I'll Bite

Slaves were well-fed? Seldom, says historian

A packed and diverse crowd came to Founder’s Hall on Thursday night for “Feast on Culture!,” a Heritage & History event put on by the Gantt Center featuring a food-focused lecture by historian and writer Michael Twitty.

A historic cooking expert, Twitty focuses on the history of antebellum cooking, as well as his own African-Jewish heritage as the descendant of N.C.-based slaves.

While explaining a short tasting menu that included yeast rolls, fried chicken with a spicy crust, collards and other traditional foods, he also got in several good laughs at the expense of Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly, who claimed last week that slaves were well-fed.

“These foods were special,” Twitty said. The daily food of enslaved people would have been poor quality scraps and dirty well water. Things like Madeira ham and “kush,” a lightly sweetened, crumbled cornbread that took its name from the same word that we now know as couscous, were called “Seldom” in slave culture because they would have only had them a couple of times a year.

Twitty has a book coming out next year, “The Cooking Gene,” that looks at the food of all his ancestors. When he talks about Southern food history, he emphasizes the many cultures that come together in it – German, Moravian, English, Scots, Cherokee, Lumbee, African and more.

“Food has made me family with every other Southerner I’ve ever encountered,” he said.

And he made one request of the crowd, which included people who had come from Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Winston-Salem and Greensboro just for the occasion: Don’t say slave, he pleaded. Say the enslaved.

“They never saw themselves as slaves. They considered themselves enslaved. These dishes restore humanity to people whose humanity was not recognized.”

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis