In the tradition of finding your roots, food historian Michael Twitty brings readers on a journey through the Deep South to connect familial bloodlines in his latest book, “The Cooking Gene.” The book tells how Twitty attempts to reclaim his black family and sense of place via food. Through years of DNA testing, research and memory, Twitty traces his ancestors through the plantations of Texas, South Carolina and Virginia while dispensing a course on chattel slavery.
He is just as obsessed with the food as he is with his origins.
“….but I know where I come from and I want my children to know too,” Twitty writes.
But for all intents and purposes, Twitty knows exactly who he is: a black, Jewish, gay man from Washington, D.C. If the past is layered, a theory he more than proves in his quest to find missing pieces of his and our history, Twitty’s first layer is deep enough, bearing the nutrients and strength to sustain a strong oak.
“We were a family set apart in many ways, from our travels to our education to our resistance to feeling as if we had to belong,” he writes.
Twitty’s journey explores the idea of sustenance. Through pages of detailed descriptions and recipes for okra, yams, collard greens, melons, sugarcane and sorghum, peaches, molasses, ham, tomatoes, peanuts, and hoecakes, Twitty answers the question of how African and African-American slaves sustained themselves and their masters’ families.
“The Atlantic world has been an incredible experiment in how an enslaved population could get sway with enslaving the palates of the people who enslaved them,” Twitty says, describing how slaves leveraged their knowledge.
It is how they built a nation and curated a unique culture.
“It brought people from all over the world into a very different context that had never taken place,” Twitty writes.
The slave trade was a crossroads where African, Native American, French, German, English and Dutch cultures intersected, creating a gumbo that would become the foundation for African-American culture.
Twitty chronicles the timeline of an upsurge in slave shipments that began in 1750, and he connects the ancestry of slaves brought from Ghana, Nigeria, Kongo-Angola and Madagascar to the tables of the South.
If African and African-American slaves were victims of the insatiable appetites of Europeans for produce and commodities, that same produce sustained them through the cruelest years of American history.
These are answers for many people of African descent whose curiosity forbade them to accept the stories in U.S. history books designed to pacify any lingering questions. There are moments when Twitty traces his DNA, using testing such as African Ancestry, AncestryDNA and 23andMe, that the book becomes more scientific, slowing the reader in a haze of information. But the book then continues reading like a modern time-travel adventure.
In “The Cooking Gene,” the historian boldly dissects the seemingly invisible elements that make us the people we are today: the food that calls us to Sunday dinner or a Rosh Hashanah celebration.
He travels to New Orleans to visit Mildred Covert, a Sephardi Jew from Galicia who co-wrote “The Kosher Creole Cookbook,” “The Kosher Cajun Cookbook” and “The Kosher Southern-Style Cookbook.” Twitty recalls the matriarch welcoming him with open arms and explaining a connection that gives the African-American palate an even wider area of influence: “My family kept kosher. … But I tell you this much my family learned how to eat American through Black ladies. They taught us how to cook.”
Black ladies provided the sustenance for the continuity of Judaism in the biggest slave market in North America, New Orleans.
There is a freedom in knowing, and Twitty pinpoints the events that led to the creation of African-American culture so definitively that his book becomes a guide to African-American history. Twitty’s lineage is a backdrop to the history that his unrelenting pursuit of knowledge bestows on the reader.
Thank you, Mr. Twitty.