The Cooking Gene, by Michael W. Twitty

In 2012, Michael W. Twitty kickstarted what he called the Southern Discomfort Tour. The tour sprang from a life-long curiosity about his family’s history and southern food. The tour took him from Virginia to Texas to Florida, on which he talked with genealogists, historians, and chefs. The fruits (heh) of his journey and research became The Cooking Gene. This encyclopedic book goes back through the generations of Twitty’s family, blending those stories with the history of slavery in America and southern food history. This book turned out to be the perfect choice for Thanksgiving.

Twitty is a history interpreter and food historian. (On the cover of the book, you can see Twitty in his costume/uniform.) As such, he not only knows the recipes but also how they came to be. (I really want to look up some of the cookbooks he mentions; I’m a big fan of historical cookbooks.) His family history—based on years of research and DNA analysis—forms a frame for Twitty to talk about all those recipes and foods. Twitty is very fond of lists; I don’t recall him using etc. or “and so on.” At times, I was reminded of the descriptions of feats from Brian Jacques’ Redwall novels. The lists of foods made me really want to jump in the car and find a southern food restaurant. I’m not a big fan of okra, but The Cooking Gene made me want to eat a plate of fried okra.

For all his wonder and rapture over southern food, Twitty is blunt about the horrors of slavery and the way that racial injustice continues to shape the experience of African Americans. His DNA analysis revealed that he shares DNA with not just people from Africa, but also Western Europe. It’s not so much that Twitty agonizes about what happened to his female ancestors as he agonizes about the entwined history of his family lines. What does it mean to be the result of centuries of kidnapping, rape, enslavement, physical abuse, racism, and segregation? And, on top of all that, how does he explain this complicated and troubling history to other Americans who either didn’t learn about slavery or were misinformed?

The only criticism I have of The Cooking Gene is that Twitty could have used a little editing to take care of some repetition. In spite of the repetition (and the many, many lists), I enjoyed the way Twitty would move from academic to colloquial speech, dive deep into the origins of Hoppin’ John and the cultivation of Carolina gold rice, and piecing together the evidence to find his furthest back ancestors. The inclusion of family stories helped balance the history elements, serving as reminders that slavery and racism cast a very long shadow over us still. This book is extraordinary.

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