If you follow the food news in Charleston, you know all about the events of the past two weeks, the calculating hit that Eater fired at the Holy F&B scene, the horrific Twitter fight that left scores bloodied and broken, the replies and rebuttals and revisionary revisits that ended in cities aflame, crops burnt, and a whole helluva lot of butt hurt. Hey Kinsey, can I have that ice pack when you’re done?
Yes, it was a battle for the ages, one in which no one won. In part, this is because no one could agree on what the fight was about, and in part because no one knew what the terms of victory were. And so whatever I say here will only be the start of another senseless battle between those who live and breathe the Charleston food scene and those who don’t and who want to use the Holy City to further advance their noble but narrow, and often misapplied, point of view.
Through the smoke and the haze of battle, it’s hard to think back to Tues. March 23 when Eater, a content farm with journalistic pretensions, published a think piece about the Charleston food scene entitled “How Gullah Cuisine Has Transformed Charleston Dining.” In it, the article, and its primary interview subject, food writer Michael Twitty, argued that Lowcountry chefs have not only refused to acknowledge the debt they owe to the Gullah-Geechee people, but are guilty of cultural appropriation, that is, in this case, stealing Gullah cuisine and claiming it as their own.
I for one took issue with the core assertion. After all, having edited food stories at the City Paper for nine years, I’ve read countless articles from our writers highlighting the origins of various Lowcountry dishes and mentioning, if not honoring, the enslaved African-Americans who created many of them. These authors include barbecue historian Robert Moss and the James Beard award-winning cookbook author Jeff Allen, two guys who have built writing careers examining Southern foodways. Sadly, Allen may have tarnished his reputation thanks to comments that many saw as racist which he made to Twitty, a Gullah descendant. Like Moss, Allen wrote for the City Paper for a long time, and he currently has plans to meet with Twitty and have a discussion. While we all make mistakes, some words are more difficult to walk back than others.
I also knew that many of the Holy City’s finest chefs have repeatedly paid humble homage to the previously unheralded creators of the very cuisine that first put Chucktown on the map more than a decade ago — I’m talking about shrimp and grits and she-crab soup and whatever other Charleston contributions you’ll find today at local tourist hotspots and upscale-meets-downhome pan-Southern eateries across the nation. Most notable among these chefs is Sean Brock, a one-time mad food scientist-turned-history nerd hellbent on sourcing local ingredients, saving heirloom animals, and bringing the South’s forgotten culinary history back to light. That this history was actually forgotten is up for some debate, I suppose, but make no mistake, both the black and white communities in Charleston had largely forgotten about Jimmy Red corn and Carolina Gold rice and Ossabaw hogs.
All of this is to say that I disagreed with one of the core premises of the Hillary Dixler’s Eater piece.
However, much of the article rang true — the lack of black chefs at Charleston’s star restaurants, the dearth of black-owned restaurants, the financial barriers that some future black chefs may have entering the world of fine-dining — sometimes the very arguments the Eater article put forth were paradoxical.
On the one hand, the Eater article suggests that Gullah-focused restaurants are about to explode on the Holy City scene when the number of Gullah restaurants in the area is actually dwindling, a troubling trend the City Paper has covered.
The article also asserts that Gullah cuisine is inexpensive fare, but then counters with a quote from local Gullah Chef BJ Dennis that this type of cuisine is too labor intensive, i.e. costly, to win over the lovers of deep-fat fried soul food, both African-American and white, but in the context of Dennis’ argument most likely largely black.
I was also perplexed whenever I saw an instance where Eater, or one of its interview subjects like, say, Michael Twitty — more on him, much more — proclaim that certain ingredients or dishes were, in some ways, the sole providence of the Gullah people and their descendants. The reason: These dishes or ingredients came from Africa, brought here by the men and women and children who were shackled and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to work in Charleston’s field and kitchens — the very souls whose blood and sweat and tears built this city.
Except there is a problem: assigning ownership to certain dishes and ingredients is problematic. Okra comes from Africa — there’s no doubt of that. Carolina Gold rice, field peas, and peanuts too. But many of the central staples of Gullah cuisine have other origins. Squash came from Central America, as did tomatoes, the latter a key ingredient in the Gullah dish, okra soup. Sweet peas are another item the Eater article attaches to the Gullah people, but as everyone knows, peas are found around the world.
