Disrupting the plantation

Black food historians like Clarissa Clifton and Michael Twitty teach through discomfort

Clarissa Clifton Smith Plantation Erik Meadows 9.59cc05c23f324
Photo credit: Erik Meadows
HISTORY LESSON: Clarissa Clifton, dressed as a slave named Hannah, tends to the open hearth during a cooking demonstration at Smith Plantation in Roswell.

A black woman dressed as slave and cooking for free on a plantation is sure to raise a few eyebrows, but Clarissa Clifton isn't worried about a little criticism. At least twice each month, the 50-year-old Bulloch County native performs cooking demonstrations for the Archibald Smith Plantation Home in Roswell as a volunteer food historian. Here, she dresses up as Hannah, one of the slaves who lived on the plantation, and cooks over an open hearth, weaving in history lessons on race, class, gender and the origins of today's most popular Southern dishes.

As a black woman from Atlanta, I had reservations about visiting a plantation. I assumed the history of my ancestors would once again come behind romanticized tales of their masters and the "beauty" of antebellum architecture. But Clifton's passion, as well as her approach, intrigued me.

Built in 1845, Smith Plantation was once home to Roswell city founder Archibald Smith, along with three generations of his family and about 30 slaves. Archibald's desire to sustain a cushy lifestyle proved stronger than occasional thoughts of freeing his slaves and sending them to Liberia. He taught his slaves to read and write, but they were still his property. On his 1864 tax return, Hannah's life is valued at $1,000.

On a warm Saturday in September, the grounds of Smith Plantation are bustling with families, most of them white. Many have wandered in from a nearby farmer's market. Preserved by generations of Smiths, the plantation is now one of a trilogy of historic house museums in Roswell, offering daily tours and seasonal children's activities.

Clarissa Clifton Smith Plantation Roswell Erik Meadows6

LOOKING BACK: Food historian Clarissa Clifton, dressed as a slave named Hannah, picks herbs from the garden at Smith Plantation.
| Erik Meadows

Behind the two-story farmhouse sits a small cookhouse, smoke billowing from the chimney. Inside, onlookers fan themselves as Clifton, dressed as Hannah, prepares a chicken for roasting. At times, the heat from the fire feels unbearable, but she seems unbothered despite her layers of clothing: an orange headscarf and matching shirt held together by safety pins, a long skirt with an apron.

"I wanted to be a history major but my father reminded me I didn't have a trust fund," Clifton says to the group. Occasionally, she pauses to take a drink from a blue mason jar. Watching her, I think of the real Hannah, and all the enslaved people who prepared food for their owners every day, sweating in cookhouses built separate from the main house, just in case they caught fire. Their involuntary labor forms the basis of many Southern dishes that remain staples in our kitchens today. It is impossible to dissociate the fact that what we now know as comfort food stems from brutality.

I watch as Clifton interacts with onlookers for hours. Everyone seems amazed by her and what they're learning about an antiquated way of cooking. Using kitchen twine, Clifton hangs the chicken above the fire, wetting the twine and letting the meat spin for even cooking. She calls it "the original rotisserie chicken."

"This is ingenious," an onlooker proclaims.

In recent decades, open hearth cooking has become a popular hobby, drawing re-enactors to museums and historic sites for demonstrations. Clifton credits TV shows like "Underground" and "Queen Sugar" for causing a small increase in African-American visitors to the plantation but says the majority are still white. She hopes that will change, noting that a lack of diversity in cooking demonstrations and her love for food and history drew her to the hobby.

"But why can't you be food historian without dressing up as a slave on a plantation?" I finally ask.

Clifton admits she's been met with plenty of skepticism regarding the way she chooses to interact with history. She tells the story of a young black photographer she was hoping would take some photos for her cooking website: The woman took one look at the site and referred to it as "slave-ish." The incident reminded Clifton that, although her intentions are pure, not everyone agrees with her method. But she says she's not ashamed of her roots, and she hopes to inspire other African-Americans to feel the same way, while simultaneously educating non-black visitors. She doesn't think she can do either effectively if she's dressed in modern clothing. "We have been taught to ignore our heritage for so long," she tells me, "that we only know three generations we can call by name."

Michael Twitty, author of The Cooking Gene: A Journey through African-American Culinary History of the Old South and one of the most popular black food historians of this generation, agrees. In 2012, he embarked on a crowd-funded "Southern Discomfort Tour," cooking on several plantations, tracing his own family's history and acting as a "window" for visitors. He knows the mere site of a black man cooking on a plantation in slave attire will make people uncomfortable. That's exactly why he does it.

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SOUTHERN DISCOMFORT: Food historian Michael Twitty leads a demonstration at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's former plantation in Charlottesville, Virginia.
| Courtesy Michael Twitty

"Plantations are a place of trauma, and we have a responsibility to honor our ancestors," he says. "Their names have been obscured, their life stories have been buried with their bones."

Like Clifton, Twitty advocates for the ancestors of the enslaved to make their presence known at historical sites. He once picked cotton for sixteen hours straight. He often tells the story of a slave that was burned alive in an open hearth after burning a cake. His demonstrations are disruptive, his presence a not-so-subtle effort forcing visitors to face a part of history that is often told from the perspective of the oppressor. But he says he often grows frustrated when he sees attendees, especially people of color, flee cookhouses because the heat is uncomfortable. "Why are you teaching your kids to dishonor our ancestors because you want to be comfortable when you damn well know slavery wasn't comfortable?" he asks. "It wasn't nice. It wasn't peaceful. It wasn't cute."

Twitty says he's lucky to be paid for work that many food historians, including Clifton, do for free. He hopes to fill the gaps left by traditional education institutions with demonstrations like the one I watch him do at Atlanta History Center's Fall Folklife Festival. "Bringing slavery to life means people have to feel the impact of what it means today," he continues. "We have all these flashpoints centered around things people don't understand."

Just 24 hours after I leave Twitty's demonstration, pro-athletes all over the country controversially disrupt Sunday football by taking a knee for victims of police brutality and racial inequality another attempt to keep the stories of the oppressed from being buried. Ironically, during social media debates regarding the protests, Twitty's image is used in a viral meme to depict a black sports journalist as a sellout, prompting Twitty's supporters, including noteworthy writers such as Roxane Gay, to rally behind him. Although a black man created it, the meme represents what I feared most about these cooking demonstrations: the possibility that without context, black food historians might be reduced to demeaning stereotypes.

I attended Clifton and Twitty's demonstrations hoping to better understand the motives of these food historians and learn more about the experiences of the enslaved, and I did, but I still wonder how effective the demonstrations would be for someone looking to uphold their romanticized views of antebellum life. Would they see these black historians' work as disruptive, or would they use their imagery to reinforce old beliefs? It's hard to say. We're living in an age where the president of the United States is calling Neo-Nazis protesting the removal of Confederate statues "fine people" and concerned athletes protesting racial inequality "sons of bitches." Facts, it seems, are subjective. And perceptions are difficult to change.

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