SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Michael William Twitty, a culinary historian of African and African-American foods, knows firsthand that all knowledge does not come from books - sometimes it comes from food - "and you have to taste it."
Twitty, known nationally for his cooking and history lectures about food, especially African-American and slave-days cooking, visited Slippery Rock University Wednesday to work as a guest chef at the Fusion Station in Boozel Dining Hall and host a question-and-answer session in the Smith Student Center.
Twitty, who makes his home in Washington, D.C., prepared "kush" for lunch visitors to Boozel Dining Hall. "Basically, it is a very simple dish and is a way to use up leftovers," he said. "It is made with day-or two-old cornbread combined with onions, red peppers and other spices and then 'skilleted' and served. It's very good: It is the root of cornbread stuffing."
Matthew Johntony, an SRU chemistry major from New Castle, said he had heard of kush, but had never tried it. "It tastes like cornbread with bacon, mixed with deliciousness and awesomeness," he said.
Diana Jones, SRU assistant professor of nursing, said she liked what she tasted. "It's oniony and sweet," she said. "I like it, and it's very different."
"Basically my main mission is to teach people about the historical contributions of African-Americans to American and global food culture," he said.
His interest in cooking involved "eating family cooking and reading as well as the discovery of what people were saying in their family as it relates to history and food," he said.
Twitty's early training came from his mother and grandmother and the men in his family. "My grandmother would not let anyone go out into the world without knowing how to take care of themselves and that included cooking," he said.
Last year, Twitty told the Washington Post, "I'm the grandchild of migrants. My paternal grandparents came to Washington from Virginia and South Carolina. My maternal grandparents started off in Alabama. And so I always had the sense that being a black Washingtonian meant having one foot in the South. There was iced tea on the table every night; there was pot liquor and corn bread. I asked my grandmother about her life, and a lot of her memories were food memories. She left me this very rich narrative about picking berries and being in the garden. No one had to tell me about "organic" or "sustainable," because that was the tradition that was passed down to me. My authenticity is not based on food trends; my authenticity is based on what August Wilson once called the self-sustaining ground of the slave quarter."
"I do what I do to honor those people who were not formally educated but had formal experience -- who created Southern cuisine. I do this to honor them, because so many of them are nameless, faceless and uncredited for the genius that they had in making the American table work."
He said his favorite item to cook is barbeque. "Not grilling, not cooking hamburgers on the grill, but 'southern barbeque.' I do it in a very traditional way, kind-of-a-19th-century sauce with a vinegar-and-mustard-based sauce. I do it the old-fashioned way of saucing the meat over the roasting coals," he said.
SRU was just one of Twitty lecture/demonstration stops this month. "I came here from a conference in New York, and I am going later this week to Philadelphia for another campus lecture then off to Purdue University," he said.
Twitty recently traveled to the MAD Symposium in Denmark and will go to Brazil in May before a planned trip to Italy later this year.
He was involved in the Pittsburgh's underground-railroad exhibition, where he provided much of the food and has been involved in projects at the Heinz History Museum and at Metalcroft outside Pittsburgh.
Jewish by faith, Twitty said he "keeps kosher" in his own home kitchen, cooking the traditional blintzes and knishes (stuffed pasta and pastries). "When I eat at home, it is a weird mixture of "kosher soul," where I combine the two cultures, a kind of 'fusion recipe.' with each culture providing a unique identity," he said.
"My concept is to deal with both diaspora," he said. "These ways of cooking are global cultures found around the world. It is very interesting - and thrilling - to see the effects these styles of cooking have on world culture and they keep opening to new areas."
"When you are enjoying a dish with peanuts, okra, black-eyed peas, jambalaya, gumbo, these are collectively legacy foods that have roots in the American plantation and farm. I would be remiss if I didn't say another part of the story is the people of the North who relied on black cooks. From Pittsburgh to Philadelphia black caterers, black bakers and black cooks before the Civil War, all people of color, were preparing outstanding food," he said.
"It was certainly regarded as prestigious to be able to say you had a 'black caterer.' It was like saying you had a 'French chef.' It was something to be proud of, and it has been a way for our community to express itself and develop both financially and culturally. It was also a way to bring pride and dignity - something we didn't have," Twitty said.
AVI Fresh hosted the cooking/eating event.
Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania's premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.