Memories Evoked While Reading The Cooking Gene by Michael W. Twitty


How I feel about food and why I wanted to read The Cooking Gene
Food can be soulful, pleasurable, nourishing, and fortifying. It can heal, and bring people together. When we eat, we may partake of the natural world’s bounty and beauty, satisfying hunger and desire.

But when it comes to talking about food in America’s Old South we don’t want to talk about miscegenation between whites, blacks, and Native Americans or the culinary debt that the Old South owes to Africa not only in foods and recipes, but in souls and bodies, in farming and cultivation, in economics. The story of food in the old American south is deeply connected to the folklore of American families. Food can get complicated when we look at its relationship to temporal constructs of power.

I love to eat, and I enjoy cooking – especially doing some “switchin’ in the kitchen” with family members. If you’ve read some of my other posts like Aromas of Family Folklore, Sardines! or my review of Vertamae Grosvenor’s Vibration Cooking, you may have detected my affection for the role of food in our cultural and personal histories.

My mouth had been watering to read Michael W. Twitty’s The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South ever since I learned about it from reading Twitty’s blog, Afroculinaria, where he often writes about the intersections between history, racial politics, social justice, and food. The idea of Twitty, a black male culinary authority – who also identifies as Jewish and gay – investigating and writing about “African American History in the Old South” had me anticipating what television foodies call “so much depth of flavor!” I hoped also to learn more about the roots of his work as a culinary historian and living history interpreter.

My Experience Reading the Cooking Gene
I found The Cooking Gene to be a sweeping work, written stridently – sometimes poetically – with large measures of multi-geographic, multi-racial, multi-lingual, economic, and genealogical documentation. As much agricultural history as personal memoir, Twitty’s narrative imagines and pays homage to his heritage using food as the divining rod. Using his own genealogy, he illustrates how his forebears were captured, stored, shipped, bought, sold, traded, forgotten; disappeared, and went unaccounted for. How ancestors were separated and dispersed, rooted and uprooted from many locations. He writes candidly about what most black families know and acknowledge but white families less so: the fact of multiple races on the family tree.

“…There are many African American families who are connected to other African Americans through European ancestors. It vividly illustrates just how entrenched America was in the process of enslaving and the culture of slavery. Not just the business aspect of it, but kind of how there was a creolization process, if you will, that Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans were making a people who were unique and distinct from anyone else in [the] world because of slavery. It brought people from all over the world into a very different context that had never taken place.” – Michael W. Twitty, from page 114 of The Cooking Gene

Some things hurt me to read. For instance, we use the word seasoning to talk about adding flavor to food, and I learned to use it as a synonym for “experienced,” but during slavery times it meant:

“…forcing the exiled Africans to yield to the whip, understand their lot in life as inferior chattel, and accustom themselves to the grueling pace of labor on an American plantation” -from page 144 of The Cooking Gene

a recipe for Kitchen Pepper is on page 24

Some Places Where I Felt My Personal History Converge With Things I Read in the Book
Certain memories returned to me while I was reading The Cooking Gene. For instance, when I read that foods such as okra, black eyed peas, bananas, watermelon and goobers (peanuts) were brought to America from Africa, I remembered being a child and having southern relatives call us kids “Goober,” “Gooby,” and “Gooba” as terms of endearment.

When I read about the sorghum and sugarcane cultivated by Africans and slaves, and their significance to the American economy and diet in Chapter 9: “Sweet Tooth,” I remembered sopping biscuits and pancakes with Alaga syrup (in the glass bottle and named for the southern states of Alabama and Georgia), and seeing vintage-looking jars of sorghum in the back of the pantry.

When I read that enslaved Africans and blacks born into slavery often planted and cultivated small vegetable gardens in the slave quarters I thought about how my father – who grew up in Alabama in the 1930s and 40s- always planted a fresh vegetable garden in the yards of his homes “up North,” and, sometimes, when I was playing hopscotch, jacks, and handclap games with my sisters and neighborhood friends, he would interrupt and tell me to come and help him pick greens.

I think because I was the firstborn and a girl, he believed that I needed to know how to soak and wash the greens once or twice in salt water, and a third time with just a little bit of [lemon fresh] “Joy” dish detergent before a final rinse. Daddy showed me how to roll [collard] greens and slice them into ribbons, some of which we shared or packed for storage in the freezer for future meals. Juices from cooked greens – known as “pot liquor” were given to us to sip to keep us fortified against illnesses. And when my mother sent me to school with carrots or a whole tomato from Daddy’s garden and salt and pepper in a ziplock baggie, my classmates looked at me strange.

ingredients for African Soul Fried Rice minus the rice and black eyed peas

In The Cooking Gene, when I read about a West African concept known as set (a commitment to cleanliness and order), I remembered it was my Grandma Essie Mae who taught me to “clean as you go” in the kitchen – meaning that you wipe counters and stovetops, wash utensils, bowls, pots and pans during all stages of food preparation rather than waiting until the end when the kitchen is likely to look like a cyclone hit it.

