The Cooking Gene

cooking gene

The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South, by Michael Twitty. Published in August 2017. 464 pages.

I picked up this book having never heard of it before seeing it on the shelf of my local lbrary. It is not my custom to look to the NYT lists or book review pages to decide what I am going to read. Apparently this book was on it, but I didn’t know that. If I see something and it looks interesting, I pick it up.This one looked interesting.

I am the black daughter born of a Cajun father who married a Georigia peach. Does it get any more Southern than that? As a woman of deep Southern roots who loves to cook and has raised young women who also -uncharacteristically for Millenials- love to cook, this book called out to me.

Because I also love Southern cooking and cooking Southern food, it did not disappoint. The wealth of culinary history about Southern food, the people, and the regions was amazing. Even when there were snippets and sections of the book that I found a little too politial for my conservative leaning apolitical tastes, they were far outshined and overshadowed by the beauty that encompassed the overall treasure that I found this book to be.

The American South is a complex place with a fascinating and convoluted history that reveals itself in its food as much as anything else. Twitty does a masterful job of articulating that in this quote from his book:

“The Old South is a place where people use food to tell themselves who they are, to tell others who they are, and to tell stories about where they’ve been. The Old South is a place of groaning tables across the tracks from want. It’s a place where arguments over how barbecue is prepared or chicken is served or whether sugar is used to sweeten cornbread can function as culinary shibboleths. It is a place in the mind where we dare not talk about which came first, the African cook or the European mistress, the Native American woman or the white woodsman. We just know that somehow the table aches from the weight of so much . . . that we prop it up with our knees and excuses to keep it from falling.”

He speaks truth, as I know I have been asked on numerous occasions by women of Southern heritage but different ethnic makeup, how I cook my grits, my fried chicken, etc. Southern food is a thing all its own while also being several different things as well, depending on whence you hail. I have always known this from childhood eating my dad’s gumbo, and crawfish etoufee, which almost no other Southern region has perfected. And neither have I.

The ways that first generation slaves -whether house servants or field slaves- learned to make familiar dishes out of new and often unfamiliar ingredients was a particularly interesting read, and  Twitty’s travels to the regions where the “cargo” for the Transatlantic slave trade was gathered offered wonderful insights into the ancestral diets of the people who came from those parts of Africa.

Some of the most fascinating excursions to take with the author were his journeys embarked on as a result of the genetic and documented research he compiled from his own family tree. His was a family, unlike so many black families in the South, that kept good written histories and passed them down. I married into a family that has a much better documented history than my family of origin, so I am well acquainted with the differences and how they express themselves in our knowledge of who we are and what we tell our children.

Overall, this was a very good book. My Christian sensibilities were not offended by the author’s occasional trips down memory lane where he discussed his coming out to his family or his other thoughts on being a black, gay, Jewish man. In a lesser book, more sloppily executed or overtly politically motivated, I would have been annoyed.

This author, however, has a clear and unmistakable love for food, its origins, its intersections with the way we view life and family, and how it shapes the places we have been and the places we go. In short, he was able to communicate his passion and vision in a way that was admirable and transcended all the rest of it. The American South was what it was, and it is impossible to study the roots of Southern culinary richness while avoiding the circumstances that brought together the people who shaped it.

Grade: A



The Highest Education

I’m currently preparing to teach a relatively low-key, six-week course of short stories and readings to middle schoolers. To that end, I was perusing my collection of classic short stories.

As I searched my Kindle library, I noticed that I had highlighted large portions of a particular chapter in Booker T. Washington’s Character Building. The chapter is titled The Highest Education, and as I re-read the highlighted sections, I thought they were worth sharing here.

He starts by indicating how education is most commonly viewed:

We are very apt to get the idea that education means the memorizing of a number of dates, of being able to state when a certain battle took place, of being able to recall with accuracy this event or that event. We are likely to get the impression that education consists in being able to commit to memory a certain number of rules in grammar, a certain number of rules in arithmetic, and in being able to locate correctly on the earth’s surface this mountain or that river, and to name this lake and that gulf.

Now I do not mean to disparage the value of this kind of training, because among the things that education should do for us is to give us strong, orderly and well developed minds. I do not wish to have you get the idea that I undervalue or overlook the strengthening of the mind. If there is one person more than another who is to be pitied, it is the individual who is all heart and no head. You will see numbers of persons going through the world whose hearts are full of good things – running over with the wish to do something to make somebody better, or the desire to make somebody happier – but they have made the sad mistake of being absolutely without development of mind to go with this willingness of heart. We want development of mind and we want strengthening of the mind.

