This is a book that showcases my shortcomings as a reviewer. I really enjoyed listening to this book, but am struggling to write about it. It is a memoir, a history of southern cuisine and a book on genealogy. Twitty reads the book himself which works well because the book is a very personal journey. He describes himself as an “obsessive cook with compulsive genealogist tendencies who can point to a map of Africa, Europe, North America, and with it, the South, and guide you on trade winds to tidal creeks leading to ports, leading to roads and to plantations and more roads and more plantations to cities.”
At the heart of the book is Twitty’s Southern Discomfort Tour – where he goes to plantations, cities and towns where his ancestors lived and worked. He reminds us that slavery began with food, specifically sugar. Some enslaved cooks were trained in French cooking, James Jennings, was trained in France. Popular culture often portrays the plantation kitchen as a happy place. However, the significant percentage of European heritage of most African Americans came from the rape and violence in Southern kitchens.
Twitty says the challenge for African Americans is “where exactly did we come from, how did we get here, who are we?” DNA tests reveal he had relatives from Africa and Europe. He used several different genealogical services in aid of this discovery. The results weren’t identical, but they were consistent. When Twitty was able to add context, for example identifying cousins, the information became more valuable. During his travels he meets people to whom he is related, both black and white. Responses are mixed. However, Twitty is open to finding his kin, he reminds us that we are all more closely related than we might think.
In addition to the travels to the south, Twitty also traveled to West Africa, England and Ireland. He finds many similarities in African and Southern cuisines. Rice is a key staple in both regions, joloff rice became red rice in the South. Sorghum came from West Africa. Southern food is marketed as if no one suffered to create it. The roots of our foods are beyond our personal experiences and Twitty helps us find those roots. Twitty tells us to stop worshipping food, ingredients or techniques, rather, understand the importance of the people who created the food.