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 He sifts through stories, recipes, genetic tests, and historical documents, and travels from Civil War battlefields in Virginia to synagogues in Alabama to Black-owned organic farms in Georgia.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
Michael W. Twitty is a noted culinary and cultural historian and the creator of Afroculinaria, the first blog devoted to African American historic foodways and their legacies. He has been honored by FirstWeFeast.com as one of the twenty greatest food bloggers of all time, and named one of the “Fifty People Who Are Changing the South” by Southern Living and one of the “Five Cheftavists to Watch” by TakePart.com. Twitty has appeared throughout the media, including on NPR’s The Splendid Table, and has given more than 250 talks in the United States and abroad. His work has appeared in Ebony, the Guardian, and on NPR.org. He is also a Smith fellow with the Southern Foodways Alliance, a TED fellow and speaker, and the first Revolutionary in Residence at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Twitty lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.
“Slavery made the world of our Ancestors incredibly remote to us. Thankfully, the work of Michael W. Twitty helps restore our awareness of their struggles and successes bite by bite, giving us a true taste of the past.”Henry Louis Gates Jr.
“The Cooking Gene is a revelation. Michael W. Twitty approaches his ancestral and culinary history from Africa to America, and occasionally back to Europe, with the precision of a surgeon and the passion of an artist. His adept storytelling carried me away to another time and I am deeply moved by the experience.”Carla Hall
“Michael W. Twitty’s culinary and linguistic gifts are beautifully intertwined in The Cooking Gene, but it’s Twitty’s agency here – the way his journey through the South’s cultural history tackles race, gender, faith, morality, and sexual orientation in a way earlier historians ignored – that makes this volume essential reading for all Americans. Twitty leaves no stone unturned – and no ingredient uncooked! – in his riveting quest to chronicle the African-American roots of Southern cooking.”Matt Lee and Ted Lee
“Slavery made the world of our ancestors incredibly remote to us. Thankfully, the work of Michael W. Twitty helps restore our awareness of their struggles and successes bite by bite, giving us a true taste of the past.”Dr. Henry Louis Gates
“Michael W. Twitty shines a stunningly bright light on the state of Southern food with this quest to find himself. He is a clarion, focusing our minds on what this state of sustenance really means, where it comes from and the impacts it has had and still has. The Cooking Gene is a much-needed addition to the culinary perspective of American food.”Hugh Acheson
“Written in Michael W. Twitty’s no-nonsense style and interlaced with moments of levity, The Cooking Gene is gritty, compelling, and enlightening – a mix of personal narrative and the history of race, politics, economics and enslavement that will broaden notions of African-American culinary identity.”Toni Tipton-Martin
“In this amazing memoir of food culture, Twitty draws the connection between Hemings and many other historic individuals and contemporary notions of southern cuisine that have ignored a neglected and often-bitter past. This is a joyous journey of discovery by a man with obvious love for history and the culinary arts.”Booklist (Starred review)
“Fascinating.”New York Times Book Review
“Twitty has accomplished something remarkable with The Cooking Gene... It’s a book to save, reread, and share until everyone you know has a working understanding of the human stories and pain behind some of America’s most foundational and historically significant foods.”Christian Science Monitor
“Should there ever be a competition to determine the most interesting man in the world, Michael W. Twitty would have to be considered a serious contender.”Washington Post
★ 07/01/2017Library Journal
Culinary historian and blogger Twitty (afroculinaria.com) recounts his personal mission to document the links between his forebearers' foodways and family history from Africa to America, from slavery to freedom. His effort is part food memoir, part ancestral findings, and a paean to the culinary successes of his ancestors. Twitty visited cultural locations pertinent to his story, lectured on his findings, and engaged in genealogical research to comprehend his roots and food heritage. The author details his childhood aversion to soul food, introduction to cooking, devotion to family, conversion to Judaism and mastery of its dishes, while providing genealogical insights along the way. During his visits to plantations throughout the South, Twitty made fascinating discoveries, such as that farmers markets and community gardens served bondsmen well, and that their personal gardens acted to moderate slavery itself; that the slave's diet was perhaps healthier than the master's table; and that field labor tended to preserve the manhood and brotherhood of many of the enslaved. Conversely, Twitty's search for his ancestors in slave auction advertisements reveals the human costs and indignities associated with these sales. VERDICT A valuable addition to culinary and Old South historiography with lip-smacking period recipes. Recommended for regional historians, professional chefs, cuisine enthusiasts, and general readers.—John Carver Edwards, formerly with Univ. of Georgia Libs.
★ 2017-05-15Kirkus Reviews
Food historian Twitty, creator of the Afroculinaria blog, serves up a splendid hearth-based history, at once personal and universal, of the African-American experience.The author accounts himself a citizen of the Old South, "a place where people use food to tell themselves who they are." It is also, he continues, a fraught place where food controversies—whether to put sugar and not molasses in cornbread, say—pile atop controversies of history, all pointing to the terrible fact of slavery. Twitty's book is not just about food, though it certainly covers the broad expanse of African-American cooking over the centuries and how it shaped the larger Southern American culinary tradition. The author delights in the "world of edible antiques" that his researches take him into, a world requiring him to think in terms of gills, drams, and pecks. Twitty also traces his own family history, beyond the eight or so generations that carry documents, to places all over the world: a white ancestor here, an Indonesian by way of Madagascar forebear there, Native Americans and West Africans and Anglos meeting in bloodstreams and at table. On all these matters, the author writes with elegant urgency, moving swiftly from topic to topic: on one page, he may write of the tobacco economy of the Confederacy, on another of the ways in which "the food of the Chesapeake grew legs as the culture of the Upper South was forced to branch out" beyond the Appalachians and Mississippi into new territories, such that "turkey with oyster dressing on a Maryland plantation became turkey with freshwater clam and mussel sauce on a slaveholding Missouri farmstead." Drawing on a wealth of documentary digging, personal interviews, and plenty of time in the kitchen, Twitty ably joins past and present, puzzling out culinary mysteries along the way—e.g., "chickens got served to preachers because chickens had always flounced in the hands of African priests, and nobody remembered why." An exemplary, inviting exploration and an inspiration for cooks and genealogists alike.