What’s most interesting, perhaps, is not who owns what dish or ingredients, but to realize that the culinary world, much like pop music or religion, is built on cultural appropriation. In fact, the Eater article notes that one of Dennis’ Gullah dishes, smoked chicken and yellow rice, uses turmeric, the spice that gives the yellow rice its distinctive color, came to the United States via the British, who took the dish from the Indians.
Even a Gullah dish like pirlou can find its counterparts elsewhere, let’s say in pilaf or paella or biryani. Yes, the techniques are different, but at the core, nearly every culinary culture has taken rice and mixed it with whatever other ingredients are around. In fact, it’s this universal element to cuisine, not a battle over origins, that truly speaks to the human soul.
Around the world, people take starches and either mash them down or grind them up, they take greens and boil the living hell out of them, they fry chicken and barbecue pork or beef. So much of it is a variation on a theme and an indication that contact between nations and cultures has been going on for several thousands of years, long before the first Africans arrived in shackles on the shores of Sullivan’s Island.
Mind you, this isn’t to discount the suffering of America’s slaves or to suggest that the quest for culinary origins is misguided. Not at all. It’s just that our culinary heritages are more similar than different and assigning ownership to any ingredient or technique can be problematic because of thousands of years of human migration and trade, not to mention political agenda. Make no mistake, the world is truly a small place, and it has been for a very, very long time.
However, in Charleston the world is often too small. Sometimes, it’s so small its white citizenry fall victim to a provincial myopia.
For much of the 20th century, the Holy City has positioned itself as a bastion of the grand Old South, that mythological monstrosity that so many both here in South Carolina and around the nation worship like a Golden Calf, which has died of dereliction and starvation and is rotting in the fields in the hot summer sun, while its putrid innards provide sustenance to white-hooded maggots and Lost Cause vultures. For far too long, Charleston as a whole, and the Holy City culinary scene in particular, refused to acknowledge the contributions of African-American slaves. Some still do to this day. You know who they are, the landmarks and tourist spots that avoid all discussion of slavery, the restaurants that traffic in a folksy facade in which black contributions are either praised in a condescending manner or ignored altogether in favor of white-washed idea country cooking. For these places, Charleston offers a Rainbow Row-colored glasses view of the world, one that champions the Holy City’s majesty without acknowledging that our famous downtown mansions and cobblestone streets were built upon broken bones and blood. All you have to do is open your eyes to see it. And I believe our town’s best chefs, most notably Sean Brock, do.
With all of that in mind, it’s time to address the Eater article’s strongest point: that the number of black chefs and black-owned eateries in town is far too small.
While some white chefs have succeeded serving Gullah-inspired and local ingredients, offering up the stories behind them as a mouth-watering bonus, the same hasn’t been as true for African-American chefs. Yes, BJ Dennis is regularly spotlighted by national food publications, but so far his meals have been limited to pop-ups and special events; he doesn’t yet have a restaurant. We hope that soon changes.
And then there is Martha Lou Gadsden, of Martha Lou’s Kitchen. Despite Twitty’s claim that no African-American-owned restaurant is a you-gotta-go-there tourist mecca, her restaurant is a first-stop shop for foodie tourists in Charleston. I know this because I can look out my window every day and see the out-of-state SUVs filling her parking lot. Sadly, Martha Lou’s is something of an anomaly — although Bertha’s Kitchen in North Charleston is regularly packed, albeit with locals. However, Martha Lou’s wasn’t always a celebrated spot. In fact, way back in 2009, the City Paper wrote an article encouraging diners to visit the restaurant because it was experiencing perhaps its worst year ever, thanks to the Great Recession. We like to think we helped turn things around for Ms. Gadsden and got the empty spaces filled; however, far more credit goes to Sean Brock, who used his celebrity status to plug her restaurant. It’s a pity that it took a mention in the New York Times from a white celebuchef to convince moneyed white out-of-state diners to dine on Martha Lou’s fabulous fried chicken and soul-stirring lima beans to convince — the shame is yours not ours. You were reluctant to venture out of the safe confines of historic downtown Charleston.
