Food, Community & Government

Taking Inspiration From Master Chefs

Michael W. Twitty

Lesson time 06:24 min

Michael introduces two critical figures in African American cuisine: Edna Lewis and James Hemings. He shows how Lewis and Hemings laid the foundation for the popularity of a cuisine with staple ingredients rooted in African foodways.

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Topics include: Edna Lewis & James Hemings


[MUSIC PLAYING] - It's really important for you to get a familiarity with some of these big names. And get to the little names. Leah Chase was executive chef of the famous Creole restaurant Dooky Chase's in New Orleans, which at the time of the Civil Rights movement was a safe haven for activists. Over in Alabama, Georgia Gilmore sold hundreds of plates of soul food that helped bail activists out of jail who were arrested during sit-ins. Zephyr Wright, chef to former President Lyndon Johnson, is said to have contributed to his decision about the Civil Rights Act. But here are two chefs that I feel have made the greatest personal impact on my journey in Southern cuisine. Edna Lewis, who was brought back into cultural awareness by "Top Chef," was named the South's answer to Julia Child. She was known for championing the South's terroir, the same way that Julia Child popularized French cuisine. Edna's family, through the Great Migration, came from Freetown, a little hamlet in Virginia started by her grandparents, emancipated and formerly enslaved black folks. So you see her cookbooks exploring her upbringing on the family farm, cooking with the ingredients and methods available to her. She rose to prominence long before people were talking about the importance of local eating and heritage foods. Edna Lewis was that champion at the moment when people were beginning to examine the roots and meaning of Southern cuisine. And through her work, Edna encouraged young people to come back to the land and farm and cook. And what's interesting is that Edna Lewis herself said, you know, turn every stone. Don't just valorize me, because I ain't the only one. And she was right. She was just the one that had the book contract. There were hundreds of other Edna Lewises. One of them was my paternal grandmother from south central Virginia, from a tobacco farm. Some of the very same foods that Edna Lewis talks about in her works that are autobiographical cookbooks are the same foods that my grandmother cultivated and knew, and beyond. And there was a certain taste of those foods coming from that region. Edna, who lived in the 20th century into the 21st, was, of course, predated by other cooks. And one of the most famous was James Hemings, who didn't live-- and was born and lived not very far from Orange County, Virginia where Edna Lewis is from, down in Albemarle County, which is a nearby county. The Hemings family was enslaved to Thomas Jefferson's family and his wife's family. In fact, they were inherited through his wife's line. Sally Hemings, with whom Jefferson has children-- we won't even address that as an equal relationship, because it was not-- and her brother James, who became a chef, were the half-siblings of Jefferson's widow. So when we talk about the complexities of family, genealogy, and cooking, and all of that, I mean it. It is borne out through Southern history again and again. And James, like other So...

About the Instructor

Through years of unearthing his African American heritage, bestselling author of The Cooking Gene Michael W. Twitty discovered undeniable ties between his ancestors’ past and his own palate. Now he’s teaching how you can get a taste of your family history through food. Explore the migrations that informed the ingredients in your kitchen—then re-create the dishes that helped shape who you are.

Featured Masterclass Instructor

Michael W. Twitty

James Beard Award–winning author of The Cooking Gene teaches how to trace your culinary roots through the food your ancestors ate.

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