A Chef and Historian Traces His Roots In African American Culinary History

Book review: The Cooking Gene, by Michael W. Twitty (Amazon / Book Depository)

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.

Chef, historian, and Afroculinaria blogger Michael W. Twitty has another fascinating day job: he’s a historical interpreter (not to be confused with a reenactor) who cooks at plantations for tours in the South, demonstrating what it was like for slaves working in the kitchens. He has such a meaningful take on this work and why it’s important for him to do it, and I had no idea it was even done. It’s created a strong bridge between his identity in the South today and that of his ancestors.

The dead and the living cook with me and, things once forgotten come to life. George Washington Carver once said, “If you love something enough it will give up its secrets to you.”

He’s also black, white, gay, and Jewish, and this mix accounts for a rich cultural background underpinning his research and work. It’s not surprising, given these varied roots and his interest in identity and how it’s carried across history that he would embark on a journey across the South, eventually reaching Africa and Europe, to uncover more about his heritage and that of Africa’s connection to the American South.

There are so many threads woven into his journey. Food is a major one, and the starting point, but from there it branches into any number of historical and cultural directions, often leading back to the ugly realities of slavery. He also looks at the changes in African-American cuisine from region to region, including through interviews with farmers and chefs, and with meticulous research traces lineage, focusing alternatively on his family’s genetics and cuisine and culture. Language is a big part of these explorations, and a fascinating element: “Familiensinn: German, the feeling and sense of family connection. I longed for it. I cultivated it despite the pain it has often caused me — family is not easy to seek or create.”

Twitty is one of those writers who can leave you speechless at his ability. At the beginning of this book I was convinced it was going to be a near-flawless read. But at some point my enthusiasm waned as it veers more into the exploration of genetics after his DNA test. Twitty consults multiple sources and experts to trace his genetic history in West Africa, and the ethnographics get a bit complex to follow and absorb.

When he writes about food and family, especially in his youth, his writing was strongest. The historical aspect is obviously a major one, but became burdened by information overload; too many trips and topic forays for one book. I could imagine this split into memoir and wider cultural study as two books, but at the least there could be some streamlining.

And unfortunately, sometimes, in juxtaposition to what is some of the most sublime food writing I’ve ever read (as a kid, he hated hot sauce because the “bottles evoked mirrors in horror movies streaked with blood” – try to ever forget that now), he writes long lists of various foods and ingredients, with minimal commentary, that factored into the aspect of history or geography at hand. I wished he’d left that to a lesser writer when he can evoke so many emotions and so much meaning elsewhere.

There are 14 recipes, several of which I bookmarked (his kitchen pepper spice mix sounds game-changing) and one I’ve already made (black eyed pea hummus; immediate favorite) but the focus isn’t as much on home cooking as it is on cuisine’s historical role and how it was changed through slavery and reborn after. There’s a passion to all of it, but which flows through Twitty’s memoir and food writing especially, and I didn’t always feel it as strongly in the DNA results/genetic history sections. It’s a history that needs told, but he gives a mostly history-book run through it and it’s lengthy. It gets dry and dense, whereas his life writing couldn’t be more compelling. Twitty is capable of simply outstanding writing so this disappointed.

He knows it’s a twisty, non-linear, and potentially confusing journey, and here’s his reasoning: “My aim has been to give a sense of the bric-a-brac mosaic that is the average African American’s experience when he or she attempts to look back to recapture our cultural and culinary identities obscured by the consequences of racial chattel slavery. If it were possible to give a linear, orderly, soup to nuts version of my story or any of my family’s without resorting to genre gymnastics, I would have considered it. Instead, I am pleased with the journey as it has revealed itself to me.”

Fair enough. Although some chapters lost me, where it’s good, it’s superb. 4/5 overall but with some flawless sections.

Some favorite lines:

“I learned the most about food when I had the least amount of money to spend on it. The years without were not romantic. I just had no choice but to draw on the tradition to get me through.”

“Often when you embark on big life journeys, sometimes the ones who have been with you the longest leave you.”

“A heritage that is only self-congratulating and masturbatory is not a heritage at all but rather insipid nostalgia. We cannot afford that; everything must be put on the table; our food is not just food for us, it is a way into an alternative history and a new vision of who we can become.”

Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi, a Twi proverb: “It is no sin to go back and fetch what you have forgotten.”

The Cooking Gene:
A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South
by Michael W. Twitty
published August 1, 2017 by Amistad

Amazon / Book Depository

18 thoughts on “A Chef and Historian Traces His Roots In African American Culinary History

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  1. This sounds really interesting, if flawed in places. I like the quote about learning the most about food when you have the least to spend on it – that was my experience too, and I still regularly cook recipes that I had to cobble together and improve upon gradually when I was broke, but I’d never have been able to sum it up like that.

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    1. Isn’t that such a great quote? There were so many like that, that encapsulated his experience in a way I couldn’t put into words even when I shared it. He’s an extraordinary writer. Those parts make it worth reading and I’ll read anything else he writes for sure. I just think it could’ve used some tighter editing in spots!

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    1. He really is a superb writer. I’ll be happy to read anything he writes in the future. But exactly, this one was just a bit uneven, or needed edited down a bit. I still recommend it completely if you come across it though!

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    1. Wasn’t his writing about food and family just exceptional? I was in awe. I think it made the divide between those sections and the DNA/geographical/ethnographical parts feel wider, for me at least. I’m glad you enjoyed this one too!

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  2. Wow, wish I had read this sooner! I’ve been putting this book in and out of my online cart for at least a month now, debating if it was worth purchasing or waiting for a library hold. Funnily enough, as I’m reading several books about DNA right now, knowing that it’s a major part of this book is a selling point for me. But I can definitely see how those topics might not fit together.

    I don’t think my review will come up for another month, but earlier this year I read a culinary memoir that I think you would enjoy, called Yes, Chef. It also deals with the idea of food and identity (the author was adopted from Ethiopia into Sweden, then worked all over the world before settling in America). But it sounds like the various topics flow better than Twitty’s book.

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    1. Oh I hope I can help you decide one way or the other! I absolutely think this one is really worth reading, and it’s not that the DNA part is uninteresting at all, it’s that it gets really dry and dense around the ethnogeography of it. It’s tracing his roots but just gets hard to follow and off on some tangents that are tough to connect to everything else. Would love to hear what you think of it if you decide to read it!

      I’ve actually heard of Yes, Chef I think…Samuelsson is his name, right? I’ll need to look into it, it does sound really interesting and exactly what I like, that blending of cultures. I think I read another positive review of it awhile back. Will be on the lookout for yours, thanks for the recommendation!

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