Reading this book is important for people who cook as well as people who don’t (like me). The Cooking Gene follows Michael Twitty’s journey—what he calls his “Southern Discomfort Tour”—to uncover his family tree. Since slavery in the United States relentlessly tore families apart and treated humans like chattel, this is no small task and to many would seem impossible.
But Twitty is a scholar (and an all around courageous person), which helps him to understand centuries-old documents that help him trace his way back to his family’s origins. He also has a very tangible way to connect with both his ancestors and the gatekeepers who hold the information he needs: food.
While retelling his own very spiritual journey, he obliterates limiting stereotypes of “African American Food.” We learn the importance of the garden African traditions to protect it, how crops from Africa found their way into the American diet and how newly enslaved people taught their captors to farm. He talks about how enslaved African Americans and sharecroppers managed to supplement their diets; about the legacy of persimmons and golden rice.
Whenever possible, America needs to reminded of its original sin, to re-humanize the people who were dehumanized for hundreds of years. Including the actual people from a couple centuries ago who lived through the trauma themselves. Twitty gives voice to the great grandmothers and fathers who could leave no records of their experiences other than their food traditions.
He’s willing to wade into the most uncomfortable and ambiguous parts of family history, including his white male ancestors who sexually assaulted and produced children with his enslaved black women ancestors. The connection he seeks manifests in his willingness to work as a docent at an old plantation, known for romanticizing the antebellum South, and even to spend time picking cotton to understand it was like. Few people are willing to go to such lengths and allow themselves to empathize with the hurt of people they’ll never meet.
By the end of this book, my heart was both full and aching. He far and away deserved the James Beard Book Award this year, which
You can follow Michael Twitty on Twitter @KosherSoul. I’ve posted the TED Talk that first introduced and endeared Twitty to J.T. and I below.