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.