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The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South Hardcover – August 1, 2017
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“Fascinating.” (New York Times Book Review)
“Twitty ably joins past and present, puzzling out culinary mysteries along the way… An exemplary, inviting exploration and an inspiration for cooks and genealogists alike.” (Kirkus Reviews (starred review))
“Twitty has accomplished something remarkable with The Cooking Gene... It’s a book to save, reread, and share until everyone you know has a working understanding of the human stories and pain behind some of America’s most foundational and historically significant foods.” (Christian Science Monitor)
“Should there ever be a competition to determine the most interesting man in the world, Michael W. Twitty would have to be considered a serious contender.” (Washington Post)
“Slavery made the world of our ancestors incredibly remote to us. Thankfully, the work of Michael W. Twitty helps restore our awareness of their struggles and successes bite by bite, giving us a true taste of the past.” (Dr. Henry Louis Gates, host of PBS’ Many Rivers to Cross and Finding Your Roots)
“Written in Michael W. Twitty’s no-nonsense style and interlaced with moments of levity, The Cooking Gene is gritty, compelling, and enlightening – a mix of personal narrative and the history of race, politics, economics and enslavement that will broaden notions of African-American culinary identity.” (Toni Tipton-Martin, James Beard Award-winning author of The Jemima Code)
“Fascinating.… A valuable addition to culinary and Old South historiography with lip-smacking period recipes.” (Library Journal (starred review))
From the Back Cover
Culinary historian Michael W. Twitty brings a fresh perspective to our most divisive cultural issue, race, in this illuminating memoir of Southern cuisine and food culture that traces his ancestry—both black and white—through food, from Africa to America and from slavery to freedom.
Southern food is integral to the American culinary tradition, yet the question of who “owns” it is one of the most provocative touchpoints in our ongoing struggles over race. In this unique memoir, Twitty takes readers to the white-hot center of this fight, tracing the roots of his own family and the charged politics surrounding the origins of soul food, barbecue, and all Southern cuisine.
Twitty travels from the tobacco and rice farms of colonial times to plantation kitchens and backbreaking cotton fields to tell of the struggles his family faced and how food enabled his ancestors’ survival across three centuries. He sifts through stories, recipes, genetic tests, and historical documents, and visits Civil War battlefields in Virginia, synagogues in Alabama, and black-owned organic farms in Georgia.
As he takes us through his ancestral culinary history, Twitty suggests that healing may come from embracing the discomfort of the South’s past. Along the way, he reveals a truth that is more than skin deep—the power of food to bring the kin of the enslaved and their former slaveholders to the table, where they can discover the real America together.
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I'd return this book if I could.
The Cooking Gene repositions the conversation about race in America through its food history. Slavery is an incredibly difficult subject to address, much less understand. How can people subject other people to unspeakable cruelty? One element that distinguished the Transatlantic Slave Trade from other types of slavery throughout time is that the enslavers actively stripped the enslaved people of their identities and connections to their homelands.
But as Michael so adeptly realized through his interest in both history and food is that you can't strip away how people cook. So, the victims of the Transatlantic Slave Trade retained their cooking techniques and shared them with others. Over time their foodways became our foodways. But even though his enslaved ancestors couldn't pass down their cultural identities as my Ashkenazi Jewish ancestors could, they passed down their foodways to him along with their actual DNA.
The Cooking Gene is a book to be cherished but also one to be digested. Thank you Michael for taking the journey as uncomfortable as it may have been at times. Discomfort has lead to a beautiful piece of art.
This book has something for everyone. It's all here! Family history, memoir, genetics, food- even an analysis of how different Southern cash crops affected the diet of the slaves. As someone who is also currently earning a PhD in history, I was particularly fascinated by Mr. Twitty's scholarly and philosophical discourse on the nature of memory- with such beautifully audacious sentences as, "The goal of my cooking is resurrection" and his observation that "even the things we forget" are condemned to memory. Not only do I agree, but a primary plank of my research involves the collective memory loss of the general American public around Native American history. The general American public's amnesia about Native history and issues, arguably, is a deliberate construction. This deliberately constructed amnesia is helpful to the American public, particularly the white American public, because it helps ease or elide our discomfort with colonization and shore up the ideologically shaky justification for our settlement in this country.
