes from a family where genealogy is very important. He recounted the story of Elder Mother, his sixth great grandmother and her capture in Africa and enslavement in America. He also talked about the foods the enslaved people brought with them on ships.

“The enslavement of Africans made life easier for others,” he said.

Twitty recounted stories from his visits to Africa and the slave forts in Ghana and Nigeria. And,  he spoke of cooking at plantations.

“I thought I was grateful to the ancestors, I realized I wasn’t grateful enough,” he said.

An audience member asked Twitty what Sankofa meant to him. Twitty said it means a return to the past to get wisdom. And, to go back to the past to get some perspective.

“It’s more important for me to know my clan name. Once your meet your African cousins and they teach you your clan name,” he said. “I didn’t just want to be a black chef, I wanted to be an African American chef who knew where he came from.”

Ruthie Williams, home economics teacher at the Lab School, said when the group decided to do the Thought for Food program, they had a lot of ideas.

“We really tried to think of three main topics to focus on — place, justice and culture,” Williams said. “When we thought of Michael Twitty, he’s someone who encompasses all of those.”

The next speaker in the Thought for Food program is Sean Sherman, known as the Sioux Chef.