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The Cooking Gene
Cover of The Cooking Gene
The Cooking Gene
A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South
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2018 James Beard Foundation Book of the Year | 2018 James Beard Foundation Book Award Winner inWriting | Nominee for the 2018 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in Nonfiction | #75 on The Root100 2018

A renowned culinary historian offers a fresh perspective on our most divisive cultural issue, race, in this illuminating memoir of Southern cuisine and food culture that traces his ancestry—both black and white—through food, from Africa to America and slavery to freedom.

Southern food is integral to the American culinary tradition, yet the question of who "owns" it is one of the most provocative touch points in our ongoing struggles over race. In this unique memoir, culinary historian Michael W. Twitty takes readers to the white-hot center of this fight, tracing the roots of his own family and the charged politics surrounding the origins of soul food, barbecue, and all Southern cuisine.

From the tobacco and rice farms of colonial times to plantation kitchens and backbreaking cotton fields, Twitty tells his family story through the foods that enabled his ancestors' survival across three centuries. He sifts through stories, recipes, genetic tests, and historical documents, and travels from Civil War battlefields in Virginia to synagogues in Alabama to Black-owned organic farms in Georgia.

As he takes us through his ancestral culinary history, Twitty suggests that healing may come from embracing the discomfort of the Southern past. Along the way, he reveals a truth that is more than skin deep—the power that food has to bring the kin of the enslaved and their former slaveholders to the table, where they can discover the real America together.

Illustrations by Stephen Crotts

2018 James Beard Foundation Book of the Year | 2018 James Beard Foundation Book Award Winner inWriting | Nominee for the 2018 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in Nonfiction | #75 on The Root100 2018

A renowned culinary historian offers a fresh perspective on our most divisive cultural issue, race, in this illuminating memoir of Southern cuisine and food culture that traces his ancestry—both black and white—through food, from Africa to America and slavery to freedom.

Southern food is integral to the American culinary tradition, yet the question of who "owns" it is one of the most provocative touch points in our ongoing struggles over race. In this unique memoir, culinary historian Michael W. Twitty takes readers to the white-hot center of this fight, tracing the roots of his own family and the charged politics surrounding the origins of soul food, barbecue, and all Southern cuisine.

From the tobacco and rice farms of colonial times to plantation kitchens and backbreaking cotton fields, Twitty tells his family story through the foods that enabled his ancestors' survival across three centuries. He sifts through stories, recipes, genetic tests, and historical documents, and travels from Civil War battlefields in Virginia to synagogues in Alabama to Black-owned organic farms in Georgia.

As he takes us through his ancestral culinary history, Twitty suggests that healing may come from embracing the discomfort of the Southern past. Along the way, he reveals a truth that is more than skin deep—the power that food has to bring the kin of the enslaved and their former slaveholders to the table, where they can discover the real America together.

Illustrations by Stephen Crotts

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About the Author-
  • Michael W. Twitty is a noted culinary and cultural historian and the creator of Afroculinaria, the first blog devoted to African American historic foodways and their legacies. He has been honored by FirstWeFeast.com as one of the twenty greatest food bloggers of all time, and named one of the "Fifty People Who Are Changing the South" by Southern Living and one of the "Five Cheftavists to Watch" by TakePart.com. Twitty has appeared throughout the media, including on NPR's The Splendid Table, and has given more than 250 talks in the United States and abroad. His work has appeared in Ebony, the Guardian, and on NPR.org. He is also a Smith fellow with the Southern Foodways Alliance, a TED fellow and speaker, and the first Revolutionary in Residence at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Twitty lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    July 24, 2017
    In this tasty but overstuffed food odyssey, Afroculinaria historian Twitty recounts his “Southern Discomfort Tour” that he documented on his blog The Cooking Gene: revisiting the varied cuisines of the antebellum Tidewater, Low Country, and Cotton Belt South, talking to chefs and farmers, giving historical cooking demonstrations, and piecing together biographical and gastronomic lore on his enslaved (and enslaving) ancestors. On the peg of the tour he hangs a surfeit of information, from history and agronomy to genealogical research, recipes, and boyhood reminiscences of his grandmother’s Sunday soul food feasts. Yet that information is not always well-digested: the author’s DNA testing results prompt lengthy disquisitions on the ethnogeography of West Africa, and some cultural-studies verbiage—“our food world is a charged scene of culinary inquiry”—could use trimming. For food lovers, his descriptions are rich: “the collard greens spiked with hot pepper, sugar and fatback, fried chicken, Virginia country ham… sweet cornbread, biscuits, string beans that swim in potlikker.” Throughout, Twitty integrates historical details into the narrative, as in accounts of the backbreaking slave labor of tobacco and rice farming or the emotional anguish of slave auctions—and the results are fascinating.

