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Baltimore Chef Throws 1619 Dinner


All this year, there have been events marking the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans' arrival at the British colony of Virginia. Many people are exploring the legacy of that first group and those who came after them. NPR's Mayowa Aina reports how one chef connects that legacy to the food we eat.

MAYOWA AINA, BYLINE: More than 20 people are gathered around a large, U-shaped table on a rainy summer evening in Baltimore.


DAVID THOMAS: So tonight, we're commemorating 1619.

AINA: Lauren Hill works in higher education. She and her husband Nikolas are among the guests.

LAUREN HILL: Everyone's kind of coming for the same reasons - not just to eat but just to learn.

AINA: Everyone is sitting in a private dining room inside a restaurant called Ida B's Table. Chef David Thomas begins to take them on a journey through history in the form of a seven-course meal.

THOMAS: Whether you call it Cajun, Creole, barbecue, Southern, soul food, it was all created by the hands of the enslaved.

AINA: The dishes feature ingredients that are indigenous to Africa and made their way to the Americas as part of the slave trade - foods like black-eyed peas, watermelon and goobers - a.k.a. peanuts. Hill says events like this offer a different way to think about a topic as difficult as slavery.

HILL: Some people are - you know, feel like they don't want to be reminded, so I think doing something like this, doing it in a creative way, you can still educate yourself, and you're not just sitting and listening to a lecture. But it's an experience.

AINA: Chef Thomas has heard that before.

THOMAS: I understand it. It's very painful. But through that struggle came something very beautiful.

AINA: For Michael Twitty, part of that beauty is found in the flavor profiles that those early enslaved people brought with them. He's a culinary historian and...

MICHAEL TWITTY: The author of the James Beard Award-winning "Cooking Gene."


AINA: Can't forget that. He says it's important to acknowledge that those first Africans were part of a people who had been trading with Europeans for hundreds of years before they were ever enslaved.

TWITTY: You know, we're already arriving familiar with apples and peaches, believe it or not, and collard greens.

AINA: And melons and ginger, onions, garlic, tomatoes, rice. He says food was a critical part of America's history with slavery in other ways, too.

TWITTY: Our food-steps and our footsteps go hand-in-hand. The first Africans were brought to be enslaved in the Americas for the sake of sugar cane. And they farmed rice and corn and wheat. And then, on top of that, what were they traded for? Cooking pots.

AINA: Twitty is intimately connected to this history. He performs cooking demonstrations on former plantations across the country. At chef Thomas's dinner, Twitty shares a gift from a recent trip to a rice plantation in South Carolina.

TWITTY: This fragment is from the 18th century. Our ancestors ate off this plate.


TWITTY: So I want you to be the next one to have another part of our story.

AINA: Thomas says instead of passing down money that they didn't have, enslaved people passed down recipes and objects like that plate. Through this meal, Thomas hopes to pass on a message of his own.

THOMAS: For me, that's what Ida B's Table is about - us reclaiming that narrative and being able to let people know that, you know, we have something to be proud of. All these things that you've come to love that are now staples in the American diet are because of the African enslaved.

AINA: For Thomas, this anniversary, this food and its survival is a source of pride. And he says it's something he won't let go.

Mayowa Aina, NPR News, Baltimore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mayowa Aina