Transcript

Into America

Food for the Soul

Cindy Ayers Elliott: Hi. Welcome to Foot Print Farms. And how are you today?

Archival Recording: I’m good. How are you?

Ayers Elliott: I am so good, so happy to see you.

Trymaine Lee: It’s the weekend before Thanksgiving and Cindy Ayers Elliott is selling her harvest at a farmers market in Jackson, Mississippi.

Ayers Elliott: We got all types of greens and we’ve got our traditional greens: mustard, turnip, collard, kale.

Lee: Cindy runs Foot Print Farms with the mission to bring fresh, healthy, affordable, food to communities in the Blackest and most food-insecure state in America.

Ayers Elliott: And all the squash and everything else you see here today.

Lee: Cindy is African American. And while our ancestors worked the land for generations, there are very few Black farmers left in this country. But Cindy embraces her legacy and Foot Print Farms makes a point of growing foods that are essential to Black cooking.

Archival Recording: You got some mustard greens?

Ayers Elliott: Girl, I got mustard greens, turnip greens, collard greens, kale. (LAUGHTER)

Lee: Like the blues and jazz, the Black American culinary tradition is rooted in a specific kind of American experience. From fried chicken to yams, Hoppin’ John to collard greens, the foods we eat and cherish have historically been a source of sustenance, but also survival.

From one generation to the next, Black families have turned to traditional dishes to celebrate the holiday, to commiserate, and even to mourn. But this holiday season, with COVID-19 and hunger rising in tandem, too many Black families will be mourning rather than celebrating. Some will be relying on the kindness of strangers to fill their stomachs and their spirits, while others will turn to comfort foods that have gotten us through the worst of times.

Michael Twitty: It was one of the few things that we could enjoy in peace sometimes.

Lee: I’m Trymaine Lee and this is Into America. This Thanksgiving, we explore how power, racism, and justice have influenced the foods we eat, and how connecting to our history and keeping tradition alive is feeding a whole lot of folks in Mississippi. We’ll return to Cindy Ayers Elliott of Foot Print Farms in Mississippi a little later on. But first, I sat down with culinary historian, author, and chef Michael Twitty to talk about all of this.

Twitty: A culinary historian is someone who investigates the history of cooking, whether that’s in a household, or in a camp site, or in a plantation, or in a restaurant, or in a hotel. No matter where the cooking takes place, from a cave to modern-day Tokyo, your job is to understand all the different aspects of the human experience as refracted through the kitchen.

Lee: And how did you get into this? And what brought you to this moment? Was it, like, the history part or the food part?

Twitty: Number one, I had a family where I had the archetypal experience of grandmother, mother, father in the kitchen also relating history with the food. And, you know, going to colonial Williamsburg as a child, you know, I saw Black men making something out of nothing.

My favorite part of that earliest visit to Colonial Williamsburg with my father was going to the Governor’s Palace kitchen. I must have stood there for two, three hours mesmerized. They brought in a pheasant, or a turkey, or something like that, and they did the whole thing with the plucking, and the butchering, and the roasting. I said, “That’s where I gotta be.”

Lee: Wow. And here you are.

Twitty: Here I am. (LAUGHTER) It’s, you know, a life-long journey. Growing up in the late ’70s, early ’80s, you know, television, popular culture was responding to the second liberation, or maybe the third, of Black people. Everybody had a soul food episode, Like, I remember Sanford and Son, and he makes Lamont a pot of mule spleen. (LAUGH)

Twitty: But, you know, I got it because I was young enough to know about the chitlins, and the this, and the that, coming in the kitchen. And those were the days that my mother forcibly took me to the National Zoo because it smelled better than my house on chitlin day.

Lee: Chitlin, that smell. For those who don’t know, chitlins are intestines, and the smell is–

Twitty: Earthy. (LAUGH)

Lee: Let’s call it that, earthy. There’s a cleaning process. And people survived off of this.