Mr. Twitty too is battling amnesia- the deliberately constructed amnesia of African and African-American culture that was deliberately imposed by slavery and colonization, then continued by ancestors who migrated to Northern cities, or even other countries, and wanted to forget the trauma they had known. That process of amnesia continues today, giving many black folks a poor self-image of themselves and access only to fake, nutritionally dubious food- very similar to the American Indian experience. But in Judaism, as Twitty observes, Jews are commanded to remember- "Shamor v'zachor bedibur echad"- Hear and remember in a single utterance! And in the process he (and we) discover how interconnected we really all are, in the one American family. We are all one family, and we need to remember this more than ever in the era of Trump.
Mr. Twitty is descended from some white European paternal ancestry, common among African Americans, and a considerably rarer white maternal line, from the era of the Tidewater Chesapeake and its racially ambigious indentured servitude. Barack Obama's white mother, Madelyn Dunham, descended from the mixture of white people and Tidewater African slaves. Michelle Obama is kin to more than a few Jewish Cohens, Irish slaveholders, and "free Negroes" who were related to Tuscarora Indians. The Papel and Biote peoples of the "Rice Coast" can claim Whoopi Goldberg as their daughter, while Twitty shares his Mende ancestry with Skip Gates. Twitty's book helps me put this all in context. It's just more helpful to me personally to conceptualize people as, say, Mende and English rather than 'black and white'.
As a Northern white person, I know that my European ancestors also embarked on a journey of forgetting, but theirs was undertaken for different reasons. They forgot, or refused to transmit, ancestral languages, customs and practices to comply with mainstream demands for assimilation, and to chase the dream of becoming "American" and "white." Arguably, their process of becoming American whites involved assimilating to norms of anti-blackness, and I believe this process was a common one throughout America, as Mr. Twitty alludes to in his section on Southern Jewry. I urge all non-black American readers to examine the ways their own family history became implicated in racism, colonization, anti-blackness and the displacement of Indians. Only when we confront our history, and own up to it as fellow Americans standing in the beacon of truth, will we have any kind of justice. Guilt is a dead end: taking responsibility should be the true aim of history, not guilt. OK. Stepping off my own personal soapbox!
The book occasionally has a few run-on or clunky sentences, but even these betray his enthusiasm for his quest and his art. Twitty's personal memories of his life and some well-chosen recipes round out the book, and his final chapters give a poignancy to the book. Mr. Twitty is gay, 40 years old, unmarried, childless, and an only child himself. I don't mean that as a slur on Mr. Twitty- I do hope he meets the handsome hunk of his dreams, gets married and adopts a Rainbow Tribe if that's what he wants! But as an only child who is gay, unmarried, and without children of his own, Mr. Twitty realizes, I think, that he may never have children. The book is his way of remembering his ancestors and family. The book, in a sense, is his child. And what a beautiful child it is!
I want to talk to Michael W. Twitty about so many things- food justice for marginalized populations, our connection to Jewish food and culture, historical amnesia, racial admixture in the South... I think the myth of "Indian blood" or "Cherokee Princesses" in white Southern families arose as a collective antebellum fantasy when Southern whites idealized Cherokees as true native Southerners who resisted the federal government, as the secessionists planned to do. I also think it was a way for poor white Southerners to claim older bloodlines than the planter class, and a way for white families to conceal African ancestry. A close friend of mine, a gay white Tennesseean originally from North Carolina, claimed that some Southern states never had a "one drop law" because legislators knew many of their states' leading families would fail such a test, and that mixture with Africans was lauded in the South's early years as a form of hybrid vigor! Is that true? Also, are Southern accents really based in African languages?
I could talk about this book all day, but I can't because I have things to do and a life to live. I lost two nights of sleep to read this book. Go buy it, read it, and love it like it deserves to be loved! And if you're reading this, Mr. Twitty, I would love to be your friend!