I knew what Charles Dickens meant when he famously wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
Okay, sort of.
I was wreathed in sweet, bluish-white smoke wafting heavenward from slabs of pork barbecue Michael Twitty was expertly slow-cooking over a hardwood fire at Colonial Williamsburg,VA, last July.
Alas, this food for the gods wasn’t for sale to mortals at any price. The rules even prohibited free samples.
Twitty, a culinary historian, had come to teach about barbecue, not to purvey the porcine ambrosia.
He was lovingly tending a pair of little barbecue pits at Great Hopes Plantation, an authentically-recreated “middling” 18th-century farmstead at the edge of the world’s biggest living history museum.
Long a favorite holiday haunt of the Craig family, Colonial Williamsburg encompasses more than 300 acres and features several restored, rebuilt, and historically furnished buildings that hearken to 1770s Virginia. Visitors from all over the world come to stroll Duke of Gloucester Street, the main drag, and enjoy watching costumed interpreters act out historical dramas, raise tobacco and other crops, and ply colonial crafts from wig making to silversmithing. Audience participation is often welcome, but, alas, not when Twitty came to town.
His job was to provide nourishment for the noggin, not the palate.
Twitty, 35, doesn’t just educate moderns about how enslaved people grew crops and livestock and prepared food more than 200 years ago. He also teaches Jewish history at the Temple Beth Ami School in Rockville, MD, where he lives.
Twitty, who was born and reared in nearby Washington, D.C., is Jewish. "I make kosher barbecue at home but at historic sites, I cook according to historical tradition." The Craigs are eternally grateful that the Southern barbecue belt loops around our native deep western Kentucky, including Mayfield, where we live, and Paducah, where I teach.
Twitty was dressed for the occasion in Williamsburg. He was clad in a loose-fitting white cotton shirt and gray wool trousers, common attire for 18th century slaves. A straw hat shaded his eyes and helped him beat the heat of an Old Dominion summer, which matches our neck of the Bluegrass State woods when it comes to scorching temperatures and sticky humidity.
Twitty bills himself as “a writer, culinary historian, and historical interpreter personally charged with preparing, preserving, and promoting African American foodways and its parent traditions in Africa and her diaspora.”
Twitty got interested in food history when his parents took him to Colonial Williamsburg when he was a kid.
Back as a guest historian, Twitty showed why we western Kentuckians still call our barbecue “pit barbecue.”
Before he started cooking, he dug two holes in the ground, one about four-feet long and three-feet wide. The smaller pit was about half as large.
Each pit was around 18-inches deep. “It’s not too technical,” he said with a chuckle.
Next Twitty piled the pits with seasoned wood. “I use hickory and they probably would have, too,” he said. “Hickory gives the meat that certain flavor you want.”
I’ll add a Presbyterian “amen” to that. He set the wood ablaze, let the fire burn down and covered the glowing orange coals with green wood—also Hickory—to churn up the desired smoke.
The grill that covered the large pit was green wood, too—debarked sticks strong enough to support the weight of meat slabs. A cast iron grill worked for the smaller pit.
“I use pawpaw, tulip poplar, and oak,” he said. “They’d have used wood from trees that had just fallen or had just been cleared away—as long as it was still green.”
Cooking time depended on the size and type of meat on the grill. “We took six hours for an 80-pound shoat.”
All the while, Twitty kept a close vigil on the meat, regularly basting the browning pork with a solution of water, vinegar, hot pepper, butter and sage.
“That mixture is straight out of an account of a barbecue in Virginia in the 1880s which said it was the kind of barbecue made 100 years ago. That (1780s) would have been the right period for what I'm doing."
Twitty said having a barbecue would have been a special occasion for slaves. “They didn’t eat meat every day.”
But the master likely would have had an ulterior motive for granting his slaves such a treat, according to Twitty. He added that slave owners often used barbecues as “a tool of power or control.”
Twitty explained, “If an animal was old or sick, you’d kill it. Or if there wasn’t enough fodder, you’d cull the animals that wouldn’t be as useful to you.
“The master would ask himself, ‘How can I use this animal I had to slaughter to my advantage?’ He’d think to himself, ‘I’ll give my enslaved people X parts of the animal and be a hero to them, when all he was doing was managing them.”
He said Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery in the early 19th century and became a famous abolitionist, criticized such “plantation politics,” which lasted throughout slavery times. He added that Douglas said slave owners permitted their chattels to enjoy barbecues, Christmas holidays, and other celebrations “as a social drug to keep them down.”
A slave owner wanted his slaves to “view him as the greatest person in the world when the reality was that he was using these celebrations to keep his enslaved people under his thumb.”
Twitty spends much of his time traveling the country lecturing—and demonstrating—the African roots of American foodways. “I’d love to come to Kentucky,” he said.
He’s on the web at http://afroculinaria.com and http://thecookinggene.com. What we cook and eat tells much “about who we are and how it connects us to other people,” explains Twitty's Afroculinaria website. “Everything I do is built on a foundation of ethical documentation, spiritual respect, ecological awareness and social justice.”