The Jay Heritage Center’s (JHC) first program of the year, “Culinary Justice: Cultural Resilience and the History of Food,” drew more than 380 registrants to a vibrant discussion of the culinary legacies of marginalized communities. Panelists included Michael Twitty, author of “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South,” and Lavada Nahon, a culinary historian, educator, and independent scholar, who is the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation’s first Interpreter of African American History. The conversation was expertly moderated by Lori Fontanes, JHC’s newest trustee.
Fontanes began by asking a simple question: What, exactly, is culinary justice? “Culinary justice,” Twitty explained, “refers to the idea that people, especially those who are marginalized and oppressed, have a right to the ownership and usage of their own culinary tradition…. The culinary and cultural productions in the kitchen are a product. They have a cachet; they have a value.”
Nahon added that a recent controversy surrounding a recipe published in Bon Appétit magazine illustrates the dilemma. Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson had adapted a recipe for a traditional Haitian Independence Soup, soup joumou, in his new book, “The Rise,” but had changed many of the key ingredients for a version published in an issue of Bon Appétit that he guest edited. After a public backlash, both Samuelsson and the magazine apologized. “There are some places you just need to leave alone,” said Nahon.
“When you’re marginalized and oppressed,” Twitty added, “your greatest currency is how you survive your oppression. And for most communities that have had to scrape by and struggle, food has been a strong means of uplift, of survival, and let me put it like this: joy.”
The key, Twitty explained, is context. “When people use power, platform, and privilege in a certain way–and the context is missing, and the respect is missing–then that’s when we have cultural appropriation instead of cultural diffusion. One happens in a healthy society and the other doesn’t.”
Nahon described how culinary traditions among enslaved people in the North differed from those in the South. In the South, hundreds of enslaved people would often labor on a single plantation. The North, by contrast, operated more often by the manorial system, she explained, in which smaller groups of enslaved people would live side by side with farm owners of northern European descent. In the North, Twitty added, “you have smaller groups of people who are integrated into the cultures around them, native and European.”
Nahon described how, eventually, cultural pressures, industrialization, and educational priorities devalued cooking–both in general and among African Americans. “In order to move our race forward,” she said, “we encouraged our children to get out of the culinary fields and to go into other education.” Twitty added that in modern culinary schools aspiring Black chefs are taught to master sushi and French food. “At the same time,” he added, “Paula Deen’s out there amplifying our food.”
During the question-and-answer period a New York City public high school literature of food studies teacher asked for additional reading recommendations. Twitty immediately recommended Leah Penniman‘s “Farming While Black,” and added that he would post additional recommendations on his Afroculinaria blog.
Finally, the panelists discussed the potential for the new Historic Jay Gardens that will open later this year. Fontanes mentioned that historical research has revealed many of the fruits and vegetables that have been historically grown at the Jay Estate: cauliflower, lettuce, potatoes, apples, pumpkins, melons, squash. Nahon emphasized that it would be important to find the appropriate, local, native varieties of each of these if the gardens were to be authentic. “No collard greens,” Nahon said.
Made possible by generous grants from Alger and Con Edison