Michael Twitty stood in the middle of a circle, the smoke from ribs and pork shoulders cooking over a wood fire in an open pit rising behind him.
“This Thanksgiving story, I love it,” he said of the great American narrative of white settlers and people of color joining in a communal feast. “It never happened that way.”
In real life, the history of America’s food culture is more dramatic, more complicated, and the blood spilled not just that of the animals slaughtered for the table.
“People lived in communities where they lived together, they fought each other, they enslaved each other,” Twitty said. “And pretty soon they learned from each other.”
Twitty, an expert on African cuisine, headlined a Harvest Festival on Saturday at the Historic Stagville State Historic Site. He cooked a benefit meal for 65 people that night the way slaves and freed blacks would have prepared it nearly 200 years ago.
The idea came from Orange County craftsman Jerome Bias, who makes 18th-century style furniture without electricity and invited Twitty to Stagville, a 30,000-plus-acre former plantation in northeast Durham County that once had 900 slaves.
Too many historic sites gloss over the roles black people played or portray them as victims, Bias said. That may be one reason so few black people visit them, he said.
The idea behind Harvest Festival, which took place at the Horton Grove slave quarters, was to show that black people had to be smart, creative and hard-working to survive on the scraps they were given, the game they could hunt in the woods, or the edible weeds they could pull from the ground and pocket for later as they picked cotton in the fields.
“Part of my goal was to create a site where black folks in the community could see their black ancestors had agency,” Bias said, or power over at least part of their lives.
As Twitty watched the pork, historians dressed in antebellum garb from other plantations and historic sites chopped vegetables, cooked food in cast-iron cauldrons and talked with visitors. By midday between 200 and 300 people had visited.
Jason Gordon, 33, who has worked at Duke Homestead and Colonial Williamsburg, agreed that black people need to know more about who and where they come from.
“We’re not taught the importance of it in our schools,” he said as he whittled a walking stick. “The school agenda focuses on the slave masters more than the slaves.”
Like Bias, Gordon, who lives in Durham, said people today don’t realize how resourceful slaves had to be. It’s one of the reasons he doesn’t feel anger when he re-enacts the past, but pride.
“In spite of the adversity, in spite of being listed as property that could be bought, people who I’m a descendant of were able to accomplish numerous things,” he explained. “I would rather live in the future and make sure the future knows the truth, and I’m the one teaching it.”
Twitty made much the same points in a short talk he gave before getting back to the meat on the fire.
“I do this out of love,” he said of demonstrations like Saturday’s, the books and blogs he writes. “This is not personally where I come from, but it is where we all come from.”
He took off his straw hat, the sweat dotting his brow.
“Nobody had any luggage from Africa,” he said of the survival skills slaves brought with them to this country. “The luggage was all up here,” he said and pointed to his head, “and that’s the most amazing part of the story.”
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