I think to understand what The Cooking Gene is, you have to have a picture of its author. I’ve known Michael Twitty on Twitter for about a decade, Museum Twitter can be a small space sometimes in the best possible ways. Besides being a hoot to spend time with during political debates, Twitty is also a Culinary Historian focusing on the foodways of Africa, enslaved African Americans, African America and the African and Jewish diasporas. Basically, he’s one of the people you want to talk to if you want to talk historic foodways.
The Cooking Gene is a tough book to categorize, simply because it isn’t one thing. It is equal parts cookbook, memoir, history, and genealogical survey. It examines the many debts contemporary American food culture owes to the enslaved and their descendants. To that end, the meat of his book derives from Twitty’s Southern Discomfort Tour, a trip though the South both to find his family roots and trace food routes from the colonial and antebellum South. The tour makes its way through to Twitty’s grandparents’ childhoods, themselves only one generation removed from enslavement.
Twitty uses his own genealogy as a map, and to me that is the standout of this book, the thing that makes it unique in the field. Twitty is telling a personal history (a project that remains underway) which allows him to not only examine the foodstuffs and foodways that are often equated with African American cooking and those foods that get grouped together as soul food, but also the lesser known: rice grown with the farming expertise of West African natives, and the role of the enslaved in creating and preparing the haute cuisine of the antebellum period.
Since its publication in 2017, it has justifiably received critical praise and a number of accolades, most notably from the James Beard Foundation, which honored the book with the Book of the Year and Best Writing awards in 2018. The Cooking Gene is only recently out in paperback, so now may be your time to follow Michael on his path of traveling to discover.
Bingo Square: Travel