He continues by making clear why the above is important but incomplete:

But, after all, this kind of thing is not the end of education. What, then, do we mean by education? I would say that education is meant to give us an idea of truth. Whatever we get out of text books, whatever we get out of industry, whatever we get here and there from any sources, if we do not get the idea of truth at the end, we do not get education. I do not care how much you get out of history, or geography, or algebra, or literature, I do not care how much you have got out of all your text books:-unless you have got truth, you have failed in your purpose to be educated. Unless you get the idea of truth so pure that you cannot be false in anything, your education is a failure.

These were originally lectures which were later compiled into book form. Washinton ended this session by impressing upon his students that their aim should be finding the true and the beautiful -ultimately from God- in their educational pursuits:

Education is meant to make us appreciate the things that are beau-tiful in nature. A person is never educated until he is able to go into the swamps and woods and see something that is beautiful in the trees and shrubs there, is able to see something beautiful in the grass and flowers that surround him, is, in short, able to see something beautiful, elevat-ing and inspiring in everything that God has created. Not only should education enable us to see the beauty in these objects which God has put about us, but it is meant to influence us to bring beautiful objects about us. I hope that each one of you, after you graduate, will surround himself at home with what is beautiful, inspiring and elevating. I do not believe that any person is educated so long as he lives in a dirty, miserable shanty. I do not believe that any person is educated until he has learned to want to live in a clean room made attractive with pictures and books, and with such surroundings as are elevating.

In a word, I wish to say again, that education is meant to give us that culture, that refinement, that taste which will make us deal truthfully with our fellow men, and will make us see what is beautiful, elevating and inspiring in what God has created. I want you to bear in mind that your text books, with all their contents, are not an end, but a means to an end, a means to help us get the highest, the best, the purest and the most beautiful things out of life.

The entire chapter can be read here.

The Escape of Oney Judge

oney judge

The Escape of Oney Judge: Martha Washington’s slave finds freedom. Originally published in 2007. Hardcover, 32 pages.

The Escape of Oney Judge is a children’s book, which as the title indicates, recounts the story of the escape of the female slave of Martha Washington, wife of founding father and first president George Washington. Oney was the daughter of an enslaved seamstress named Betsy, and an English tailor indentured servant by the name of Andrew Judge.

There are more detailed and extensive literary accounts of Oney Judge’s story, but this is the book our 9-year-old picked up from the library on a recent trip. She has written two book reviews for this blog, but this is one she wasn’t quite sure how to review, so it falls to me.

It’s a good, balanced historical children’s book. Rather than engage in hyperbole and theatrics, it reveals the complicated relationships and emotional connections that developed between slaves -particularly house slaves- and their masters and mistresses.

In Oney’s case, the realization that when all was said and done, she was still property to be bought, sold, or gifted was the impetus for her dramatic escape and time of hiding. Despite the constant dread of being found and sent back into slavery, Oney Judge decided the rewards and hardships were well worth the risk.

This is a very good book for kids between 7-10. I chose that age range based not only on reading level, which is well in hand of a literate 10-year-old, but content.

This was the 2008 Bank Street Best Children’s book of the year.

Grade: A

Content advisory: Nothing to be alarmed about here, but it is a story about the intersection of slavery and our country’s most beloved founding father.



Little House on the Prairie


Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Published in 1935. 352 pages.

After my review of Little House in the Big Woods, I decided to skip Farmer Boy, the second book published in the series, and proceed with reading Little House on the Prairie as our nightly read aloud. The girls were very interested in what happens next with the Ingalls family and Farmer Boy is a bit of a digression from the series.

Little House on the Prairie chronicles what happen as the Ingalls family leaves their home in the Big Woods of Wisconsin and set out to build a new home on the prairie in Kansas.

Along the way they experience challenges small and great, but there is always love, solidarity, and Pa’s protection (not to mention his gun) to get them through. In this installment, Jack the family dog plays a prominent role, which the kids enjoyed.

The Native Americans (Indians) in that part of the country were an ever-present fear,  which Wilder handles with a fair amount of tact and finesse.

As this is a very well known series of books, I will keep this brief. The kids love it and are eagerly anticipating the next books which tell the saga of the Ingalls family.

