I have to admit up front that I did not completely finish The Cooking Gene; I had it from the library and ran out of renewals before I had to return it. This is not a fast read if you want to really get the content and the feeling.
I don’t mean that the style is hard to read; on the contrary, it’s written in a pretty conversational way. What made it slower for me was the depth of what was being presented. This came to my attention as a food writing book, and that’s where it’s usually shelved in the bookstore; my library placed it in the African American collection area and it feels like this is more rightfully how the book should have been presented.
The Cooking Gene is part autobiography, part cooking history (the author is into historical cooking, as in re-enactment of plantation recipes, ingredients, and technology), and part history of the slave trade and African diaspora. The narrative, which there is, is largely driven by Twitty’s exploration of his genealogy with the help of the trend of DNA analysis kits. It focuses a lot of self-identity and race, and how someone might connect with various aspects of their heritage. The slave and diaspora historical part comes in connection with Twitty working out how various threads of ancestry from his DNA results ended up together, and this also connects to the food writing/history. A lot of the slave trade was driven by agricultural business, and wherever slaves were brought, they brought their own food traditions and sometimes ingredients with them. Twitty does get into the stereotype of the naturally gifted black plantation cook, but doesn’t quite explore this to the extent that he could have. In his defense, he covers a lot and this would have been more of a tangent.
I appreciated how the book was divided up into smaller segments which could almost be standalones by themselves. I think the book may have lost some of its force otherwise; this kind of history is not really taught in school (at least not 20+ years ago when I was in elementary grades), at least not in this depth and the personal approach and Twitty trying to figure out who he is really gave the information more meaning.
This is one of those books that everyone should read since it’s really interesting and pretty eye-opening about certain aspects of history. I definitely plan to retrieve it again to finish it. My only complaint is that I was expecting a food book, and that’s not really what this is; the food history is there but it’s not really the main focus. This is definitely one of those books that gets you thinking, and might not quite sink in right away.