I'm a culinary historian, historic interpreter and Jewish educator and I’ve been telling the stories of enslaved people and their foodways for over a decade. Food was used to empower and encourage self-reliance and self-respect among enslaved people and they were instrumental in creating Southern cuisines. Using the experience of my family's enslaved past, we want to tell that story, drawing attention to the bigger picture of the links between food, family, identity, and community. We believe food combined with genealogy can connect people of all backgrounds and serve as a vehicle for racial reconciliation and healing. Part of it is, I want to cook and have dinner with the people who are the descendants of the people who owned my family, some of whom I am related to. I want to know what they think about our common heritage.
We will journey into the Old South between May and July 2012, and we want to bring you on what we are calling The Southern Discomfort Tour--visiting the counties and plantations where my ancestors were enslaved and paying homage to all enslaved communities along the way. We will also visit places of cultural memory related to slavery and food. To document this, we will be photographing and filming all the places we visit and people we meet, blogging about our experiences as they happen – and give elders, farmers and food producers out there a voice. Hopefully our work will culminate in a book and/or documentary, but first comes the journey. When the Tour gets underway, you will be able to follow us at our blog (thecookinggene.com). We will update it daily, showing our progress and experiences encountering the legacy of slavery in the world of Southern food.
Our Desired Impact
Most human beings have the desire to know where they come from. For many African Americans that sense of origins and place is elusive due in part to the disruption caused by the slave trade and slavery. As an African American charged with preserving our culinary heritage, the pain of not knowing how what I do fits into the tradition I've inherited, looms large. This project is called The Cooking Gene because I want to know where I get this urge to portray and master the skills of an enslaved chef. I want to know why so many of us get this desire to express ourselves through the food of our forebears--no matter what our origins. However, this is not just personal, its urgent--we are losing the generations who remember enslaved grandparents and our youth desperately need the wisdom of the past before its gone.
We want people to put names and faces to the Ancestors we often hear called "the slaves." We want people to appreciate their legacy in American food history and the cultural capital they created. We want to document places of cultural memory where slavery and food came together and made Southern foodways. We want you to meet the remaining African American farmers and fishermen of the Deep South; local food producers and eating establishments and farm to table restaurants who are continuing to draw on our heritage, and the women who have kept these traditions alive in Sunday dinners. We want to bring you to communities where people are working to bring better food and better food access to areas of want known as "food deserts." The past is important, but so is making the future better for those who will see us as Ancestors.
What do we need?
To make this trip a real success and help tell my/our Ancestors’ story and give African American and rural food producers out there a voice, we need a little help with the meeting our goal. We’ve conservatively estimated our basic costs to be:
Gas: This is for two months travelling by car from Maryland to Louisiana and back covering almost 4,500 miles. We will need about $800 for gas.
Food: We are budgeting in accordance with our pledge to spend 80% of our food budget at local community establishments, African American food producers and restaurants, farm to table restaurants and with community farmer's markets. We not only want to eat and report about the best of the South's African/African American culinary legacy and the people and places that are making that mark, but we want to put our money where our mouths are and support local economies. We are also cooking the entire way and purchasing traditional, local ingredients that will bring to life heirloom recipes from the past. We will need about $2,600 for our food and cooking supply costs.
Accommodations: We LOVE couches and are seeking those out, but we also have to be prepared to seek budget accommodations so that we and our equipment are safe at night. We are budgeting about $2,500 for places to stay.
DNA and Genealogical Research: We're looking for our African, European and Native American roots, and using that information to deduce what we will cook. We will also need to conduct genealogical research to determine as precisely as possible the history of the 18 distinct families and their past in slavery. DNA testing and genealogical research will conservatively require about $1,000.
Equipment and media supplies: We need microphones, memory cards, etc. and technical upgrades to our blog to bring you the best possible content to document our journey. We will need $500 for equipment.
Oh shucks!: We need make sure we have a small cushion of funds to make sure that we can take care of any unforeseen issues along the way. We will need $500 just in case-- for any issues that may come our way.
In reality we need at least $10,000 to cover our basic expenses and costs. However, we’ve put our official target lower ($8000) because every cent is a blessing. And if we get more than our total desired amount it will help towards our other costs, like communications and equipment, and help us make this project a real success for everyone. Additional funding will also be used to enhance our commitment to public programs and community food events that focus on our tradition. From demonstrations of open hearth cooking to heirloom gardening parties to community dinners to talks on food justice and contextualized genealogy—we have a lot to offer you and the communities we visit.
What’s in it for you?
1. The opportunity to bring dignity and honor to the millions of enslaved people who once worked in the farms and cities of the colonial and antebellum South, and who often helped create its greatest food. You can say you honored them by helping to tell their story. Furthermore we want you to help us document what the last grandchildren of the enslaved have to say so we can pass that legacy on to today's youth. No other project to date has sought to honor the totality of enslaved Americans and we want to put up a memorial page of the names of your ancestors that were born in slavery.
2. We want to educate and entertain you---I’m not just cooking for you, I’m working in a cotton field, worming tobacco, and harvesting rice. I want your children to know what it was like—in living color. We want you to hear amazing family stories and the stories of the people we meet on the way. And we want to share with you heirloom recipes that you can prepare at home with your family and friends.
3. We’re hoping that the Southern Discomfort Tour will put unknown food people, communities that care about food justice and places of cultural memory on the map—as well as families looking for their roots--so your support—by watching, commenting and creating dialogue---means this project will take on a self-sustaining life of its own.