Michael Twitty, a culinary historian, visited Purdue to educate students on food's critical role in the development of American society as well as defining African American culture.
Twitty spoke to a room full of students on Wednesday evening on what foodways can reveal about a group of people. He said foodways are "everything we do as human groups involving food on a daily need and expression of culture." He said there are messages the food communicates relating to "the people, the mind (and) the spirit."
Purdue was one of only a few schools that Twitty has ever visited. Jolivette Anderson-Douoning, Black Cultural Center cultural liaison and program specialist, said the BCC used personal connections as well as social media to reach out to him.
Twitty had difficulty narrowing his career aspirations to something specific and said he wanted to study "everything black."
"African American studies was all about politics and sociological stuff ... mostly criticism. The idea that you could (study and practice) material culture or folklore was for white folks," he said. "My work is a lot of different pieces of myself woven together."
Twitty, a Jewish-African American, integrates both of his cultures into his dishes. He "takes pride" in being addressed by chef though he doesn't identify himself as a restaurateur, somebody who aspires to operate an establishment. He explores the contributions of those who were enslaved via art, which translates into meals that cannot be replicated in a modern-day restaurant.
"I want people to realize the kind of cooking (I do), how I do it and who I do it for is not commercial," he said. "Getting food to you means going to the dry goods area of the grocery store ... To me it is like ordering rock salt, whole spices that need to broken down by mortal and pestle ... And when we talk about produce, for the most part I grow what I need."
"Mr. Twitty is an expert in not only colonial and antebellum cooking but also in knowledge of relevant heritage breed livestock and wild flora and fauna used by enslaved Africans and their descendants," said Juanita Crider, Black Cultural Center adviser in a prior press release.
Twitty said his dishes may have to be planned a year in advance. The ingredients must be grown personally or sourced from people who grow using traditional farming methods. He keeps the calendar year in mind and chooses herbs, spices and produce that are "exclusive" and often from Africa.
Twitty is as much a historian as he is a chef. He said young people need to know that enslaved persons were not clueless but were "extremely clever, wise and always on their toes." Twitty said when you look at food, you see "our ancestors were smart."
Twitty re-enacts his ancestors' experiences to better understand their perspective. He picks cotton for 16 hours a day by himself every year to use a prop for kids to see what it looks like. To draw parallels, he also wears clothing common in the mid-18th century during such events.
"I want (the kids) to understand (slaving in the fields) was not easy ... I want them to understand the art form and that our ancestors were not unskilled laborers."
Twitty said he believes (going to the plantation) gives context because people have no clue. He said, "I think a lot of people think cotton looks like dandelions ... (unknowing) it is a very involved task that is labor intensive and lonely."
As an educator, Twitty said he believes it would be a good learning experience for a group of students to go to Virginia where he picks cotton in a plantation state park to experience the hardships of the enslaved.
"(Working in the fields) is very powerful ... It is hard to imagine the isolation that people felt and constant uneasiness about where they stood," he said. "It makes a good dialogue, and I use cooking as a way to do that. It is hard to cook in a modern kitchen and interpret enslaved people's food."
A Howard University African American studies dropout, Twitty said the next step for him is to finish his education and eventually become a renowned, published author of a memoir as well as several cookbooks.
"I run around right now because I can. I am an independent scholar," he said. "I fully realize that in 10-15 years I am not going to be able to do that and will need to get back into finishing my education."
Twitty also strives to be an "honorary" known for his great contributions to society. He hopes to teach and empower people, young and old, non-discriminatory of race or religious background. He wants people to be able to tell him that he is "worth his salt," meaning he no longer has to prove himself to others.
"Not everybody who dies gets to be an honored ancestor; they are just an ancestor. Those that have contributed to the well-being of the planet and leave an imprint are honorary," said Anderson-Douoning. "(Twitty) is putting his spirit and energy of those honored ancestors into (his) food and what he plants into the soil."