The Cooking Gene
A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South
2018 James Beard Foundation Book of the Year | 2018 James Beard Foundation Book Award Winner inWriting | Nominee for the 2018 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in Nonfiction | #75 on The Root100 2018
A renowned culinary historian offers a fresh perspective on 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 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 touch points in our ongoing struggles over race. In this unique memoir, culinary historian Michael W. 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.
From the tobacco and rice farms of colonial times to plantation kitchens and backbreaking cotton fields, Twitty tells his family story through the foods that enabled his ancestors’ survival across three centuries. He sifts through stories, recipes, genetic tests, and historical documents, and travels from Civil War battlefields in Virginia to synagogues in Alabama to Black-owned organic farms in Georgia.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 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.
Illustrations by Stephen Crotts
In this tasty but overstuffed food odyssey, Afroculinaria historian Twitty recounts his "Southern Discomfort Tour" that he documented on his blog The Cooking Gene: revisiting the varied cuisines of the antebellum Tidewater, Low Country, and Cotton Belt South, talking to chefs and farmers, giving historical cooking demonstrations, and piecing together biographical and gastronomic lore on his enslaved (and enslaving) ancestors. On the peg of the tour he hangs a surfeit of information, from history and agronomy to genealogical research, recipes, and boyhood reminiscences of his grandmother's Sunday soul food feasts. Yet that information is not always well-digested: the author's DNA testing results prompt lengthy disquisitions on the ethnogeography of West Africa, and some cultural-studies verbiage "our food world is a charged scene of culinary inquiry" could use trimming. For food lovers, his descriptions are rich: "the collard greens spiked with hot pepper, sugar and fatback, fried chicken, Virginia country ham sweet cornbread, biscuits, string beans that swim in potlikker." Throughout, Twitty integrates historical details into the narrative, as in accounts of the backbreaking slave labor of tobacco and rice farming or the emotional anguish of slave auctions and the results are fascinating.
This is a history that has needed to be told. Many food ways and traditions did not just magically appear one day. They were brought here in the hearts and souls of the humans who were kidnapped from Africa and brought to these shores to labor in the fields and houses with little to eat or drink. This is a painstaking and heartbreaking origin story and it Michael Twitty has done mankind a great service putting it out into the world. These are things we ALL need to know and understand. It is a History that has sat untaught and was at risk of being further lost to the ages. This is meant to educate us all, how one disseminates it is an individual matter. But I, for one am glad to expand my knowledge and change my perspective. I am grateful to Michael Twitty for opening his heart to us.