So what do we do to address the problems of a lack of black chefs and African-American-owned restaurants? Do we start to institute quotas? In a way, yes.
I don’t see why some of downtown’s top eateries shouldn’t begin cultivating young African-American chefs by offering a program of scholarship stages, cooking internships if you well — perhaps some already are. Also, it would be nice if some of the bigger restaurant groups could join forces and offer actual true-blue scholarships to the Culinary Institute of Charleston to aspiring African-American chefs. Of course, Mickey Baskt of Charleston Grill has already begun to address this need through his Teach the Need program, which instructs students in Title I schools in the ways of the professional kitchen, while the Lowcountry Food Bank, Charleston County Schools, and the Palmetto Youth Connections offer culinary training to high school students with their Foodworks Culinary Training Program. Of course, we also have to mention all the locals who teach students at low-income schools about gardening and good dining habits. I know this because my daughters attend a Title I school with a largely African-American population where the students not only maintain their own gardens — it’s an impressively large setup — but have partnered with the African-American-owned Joseph Fields Farms to bring fresh veggies into the homes of the school’s students at a discounted price. I can also tell you from experience that a $25 box of food can help feed a family of four for three weeks.
And since reparations are most likely off the table, perhaps our nation as a whole could do a small something to repair some of the damage done to the descendants of African slaves by offering free college scholarships to qualifying students. Then again, that’s perhaps too much to ask from a system that just might elect an open bigot as president.
There are solutions here to address the lack of African-American chefs in the world of Charleston fine-dining, and fine-dining elsewhere. There are. But sadly, you won’t find them in the Eater article or in the words of Michael Twitty. All you’ll find is a litany of complaints, sometimes vague and sometimes clearly designed just for show, the latter of which is Twitty’s stock and trade.
Twitty as you may know is the self-proclaimed Antebellum Chef who dresses in antebellum-era slave garb and cooks in the style of his enslaved African-American forebears, albeit with some reservations — some of the ingredients that the slaves used are just too icky for Twitty.
He’s also a prodigious blogger, a Ted talker, the go-to guy when it comes to the contributions of African-Americans to Southern cuisine, and the author of the forthcoming book The Cooking Gene. And judging by his quotes in the Eater article and his own 3,000 “Dear Sean, We Need to Talk,” a man whose stock in trade is a bombastic rhetorical style, something that I admire. We’re alike in that regard. As a rabid ranter myself, I applaud his trash-talking, as well as his penchant for saying all those things that some folks wish would never be said. I mean, you have to applaud a guy who can say that food “is a part of our culture that couldn’t be beaten out of us.” He’s got balls.
But it’s that type of rhetoric, albeit necessary, that more than hints at his central argument: the white population of the South, Charleston in particular, have stolen the ingredients, techniques, and dishes that are rightfully owned by the descendants of slaves, primarily the Gullah people. And the biggest thief of all: Sean Brock.
In some ways there is a validity to his argument. As previously stated, Charleston’s star status in the culinary world was initially launched by a handful of white chefs who took local dishes — shrimp and grits, she-crab soup — and elevated them by simply putting them on the menu at fine-dining restaurants. For most of the latter part of the 20th century at least, French cuisine was the go-to fine-dining cuisine in the Holy City, but with the inclusion of these dishes, a more local focus began to emerge.
As for why such Southern dishes weren’t always on the menu at top-dollar restaurants, some would argue that there’s always been a bit of shame surrounding Southern food, at least among those in the culinary world, not, I would say, at home in both black and white kitchens. For me and scores of other Southerners, these dishes — many of them covered in gravy, many of them fried, and nearly all of them featuring rice with some sort of canned vegetable on the side — this was simply food. It was what we ate. And it was delicious.
But for the chefs in the fine-dining world, I suppose, it was much different. Outsiders dismissed Southern cuisine, mocked it even. And so kudos to the first person who put Southern food on the menu, acknowledging that it had value, that it deserved respect. Thanks to them, the culinary world took its first steps toward an exploration of the South’s foodways, a world in which the cooking traditions of Africa, Europe, and the Americas came together.