Twitty: And only two people ate the chitlins in a, you know, multi-generational household of many people. It was just like, “Why are we even doin’ this?”

Lee: Food keeps us connected to our heritage. The good parts, of course, but also the really hard stuff.

Twitty: We talk about havin’ the talk, right, with young people, especially young Black men. But, like, there’s another talk there, too. “How did we get here? How did we come to be? How come there are other people that look like me in other parts of the world?”

At that time, the only time you saw African folks was on National Geographic. You knew you were related to them. You knew they were your people. But you didn’t know how. So one day I’m making lemonade with my grandmother, and there’s an old Black rhyme from the South, “Ice-cold lemonade, stirred with a spade, stirred in the shade. Cool your teeth and part your hair, make you feel good everywhere.”

And that was the song we sang every time we made lemonade. And I said, “Grammy, where that song come from?” She said, “We call that ‘The Slave Song.'” So I’m like, “What’s a slave?” That was when I had the conversation with my grandmother about what’s a slave.

And that was the first time I got a big chunk of our story. You know, “You come from so-and-so that came from Alabama that was sold there from Virginia. They came from Africa.” And in my family, we actually pass down the story, which I didn’t learn till she died. That so-and-so from Africa came from the Gold Coast, and DNA backed that up amazingly. But, like, knowing that that’s who we were. And later on, it was like, “Well, can I tell the story through food?”

Lee: I wonder how these recipes and traditions were passed on. We do come from an oral history–

Twitty: That’s right.

Lee: –but how were these recipes passed on? And what foods are we talkin’ about?

Twitty: Peanuts, hot peppers, tomatoes, other foods from South America and the Caribbean cross over very early. I mean, almost immediately. There’s a big debate on whether corn had crossed before Columbus. But sweet potatoes, other things as well. We have yams, we have millet, we have sorghum. I don’t know if you know about sorghum cane, sorghum molasses.

Lee: Unh-uh (NEGATIVE).

Twitty: That’s part of our story, too. So we have all these unique foods: okra, black-eyed peas, rice. There’s several African rices that go back literally thousands of years before Asian rice comes in with the Arabs and Europeans. Africa was at the center of the global exchange of food ingredients.

Like, if it was growing in Southeast Asia, it made it to Africa. We also ate the seeds back in the day, and the leaves of the okra, and the leaves of black-eyed peas. It wasn’t just the fruit or the seed that we ate, we ate the whole plant.

These foods across the Americas become symbolic of the Black presence. Rice and beans, peas and rice, fried foods, fritters, cakes, cod cakes, black-eyed pea cakes, rice cakes, all that. Food was one of the few ways that wasn’t as highly monitored. You know, as long as it tasted good to them, it was good enough for us. And if it didn’t taste good to them, that was okay, they kind of left it alone. By them I mean white slaveholders and others who were slaveholding populations.

Lee: When it comes to food as a connection and conduit for our culture, how much have we actually lost? How much have we maintained?

Twitty: People think there’s a straight line, it’s really not. Most Black families contain a really complicated mix, not to mention, you know, European, Native American narratives, and blood, and DNA, and that story. About 1750, the center of the Black population was the Chesapeake.

And more American-born Black children were here than African arrivals. Because you have these people who are the grandchildren of enslaved Africans but are Afro-Creoles themselves. So their parents have one foot in Africa, technically, and one foot in America.

And they have both feet in America, but they’re still in the shadow of those African arrivals. But they’re making do with what they have here in America. That is the heritage that gets passed down to the Great Migration. I am a product of the Great Migration.

My mother, of blessed memory, was from Cincinnati. Her parents came from Alabama. In her day, you had people actually bringing the food, you know, during the spring, summer, and fall from the train from the South. You had field peas that you had to shuck, sugarcane you had to chew.

People would grow hot peppers from seeds in little coffee cans on their window sill. There were all these tactile reminders of where you were from. At that point in time, we develop a certain kind of cuisine outside of the South that becomes known in the ’60s as soul food. And I don’t disparage it because I understand soul food to be the memory cuisine of the great- and great-great-grandchildren of the enslaved.

