Job: culinary historian and author of The Cooking Gene:
A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South and the food blog Afroculinaria
Location: Washington, DC
What is your favorite part of your job?
When you can help recapture a moment from someone’s past or the collective past by teaching the history of food, that is amazing. All of a sudden, it’s as if you've filled the room with people’s long-lost friends and family, lovers, and adversities they overcame. You can do that with smells, facts, tastes, and it works just the same. It’s a pleasure to see people leave a presentation glowing because they realize they’ve carried these stories and meanings with them, and they have something to pass on. A lot of the good comes from helping people to acknowledge they have a story of their own to tell, and that they should — by any means necessary — make sure it gets told. I want everybody to be a storyteller.
What is the hardest part of your job?
A lot of what I do is teaching people about culinary history, and from the angle of social, food, and culinary justice. When people aren’t hearing you, and they don’t want to better their minds and spirits by bending to empathize with the enslaved people of the past, it's more painful than you think. I’m standing over a hot fire for nine hours on my feet trying to give them truth mixed with rich sensory elements, and they don’t want to connect with the ancestors. They walk out, commit acts of microaggression, or simply ask about the wallpaper or floor while ignoring the human story.
Now that you're an influencer in the food world, do you plan to use that platform to talk about queer issues and support the queer community?
I have been out of the closet since I was 16, and I came out in my school newspaper while I was president of the student government association. I’ve been a queer activist of sorts for the past 24 years. Whether it was issues of racism in gay clubs, gay youth issues, issues specifically pertaining to black, queer people, I’ve kept an active profile. Being a gay culinary figure is important to me because it’s a legacy built on the shoulders of James Beard, Craig Claiborne, Bill Neal, and many others. When I was writing The Cooking Gene, it became very important to me to do what they couldn’t do, which was to say, hey, gay chefs come from gay kids who once dreamed of wowing people with their food and flair. Even though we struggle with anti-gay sentiment in the modern food world and kitchen, knowing that there are so many women, men, and trans individuals in the food world makes me feel indescribably and deeply connected.