However, in today’s Charleston, we’ve moved well beyond those tentative first few steps. Following the rise of Lowcountry cuisine, we’ve seen the rise of the Charleston celebrity chef, one who isn’t beholden to historic dishes, Gullah or otherwise — I’m talking about the chefs at FIG, The Ordinary, Fat Hen, The Obstinate Daughter, The Macintosh, Oak, Chez Nous, Xiao Bao Biscuit, and scores of others. Even Charleston Grill, where Chef Louis Osteen started the Lowcountry cuisine phase, Charleston-inspired dishes only make up one-fourth of the menu.
And then there’s Husk, Sean Brock’s farm-to-table, local ingredient-focused, history-obsessed, seasonally-inspired, Southern restaurant. When Husk emerged on the scene in 2011, it was roundly heralded as a ground-breaking restaurant for its adherence to traditional and local ingredients and Brock’s back-to-basics approach, an approach that involved lots and lots of canning. Before the launch of Husk, Brock threw himself into farming and studying traditional Southern foodways, using forgotten ingredients and heirloom livestock. He was widely praised for it and rightfully so. The guy is a great chef and he had a great idea. Today, you’ll find scores of restaurateurs who have adopted his very same approach. And that seems to be a source of bitterness for some, including Michael Twitty.
For Twitty, many of these ingredients and dishes that you’ll find at Husk and elsewhere are the property of African-Americans. And so the Antebellum Chef calls for culinary justice, a concept that is only vaguely ever explained.
As Twitty told the New Haven Independent in 2014:
“There are certain personalities, certain chefs … they shall remain nameless … but there are these figureheads in Southern food who have no problem promoting the idea that they are rescuing, they’re renewing,” he explained.
“And they will say, ‘God bless those slaves for their contribution’ – you hear the same thing in every book – ‘for their okra, rice, and black eyed peas.’ And they think they’ve done their duty. They don’t tell you about what it feels like to get up at four in the morning, and what it feels like to lift cast iron pots, and what it feels like to burn all the hair off your arms. What does it feel like to get cut? What does it feel like to have all this glorious food in front of you, and not be able to take a seat because to do so would be considered death?”
Later Twitty told Forward.com more about culinary justice, this time calling out Sean Brock by name:
“I saw people using the food culture in ways that were inappropriate. Taking everything but the burden; everything but the part of the story that deals with complex issues, [saying,] ‘This is ours.’ No, it’s not yours to take and to do whatever you want with it. The Italians have control over their cheeses and meat, the French have control over their wines, what do we have control over? Nothing. The people in Peru, saying, ‘We want our potatoes back, we want our quinoa back.’ What do we [blacks] have? Nothing. So we have to really begin to look at marketing a people’s heritage and what that means. When Sean Brock [a successful white Southern restaurateur] runs around saying he discovered the African roots of Southern cuisine, like nobody before him, that’s wrong.”
Of course, Brock never claimed he did, but I’ll get to that in just a bit.
Although Twitty routinely points the finger at Brock and, in the Eater article, his Charleston counterparts, he seems to be of two minds when it comes how African-Americans lost their culinary heritage. In fact, Twitty himself notes that it wasn’t stolen as much as it was abandoned, as six million blacks left the South during the Great Migration for life in the big cities of the North, Midwest, and West. He tells Forward:
… the tables got turned and we became ashamed of our roots in the South. We told ourselves we want to be urban people. We lost land, we lost money, we started to get sick and stressed out and we started to lose the connection to nature. What is West African dance about? The connection of the body to earth, to the universe. You can’t have it if you’re not on the land or connected. For me the food part is very touching.
“When Elijah Muhammad founded the Nation of Islam, he told his followers, ‘Don’t touch potatoes and greens, it’s slave-master food. It’s not healthy for you, don’t eat black- eyed peas.’ Actually it was healthy for us and it was part of our heritage from Africa. But the whole thing about the food being imperialist and colonialist was wrong.”
Of course, it’s worth noting that African-Americans did bring their cuisine with them to the big cities. There are plenty of soul food restaurants around the country that prove that.
