Books Book Reviews

'The Cooking Gene' views the African-American experience through its food

Culinary historian Michael W. Twitty manages to document one of America's foundational food cultures in a book that is also moving and deeply personal.

The Cooking Gene By Michael W. Twitty HarperCollins 464 pp.
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The Cooking Gene, a new book by culinary historian Michael W. Twitty, is billed as "a journey through African-American culinary history in the Old South." The subtitle is an radical understatement. What could have been a stately tour through the ancient and global roots of soul food is instead a madcap dash through history, a thrilling pursuit of usually enthralling and sometimes horrifying stories, and a heroic attempt to view an ambitiously large part of the African-American experience through the lens of food. This book isn't an archive dump – it's a vibrant, emotionally charged work that crackles with vitality and contemporary stories.

Twitty digs deeply as he chases down his thesis. Here, he writes about the cultural and culinary significance of the persimmon; here about the importance of corn to the slave trade; and here he delves into the role of food in African religions. The threads are numerous and long, but when woven together into the book, they tell a story of a diaspora with a remarkably deep cultural memory that is enhanced by (and often comprised of) food.
There seems to be no topic that Twitty is unwilling to dig deeply into. The diaspora of Africans in the Americas is not a monolith – it's a mosaic of languages, cultures, and geographic points of origin that make the food folkways of the American South a virtual labyrinth. Twitty charges headlong into that maze, armed with a shield of research and a sword of clear, readable prose. 

"The Cooking Gene" is not merely a well-researched book – it is a furious tornado of information, a frothy cascade of historical, biological, sociological, linguistic and other various types of data. Twitty cannot mention a name of a fruit, a place, or a person without disgorging a fountain of background, almost all of which has the collective effect of making the reader deeply aware that America is not the place it seems to be.

Slavery hangs like a specter over this work. Twitty brings the reader into the plantation kitchen, out amongst the plants growing in the fields, and onto the very slave ships themselves as they haul their human cargo far from home to a terrifying new existence across the Atlantic. The author illuminates and damns the hideous nature of slavery even as he celebrates the cultural and physical resilience of those who endured its evil. For readers who have not reckoned seriously with the profound and continuing effect of slavery on American culture, this book would be a good place to start. And for those who have read deeply on the topic, "The Cooking Gene" will surely offer angles and insights coming from the kitchen, the field, the garden, and the dinner table that will be novel and worthy of exploration.

The author's identity is deeply and necessarily entangled with his work. Twitty is African-American, Jewish, and gay, and he unpacks all of these aspects of his humanity with care and thoughtfulness. Twitty's investigations into his own story take the form of research trips, reflection on family memories, and even DNA analysis, but they never seem to be self-indulgent. The complexity of Twitty's story is a good analogue to the depth of his bigger tale, and the points of connection are innumerable.

Last and certainly not least, "The Cooking Gene" is a recipe book, containing everything from the grimly esoteric (trough mush and hoecakes) to the accessible (macaroni and cheese and potato salad) to the celebratory (West African brisket and catfish stew.) With only about 30 recipes, "The Cooking Gene" is a brief cookbook, but Twitty does a fine job of picking dishes that tell his story from widely varying perspectives.

Twitty has accomplished something remarkable with "The Cooking Gene." He has written a book that is deeply personal and at times profoundly emotional without losing sight of an ambitious goal: documenting one of America's foundational food cultures. This isn't a book to acquire, cook from, and discard when the next year's crop of beautifully illustrated recipe volumes hit the shelves. It's a book to save, reread, and share until everyone you know has a working understanding of the human stories and pain behind some of America's most foundational and historically significant foods.

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