When chef, historian, and author Michael Twitty came to talk to the Sidwell Friends middle schoolers on Sept. 13, he wasn’t just there to talk about food. Like most of his work, Twitty’s talk examined the relationships between food, race, and America.
“Food is acknowledging the contributions of people from the past,” Twitty said. “It’s really important to think about where your food comes from and where your family comes from.”
Twitty spoke of his own heritage as a descendent of enslaved Africans, a topic he examined closely in his 2017 James Beard Award-winning book, The Cooking Gene. He also talked to the students about how that background reflects the importance—and often the ignorance—of the contribution of enslaved people to American cuisine.
For example, in the 1780s and 1790s, “the best chef in America was an enslaved person named James Hemmings, who was enslaved by Thomas Jefferson,” Twitty said. In fact, Hemmings had accompanied Jefferson to France and trained there with the culinary elite. And yet: “When I was your age, I didn’t see no pictures of James Hemmings,” Twitty said. “I saw a picture of—I kid you not—Thomas Jefferson … wearing a modern apron presenting dinner to his friends. And I remember my grandmother going, ‘Nuh-uh, it didn’t roll like that.’” Thomas Jefferson wasn’t really presenting guests with food he made, Twitty said. “It was a black man like me who was the best chef in America.”
Twitty also spoke on a more personal level, talking about how he started cooking with his mother and grandmother at the age of 5. “My mother was the best cook in the world,” he said. “My grandmother, she was up there, but my mom was the best.”
A lot of students felt the same way. “When he told us that he was cooking with his mom and his grandmother, I related to that,” said Amaia ’27. “My mom, she’s my favorite cook, and I think she’s the best cook in the world. Sometimes we make food together, but mostly she does everything.”
“My dad cooks a lot,” said Tilly ’27. “I want to cook like him. He inspires me.”
More than anything, Twitty wanted students to come away knowing how food can build bridges, both within and between families. “Going to a friend’s house [to eat] is like taking a little trip to where they’re from,” he said. “It’s about learning a little bit about where they come from, what their history is, who their parents are.”
His final word of advice? “Go to your mom, go to your family—and get those recipes down now.”