It has taken a while to get through this one, as some nights -particularly during basketball season- leave us too tired to keep our eyes open. In addition, on a recent trip to the library, the girls talked their father into checking out Phillip Reeve’s Cakes in Space to read to them. We ended up alternating the two stories at night.

My kids knew I would never be interested in reading that particular story to them, but it worked out well. He not only read it but included appropriate sound effects, both human and technological.

As for Little House, if you haven’t read them do. Whether you’re 8 or 80, they are good books.

Grade: A



The Lost Art of Dress

lost-art-of-dress The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish, by Linda Przybyszewski. Published in 2014. 400 pages.

This is a book I wasn’t quite sure how to review because there were so many angles to explore it from that I didn’t know quite where to begin. So I decided to simply give you all the rundown, add a few quotes, and offer my recommendation or lack thereof.

In the early 20th century, right up until the “youth quake” of the 50’s and 60’s there were a group of women in various areas of the fashion, education, and home economy sectors known as “The Dress Doctors”. With the full support and backing of the federal government and education system, they taught women and girls how to dress themselves properly.

When I say they taught women to dress themselves properly, I don’t mean an out of touch, overly sophisticated, or expensive approach to fashion. Oh no! These ladies were all about looking the best you could for the task at hand, within the budget you had available. No matter how small that budget might have been, these women could show you how to work what you had to your advantage without breaking the bank. In fact one of the largest chapters in the book is the one on thrift. In other words, The Lost Art of Dress could easily be considered the every woman’s alternative to another vintage fashion book I reviewed here, Wife Dressing.

It covers the perils of high heels:

“If you cannot walk more than a block in your shoes, they are not shoes; they are pretty sculptures that you happen to have attached to your feet. You could hang them from your wrists for all the good they are doing you in terms of locomotion. Better to put them on a shelf and admire them from afar.”

No, I’m not giving mine up. A spare of flats mitigates any issues for me.

They covered issues of proper fit, noting that just because a garment isn’t bursting at the seams doesn’t mean it fits properly. She reviewed the Dress Doctors notes on the combination of thrift, art and femininity. The range of clothing subjects they covered left no stone unturned.

Unfortunately, in the 1960’s, as the youth quake combined with the feminist revolution kicked into high gear, the Dress Doctors were suddenly obsolete. In chapter 5, titled, The Fall of the Dress Doctors, she expounds:

What were the leaders of the American Home Economics Association expecting when they invited “militant women’s lib advocate” Robin Morgan to speak at their annual meeting in 1972? They must have read about how she and a hundred other women had thrown their bras, girdles,curlers, false eyelashes, and wigs into a Freedom Trash Can at the Anti-Miss America demonstration in Atlantic City in 1968. Morgan was scheduled to talk about women’s liberation, and they got an earful: “I am here addressing the enemy,” she announced.

Morgan accused home economists of turning young women into a “limp, jibbering mass of jelly waiting for marriage.”

This, along with the worship of all things youth which quenched girls’ natural desire to grow up and wear grown-up clothes like their mothers, signaled the end of the Dress Doctors and their impact of women’s fashion.

Thankfully, the advice within the book is timeless and I highly recommend giving it a read. It’s a wonderful combination of history, style, beauty, culture, and practicality. We are lone overdue for a resurrection of something resembling the Dress Doctors.

Grade: B+

The Vision of the Anointed

vision-of-the-anointedThe Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation As a Basis for Social Policy, by Thomas Sowell.  Originally published in 1996. 320 pages.

Upon learning of Thomas Sowell’s announced retirement I was motivated to read one of his books that I had not yet read. I chose this one because despite being over 2 decades old, it dovetails nicely with state of affairs in which we find ourselves in 2017. In fact,  his words are more relevant now than ever before.

The thrust of the book is exactly as its title implies, that our academic, media, legal and political institutions are increasingly staffed by those who view themselves as anointed to do what is best for we in the huddles masses by virtue of the fact that they know best. That with just the right amount of tinkering, social experimentation, and deference to their view of a perfect world, we would all be living in a utopia.

One of the sad signs of our times is that we have demonized those who produce, subsidized those who refuse to produce, and canonized those who complain.

That is, we could, if it weren’t for the benighted plebeians. That would be those of us who make up the general public, religious zealots, and anyone else who doesn’t subscribe to the notion that degrees, microphones, and political pedigree make one the rightful arbiter of all that is good and right for everyone else.