But Twitty is right about the disconnection from the soil, from the garden. It’s a problem that affects all populations in the United States. So many of us have never maintained a garden. So many of us have never stepped foot onto a farm. So many of us have never borne witness to the deaths of the very animals we eat. Instead, so many of us feast on fast-food fare and microwavable meals — or, if we’re lucky, a regular routine of Yelp-approved restaurants — and we’ve grown very fat in the process. Twitty should be applauded for encouraging African Americans to once again return to growing their own foods, to cooking their own meals from scratch, to embrace their culinary roots.
With all of that in mind, it seems that Twitty is as upset that African Americans lost touch with the soil and ignored the terroir of their genes — more on that in a bit — as he’s angry someone other than African-Americans began talking about the history of southern African-American foodways. Once again, Brock is the culprit.
In 2015 Times-Picayune piece, Judy Walker writes:
And, in the food game, somebody else can research your history and sell it at a higher price, [Twitty] warned, then added, “I’m looking at you, Sean Brock.” He called out the wildly popular chef for writing “We saved Southern food” and “Southern food has lost its soul.”
And indeed Brock has said that Southern food lost its soul. It’s all right there in the Food + Wine article “The Senegalese Roots of Southern Cooking.” F+W’s Jody Eddy reports:
Throughout his visit [to Senegal], Brock was scribbling down notes in a red book and communicating with the cooks in his kitchens back home, sending them changes to menus in real time. At one point, as he watched Ly steam rice over a pot of aromatic broth to infuse it with flavor, he cried out, “Genius! Why don’t we do this?” He then promptly emailed his sous chef to tell him about it. “I would love to see what I’ve learned here not just on my menus, but on Lowcountry menus everywhere,” he says. “Western African traditions have shaped one of the oldest cuisines in America, but as we modernized these dishes, they lost their soul. We owe it to both Southerners and Western Africans to find it back again.”
The subhed for that article is worth noting. It reads: “Visionary Charleston chef Sean Brock traces the origin of Lowcountry dishes like hoppin’ john and gumbo back to Senegal, emailing his restaurant cooks from Dakar so they can update his recipes in real time.” Judging by the subhed for Eddy’s article, this could possibly be how Twitty came to the conclusion that Brock claimed to have “discovered the African roots of Southern cuisine.”
While I could go on about Twitty’s apparent focus on Brock, I’d like to take this time to bring up one of the more curious aspects of the Antebellum Chef’s oeuvre since it’s mentioned in Eddy’s piece: he’s a mystic with a fascination with strange ideas about genetics. Once again, Eddy writes:
…[Twitty’s] a dynamo of a speaker, addressing the crowd without a microphone in his “preacher and rabbi” voice, as he called it.
He urged the students to own their heritage, to say “us” and not “they” when talking about ancestors.
“Our ancestors were the first people to cook. They were the first to hunt. The first to plant seeds, to domesticate cattle. There is no history of food without us,” Twitty said. “If you’re African American, you come from the first branch of the human race to split off, with the strongest genes in humanity [emphasis added]. It takes strong genes to keep you looking black. I say this as a person who is 28 percent white.”
Twitty pulled his beard. Look at this, he said. This didn’t come from Africa.
Slavery has existed throughout world history, he added. But Africans are the only group to revolutionize everything about their enslavers, to change the entire culture — the food, the music, traditions and much more.
Twitty’s fascination with genetics is also touched upon in this 2015 Garden and Gun profile. In it, author Randall Kenan writes:
Twitty humorously addresses the idea of how complicated issues of food and health are among African Americans, and why their physical welfare is distinct from that of both white Americans and West Africans. He talks about theories of a genetic clue to the plight of diabetes and high blood pressure among American black folk, something perhaps even linked to the experience of the Middle Passage and how individual slaves were chosen. Complicating the matter even more was the mixing of African and European DNA. The result being “African butts, European guts.”
And then there is this, one of the more curious passages in the Garden and Gun piece in which the more mystic side of Twitty emerges. Again, Kenan writes:
[Twitty] wears at his side, from his belt, what he calls a ditty bag. A black leather pouch that dangles. Some once called such a thing a nation sack. It is a custom Twitty learned about while working at Colonial Williamsburg.
