Photos courtesy of Hedi Rudd

I love photos that tell stories as it saves me time from writing, but sometimes you have to tell the story behind the photos. I think our UMOJA readers will find this story flavorful. On March 13th, renowned culinary historian Michael Twitty visited Wisconsin for the seventh time. This visit was to Seven Acre Dairy in Paoli for the Winter Wonderland dinner series featuring nine guest chefs, with Twitty’s visit being a fundraiser for REAP Food Group. 

I first learned of Michael Twitty when local chef Yusuf Bin Rella asked me if he could use the kitchen at Badger Rock Neighborhood Center, where I am the center director. Yusuf needed to raise funds to join Twitty and other members of Traderoots Collective on a trip to Benin, West Africa. Yusuf and I have known each other all our lives and consider one another family. The ground where Badger Rock was built is where we went to church as children, so this was a return home for the both of us. Yusuf would go on to take Traderoots from a collective to a farm. My job grew and we merged with Community Groundworks to become Rooted and Yusuf found growing space at Troy Farm, which Rooted manages. 

I recently became Interim Co-Executive Director of Rooted and was thrilled to bring back Alex Booker, of Booker Botanicals who was our former assistant farm and education manager and would now be the manager of Badger Rock Neighborhood Center. While Alex and I were in our office one day, I noticed that he was reading The Cooking Gene by Michael Twitty, and we talked about how important Twitty’s work was to him and his food journey. Alex’s family is from Mississippi, and he has been reconnecting to food and the land, both professionally and personally. I told him of how Chef Yusuf and Devon Hamilton, from Traderoots had visited Benin with Michael. 

The next day I discovered that Twitty was coming to our area for the Seven Acres Dairy Winter Wonderland Dinner Series. I bought tickets for Alex and I as a surprise. He would be more surprised when he later connected with Chef Yusuf and was invited to cook at the event. This change in plans allowed me to bring childhood friend and Rooted board member, Christopher Kilgour along on the journey. Sarah Karlson, who is Rooted’s Education Director and who manages Badger Rocks Farm and Education programs and our Development Manager, Sebastian Hassell and his wife were also able to join us. So, it became an impromptu Rooted culinary journey! We were also joined by chef Sujhey Beisser and Suzanne Johnson of Park Bank. 

As the team from Rooted sat down we salivated at the menu, which would feature matzoh ball gumbo, millet salad, West African brisket, jollof wild rice pilaf, koshersoul collards and Mom’s apple crisp with Wisconsin maple syrup. Twitty welcomed us and shared that his menu was a fusion of kosher Jewish foodways and the documented merger of the African Diaspora in the South, with elements of Wisconsin. He shared a bit about his relationship with Chef Yusuf and their journey to Benin. 

At the Chef’s table, he noted, there were two plates, with the fork and knife crossed which Twitty explained were set to represent the many that were not able to be there. From the indigenous people whose land we were on, to those fleeing for safety in Gaza,the Israeli hostages or whoever you were missing in that moment. 

Twitty then shared that his was a journey of connection and since arriving in Madison, he had met Alex Booker, who as soon as he saw him, knew they were connected. After learning of Alex’s family’s migration from Mississippi to Madison, he shared that he is a Booker cousin and that they likely shared DNA. 

Alex shared the moment when Twitty asked him “where are your people from?” “Lexington, Mississippi” Alex replied, and Twitty confirmed “We’re family and your last name means something.” This interaction would transform the way Alex viewed the rest of the night. “The recipes we were using, creativity, skills, came from my bloodline. I felt a sense of belonging I’ve never felt in my 28 years of living in Wisconsin.”

“Being able to cook alongside amazing Black, Indigenous, and Latino chefs was an experience I had not had before. It was cool listening to the different techniques and perspectives that influenced how we viewed flavor and it made for some great discussions and an amazing meal.” 

Never one to come to a party empty handed, Alex brought along bottles of his home-made hibiscus ginger, which he graciously shared with Chef Yusuf and the crew, who also poured a cup for Michael Twitty. 

If you are not familiar with Michael Twitty, be sure to visit his website at thecookinggene.com. The site is the same as his book The Cooking Gene, which was the 2018 winner of the James Beard Award for the best food writing and book of the year.