I’ve struggled to find the right way to talk about Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene. It was a game changer for me in the way I think about food, but it was also a mostly enjoyable and intriguing read. I recommend it highly, especially if you have any interest in food or American history. Twitty does historic cooking demonstrations in the kitchens of Southern plantations. He cooks the food that would have been eaten with the tools that would have been used.
I want to reclaim my heritage where it was taken from me.”
This year is the 400th anniversary of the first Africans brought to North America as slaves. Through the lens of food traditions, production and preparation, Michael W. Twitty explores his family history and our national history. He examines family stories, genetic testing, and the history of the slave trade to to create a picture of his ancestors. He includes his white ancestors and how they likely became his ancestors.
The kitchen in slavery was always a sinister place. The kitchen is where we acquired the eyes of our oppressors, their blood and bones and cheek-blush. The kitchen was, perhaps more than any other space during slavery, the site of rape after rape, sexual violations that led to one of the more unique aspects of African American identity—our almost inextricable blood connection to white Southerners.”
Enslaved Africans brought their food ways and slave ships brought new crops from Africa. Twitty entwines stories of how African people and foodways were forcibly migrated to the US and Caribbean and how they were fused with the foods and recipes of Americans of European descent and indigenous peoples to create Southern cuisine. In addition to finding his own family roots, Twitty wants to document and acknowledge the contribution of African Americans to American cuisine
Food, racism, power, and justice are linked. What I’m trying to do is dismantle culinary nutritional imperialism and gastronomic white supremacy with one cup of zobo made from hibiscus, one bowl of millet salad with groundnuts and dark green vegetables, and one piece of injera at a time. The next wave of human rights abuse is in the form of nutrition injustice”
He tells these stories with grace, gravity, and humor. I think Twitty is one of the most important voices in American cooking. From his letter to Paula Deen to his Instagram which currently features his trip to Eastern Africa, he is shining a light on a part of American cuisine which has been erased and ignored. I listened to the audiobook, which Twitty himself narrates. He is not a voice actor, but this is his passion project and it comes through on every word.