The Cooking Gene by Michael W. Twitty

I want to sit down with Michael W. Twitty and talk food with him for about a million hours.

Twitty is a food historian who specializes in American antebellum slave cookery – what slaves were cooking and eating during the period of American Slavery from 1619 to 1865. He is especially interested in the evolution of slave cookery to “Southern Cooking” and how the introduction of food and techniques from Africa through the forced migration of slaves shaped that evolution.

The short answer is: profoundly. There is no Southern cooking as we know it without African influences, and there is no Southern cooking that doesn’t echo slavery in its roots. Okra, fried chicken, rice and beans, barbecue: all of these things trace their introduction to the plates of America from the hold of a slave ship.

What Twitty does in this book – and it’s dense, there’s a LOT happening – is discuss the food history while exploring his own genealogy. It’s not a cookbook as much as it is a memoir and examination of personal and community history with a few recipes as well. He traces his personal history with food through his grandparents and parents, following the details of American chattel slavery and how all of that ties together in a big, messy package. He also includes recipes for things like Fried Rabbit and Hoecake, and his Mother’s Apple Crumble.

I didn’t realize that this would be more than just a straight food history. The sections on how Twitty used DNA testing (like 23 and Me or Ancestry DNA) to fill in his ancestry was FASCINATING. There’s been a discussion going on regarding what DNA testing can tell you (please see the August 8th episode of Code Switch on NPR called “Who’s Your Great-Great-Great-Great Granddaddy?” for a few aspects of the question), and for a lot of Black Americans, there’s a significant portion of White ancestry in the background. We know how it got there a vast majority of the time.

He also went through his genealogy as far back as he could, using family stories and confirming them where possible. The challenge of genealogy when it comes to descendants of slaves is difficult because even where there are records, they are emotionally difficult to look at: bills of sale for human beings, bills of lading, treating ancestors like cargo.

One of the things Twitty does is portray a slave cook in various plantations and living history re-enactments, and my god, that has to be a profound experience. One of the other things he talks about is Civil War re-enactment culture, and the difference between “re-enactors” and “interpreters:”

One refers to a profession, the other a hobby. “The hobby” is largely staffed by more conservative types, and predominately white and male; the other is still mostly white, but more female and interested in questions of diversity, social justice, and new narratives about forgotten people of the past.

Twitty often re-enacts as a slave cook, and there are times when Confederate soldier re-enactors will ask for food. In general, he says, the request is polite, and Twitty wonders if they really know that, historically speaking, they wouldn’t be politely asking for a “hot meal from home” but making considerably more hostile demands.

Twitty went back and visited plantations and farms where his ancestors were owned (to find the kitchens of one of them under a pile of rubble and poison ivy, much to his annoyance). Being in a place to actually look that horrible part of his personal history in the face was difficult, and he wrote about all of his complicated feelings.

That’s the thing I liked the best: how Twitty admitted that his feelings were super complicated. These aren’t things that can be distilled down to one simple emotion or reaction. He also has a funny writing style: interspersed with stories of horrific abuses, there are tales of family, his own experiences (like when he tried picking cotton, and made it only a few hours before popping in his iPod).

That sounds really depressing and heavy, and it is, but here’s the thing about history. You can’t change it. You can ignore it, which is something this country has been trying for the past 175 years. That hasn’t been going so well.

Or you can accept it, and learn from it, and recognize how those events all lead to here and now. We wouldn’t have American Southern cooking without the contributions of slaves. That’s just fact. What we do with that knowledge, that’s up to us.

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