Lee: But this soul food that was popularized at the tail end of the Great Migration, it was missing pieces from its past.

Twitty: Number one was connections to the land. Number two was connection to the people. And number three was connection to the narratives and the stories. You know, food was brought in by refrigerated train, and by plane, and by automobile, not by Black folks.

It wasn’t just the food, it was the sound, okay? It was, you know, “Watermelon man. Watermelon man.” And it’s those songs, “I got sugarcane, sweet as somethin’, dada-dada-dada-dada,” you know, that sing-song kinda thing. The people came with stories.

They would joke with the kids, they would talk with their parents. People would, you know, have churches and community meetings based on where they were from. People, you know, in Cleveland had cafes that were Alabama people. People in New York had cafes that were South Carolina and Georgia people. People in Oakland were, you know, making gumbo from Louisiana and Texas.

Lee: We lost something else, too. A connection to the soil and a simpler, healthier way of feeding ourselves.

Twitty: We lost how they grew. As we lost land in the South, we also lost the health aspects. People disparage the Southern and Black diet, but I think it’s about the pathologizing of Black culture, you know? The bottom line is my grandfather lived to be 99, a month shy of his hundredth birthday, by eating natural food from the ground.

It was just the way things were. You grow your food, you eat your vegetables, meat is a condiment. You know, he didn’t like fast food ’cause he wasn’t used to it. You know, sweet potatoes were not always with marshmallows on top, with brown sugar, they would roast it. And you can eat ’em just like that, roasted. A good sweet potato from the ground in South Carolina don’t need no butter.

Lee: A sweet–

Lee: It’s sweet.

Twitty: It is what it is. (LAUGH)

Lee: Sweet.

Twitty: But now I’m worried, Trymaine, because we have all these people who did make the Great Migration who are carrying memories, and we’re losing them.

Lee: You know, when I was coming up, I remember my mom would make some oxtail, and I didn’t like oxtail back in the day. I was like, “I didn’t want it.” Now, I understand what it is. Back then, not so much. But it was always cheap.

Twitty: Right.

Lee: And go into a grocery store in Brooklyn right now, it’s crazy. (LAUGH) You see–

Twitty: You want that “Make Oxtails Cheap Again” hat.

Lee: Seriously. I know there is a conversation about appropriation of food, but also recognition of how much Black folks have created in the culinary world. Should we be turning to them for some recognition? Or is it appropriate to demand and acknowledge, you know, from whence so much American food came from?

Twitty: I think it’s a complicated thing and I think it’s every platform. Nobody from Japan is going, “You know what? Give us back our sushi.” (LAUGH) Well that’s because there’s also the idea of confidence, cultural confidence, culinary confidence. The keys to who you are are squarely in your hands, so it’s not an issue. The keys and the source code are still not squarely in the hands of Black people.

Lee: How important is it for us to reconnect in this moment to our food heritage as a source of joy, as a source of resilience, as a source of all the things it’s been for us?

Twitty: You know, when people say, “My food is handcrafted, local, organic, sustainable,” I’m like, “Well, damn. You ate like,” you know, “enslaved people, immigrants, free people of color, newly emancipated people.” And it’s like, “Oh, we’re surviving base on the exact same things that got us through Jim Crow.”

We’re finding ways to survive despite this, but what I really want is for us to have a blend of both thriving despite not having certain things, but also having access to the systemic power that will enable us to truly be a food powerhouse as a people.

Because we always have been, that’s also part of our history. We weren’t just enslaved people cooking for somebody. We were the best caterers, the best tavern owners. But also, I implore upon people right now to learn your family recipes. When Black families take their heritage recipes seriously, guess what happens. They become a product and a source code that we control that we can also use to build wealth in our community, but also cultural pride and Black joy.

