The Cooking Gene | 2018-04-21 |


The Cooking Gene

Reviewed By Samiul Hoque Chowdhury

21st April, 2018 11:30:26 printer

The Cooking Gene

In ‘The Cooking Gene’, culinary historian Michael Twitty traces his ancestral roots as well as the culinary history of the South - from Africa to America - with passion and urgency. Deeply compelling, provocative, and important – it is a significant contribution to Black History, African American History and true history of the United States.

You cannot talk about the South of America without discussing the nuances of Southern African American cuisine.

This book provides the literary world with an intriguingly rich history of the South, highlights the power food has to heal the wounds African Americans have inherited from their ancestors, entices meaningful dialogue surrounding race relations between the descendants of the slaves and slave owners, and inspires many others to reconnect with their roots through DNA testing.


Twitty gives a true taste of the American past; helping to restore African American struggles and success bite by bite.

His culinary and linguistic gifts are expertly intertwined in The Cooking Gene, but it’s his agency in this book, the way he weeds through the Southern American cultural history, tackling race, gender, faith, morality, sexual orientation, that shines a bright light on the Southern American cuisine in this poignantly personal journey.

It is a much needed addition to the culinary perspective of American food asking the relevant questions of race and cuisine, what the state of sustenance really means, where it comes from, Black History, its distortion and amalgamation, schism between Southern American slave history and slave owner history, and what the present and evolving cuisine reveals about the past, where it comes from, the impact it has had and still has. Interlaced with moments of levity, this gritty and enlightening read sheds a light on the culinary perspective of African American cuisine, with a goulash of personal narrative and history of race, politics, economics, and enslavement that will broaden the notions of African American culinary identity, Black history, as well as personal identity.

With race tensions still alive and present, as fresh as the arrests of two African American men from Starbucks in Philadelphia and protests for Black Lives Matter still immediate and ongoing, this book helps to metabolize multifarious issues with wit and understanding.

For chef Michael Twitty, farm to table has a deeper meaning than for most. Twitty is a culinary historian who explores the complicated story of race, culture, and food. And he’s now the first revolutionary in residence at Colonial Williamsburg, where visitors come to learn about and experience life 18th century Virginia. Twitty takes part in the town’s historic recreations, wearing the clothing of the enslaved people who once toiled here.

Ancestry is a central theme in Twitty’s new book, “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South.” He addresses what he calls discomfort food in the legacy of the South, in part with visits to tobacco and cotton fields previously tended by the enslaved. The old South comprising slaveholding states takes central stage in Twitty’s book, which weaves explorations of his own identity, including his conversion to Judaism, the roots of American food, and stories from his own childhood.

Always intrigued by this notion of the black autobiography, the kind of writing that Maya Angelou or James Baldwin did, how he got over, how he came to be this person, that we have passions that last our whole lives, and that we are extremely engaged in our own history and culture.

But Twitty didn’t start this way, even by his own descriptions. He wasn’t interested in soul food, he didn’t even really like being black.

He wanted to reapproach the sort of narrative of self critique and self hatred, but also letting people know that the food and stories were his way in. He felt a sense of pride in the people who he came from, his own family. He wanted to put the microscope on himself, and he wanted other people to not be afraid to also follow the blueprint, and sort of really own every aspect of their identity.

This part memoir, part ode to Twitty’s ancestors is an eloquent and erudite dissection of America’s difficult history. This tribute to his African American ancestors presents both the brutality and onslaught faced by slaves, the horrors of slavery, as well as the result of it, which came out in food; through the toils in the fields, the humming and singing to pass time and forget the horrors and shame, to not face reality even for that brief period, the whistling to signal they weren’t eating the food of their masters; baking, seasoning, stirring and putting food on Southern tables, which essentially defined their existence.

Twitty has also delved deeply into his background, undergoing DNA testing and building an extensive family tree of ancestors from many parts of the world, including West Africa and Northern Europe. He also has a Confederate Captain among them, his great-great-great-grandfather Richard Henry Bellamy.

An amalgam of cultures is the quintessential American story, but when addressing American food, Twitty says certain people have been left out of the narrative.

A lot of people argue, “What is American food?” And some people will blurt out fast food, some others will say food from all over the world. And then, very rarely, someone will talk about the indigenous, as well as the naturalized foods and traditions. And Titty wants people to include the African Americans in that conversation, that they have always been a part of it. They have always been a part of the narrative of creating American food, and always will be. That’s also part of the agency factor, that you own your emotions, you own your facts, you own your opinions, and you also understand how we got here and how you got here. And we can have that conversation over a meal. And that’s what Micheal Titty wants to do.


Samiul Hoque Chowdhury is a student of Indian Institutes of Management