In their haste to be wiser and nobler than others, the anointed have misconceived two basic issues. They seem to assume (1) that they have more knowledge than the average member of the benighted and (2) that this is the relevant comparison. The real comparison, however, is not between the knowledge possessed by the average member of the educated elite versus the average member of the general public, but rather the total: direct knowledge brought to bear though social processes (the competition of the marketplace, social sorting, etc.), involving millions of people, versus the secondhand knowledge of generalities possessed by a smaller elite group.— p. 114

This book is heavy reading, full of facts, and doesn’t flow with the ease of a book driven by a plot or even primarily by the political opinions and analysis of its author. In fact, were it not for the fact that I am something of an intellectual groupie of Dr. Sowell’s, I might have put it aside once I got the gist rather than reading through until the very end. If you have the time and temperament to sift through it all, it’s worth the read. He does what so few political commentators do: provides concrete evidence for the  conclusions reached and positions asserted.

It is easy to be wrong-and persist in being wrong-when the costs of being wrong are paid by others. p.136

And the cost, Sowell notes, is rarely paid by the anointed as they are far enough removed from their benefactors to never have to deal with the fallout of their outrageous social science experiments.

The presumed irrationality of the public is a pattern running through many, if not most or all, of the great crusades of the anointed in the twentieth century–regardless of the subject matter of the crusade or the field in which it arises. Whether the issue has been ‘overpopulation,’ Keynesian economics, criminal justice, or natural resource exhaustion, a key assumption has been that the public is so irrational that the superior wisdom of the anointed must be imposed, in order to avert disaster. The anointed do not simply: happen: to have a disdain for the public. Such disdain is an integral part of their vision, for the central feature of that vision is preemption of the decisions of others.— p 123-124

The way these gambits work is through verbal sleights of language. For example:

Another way of verbally masking elite preemption of other people’s decisions is to use the word ‘ask’–as in ‘We are just asking everyone to pay their fair share.’ But of course governments do not ask, they: tell. The Internal Revenue Service does not ‘ask’ for contributions. It takes. — p 197

Widespread personification of ‘society’ is another verbal tactic that evades issues of personal responsibility. Such use of the term ‘society’ is a more sophisticated version of the notion that ‘the devil made me do it.’ Like much of the rest of the special vocabulary of the anointed, it is used as a magic word to make choice, behavior, and performance vanish into thin air. — p 199

I could drop quotes all day, but time is short. So for the policy wonks, evidence seekers, and general nerdy folks who read here, pick up the book. Especially if you don’t possess a particularly conservative perspective. Sowell isn’t asking you to agree with him based on the depth of his feelings on issues. He is inviting his readers to take a look at the facts.

Little House in the Big Woods

I expect this to be the last post of 2016 so if I don’t get back here, have a wonderfully blessed Christmas and a Happy New Year! And keep reading!


Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Originally published in 1932. 256 pages.

This book was our most recent bedtime read loud and our children enjoyed it immensely. They excitedly looked forward each night to what would happen next in the lives of Laura, Mary, Pa, and the rest of the Ingalls family.

I’m not sure why it took me so long to get around the reading Laura Ingalls Wilder but I’m very glad that I finally did, and that I get to share it with my children. Children who, incidentally view the life and times of Laura and her family through an extremely idyllic lens. While they find the idea of life in the big woods highly desirable, I could not get past the though of woods and mountain lions right outside our door.

The detail with which Laura Ingalls wilder described all that was involved in making maple syrup, butchering and curing animal meats, harvesting wheat, and other chores that were a common part of 19th century life were also a source of curiosity and research for the kids.

I highly recommend these books for your upper elementary aged child. The illustrations in this particular edition are very well done and the kids liked the artwork as well. Some of the sketches were black and white, others in color, but all were beautiful.

Because of the fascination and interest our kids had with this book, the first in the series which we will be continuing, we have started watching season one of the Little House television series that began in 1974. Because I was far too young to have watched or even remember those first few seasons, it has been an event for me as well. The kids were a little bummed that the episodes they have watched so far didn’t quite match up with the book. It provided a brief lesson on the ways that television shows and movies are adapted from books.

If you haven’t read these books I recommend them. They are great books to read whether you are 12 years old, or 42.

Grade: B+