The Cooking Gene

The Cooking Gene. I don’t think I have it. But I have read the book by the same name by Michael W. Twitty, and I highly recommend it. While its subject matter requires a mature reader, as the Amazon summary says, “As he takes us through his ancestral culinary history, Twitty suggests that healing may come from embracing the discomfort of the Southern past. Along the way, he reveals a truth that is more than skin deep—the power that food has to bring the kin of the enslaved and their former slaveholders to the table, where they can discover the real America together.” 

This is not a cook book by any means. And while it dives a bit too deeply into the food science for my taste, it is to provide a solid foundation for the more relevant discussions built upon it. In these times of racial strife, this book looks at what brings us together to a common table while also examining the deep hurts and atrocities that led to much of the discord which still festers nearly two centuries after the abolition of slavery in the United States.  

Twitty focuses primarily on how southern cuisine is essentially African cuisine, a point which he argues quite effectively. In the preface, he states,  

The Old South is a place where people use food to tell themselves who they are, to tell others who they are, and to tell stories about where they’ve been… It’s a place where arguments over how barbecue is prepared or chicken is served or whether sugar is used to sweeten cornbread can function as culinary shibboleths… I dare to believe all Southerners are a family. We are not merely Native, European, and African. We are Middle eastern and South Asian and East Asian and Latin American, now. We are a dysfunctional family, but we are a family. We are unwitting inheritors of a story with many sins that bears the fruit of the possibility of ten times the redemption. One way is through reconnection with the culinary culture of the enslaved, our common ancestors, and restoring their names on the roots of the Southern tree and the table those roots support. 

Twitty walks the reader through the old south of Virginia and surrounding area and tells the story of how slavery spread through the deep south and westward. He details the differing experiences of slaves depending on where they were sold or traded. He connects how today’s “soul food” connects back to African traditions. How the tradition of fried chicken at funerals is tied to African religious practices. But more importantly, how these traditions are not siloed into one race or culture, but now serve the purpose of uniting us in a shared history.  

“You must know your own past,” is as much a theme of the book as anything else. Twitty details his ancestor’s journey from Africa, to the auction block, to the plantations, and to where they are now. But those aren’t his only lines. Either through force or hushed attraction, his DNA also includes the slave owners and their families as well. As he discusses the conflict it causes him, he becomes a microcosm of the south itself. With its conflicted history, we like Twitty, must discover who we are, where we are going, and how to get there while moving our collective family from dysfunctional to united.  

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Twitty, M. (2017). The cooking gene : a journey through African American culinary history in the Old South. New York, NY: Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers. 

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