Lee: We have to take a break. When we come back, the Black pride, the Black joy, and the great food at one of the rare Black farms left in America. The one that Cindy Ayers Elliott runs in Jackson, Mississippi.

Ayers Elliott: You know, I gave up high heels and red bottoms for cowboy boots to truly make a difference. And for that, I’m so thankful.

Lee: High heels swapped out for cowboy boots. After a career in banking in New York, Cindy Ayers Elliott came home to Mississippi.

Ayers Elliott: Hi, good mornin’.

Archival Recording: Good mornin’. How you doin’?

Ayers Elliott: I am so good. How may I serve you today?

Lee: That’s Cindy at the farmers market we heard earlier in Jackson, the state capital. A city that is 80% Black.

Ayers Elliott: Look at this. Look at what Donna made outta my veggies. Isn’t that pretty?

Archival Recording: Yeah.

Ayers Elliott: She’s so talented.

Archival Recording: And are these green tomatoes sweet, or–

Ayers Elliott: Nope, they’re a little bitter.

Ayers Elliott: After 9/11 in New York, I did not go back. I just said, “No.” You know, the good lord put me someplace else. I said, “Okay, something different. Now what?” But I never thought I would be a farmer.

Lee: But things have a funny way of happening. Cindy’s family had been active in civil rights work in Mississippi for a long time. At first, when she came home, she got into community-based nonprofit work. Her congressman, Bennie Thompson, was chair of the House Agricultural Committee, and he invited her to Washington where she heard First Lady Michelle Obama talk about the importance of fresh, healthy food for kids. And something clicked.

Ayers Elliott: So I converted my tennis court from a tennis court to a tennis garden. And it was named The Serena Williams Tennis Garden, which still has that name.

Lee: A tennis court. You heard that right. It was on some land that Cindy had bought years earlier for her retirement. (LAUGH) So much for that retirement and that tennis court.

Ayers Elliott: I couldn’t just talk it, I had to do it. And we started with raised beds. I knew nothing about hands on. I knew about the policy. So I actually started from that, and then I said, “Okay. Let’s see these practices if they really work. If I can do it, anybody can.”

Lee: And that’s how Foot Print Farms sprung from the soil. Ten years later, it has expanded from that tennis court into a full-fledged urban farm.

Ayers Elliott: The farm sits on 68 acres inside the city.

Lee: Wow.

Ayers Elliott: So we got the rolling hills. We have a lake for fishing. We have a lot of beautiful trees for pollinators, for butterflies. The farm actually has nine growing houses, and they’re 30 feet by 96 feet. So they’re large and long, and we plant year round in those. So that way we can rotate our crops so it’s never-ending. You don’t think you’re inside the city. You’re in the city, then for about five blocks you’re like, “What happened? There’s no city.” (LAUGH) And then it picks up again.

Lee: The air gets all clear–

Ayers Elliott: It’s all clear. And they say, “Where did these trees come from? What’s going on?” Foot Print Farms also has about 20 acres of pasture land where we actually have goats and horses.

Lee: Wow.

Ayers Elliott: And in 2021 we’ll be getting new additions to the farm. We’re actually gonna get some cows because our goal is that when our youth or people come to see the farm, they can also truly see where their food comes from. So they can see what a cow looks like, a real cow, not on television. And it don’t talk, by the way. (LAUGHTER)

Lee: Cindy delivers crops to several farmers markets. Her pink bus becomes a pop-up in local communities. She sells weekly food boxes: 7 pounds for 15 bucks, 15 pounds for $30. And the farm itself is open for customers. So just to be clear, Foot Print Farms is a for-profit business. But Cindy says nobody who needs food is ever turned away.

Ayers Elliott: Well, you know, last week we actually did a thousand families at 15 pounds per family.

Lee: Just last week?

Ayers Elliott: Just last week. We do this every other week for that large number. Right now, today, we are getting ready for 250 families that we will actually be doing our CSA.

