them.: Ready Or Not, Michael Twitty Is Changing the Face of Food Media
"If I was a cisgender, heterosexual-looking, gay-appealing naked white man with a chiseled body who was cooking, I’d be the darling of gay media."
“I’m a big guy. I own that, I own my Black bearness,” Michael W. Twitty admits to me with a pride that’s unmistakably twinged with pain. “But apparently if you’re big and Black and male, and you don’t have a football in your hand, but have a book in your hand instead, you’re worth nothing.”
Twitty, 41, is an extraordinarily unique man that — no shade, just tea — you’ve probably never heard of. He is unconventional and intersectional in multiple ways: Black, Jewish, gay, big and “bearish,” he is also an independent scholar who has spent the last six years writing The Cooking Gene, released last August on Amistad Press, which explores the ways that food defines, informs, and educates us about who we are and how we got here. It’s a “personal mission to document the connection between food history and family history from Africa to America, from slavery to freedom,” according to his website.
So it should come as no surprise that Twitty looked and sounded a lot different than prior winners when he and his book were honored with the food media world’s highest honor — the James Beard Foundation Book Awards — this April. Twice.
And his win wasn’t just monumental, it was historic: Twitty became the first Black author to win the foundation’s Book of the Year award, and only the second writer to win the award for a book without writing an actual cookbook.
The Cooking Gene is the first of a trilogy; the second book will focus on his Black Jewish culture and faith, and the third will explore the gay elements of his identity, discussing “bearness and Blackness.” “This book is not typical, but that’s not what I wanted to do,” Twitty says. “I wanted to write the book that I never saw... people think that all Black narratives have been told, and they’re not, they’re woefully inadequate. We haven’t even scratched the surface.”
Twitty is a culinary historian — a profession that looks at the ways we’ve prepared, engaged, and passed along our history through the one thing we all have in common: food. And it’s a job that most people don’t even know exists.
“A culinary historian is just what it sounds like; it’s someone who studies the history, and narrative, and recipes, the cuisine of a people,” Twitty explains. “It really comes down to people who have a deep love and passion, who want to follow the same rules of scholarship and representation that academics do.”
There’s no PhD (or any degree program) in culinary history, and Twitty will be the first to tell you. But a formal, accredited education isn’t always required to have a deep knowledge, appreciation and understanding of a field.
Speaking of fields, Twitty has spent many a day tending to fields, or small gardens, while living in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia as the city’s first “Revolutionary in Residence” scholar. There, he grows everything from cinnamon squash to okra, watermelon, and peanuts as part of his larger mission to study and teach others about a version of the lifestyle his ancestors lived more than a century and a half ago. Food included.
While what his ancestors ate is a big part of his life, Twitty says his size has been an obstacle in seeing mainstream attention for his work — among all the other avenues of his intersectional identity.
“I don’t feel as visible because I’m a big guy,” he says, discussing the coverage of his historic Beard Award wins. Some articles and headlines following the awards either minimized the nature of his achievement, or highlighted other winners who happen to be more photogenic, something he expressed concern about on Twitter.
“The point I’m trying to make is that if I was a cisgender, heterosexual-looking, gay-appealing naked white man with a chiseled body who was cooking, I’d be the darling of gay media — oh honey, no problem,” he declares.
But while he recognizes the challenges he feels have gotten in the way of mainstream success, Twitty retains a grateful attitude.
“I am a niche person, I am unusual, and that’s helped me a lot,” he continues. “I think the biggest thing, beyond any label that I put on myself, is the fact that I’ve embraced the totality of who I am.”
“I’ve had people pull me aside in little communities and [say], ‘I’m gay, too.’” he says, pausing briefly. “‘You make me proud to be out,’ or ‘I’m of color and I struggle with people doubting me because I’m Black … and you make me proud…”
Whether he feels accepted by the mainstream or not, there’s no denying that Twitty is a diamond in the food media rough — a scholar with something valuable to say about the identities he holds. Whether his industry is ready to accept it or not, Twitty’s time has arrived. Hopefully, he has your attention to hear what he has to say, and see him say it, as well.