What’s inside? Odds and ends, he says. Eighty or more things. He’s not supposed to say what’s inside. Special objects. Medicinal things. Good luck things. Healing things. Different parts…the claws of one of his late dogs…effluvia…ceremony and mystery and talismans…
“You can cook the food all you want, but you don’t know the spells that go with it,” he says. “Black folks could talk to objects, we talk to fire, we talk to spoons, we’ve been known to pray over things. Cooking was timed to the singing of spirituals. That’s imparting ase [Yoruba spiritual force] to the food. You ain’t nothing without the spirits that gave it to you. You have to have reverence. If it doesn’t have reverence, it ain’t got no flavor, it ain’t got no spice, it ain’t got no soul.”
And then there’s this anecdote Twitty shared on “The Kojo Nnamdi Show”:
My South Carolina family went all over the country. One branch went to Detroit and they came from the brother of my great-grandmother. I asked them, what was the best thing your grandfather, my, I guess, great-great-uncle cooked. And he said he made this sauce with tomato and meat and had it with pasta. And they didn’t know at the time that when I had done my grandfather’s DNA, I found a substantial Italian component and I traced it to one of our family’s slaveholders who actually came from a family that was mixed English and Italian ancestry. And they were just floored because I said this cooking gene is for real. I said, the dish you remember most wasn’t dandelion greens or fried chicken or peach cobbler. It was basically a bolognese sauce. And this is somebody who was born right after the Civil War. So you think from the Piedmont of South Carolina, how many Italian restaurants did you have back then, so it was really something. I really started to see my own story, not just in the villages and cities of pre-colonial Africa, but in ancient Rome and in the ancient Middle East and Genghis Khan and all these other narratives, and Vikings, I’m mostly Viking by the way, I know you can’t tell.
Reading those four passages back, and coupling it with Twitty’s claims that “terrior is in the genes” and the title of his forthcoming book, The Cooking Gene, one begins to question the very nature of the Antebellum Chef’s ideas about genetics and culture.
On the one hand, he seems to be advancing the argument that Africans are more in touch with the natural and spiritual worlds than other races, while on the other postulating that culinary inclinations are passed down through DNA from parent to child, parent to child. In part this is troubling because it harkens back to the idea of the noble savage, a tired trope that recently landed Harry Potter author JK Rowling in hot water for her depiction of Native Americans. It’s equally as troubling because it offers up the same tired talk that cultural characteristics are linked to biology, a flawed line of thinking that National Socialists and other white supremacists have long adhered to. Twitty is certainly not either of those two things, but it’s disconcerting to see a public intellectual support flawed genetic theories and dangerous beliefs that society has struggled to quash for a long, long time.
Speaking of genes, it’s worth noting that Twitty at one time had a side gig offering “crash courses or multi-session courses on how to trace your roots back to Africa,” according to his Afroculinaria website. While I have little knowledge about the courses Twitty apparently offered, I can tell you that geneticists cast doubt that DNA can determine exactly which groups you come from at a specific time period. For starters, race is a human construct, not a genetic one. And two, genetically every single person on this planet is a descendent of the same person 3,500 years ago; for Europeans, it only goes back 1,000 years. The result: mankind has so greatly intermingled that pin-pointing people, whether Vikings or Zulu is not likely. Geneticists can tell you if you are related to someone, but they apparently can’t tell you if you are related to someone at a specific time or place. However, they can tell you that “you are related to the Queen of Sheba or Napoleon,” as the non-profit Sense in Science says, “because we almost all are.”
I don’t know if Twitty still offers these genetic services, I really don’t. I’ve reached out to him several times via a combination of email, Facebook, and Twitter, and I’ve yet to receive a response from him. Oddly enough, I think Twitty may know exactly how I feel. Someone in the Charleston culinary world once apparently ignored his requests for a conversation: Sean Brock.
In Twitty’s “Dear Sean” letter he writes:
I do not know why you chose not to introduce me at MAD [a symposium] at the last moment or why I have seen you multiple times since and yet you have not spoken to me. I have eaten your food — and your Mother’s food — supported your restaurant in Nashville, I even reached out to you in 2012 when I was a nothing — a nobody — looking to dialogue with you about a little project I was doing called The Cooking Gene. I never heard back after an initial email exchange brokered by a mutual friend. I saw you make jokes on social media — but I desperately wanted to sit down with Sean Brock — to see if you were my blood, my cousin, my kinsman. I have tried to reach out, and my intentions are to squash these feelings of mistrust I am trying to shake.