Lee: Can you run down what people can get from Foot Print Farms?

Ayers Elliott: Well, you know, we’re seasonal. So if you were getting today, and of course this is our winter and fall crops, you’d be getting mustard greens, turnip greens, collard greens, kale. You would actually have callaloo, Swiss chard. You would also have this beautiful dinosaur kale that we grow.

It’s great for stir-frying, as well as for juicing, as well as raw salad. We also have tomatoes and bell peppers, squash, and cucumbers. We have beets. We have mizuna. We have bok choy. We have some spinach that’s growing. And we’ve got a lot of herbs that we grow. We have mint and ginger.

Lee: We can’t talk about Cindy and her farm without acknowledging the tragedy of what has happened to Black people who worked the land in this country. Around 1910, Black farmers owned around 20 million acres of land. A century later, they owned just 10% of that. And of course, the reality that our ancestors were brought here against their will to farm the land. Cindy thinks about them often.

Ayers Elliott: We’re standing on some strong shoulders, you know? The ancestors and what we’ve learned, even from that DNA, you know, we breathe this DNA from our ancestors. And this back connecting with the soil makes a big difference. But standing on those shoulders is a lot of responsibility. So we have to make sure we’re looking at adding different ways that we can grow healthy food and still take care of the earth. Mother Earth is so important.

Lee: According to the USDA, just 2% of farmers in America are Black. And you are one of them. And I wonder, what does it mean to you?

Ayers Elliott: Wow. Two percent is not much, but what we’re doing is super great and it’s impacting us, our communities. You know, I’m not growing for the Whole Foods of the world, though they ask me to. No, I’m growing for my world that’s right here of Black people, brown people.

And the great part about that, we meet people where they are. If you have EBT, SNAP, we want that. You know, we want you to have every access to everything that everyone else have, and the quality. But the other part about this is that we have to fight food deserts in our own community.

But we also work very hard to try to stop, or to eliminate, or to borderline hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease in our community. Which, in Mississippi, is one of the largest problems that we have for health, is the disparities of health. This is our mission, to help bring access to affordable, local, healthy foods.

Lee: Cindy mentioned food deserts. That’s the term for a neighborhood that’s low income and has poor access to grocery stores. More than two thirds of the city of Jackson is a food desert. And even if you can get to a grocery store, Mississippi is one of the only states in the country that still taxes groceries.

On average, a family in Mississippi pays $600 more per year on groceries because of that tax. And then, there’s the hunger. As we said earlier, Mississippi is the most food-insecure state in the country. That’s according to the non-profit organization Feeding America. They say one in five people in Mississippi will have experienced food insecurity during the COVID pandemic. I asked Cindy what Foot Print Farms is doing at this especially tough time to help people in need.

Ayers Elliott: We partner with Jackson public schools, where we were able to do 450 meals a week, a seven-pound bag of food to families, first come, first served. People come together to make it affordable. Foot Print Farms did 33% of cost for every bag we put out. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a for-profit business. But you can have that business and do great in the community and do well at the same time.

Lee: One thing that I find kinda wild is that because of, you know, some structural issues, and structural inequality, and structural racism, that separated us from the old ways in the first place and led us to these food deserts and food swamps, and there are also structural issues that are leaving people hungry now. And so here, Foot Print Farms is stepping up in a way that I would say, my opinion, that you shouldn’t have to, but you are nonetheless. Is that frustrating?

Ayers Elliott: Well–

Lee: Is that the right word? Is “frustrating” the right word?

Ayers Elliott: No, I don’t think “frustrating” is the right word. I think one of the words I would use would be not just rising to the occasion. I think what it would be is that I took a hard at self. Our mission in life is not just for self. It’s supposed to be for more than just that.

If we’re looking to do the things we need to do, frustrating? Yes. It shouldn’t be this hard, but it is. We have to remember that all people deserve healthy foods. All people deserve not to be hungry. So what do you do? You turn your back and say, “Oh, somebody else is gonna do it?” No.

