Embracing Complexity. A Book Review of Michael W. Twitty’s “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South”

Reviewed by Sonia Keiner, Chesapeake Foodshed Network, HCG Associate

I had the great opportunity to listen to culinary historian and chef, Michael W. Twitty’s keynote speech at the Future Harvest Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture conference this past January in College Park, Maryland. His words, energy, emotions, and passion had me rapt and I immediately ordered his book, “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South,” (he sold all the copies he brought and signed before I could get my hands on one.) I highly recommend this comprehensive book (416 pages with notes, an extensive bibliography, peppered with recipes) for anyone interested in the intersections of African, indigenous, and southern culinary history, slavery, liberation, genetic exploration, and the complexity of identity.

“Race is an illusion. Food is real.” Hundreds of farmers and food system workers erupted in applause with Twitty’s statement. Twitty wove genetics, sociology, history, and personal story into his well-received keynote. My mother drew a genetic framework for my whiteness at an early age and that has always stood as a foundation for my academic exploration of race and identity in the United States. When there was absolutely no talk of race in my high school curriculum (a diverse school setting in the County next to Twitty’s home in suburban Maryland) my mother had already taught me that whiteness was an evolutionary genetic mutation and it wasn’t until grad school that I was able to explore these incredibly important intersections in a formal curriculum.

Twitty begins his thorough search into the past by first researching his own genetic constitution as an entry point to find his ancestors, no easy feat for peoples with a history of slavery in ancestral lines where families were torn apart and records aren’t always meticulous. “All I ever really wanted was a recipe of who I am and where I come from.” In this respect Twitty’s story can read a bit at times like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s classic, “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” Similarly there is a magical realism that seeps through the pages from Twitty’s deep spirituality and connection to his ancestors, the land, and foods that sustained them.  “This is personal,” Twitty says, a self identified African American, Jewish, gay man, descended from African slaves, white slaveholders and “a trickle of others, including Southeastern indigenous nations.”  “I didn’t know who I was, where I came from, what our names were, why we’re here at all.  I have used food my whole life as the pathway into our collective and my distinct familial past.  We are here for a reason —-to make our way back and forge a path forward.”

This book (and Twitty’s meticulous preparation of ancestral foods) is a labor of love and pain, scholarly investigation, and redemption.  He is at the center of this story, starting as a child where he did everything he could to avoid “slave” food, to his painful coming out story in his family’s kitchen, “the kitchen no longer felt safe if I couldn’t use it to tell the truth,” through his vast travels to his ancestral lands across the ocean (both African and European) and onto the final pages of the book, “where food becomes a tool to repair the walls of black identities.” A man who picks cotton to feel what his ancestors experienced while listening to slave songs on his ipod is a man on a spiritual mission. “…the black journey in the Americas is founded on a human sense-the sense of taste.  Slavery began with food.” We must remember that cacao, coffee, rice, arrowroot, peanuts, corn, wheat, spices, and many other foods produced by slaves in the Americas and other locations in the Global South fed “the consumption of colonialism and white, western consumers.”

Twitty’s is a profound and poetic voice. He does not suffer fools (at all) but also presents an open heart that does not discriminate. His stories of disgraceful oppression are dovetailed with stories like that of a white student of his, seeking understanding and redemption for the history of slaveholding in his family. His frameworks are complex, as they should be.  We “Americans,” we of these lands of the United States are a heterogeneous tangle of genes, identities, conflict, oppression and love.  Our food is no different and we must pay homage to our African ancestors who essentially made southern food what it is.  They were agricultural experts (targeted for their know-how in Africa) when they were forced here on the middle passage and endured, survived, and in many ways thrive today DESPITE continued oppression.

“The kitchen was, perhaps more than any other space during slavery, the site of rape after rape, sexual violations that led to one of the more unique aspects of African American identity, our almost inextricable blood connection to white Southerners.” In fact, most African Americans average about 10-18% European admixture. I’m reminded of words I heard from the mouth of bell hooks once that stay with me, “we struggle within the spaces of our own contradictions.”  This is the sort of complex, nuanced, contradictory conversation we must continue to have to move forward. “Black folks have a gift for complicating the stories that Americans like to tell about themselves,” says scholar, John Edwin Mason. We see what happens in our culture when we simplify our story (and it is indeed OUR story); oppression continues, racism soars, walls are built.

The birth of southern cuisine could have only happened within the intersection of African, European, and Native American foodways. Beans and rice, rice pudding, okra and tomatoes, gumbo, greens, spicy stews, greens, black eyed pea caviar…all signs of the Africanizing presence in cuisine. Many English words for these foods are adapted from African words; Okra (okwuru from Igbo) and Gumbo (kingumbo) to name just a couple. “Who owns Southern food and who created Southern food is a question that has mostly been in the mouths of those whose perspective has been one of privilege by position, authority by default and a history written by the victors in the centering of white supremacy…The privilege of living now is that I can seat myself at the master’s table-the table of my white ancestor, a slaveholder-and interpret his world, and he has no say.”

Twitty ponders whether the White people who know they share DNA actually see him as family.  He asks some important questions. “Would we be better off if we embraced this complexity and deal with our pain and shame?  Would we finally be Americans or Southerners or both if we truly understood how impenetrably connected we actually are? Is it too late? Maybe I’ll just invite everybody to dinner one day and find out…It is not enough to be white at the table. It is not enough to be black at the table. It is not enough to be “just human” at the table. Complexity must come with us – in fact it will invite itself whether we like it or not. We can choose to acknowledge the presence of history, economics, class, cultural forces, and the idea of race in shaping our experience, or we can languish in circuitous arguments over what it all means and get nowhere. I present my journey to you as a means out of the whirlwind, an attempt to tell as much truth as time will allow.”

I have so much more to tell you that I learned from Twitty, about cottons’ role in creating a killer diet, and West Africa and Twitty’s great-great-great-grandmother, the 2nd Middle Passage and the Great Migration, persimmon wine and culinary justice, and barbeque. But perhaps it would be better for you to hear Twitty’s voice for yourself.

Photo by Sonia Keiner, Future Harvest Casa Conference, 1/18