Visiting where I come from with my son
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Michael Twitty's The Cooking Gene

The-cooking-gene-book-coverI just finished Michael Twitty's book The Cooking Gene. It's a deep exploration of southern cooking, African cuisine, slavery and its continuing impacts, and how food shapes our sense of where we come from and who we are.

I'm an outsider to the African American cultural history this book chronicles. But I know good memoir when I read it, and this is good memoir. It's also a rich, complicated exploration of race and history and memory. And from time to time it's also a meditation on Jewishness and food, and on those subjects at least I feel some reasonable semblance of expertise. Twitty chose Judaism as a young adult, taking on the mitzvot and the Jewish people's long history along with the histories of his genetic ancestors. (In addition to being a culinary historian, he's also a Judaic studies teacher. Wow do I wish I could bring him to my shul to teach my b'nei mitzvah kids.)


I read this book on my phone, on airplanes to and from my own birthplace in south Texas. If I'd read it on paper, I would have annotated the heck out of the volume: there would be underlined passages and exclamation points in the margins at the passages that moved or surprised me most.

As it is, I don't have quotations to share with you. I can only reference some of the passages that have stayed with me: the part where he writes about cooking on a plantation using his ancestors' tools and ingredients -- the part where he traces ingredients from Africa, transplanted along with the people for whom they were familiar -- the part where he writes about tracing his white ancestry (because white slaveholders raped the women they "owned," and therefore he is descended from slave owners as well as slaves) -- the part where he offers quotations from historical sources about the "Middle Passage" and what slavery actually entailed -- the part where he's teaching seventh graders about the Holocaust, and slavery comes up, and one of the kids tells him it was a long time ago and he should "get over it" -- the part where he writes about picking cotton and almost glimpsing the ghosts of his ancestors around him, noting that the ashcake they ate in the fields was truly the bread of affliction. (I will hear echoes of that this Pesach when I take my first bite of matzah.) The conversations with Low Country chefs and experts who are preserving Gullah food and culture, and with southern "good old boys" who are Confederate re-enactors -- and the agony of not being able to trace his whole family tree, because during slavery families were broken apart and records didn't preserve data because these human beings were considered chattel, not human beings... 

What moves me most is Twitty's combination of love for where he comes from, and willingness to approach his history (which serves as a synecdoche for African-American history writ large) with generosity. He celebrates soul food without ignoring its roots in slavery and scarcity. He doesn't turn a blind eye to the horrors of slavery, nor the ugly ways in which those horrors still shape the relationship between whites and people of color in this country today. And, he makes the conscious choice to pursue connection, even with the descendants of those who enslaved his forebears, without spiritual bypassing or pretending away the damage done to African American communities to this day.  Maybe that's why this book feels redemptive to me. 


Reading The Cooking Gene, I found myself thinking a lot about the foods with which I grew up as a white (Ashkenazi) Jewish woman with immigrant grandparents in south Texas, and the foods I've embraced as an adult seeking a more multicultural approach to cooking and eating, and how race and history play into all of these.

I was particularly struck by Twitty's tracing of West African ingredients and flavors into American forms. I learned to love (and to cook!) Ghanaian food thanks to my ex-husband Ethan. He lived in Ghana for a year on a Fullbright grant right after college, and has returned there often since then. I only went to Ghana with him twice, but those trips impacted me. (See Dancing with the widow, an essay from 2000.) Our son has a Akan day-of-the-week name, and was blessed with Ghanaian moonshine and a libation poured to the ancestors at his naming ceremony where he also received his Hebrew name.

My two trips to Ghana don't make me an expert on anything, but they give me a personal connection with the place and the people I met while I was there. That feeling of connection intensifies the awfulness of reading Twitty's words about slavery. (On my first trip to Ghana I visited Cape Coast Castle, one place where slaves were loaded aboard ship to sail across the sea in unthinkable conditions toward even more unthinkable futures.) And that feeling of connection intensifies my delight at recognizing African ingredients transplanted into the southern American culinary vernacular, and recognizing the indigenous and African roots of some of the foods I grew up eating. (Here's a blog post from Twitty about the Colonial roots of southern barbecue -- a story that you can also read, in somewhat revised form, in the book.)

If you are interested in food, memory, race, or American history, this book is absolutely worth reading. (And if you are not yet interested in the culinary traditions of the African diaspora, I expect you will be by the time you finish.) I recommend it highly.


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