You step up. And you take a step. If everybody would just do what they do, and do it for others as well, it’ll make a difference. So you can’t wait for the government. You can utilize some of the things that government has, which is why government exists, but don’t wait on them. Do it yourself.

Lee: You know, we have these connections to the food and it’s really connection to family. I think about my mother’s macaroni and cheese, I think of my sister’s sweet potato pie. It’s about the food, but it’s also about the family.

Ayers Elliott: It’s about the family.

Lee: And in this year, where we won’t be able to gather the way we all wish we could, are we losing something? Is there something missing here? What do you think?

Ayers Elliott: Do you know what I think? I think we’re gaining. Because we’re really realizing how important being at that table is. We still can do it together. You know, my son won’t be here. He’ll be in Texas with his family. But we still got a little thing we’re gonna do together on a table doing the Zooming.

I’m cooking differently, yes, because my sons usually do most of the cooking. (LAUGHTER) But things are different, it is. But at the same time, we’re taking this opportunity to do what we need to do best. And that’s to love on each other, to still talk to each other.

Sitting at the table together does not mean just physically. We gotta start sittin’ at the table talking and doing more what we’re doing now, communicating. We gotta start puttin’ this love back in us, regardless of what table we’re sitting at.

Lee: I see the tears in your eyes. What is it that got you emotional?

Ayers Elliott: It’s the whole family piece, my grandbabies. It’s a difference. But yet still, it’s a healthy difference that we have to do. They can’t travel. But that doesn’t mean that the love is not there.

Lee: Yeah. You got me teared up here now.

Ayers Elliott: For sure. (LAUGHTER) It’s about family.

Lee: Yeah.

Ayers Elliott: Yeah.

Lee: Michael Twitty, the culinary historian we heard from earlier, he’s havin’ a small Thanksgiving too. Just him and his husband. But that’s not stoppin’ him from making his favorite Thanksgiving dishes.

Twitty: Definitely collard greens.

Lee: With a turkey neck or with some pork?

Twitty: I’m Jewish so I gotta do the turkey neck. (LAUGHTER)

Lee: Here we go. Okay, right.

Twitty: So I’m gonna definitely make a small pot of collard greens, but also sweet potatoes. But, like, I’ve started to do them with the cane syrup. The kind of way that my grandfather, of blessed memory, grew up with, you know, a hundred years ago in South Carolina. Or sorghum molasses. Cornbread dressing to me is important. I only make macaroni and cheese homemade twice a year, Thanksgiving is one of those times.

Lee: Is that good?

Twitty: Let me tell you something. (LAUGH) It’s that heart clogging that I just, like, I can’t do it.

Lee: Can’t do it.

Twitty: But listen my mom’s recipe was bomb. But also, somebody was that tradition bearer. They took the time to teach other people. And that’s what we have to keep going. We can use the Zoom and other recording methods to sort of get those key dishes down. Because they’re not just our family heritage, they’re also a form a wealth.

Lee: That was Michael Twitty, culinary historian and author of The Cooking Gene. And before that, Cindy Ayers Elliott, a Black farmer in Jackson, Mississippi. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio.

Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. I’m Trymaine Lee. We’ll be back next Thursday. I know it’s a tough time for a lot of people, and however small your table is, I hope you have a safe and happy holiday. Be well.

Lee: Do you think the ancestors would approve of some of our ne’er-do-well brothers and sisters who put sugar in grits? Do you think they would appreciate that?

Twitty: Don’t get me started.

Lee: I’m just–

Twitty: Look, don’t hurt–

Lee: I’m just sayin’, I know some California folk who puttin’ sugar in your grits.

Twitty: I understand that there is, like, a savory versus plain versus neutral versus sweet grits. Like you, I was raised right.

Lee: It ain’t cream of wheat. (LAUGH)

Twitty: And not cream of wheat, that’s the thing. But I think a lot of people will do that.