I’ve been excited about Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene for over a year now: I’ve made squealing tweets, excitedly brought it up at opportune moments, and may or may not have had a countdown for the book’s release. Twitty himself is one of the best young Jewish food writers out there, and his blog Afroculinaria is beyond fabulous. His work to document the contribution of black people to American kitchens – and how it was really African-American folks who made American cuisine as we know it – is controversial and extraordinary. So, when I finally got the book courtesy of Amazon Prime, I was quite excited.
And what’s even better? The book lives up to the hype.
The Cooking Gene chronicles the contribution of black people to American cooking – and the way that enslaved people built American cuisine, willingly and unwillingly. Twitty uses his own family history, both documented and found through genetic testing, to document the rise of soul food and Southern food (which are in many ways one and the same). In a beautifully woven narrative, Twitty charts the influence of African methods of cooking, native and African vegetables, methods to ensure food security, and others. At the same time, Twitty pulls no punches in describing the horrors of slavery and the intense oppressions visited upon enslaved black people and their descendants: the imprisonments, rapes, abuse, racism, and erasure are all described without the equivocation found with many white authors. Twitty, who is a Jew by Choice, also weaves his own Jewish experiences into the narrative – and also points out the complex role of Jews in regards to both slavery and Southern cuisines.
The book is a strong rebuke to white food writers like myself. Who has made our food? Who is responsible? And can we separate the sins of racism from which we still benefit from the way that we eat and talk about and write about food? Whose authenticity is it anyway? The Cooking Gene is an important intervention in this regard, and is also a wonderfully written book. I strongly urge you to buy it.
The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South, by Michael Twitty