Dining from a Haunted Plate: ALCTS President’s Program at the 2018 ALA Annual Conference

A big room, a big audience, and a big name made for a lively Monday morning near the end of the 2018 ALA Annual Conference. The ALCTS President’s Program featured famed culinary historian, chef, speaker, author, and food blogger Michael W. Twitty, who introduced us to his latest book “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South.” Harper Collins contributed hundreds of copies to be signed after the program. Clearly that line began to form well beforehand!

ALCTS president Mary Beth Thompson welcomed everyone with a few section highlights and achievements from the past year, thanking the University of Kent Libraries for their sponsorship of this event, and introducing Janet Belanger Morrow, chair of the President’s Program Committee, who hosted the session. She launched into an endless record of Mr. Twitty’s achievements, including recipient of the coveted 2018 James Beard Award for book of the year as well as best writing for “The Cooking Gene.”

Yep, Twitty is brilliant.

His presentation started out charming, reminiscent of being in his cultural element here in the south, eating in New Orleans, with much laughter after being told that if we wanted recipes to look up Paula Dean on the internet.  Because, warning: this is not a cookbook. It is a deep read into the history of African enslavement, the search for family records where so few exist, and an exploration of self through ancestors and their food. Without question Mr. Twitty is a born storyteller, and even as he took us down a few difficult paths, with some awful truths, complicated connections and sometimes angry narratives, he definitely had our attention.

Cultural issues are divisive, and this presentation made no effort to hide the difficulty of Mr. Twitty’s research and emotional journey into Southern culture and cuisine as he traced his ancestry. Backed up by facts and primary resources and DNA testing to his roots in Sierra Leone he certainly inspires others to discover their own history, their own context.

And for Mr. Twitty, Libraries are “a place of reconciliation and healing.” We can’t help but to agree—and to aspire to this high calling. We can help our communities to tell the real story of who we are.

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