Michael W. Twitty’s The Cooking Gene is subtitled “A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South”, but it is so much more than that. It is part culinary history, part memoir, part genealogy, part detective story, and part spiritual pilgrimage, written from a poignant, deeply personal point of view.
Twitty generously brings us along on his moving, often painful sojourn of self-discovery, with traditional Southern foods as his starting point. What unfolds is, in part, a history of the most basic staples in every American kitchen, whose everyday presence in our lives is only possible due to hundreds of years of enslaved peoples’ labor. Imagine your pantry without sugar, corn, or rice, your home without cotton. Consider the wealth amassed by tobacco planters, through the labors of the enslaved, and how that wealth helped build the Southern United States.
Through the telling of his story, Twitty introduces his ancestors to us one by one, all the way back to the places in Africa where they were ripped from all that they knew and carried away in the cargo holds of ships, for the benefit of white commerce.
Don’t misunderstand me; Twitty is not here to scold. That’s me. Twitty’s deep faith leads him to believe there is healing to be found here, that there has to be healing here. Consider his discovery, confirmed through DNA testing and research, that he has white ancestors. The implication there is gut-wrenching for me; imagine carrying that knowledge inside you day in and day out. I find his belief in healing very brave and full of power.
Twitty weaves his personal story with historical and genealogical research and family tales passed down, all with flair and wit that made me want to keep reading, to know him and his ancestors better. This has been an odyssey for him, and I am so happy he shared it with the world.
Oh, and yes, there are recipes. But that is most certainly not the point of The Cooking Gene. After reading this book, I feel honored to even have these recipes. Deciding whether I am worthy of cooking them, that’s something else.
Please read The Cooking Gene.