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The cooking gene : a journey through African-American culinary history in… (edition 2017)
by Michael Twitty
The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty
No current Talk conversations about this book.
A "journey" is an apropos description for this book. I won't even attempt to quantify the percentages of history, memoir, documentary, and food writing. Twitty manages to intertwine his personal story with a history of foodways and people that inextricably connects ancestry, personhood, and food in ways that left me contemplating my own complicated feelings about food and culture. As an adoptee, with two parents who have died, I've not cared to search too much into my own genealogy--I suspect in fear that somehow the cultures and stories into which I was adopted will become "less than." If fear is in the mix, I am even more humbled because this book is at times gritty reckoning with both Twitty's own ancestral history, and this country's foundational story of exploitation and abuse. There are many passages in the book that make it obvious that our narratives about food, crops, and foodways are never isolated. Culinary history is American history. Or African history. Or European history. You get the idea.
"Instead, cotton ensured the growing and complete racialization of what it meant to be of African descent. African ethnic groups became the early Afro-Creole culture that began African America. If King Cotton had never reigned, we African Americans might be like an other ethnic group --stories might be passed down; names remembered; song, words, religions, prayers, perhaps, even on might say, a sense of pride. Instead, names were changed again and again and again, as people were sold, further commoditized, dehumanized, and abused." (357-8)
Twitty tells us: "My food is my flag" and his quest to to "regain...a heritage denied" is filled with pain, joy, curiosity, and tremendous beauty. There are multitudes of lessons here, and at some point I will give it a re-read, because I'm certain I'd find even more layers. One of my biggest takeaways, however--and this is coming from my historian's soul--comes from this passage on the last page:
"I mistook the past for a landscape to be managed by the learned mind but I was wrong. The past is not to be conquered or conveniently cinched in neat lessons and sound bites. It is a territory that will absorb you almost against your will." (425)
If you aren't interested in culinary history or genealogy...READ THIS BOOK. You owe it to yourself. Michael Twitty allows us to glimpse this "journey" and understand the true meaning and depth of that Carl Sagan quote that is too often blithely offered as inspiration instead of an invitation for reflection and exploration: "We are, each of us, a multitude."
Blogger and cook Michael W. Twitty investigates southern food through his own life and the genealogy of his ancestors - Black and white - who have influenced his plate today.
This book, a blend of memoir, history, food writing, and genealogy is hard to categorize, but was truly fascinating. It's a history lesson in slavery and the food that people brought from Africa or modified when they found something similar in the U.S., or influenced the way the white Southern population ate when they became cooks for them - or, heartbreakingly, the ways in which slavery decimated a people's diet and caused severe malnutrition. It's one man's genealogy, traced with help from family, friends and professionals, reclaiming some of the past and discovering some of the food, religious and other traditions passed down despite an attempt to erase it. As a result, it's sprawling, dense, thoughtful and chock full of information. I enjoyed it and was challenged by it in equal measure.
I can understand some reader comments on the cohesiveness (or lack thereof) of this book, but right from the start, Twitty makes no claims that the book is anything other than what it is- the genetics and geneaology of his family and, by extention, of African Americans in general, as well as the culinary and cultural history of African Americans in the creation of a southern or soul food cuisine. The book is certainly a mosaic and there are chapters in which I did not follow the tribal African names and the like, but I got the point and did not feel compelled to look up every single thing I did not know. The force of the book is in his journey and his contention that black Americans are looking to find pride in their identity beyond slavery. This is very important and has been the focus of some powerful black movements from Marcus Garvey to the Black Panthers. Some facts were astonishing: Two thirds of America's 19th century export value were from cotton alone. Impossible without the African American workforce. Even though the south depended completely on slave labor for it riches before the Civil War, it treated the slaves most abominably, beyond the obvious horrors of family separation, whippings, rape to insufficient diet, the evils of the company store, etc. And, the United States has never faced the truth of their treatment of both African Americans and Native Americans. An interesting book. If you get lost, skim a bit; it's worth it.
Michael W. Twitty blends his passions for cooking and geneaology in The Cooking Gene. He traces his own ancestry as far as he can, then relies on genetic testing to give him a better idea of where his ancestors came from. He also outlines the ways that African slaves fused their own cooking traditions with New World foods to create the Southern food that’s beloved by so many today.