  • Kirkus

    Starred review from June 1, 2017
    Food historian Twitty, creator of the Afroculinaria blog, serves up a splendid hearth-based history, at once personal and universal, of the African-American experience.The author accounts himself a citizen of the Old South, "a place where people use food to tell themselves who they are." It is also, he continues, a fraught place where food controversies--whether to put sugar and not molasses in cornbread, say--pile atop controversies of history, all pointing to the terrible fact of slavery. Twitty's book is not just about food, though it certainly covers the broad expanse of African-American cooking over the centuries and how it shaped the larger Southern American culinary tradition. The author delights in the "world of edible antiques" that his researches take him into, a world requiring him to think in terms of gills, drams, and pecks. Twitty also traces his own family history, beyond the eight or so generations that carry documents, to places all over the world: a white ancestor here, an Indonesian by way of Madagascar forebear there, Native Americans and West Africans and Anglos meeting in bloodstreams and at table. On all these matters, the author writes with elegant urgency, moving swiftly from topic to topic: on one page, he may write of the tobacco economy of the Confederacy, on another of the ways in which "the food of the Chesapeake grew legs as the culture of the Upper South was forced to branch out" beyond the Appalachians and Mississippi into new territories, such that "turkey with oyster dressing on a Maryland plantation became turkey with freshwater clam and mussel sauce on a slaveholding Missouri farmstead." Drawing on a wealth of documentary digging, personal interviews, and plenty of time in the kitchen, Twitty ably joins past and present, puzzling out culinary mysteries along the way--e.g., "chickens got served to preachers because chickens had always flounced in the hands of African priests, and nobody remembered why." An exemplary, inviting exploration and an inspiration for cooks and genealogists alike.

    COPYRIGHT(2017) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    July 1, 2017

    Culinary historian and blogger Twitty (afroculinaria.com) recounts his personal mission to document the links between his forebearers' foodways and family history from Africa to America, from slavery to freedom. His effort is part food memoir, part ancestral findings, and a paean to the culinary successes of his ancestors. Twitty visited cultural locations pertinent to his story, lectured on his findings, and engaged in genealogical research to comprehend his roots and food heritage. The author details his childhood aversion to soul food, introduction to cooking, devotion to family, conversion to Judaism and mastery of its dishes, while providing genealogical insights along the way. During his visits to plantations throughout the South, Twitty made fascinating discoveries, such as that farmers markets and community gardens served bondsmen well, and that their personal gardens acted to moderate slavery itself; that the slave's diet was perhaps healthier than the master's table; and that field labor tended to preserve the manhood and brotherhood of many of the enslaved. Conversely, Twitty's search for his ancestors in slave auction advertisements reveals the human costs and indignities associated with these sales. VERDICT A valuable addition to culinary and Old South historiography with lip-smacking period recipes. Recommended for regional historians, professional chefs, cuisine enthusiasts, and general readers.--John Carver Edwards, formerly with Univ. of Georgia Libs.

    Copyright 2017 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • New York Times Book Review "Fascinating."
  • Kirkus Reviews (starred review) "Twitty ably joins past and present, puzzling out culinary mysteries along the way... An exemplary, inviting exploration and an inspiration for cooks and genealogists alike."
  • Christian Science Monitor "Twitty has accomplished something remarkable with The Cooking Gene... 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."
  • Washington Post "Should there ever be a competition to determine the most interesting man in the world, Michael W. Twitty would have to be considered a serious contender."
  • Dr. Henry Louis Gates, host of PBS’ Many Rivers to Cross and Finding Your Roots "Slavery made the world of our ancestors incredibly remote to us. Thankfully, the work of Michael W. Twitty helps restore our awareness of their struggles and successes bite by bite, giving us a true taste of the past."
  • Toni Tipton-Martin, James Beard Award-winning author of The Jemima Code "Written in Michael W. Twitty's no-nonsense style and interlaced with moments of levity, The Cooking Gene is gritty, compelling, and enlightening – a mix of personal narrative and the history of race, politics, economics and enslavement that will broaden notions of African-American culinary identity."
  • Library Journal (starred review) "Fascinating.... A valuable addition to culinary and Old South historiography with lip-smacking period recipes."
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