Six Forty One - #5

Chris Chrzan
Chris Chrzan

Michael Twitty "The Cooking Gene"

I was a little hesitant about Michael Twitty's "The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South" because, for a book ostensibly about food, there was also quite a bit of discussion about genealogy right off the bat. I have never had much personal interest in genealogy, but because I work in a public library I am nonetheless exposed to it and sometimes assist the occasional amateur genealogist with relevant library resources. That's the fun thing about a public library -"public" means everyone and anyone. Even if I'm not personally interested in quilting, don't know a thing about fixing cars or haven't read a single book in the Harry Potter series I still need to be able to help someone find the 746s, navigate the auto repair databases or spell "Azkaban." It's an aspect of being a librarian that is both fun and challenging. So, in the spirit of being intellectually omnivorous I kept reading, and I'm glad I did.

You might have heard about Michael Twitty after his open letter to Paula Deen circa 2013 or from his only mildly-bizarre appearance on Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre Foods. "The Cooking Gene" is magnificent, as one might expect from a James Beard award winner. It's not about food in the sense of recipes -- though there are those too -- as much as it is about the history of food and how certain foodways developed. It's also about slavery, culinary justice and, yes, genealogy. Twitty writes in a closing chapter that "The only question I've ever wanted to answer for myself was, How was my destiny shaped by the history of Southern food?" and that's a pretty good encapsulation of the question he spends the preceding four hundred plus pages trying to answer. 

It's a challenging book in that Twitty writes in a poetic, lilting style that is circular and full of tangents and asides. One (positive) review in the Washington Post uses the word "rambling." If, like me, you occasionally let your mind wander while reading you may yourself quite lost when you get back to the text. It's a book that, stylistically at least, demands of the reader a certain degree of concentration. It is also a challenging book to summarize succinctly because it is about so many different things. Take a look at the author's blog, Afroculinaria to see what I mean. On the "About" page is as short a summary of "The Cooking Gene" as could be written, as well as similar synopses of the author's other projects, aspects of which appear in this book as well. If it seems like he has a lot to say on a bewildering array of topics, well, he does.

Michael Twitty is a deeply interesting and unique person, someone from whom curiosity flows in such abundance that it envelops and overwhelms the reader. But as dense with themes as the book is, it is worth your time. Twitty explores the unique problems that African Americans face in the course of genealogical research in great depth and traces his own familial lineage - including enslaved and slaveholding ancestors - and discusses the legacy of slavery as reflected in the food grown, prepared and eaten by his family tree. How did this cuisine come to be? Why are certain foods common to and revered by the cultures that have handed them down over generations? What does it mean to eat these foods today and who should get the credit for them? Sugar cane, corn, tobacco, rice and cotton. Sorghum, bream, collards, barbecue, persimmon, possum. Twitty explores the history of these foods and the lives of the enslaved persons who grew, cooked and ate them in great depth and fascinating detail.

To get a small taste of the book I suggest this recent article written by Twitty in Bon Apetit, "I Had Never Eaten in Ghana Before. But My Ancestors Had" or an excerpt from the book itself that can be found here. If you find these short bits or Twitty's blog, linked above, intriguing, so much more awaits you in "The Cooking Gene." If you're not curious enough already it's worth mentioning that Twitty is a gay man, a convert to Judaism and a historical interpreter who has picked tobacco and cooked meals on Southern plantations to get a visceral experience of his personal history. A complex and interesting man, his identities and personal history intersect in unique and surprising ways.

Finally, for someone who loves food and Southern food -- grits, gravy, greens -- in particular "The Cooking Gene" is a meaningful look at how these foods have been handed down through generations and a reminder that even in the food we enjoy today we are not as far removed from a troubling legacy of subjugation, enslavement and family separation as we might wish to be. Southern culinary traditions in particular are a direct link to a period of our history that should be remembered, discussed and confronted. In that sense it is also an important book, especially for white people such as I am, to think and meditate on. It may not be "comfort food," but it is nourishing nonetheless.

Until next month!  Chris