This book was an obvious labor of love for Mr. Twitty and his passions shine through the pages. Unfortunately, I don’t particularly enjoy cooking or genealogy so the book fell a bit flat for me.
I glanced through quite a few reviews on GoodReads before I decided to check this out and saw others frequently complaining that the text is disjointed and hard to follow. Deciding that “forewarned is forearmed,” I jumped in. I was still a bit lost. I know that the author had a lot of valid points and connections to make but I had a hard time following his train of thought. Part of the problem is that he writes in a stream-of-consciousness style and I rarely do well with that.
“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.”
That’s a fair point.
But I also lack much of my own knowledge base to draw from. As Mr. Twitty writes in his Afterward:
“It is really difficult to write outside of your own headspace and to remember that your reader may, in many cases, be unfamiliar with elements of the subject matter.”
Yes. That was exactly my problem.
There were sections that were very powerful to me. The author works (worked?) as a historical interpreter, preparing food at plantations in the ways that his enslaved ancestors would have. What an emotional calling that must be.
“I would have to learn to maneuver the cooking utensils of old and learn how to keep time as I cooked. I lost arm hair and eyebrows, a little blood here and there; I was scalded and branded, burned and seared. These are the marks of my tribe.”
Wow. He also goes out to a field and picks cotton while listening to slave spirituals, watches molasses being made, tracks down long-forgotten cemeteries, and generally lays his hands on as many pieces of this puzzle of a book as he can. I give him huge points for that. I personally wouldn’t want anything to do with cotton in his shoes but he wants to experience the reality of his forebears.
Sometimes Mr. Twitty writes about terrible things that I would know if I took time to think about them, but I haven’t from my place of White privilege. When he explores his European ancestors, he blatantly says that White slave owners raped his Black ancestresses. Did I understand that somewhere in my brain? Yes. Has anyone really presented it to me in a way that opened my eyes like that? No. What an unbearable thing to incorporate into your family history. But it’s an undeniable reality.
Readers with a stronger background in culinary history and/or genealogy will most likely follow the labyrinthine thread of this narrative much better than I did. I personally lost my way pretty early on and unfortunately took away very little from the book.
2018 James Beard Foundation Book of the Year | 2018 James Beard Foundation Book Award Winner inWriting | Nominee for the 2018 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in Nonfiction | #75 on The Root100 2018 A renowned culinary historian offers a fresh perspective on our most divisive cultural issue, race, in this illuminating memoir of Southern cuisine and food culture that traces his ancestry--both black and white--through food, from Africa to America and slavery to freedom. Southern food is integral to the American culinary tradition, yet the question of who "owns" it is one of the most provocative touch points in our ongoing struggles over race. In this unique memoir, culinary historian Michael W. Twitty takes readers to the white-hot center of this fight, tracing the roots of his own family and the charged politics surrounding the origins of soul food, barbecue, and all Southern cuisine. From the tobacco and rice farms of colonial times to plantation kitchens and backbreaking cotton fields, Twitty tells his family story through the foods that enabled his ancestors' survival across three centuries. He sifts through stories, recipes, genetic tests, and historical documents, and travels from Civil War battlefields in Virginia to synagogues in Alabama to Black-owned organic farms in Georgia. As he takes us through his ancestral culinary history, Twitty suggests that healing may come from embracing the discomfort of the Southern past. Along the way, he reveals a truth that is more than skin deep--the power that food has to bring the kin of the enslaved and their former slaveholders to the table, where they can discover the real America together. Illustrations by Stephen Crotts
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)641.59 — Technology and Application of Knowledge Home and family management Food And Drink Cooking, cookbooks Cooking characteristic of specific geographic environments, ethnic cooking
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I was absolutely fascinated by all of the information Twitty presents in this book, and I would love nothing more than to sit down with him and listen to more stories, as well as learn further details and updates about his personal genealogy research. I'm drawn to books in which people learn more about their own family history, whether by uncovering long-hidden family secrets or through, in this case, labor- and emotionally-intensive research. In addition to his culinary talents, Twitty is a gifted writer, and he earned an automatic follow on social media from me for overall interestingness. And the recipes! More than anything, this book made me hungry, and I am resolved to prepare a few of the recipes myself. ( )