Happy Book Birthday to Michael Twitty’s “Rice”

As I sit in my office at UNC Press on a rare day’s visit to the premises, given our collective pandemic caution, I gaze—lovingly, it’s fair to say—at the Savor the South cookbook collection sitting on my bookshelf. Twenty-four cookbooks, twenty-four southern foods and food traditions. And on March 1, with the publication of Michael Twitty’s Rice: A Savor the South Cookbook, our Savor the South collection will be completed at twenty-five volumes. We’ll be celebrating Michael and Rice and all of our beloved Savor the South authors and their books this year.

Michael, aka @KosherSoul, is a culinary historian and author of the James Beard Award-winning (two James Beard book awards, actually) The Cooking Gene: A Journey through African American Culinary History in the Old South. Quite a few years ago—well before The Cooking Gene appeared—I spotted Michael, pinned him against the refreshments table in a midtown Manhattan hotel during a food writers’ conference, and asked him to write one of our Savor the South cookbooks. I’m glad he said yes, and I’m super glad that he chose to write about rice. Rice, he writes in Rice’s introduction, “has textures, scents, tastes, and depths of flavor that make it indispensable to the cuisines of the South, from Creole and Acadian foodways to soul food to the foodways of the Low Country and Gulf Coast and the ethnic communities that have populated the region since its earliest days.” At the same time, exemplifying beautifully how southern foodways always have been and will be connected to global foodways, Rice features—as do all of our Savor the South books—the southern classics and dishes from around the world.

Michael Twitty. TED2016 Fellows. Photo: Bret Hartman / TED

It is fitting that Rice should appear around Black History Month. As Michael notes in the book, rice had been grown and processed, often by women, in West Africa for almost four millennia by the time the transatlantic trade in enslaved persons burgeoned—thus, the people who deeply knew rice brought and wove indigenous African rice varieties into the Black diaspora. In the Americas, Black cooks and chefs were intrinsic, Michael writes, “to what historian Karen Hess famously called ‘the rice kitchen.’” Michael’s dedication page in Rice reads, “For Mama and Grammy, and for their ancient mothers, my ancestors from Sierra Leone.”

With Michael’s book completing the Savor the South collection, we are ready to salute this years-long publishing enterprise. Beginning in 2012 with Debbie Moose’s Buttermilk, I’d conceived of this collection of little cookbooks to be a big celebration of a beloved food or tradition of the American South. From buttermilk to bourbon, pecans to peaches, bacon to catfish, one by one each Savor the South cookbook has helped to stock kitchen shelves with the flavors and culinary wisdom of an incredibly popular American regional cuisine. I asked each author, all well-known cooks and food lovers whom I was lucky enough to pin, at least figuratively, against a refreshments table, to write about their passion for a particular ingredient or custom embraced by the South. As a result, and make no mistake about it, each and every book brims with personality. Each contains a world of culinary and natural history, and a treasure of some fifty recipes, southern and global. It’s exciting to think that more topics might be possible—I never was able to pin someone for peanuts—but we think we’ve covered a big and significant bunch.

It’s been fun to work with our team over the years to keep stocking the Savor the South shelf, each volume sporting a bright white cover and adding a complementary color chosen by our Savor the South design guru, Kim Bryant. Managing editor Mary Caviness brought serenity and consistency to the texts. Publicity director Gina Mahalek, who just retired this year, knew just how to launch each cookbook and its author perfectly. And I think it’s fitting to close here with what our marketing director, Dino Battista (who came up with the perfect word, savor, for naming the series), always says about the Savor the South cookbooks: You’ll want to collect them all.

Elaine Maisner, UNC Press Executive Editor