Digression
One little word in the book hit my memory banks especially hard: pokeweed (-also known as poke sallet and polk salad).
(I wrote a story about it/ wanna hear it?/ here it go):

Once, during a family gathering, I saw the adults huddled around the hi-fi listening to a certain recording. Instead of dancing to it, they stayed seated – clapping, tapping their toes, and playing it over and over again in order to capture the story in the song; certain parts of which made them laugh out loud. The name of the song was “Polk Salad Annie,” (1969) and Daddy beckoned me to come closer so I could hear.

I didn’t like the sound of “Polk Salad Annie,” in which a male singer with a southern twang (Tony Joe White) sang about a woman named Annie who went into the woods to “pick her a mess” of these greens and how Annie was so mean she “made an alligator look tame.” The lyric “gators got your granny” disturbed me since the singer followed this up with chomping sounds that I managed to confuse with images of the Big Bad Wolf lying in wait to devour Little Red Ridinghood! And as if all of that wasn’t bad enough, the singer sang what a shame it was that Annie’s mother was “workin’ on a chain gang!”

This song didn’t jibe with the hip sounds and lyrics of tunes that I liked such as “Don’t Mess With Bill” (The Marvelettes, 1965), “Get Ready” (The Temptations, 1966), “Let Yourself Go” (James Brown, 1967), “M’Lady” (Sly & The Family Stone, 1968), “Choice of Colors” (The Impressions, 1969), “The Love You Save” (The Jackson Five, 1970), and “Funky Nassau” (The Beginning of the End, 1971). I gave Daddy [and them] a disapproving look, and when they realized that I didn’t like the song, they teased me, telling each other what a good idea they thought it would be to come to my school and sing the song for my class.

This became a running joke with the adults that haunted me for some weeks. Whenever someone brought a note from the principal’s office to my classroom at school, I expected the teacher to unfold and read aloud an announcement that members of my family had arrived to sing [a rowdy rendition of] “Polk Salad Annie!”

My Wish List for The Cooking Gene
I had an emotional mixed experience and response reading and writing about this book because I understand it as an important project and I admire its breadth and ambition.

this photo of Michael W. Twitty by Jacob W. Dillow is one of 14 included in The Cooking Gene

The book contains all of the ingredients, but as a reader I really had to work at making it taste right in my mouth. I had to work to make a fluid narrative in my mind. It was like having been invited to partake of a sumptuous, multi-course feast, and, in the middle of eating the soup course the cook came over and added a ladle of stewed ingredients and spices from the entree course mixed with last night’s leftovers to my bowl. Sometimes my digestive system was confused.

I wish The Cooking Gene had:

  • a timeline or chronology for The Cooking Gene Tours so I can see how long this journey has been going on;
  • an index to allow for cross-referencing; for instance: Twitty writes about foods that originated in Africa in more than one place in the book and the lists aren’t always the same;
  • maps to show the plantations and living history museums and environments where Twitty’s research took him;
  • a glossary of names of foods and customs from different languages and traditions that Twitty uses in his narrative (mwamba, hamantaschen, cymling squash, and hog plums were just a few names I had no references for);
  • I wanted to know more about the history of Afroculinaria, how Twitty’s project really evolved. I didn’t begin following his blog before 2014-2015 and I’m not sure that the average person picking up the book understands that Twitty’s research didn’t merely involve reading books and print media and poring over photographs, maps, and archival documents but that he spent time in different locations becoming acquainted with the crops and recipes of the regions and learned to prepare foods under the conditions that they would have been prepared during slavery and antebellum and “old south’” time periods. This method of learning via “living history interpretation” etc., is rich but I don’t think a lot of us know what it is; and I think Twitty missed an opportunity to educate readers about that.
  • a chronology, chart, or culinary family tree that acknowledges the work of black southern culinary historians whose work precedes Twitty’s.

In order to taste Michael W. Twitty’s impassioned voice and worldview about his work in general, and The Cooking Gene in particular, I suggest reading the first paragraph of “Author’s Note,” then Chapter 21: “Sankofa” in order to ready your appetite for Chapters 1-20. NOTE: Consult This Cooking Gene FAQ.

I cooked some African Soul Fried Rice following Michael J. Twitty’s recipe

***
Chapter 13 of The Cooking Gene is titled “The Queen,” and it is all about rice. I was reminded of a beautiful book of poems, Rice (1995), by Nikki Finney that I own but haven’t read lately. The cover art – “Knee deep in a rice bowl” – is by LaVon Van Williams. You may be familiar with Finney’s work because she won a National Book Award in 2011 for her book Head Off & Split.

excerpt from the poem “The Rice” by Nikky Finney:
“If their fingers flame
at the wheez of their own breath
and they wait to watch all of me burn
you just throw the rice
if they come at night
and want to take
the last stacks of me from you
from off the kitchen table
throw the rice
the rice must be thrown

Who will throw the shower of the sweet rice
as they take my work out with the garbage
as I go back
to say my vowels to the soil

Heel Toe
Heel       Toe

It is the sweet rice you throw away
but food for the hungry that will return

Great Da!”

