Juneteenth 2024: The Flavor of Resistance: Unveiling the Deep Roots of African American Influence on American Cuisine

Culinary scholar Michael W. Twitty reveals that American cuisine is deeply rooted in African traditions, making our food a powerful act of resistance and survival and urges us to honor African American contributions to our culinary heritage.

Black folks know too well that nearly everything in our day-to-day existence in America, from health care to where we live to the air we breathe, is in some way, shape, or form impacted by race, and that goes for the food we eat too. Conventional wisdom and culture at large might have us believe that Black cooking begins and ends with soul food. Still, culinary scholar and activist Michael W. Twitty wants you to know the real truth: American cuisine has African and Black traditions baked into the recipe and our food has always been a political act. 

“The survival of our culture was and is resistance,” says Twitty, author of The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South. “Some people see resistance as like a middle finger to the dominant culture, but it’s not. It's an invitation. Thomas Jefferson’s favorite vegetable was the crowder pea [from West Africa] and some of his favorite meat was the guinea fowl brought over from West Africa during the slave trade. Robert E. Lee’s favorite meal was fried chicken. So many different foods loved by Southern gentry come not from them, but from the [Black] cooks who labored in their presence. We, in our own way, were bringing together elements to create an American identity.” 

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It’s only been four years since President Biden made Juneteenth a national holiday but in that short time, its notoriety and awareness have grown tremendously––so much so that Juneteenth celebrations and even merch in the aisles of big box stores quickly became a norm. And as we might load up plates with yams, okra, chicken, and greens on that day and all through the summer, Twitty wants us to remember that there is no American palette without the African American influence. Juneteenth is not just a day for celebration, it's a day for reflection and understanding, a day to honor the resilience and contributions of African Americans to our shared culinary heritage. 

“I think It's important to remember, they didn't wake up and it was like, ‘Everybody's free! You can start your lives all over tomorrow!’ It took many years. Our ancestors came here with agency and ownership, and they had to fend for themselves. They were able to discover things, using the African way of looking at the same ingredients in a different way.” Leafy greens, he cites as an example, were not something the English were big on but became part of the Southern diet because enslaved people knew how to make them more palatable. Likewise, he says that using hot spices became popular because they knew said spices would help counter parasites and other nasty germs brought over and made common by the white population. “It’s so powerful to understand the layers that go into our cooking,” he says. “And we were forbidden to read or write [and record] this history and knowledge. That's why it's so dangerous to not have control of our own source code. Our food is our flag.”

Twitty advises Black folks to preserve our heritage through food this Juneteenth and beyond. First, he says, make family recipes that can be remembered and passed down. Secondly, “Buy from black folks. Support Black farmers, Black bakers––whatever––just find out who the Black folks in your community are making good quality food and supplement what you're doing with products from them.” Next, he says, cook across the diaspora, meaning various foods and recipes from Africa and the Caribbean, and finally, share with people who are not Black. “Teach them. Make sure they understand this is not a day for mattress sales. It is not a day for new ice cream flavors from Walmart. It's a day to remind all Americans, this is not Black history. This is American history.”

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