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March 02, 2012

Tasty History Lesson Served

By Shilo Rea

TwittyMichael W. Twitty, served up okra soup, black-eyed peas and leafy greens with a side of history.

In his talk, "More Than Slave Food: The African Roots of American Foodways," the culinary historian discussed food's critical role in the development and definition of African-American civilization and the politics of consumption and cultural ownership.

He became interested in culinary history after a childhood visit to Colonial Williamsburg. "I liked how they recreated history," Twitty said. "When you cook, you're not just throwing something together - it's an art. There's an incredible body of knowledge."

His study of foodways focuses on how people relate to food and how people cultivate between food, philosophy, culture and society.

"Everybody has to eat, and food is all about politics and power," said Twitty, who is also a writer, historic interpreter and Jewish educator. "These main issues have driven the identity of African-Americans. They came from slavery, which was all about power. Food was one of the few areas of
enslaved people's lives that they could try to control."

Edda Fields-Black, associate professor of history at CMU, added, "Like any other ethnic community in early America, enslaved Africans brought and blended elements of their West and West Central African food traditions in the creation of American cuisine."

Twitty prepared three dishes and audience members were invited to taste each: okra soup, the root of gumbo; chebudniebe, a black-eyed pea dish;
and plasas, leafy greens served with onions and garlic.

Twitty's lecture was sponsored by CMU's University Lecture Series, Office of Student Affairs, Humanities Scholars Program and Department of History.

Professor Tim Haggerty, culinary historian Michael Twitty, Professor Edda Fields-Black and M. Shernell Smith, coordinator of student development, pose behind dishes served during Twitty's recent university lecture.

Heritage Black-Eyed Peas

Black-eyed peas, which actually are beans, are thought to have migrated from West Africa to the Southern states in the 1700s with the slave trade.

"The Manding people call them 'soso,' and the Wolof call them 'niebe,'" writes culinary historian Michael Twitty. "A millenia-old staple of the diet in Senegambia and its hinterlands, the black-eyed pea grows well in hot, drought-conducive conditions and is a symbol of resilience, mercy, and kindness. Niebe are the kind of cooked food one gives as sadaka - righteously given charity - to beggars on the streets of Senegal. They continue to be seen as a sign of blessing and are paired with greens as good luck food on New Year's Day."
•    1 pound dried black-eyed peas or any cowpea
•    1 ham hock, a small piece of salt pork or slices of bacon, or
    smoked turkey (vegan alternative - 1/2 teaspoon of liquid
    smoke and 5 cups of non-meat chicken stock)
•    1 cup chopped onion
•    Kosher salt, to taste
•    1 small crushed dried fish or cayenne pepper
•    A few teaspoons of sorghum molasses (optional)
•    1/4 cup of fresh chopped flat-leaf parsley (optional)
•    A few sprigs of fresh or dried thyme (optional)
Sort your peas, making sure you check for pebbles or bad peas. Soak the peas for several hours or overnight, or if in a rush, soak them in boiling hot water in a covered pot for an hour before cooking.

Prepare a stock of salt meat and onion and season with salt and a hot
pepper. Boil these together for 15 minutes and add the soaked black-eyed peas. Add enough water to just cover. If you like you can add some molasses for more flavor, or the fresh herbs.

Gently cook for an hour and a half. Pair it with corn pone or serve with cooked long-grain or basmati rice.

Serves 4 to 6.