Southern food, soul food, and barbecue are popping up in more and more restaurants across the country, but many of the people who are bringing this food to fancy restaurants look, unsurprisingly, very little like its original creators. “Everyone’s attracted to our seasonings, our food, but they want to flip it, without understanding where we come from,” said chef Michael Twitty, speaking at the Brownsville Community Culinary Center last week. “People love the cooking of black and brown folk. They love it more than they love us, that’s the problem.”
Twitty, an Antebellum chef, food writer and culinary historian, has described himself as “four times blessed... large of body, gay, African American and Jewish,” He burst into the national spotlight in 2013, when Paula Deen admitted to using the n-word after being sued for sexual and racial harassment. Twitty posted an open letter to her on his blog, Afroculinaria, where he wrote that her real transgression was not recognizing that the “Southern food you have been crowned the queen of was made into an art largely in the hands of enslaved cooks, some like the ones who prepared food on your ancestor’s Georgia plantation.”
The letter went viral, and literary agents took note of his project, The Cooking Gene, which was published as a book last August. A few weeks ago, Twitty won the James Beard Awards (known as the Oscars of the food world) for best writing and Book of the Year. He is the first African-American to win the Book of the Year.
At the Brownsville Community Culinary Center, fresh off his historic wins, he spoke with a handful of black and Latino students about why they should take pride in their own history, and use it as a way to rise up in the culinary world. “One of the biggest things that our European American colleagues have to their advantage is that there’s this whole concept of branding and marketing. To us, we are communal… we are not individualistic, so it’s very hard for us to talk about us as individuals. But you look at any chefs on TV, any chefs on the Food Network, and chefs that make money, what do they do? They tell you: ‘My story is,’ and they have a set narrative.”
The BCCC was created to help give people in the community skills to succeed in the culinary world, providing a 40 week training program in all aspects of restaurant work. It is also one of the first sit down, full service restaurants to open in Brownsville in 50 years. Michael Twitty was the first in a cohort of guest speakers at the center.
— Michael W. Twitty (@KosherSoul) May 11, 2018
Nicole Taylor, the author of “The Up South Cookbook: Chasing Dixie in a Brooklyn Kitchen” and Director of Special Projects at BCCC, said that having Twitty there, speaking to the participants, was a way to show them that there is a path forward for them in the food world. These participants have a lot stacked against them, said Taylor. Being from Brownsville, having children, having a GED or not even having a GED, makes it hard to compete in an industry that is young and white.
Despite focusing his work on the Antebellum south, Twitty is no stranger to New York. Years ago, he held cooking demonstrations at the Union Square Greenmarket, and he has gone to the Chabad-Lubavitch World Headquarters center at 770 Eastern Parkway to pray. "I felt very welcome, once people got over it," Twitty recalled. "I don’t know if I would feel the same way today."
That tension, of having your culture embraced but your identity questioned, is something Twitty has been dealing with his entire life. He used to teach hebrew classes to teenagers in the wealthy Maryland suburbs of DC. He heard comments from his students that Trayvon Martin was a druggie, that he didn’t contribute anything in taxes, but they had “no problem asking for all the latest hits at their Bar and Bat Mitzvah.”
It’s a tension that is prominent in the food world, especially in New York. Just look at what happened to the Bronx’s beloved chopped cheese. “People are obsessed with fried chicken and waffles, innards, chitlins, black food from all over the world...A lot of times, you see people who don’t look like them, making that food, building empires, getting book deals, racking up awards,” said Taylor.
But Twitty’s talk resonated with the participants at the BCCC. Joshua Sherron was born and raised in Brooklyn. His grandmother owned a beauty shop for decades, and his grandfather was a pastor in Brooklyn. Sherron wants to build up a catering business after finishing at BCCC. “Food is not just food, it's culture, it's telling a story...you can always tell someone your journey.”
Karim Ramsey, who came from Antigua and now lives in a shelter in Brownsville, had worked as a dishwasher for three years before joining the program. Now, his dream is to open a West Indian restaurant with vegan options. “I feel I have the crowd, and more people now are getting into our type of food, so it has a big market for it.”
The first time I went to BCCC, I met Naomi Beard. Her newfound culinary training has helped her cook for her mom, who has diabetes, and put healthy food on the table for her kids. Before coming to BCCC, she went to cosmetology school. Her goal, after the program, is to open her own beauty supply store and hair salon, with a restaurant next door. “You know a lot of people sit down, get their hair done for hours, they’re hungry," she said. "I always think bigger than what people say of me."
The Brownsville Community Culinary Center is located at 69 Belmont Ave, open 7am-3pm Monday through Friday. Time Out New York gave them four stars and said “The corn bread is easily in the running for best in the city.”