But despite Sean Brock’s apparent history of giving Michael Twitty the cold shoulder, and despite Twitty’s long history of bashing Brock, you want to know what the Husk chef did shortly after the letter went live? Sean Brock reached back out to Michael Twitty and said let’s meet. More importantly, he said let’s cook together.
That to me, speaks volumes about who Sean Brock is.
I’d also like to think it speaks to who Brock’s fellow chefs in the Holy City are too, as well as rest of us in Charleston who felt the need to speak up about the erroneous claims in Eater’s story and Michael Twitty’s false assertions.
And because we took issue with his claims, Twitty asserts that we declared “war” on him, repeatedly sending out social media salvos composed of middle-school subtweets, schoolyard taunts, and a shade-throwing gif of a disheveled Scarlett O’Hara — he also posted this Tweet in response to a sympathetic post from Matt Hartman, a white writer who attended the University of South Carolina and who wrote a recent article dealing with authentic Southern food: “I won’t speculate on why they seemed to come at me much harder than you for having a similar message.” Of course, many reasonable readers will infer that such a statement is disingenuous. (Psst. For one, I didn’t initially read Hartman’s piece because it wasn’t about Charleston, and, two, Michael didn’t write Eater’s Gullah piece … Hillary Dixler did and, gasp, she’s not black.) There is no debate with Twitty, only conflict and a cult of personality that will rally around him and go into battle for him on Twitter. Seriously, man, Twitter. For the love of God, you’re about to be a published author, not some two-bit alt-weekly journalist with a potty mouth and penchant for bourbon.
That childish tendency toward overstated drama can also be found in his letter to Sean Brock, and it offers another side of Antebellum Chef: the martyr. In “Dear Sean” Twitty writes:
“The research, recreation, and interpretation of enslaved people’s food is not personally or communally easy — and it goes beyond creativity and taste — it is in many ways a willed descent into hell. I assure you it is taxing, painful, and revelatory — but I have no choice — as you have no choice but to be who I was created to be.”
And the suffering continues. Twitty adds, this time noting a revelation he had while on Sullivan’s Island front beach, a message that came to him from his ancestors who arrived in America at this very spot:
“It was at that moment, 10 years ago I sank to my knees in the wet sand, fully clothed and guaranteeing my jeans would be stained—and humbled myself before my dead. At the time I did not know where they came from or who was there — I just knew this was where I had to start. … When I kneeled — I was told I had to work in the fields, I had to stir the pots, that it was not enough to sit in an armchair and pontificate or grow things as a hobby — these things — you well know — have been done — and often not well — and they don’t serve any of us to any real end. What I endured for their sake — at their command — compares not with five minutes in their lives — and I can honestly say — I would refuse five minutes in their hell.”
And then oddly enough, he turns to Sean Brock, the man he has mocked and criticized for years, and asks him for help:
My burden is in some ways heavier than yours — and that’s not your fault, but if you care so deeply for this food and where it comes from— and I know you do, you will help me lift a corner of this burden. I know you already do some of this locally — I want to seek a way to do this on a larger scale.
But the burden isn’t just Twitty’s or Brock’s. It’s a burden that everyone in Charleston bears. I, like the chefs and writers who follow the food scene in the Holy City, believe that Charleston must own up to its past, it must attempt to atone for its sins; it must try to heal the wounds between blacks and whites. And living here in this beautiful town built on the scared and broken backs of an enslaved population and dipped in an unholy baptism of blood, I know that so many are trying — they are trying.
I’m not going to accuse Twitty or an Eater article of thwarting that. They couldn’t. They can’t. But some words are more difficult to walk back than others.
P.S. It’s worth noting that on April 1, Eater’s Hillary Dixler posted an article on Robert Stehling’s Charleston Nasty fried chicken and gravy biscuit. Despite the fact that Dixler previously bemoaned the “black erasure from the American culinary narrative” as applied to the origins of the fried chicken sandwich, she apparently falls prey to the same error as other writers in her article on the Charleston Nasty — ignoring black contributions to the fried chicken sandwich.
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