What did you have for dinner last night?
Do you think your great-grandmother or great-great-grandmother ate the same thing for dinner? Chances are, you probably haven’t given much thought to why your meal is what it is or whether your great-grandparents ever ate the same thing.
But ever since he was a child, culinary historian Michael Twitty has thought about these kinds of questions. So when Twitty became curious about his own ancestral roots, food was always going to be a part of his research journey.
When he combined these two passions culinary history and genealogy it led him on an incredible trip exploring the food and history of the old South, one that would change how he saw his family’s role in history and culture forever.
Twitty decided to embark on a journey to learn the truth about his heritage by taking an AncestryDNA test.
“For African-Americans, the desire to know what makes up your conglomerate blackness is deep,” Twitty says.”It’s in every one of us, and we take that journey very seriously. We want to know who we are and where we come from … because of slavery.”
Not only did he want to know where his family came from but also whether some of the stories passed down in his family were true including the stories about his white ancestors, the people who had once held his family in bondage.
“We had an incredible oral history that said a lot of things about who we were,” he says, “and quite frankly, we couldn’t always prove those things.”
For example, he had been told that his ancestor was a captain, and his family believed they knew his name and the story of how his great-great-great-grandmother was born, but there was no way to prove it, no birth certificate to name him as the father, because she was born a slave.
Twitty not only wanted answers, he wanted to understand what it was like to live his ancestors’ life. So, he embarked on a journey from Maryland to Texas and back again.
During that time, he immersed himself in old records, bills of sale, and other historical documents on Ancestry.com.
He also visited restored plantations, farms, and battlefields.
He met with a 101-year-old man who had lived through the Jim Crow years, he spoke with Civil War re-enactors, and he spent a lot of time eating and cooking alongside black, white, Native American, Latino, and Asian chefs to understand their role in the shaping of southern history and culture.
To better understand his ancestors experience, he picked cotton for 16 hours, primed tobacco, plucked Carolina rice, cut sugar cane, and sucked on red clay.
He encouraged others in his family to take the tests too including his grandfather, an uncle, and his cousins and because his AncestryDNA results allowed him to compare his DNA against a large population of others who had also taken the test, he was able to slowly piece together a much clearer picture of who his family was, where they came from, and how they moved around the United States.
In fact, with the help of his AncestryDNA results and records from Ancestry.com, he was able to identify and name at least a dozen new ancestors, black and white, going back two centuries helping him prove that a lot of those old family stories were, in fact, true.
“When you can actually take your genealogy your genetic genealogy and see that yes, indeed, you are a part of these historical practices, migrations, journeys. When history is a narrative all of the sudden, you’re real,” Twitty says. “You’re real in a way that a book can’t tell you that you’re real.”