***
Curious about “poke sallet”? Check out this short video from the Southern Foodways Alliance.
A video of Tony Joe White singing “Polk Salad Annie.”
Read “The Soul of Food: Slavery’s Influence on Southern Cuisine” by Christina Regelski.

24 Comments

  1. I always love to read about your childhood memories and experiences, Leslie. Your storytelling is always rich and entertaining.

    This was such an enlightening post and I love all the details and your honest review. I’m also glad that you highlighted the role that food plays in our history and relationships. Food photos are one of my favourites, and it was a treat to see the dish you prepared. You sure know how to throw down. 😀 I’m a carbs girl so that African Soul Food Rice did it for me. My favourite rice dish is rice and (red) peas, which is a traditional Jamaican side dish, especially for Sunday dinners.

    And yes, I know about washing vegetables that way, minus the detergent, and having a vegetable garden. My mother has a green thumb, so we always had a steady supply of local fruits, breadfruit, avocado, ackee, green bananas, and gungo peas. Even today, she still maintains it, although past hurricanes destroyed one of the mango trees, the gungo peas tree, and the small pine tree that she used to decorate every Christmas.

    As painful as it was, I appreciate learning about the roots of the word ‘seasoning’. I had no idea.

    Love the concept for the first two photos. So clever. 😉

    Thanks for sharing the poem. I’m not familiar with Finney or her works. Another book for my burgeoning TBR list.

    1. Hey! I have only read about breadfruit and ackee in books written by Caribbean authors; those are tastes I look forward to trying at some point. What are gungo peas? or how are they prepared?
      I’m glad your mother continues to cultivate her garden, despite hurricane destruction.
      Nadine, as I noted in my response to Jean Lee, the ORIGIN of the word “seasoning” IS NOT related to the definition it acquired during slavery times – I didn’t mean to give that impression.
      You know, when I first started blogging, I wanted the focus to be on my writing, and felt timid about how to use images. Now, I am enjoying coming up with ideas for visuals to accompany the text, so I’m pleased that you like the photos in this post!
      Thank you❣️

      1. Oh, I hope you get a chance to taste them. They’re among my favourites. I like when the breadfruit is roasted and then fried. Yummy! Make sure that you have the ackee with saltfish first before trying it with other protein, like bacon. Ackee and saltfish goes well with side dishes such as boiled or fried dumplings, yam or green bananas, avocado, fried plantains, and callaloo. Are there any Jamaican restaurants in your area? I want you to get the real deal.

        Gungo peas are also known as pigeon peas. We cook them with rice for a side dish to be served with any protein. It’s a popular side dish during Christmas. I’ll eat it but it’s not my favourite. I love my red peas. 😀

  2. GREAT post, Leslie! It’s so rich with your personal memories of childhood events connected to food, love it. I remember the ‘Sardines!’ post and I find your relationship to food fascinating. I even purchased ‘High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America’ by Jessica B. Harris, thanks to your Goodreads recommendation. Great photos too! Have you ever thought of writing a culinary memoir? With your photos, poetry, adulthood + childhood experiences connected to food, with some recipes? I’d totally be into that! I hope the author reads this post and considers the suggestions you made at the end.

    1. Thank you, Darkowaa! Oh, you purchased High on The Hog? I learned a lot from that one, and I hope it doesn’t disappoint whenever you get around to reading it 🙄. I’m looking forward to reading Jessica B, Harris’s memoir, My Soul Looks Back, which I understand has very little to do with food!

      I am going to consider your idea about the culinary memoir, though I have never considered it, before; it reminds me that many years ago, I wrote some pieces for a column called “Taste This!” for a bi-weekly newspaper in Detroit. I could expand on those….Maybe I will re-publish them to my blog and see what kind of response I get.

      Thank you for your suggestions and support, Darkowaa, I truly appreciate your feedback😍.

    1. Hi Kathy – I know, right?
      We often think about cuisine in terms of taste, health, calories (uh…I don’t count calories, though) and cooking, but not in terms of culture and history; I think that’s what drew me to the book.

  3. Hi, Leslie,
    I learn something every time I read your blog. Thank you for introducing me to Twitty. I’m going to check out his blog since I don’t think his book will be available in an audio format.
    I’m envious that your father taught you to ‘chiffonade’ at am early age. Oo la la! I just learned the technique a few years ago watching Food Network.

    I love your writing!

    1. Thank you, Andrea! I wish my Dad was alive so I could see the look on his face when I thanked him for teaching me to chiffonade😄. Are you fan of Food Network, too?! Thank you for reading, and commenting. Hugs

    1. Have no fear, Jean Lee, “season,” “to season,” and “seasoning” have many meanings and I’m no etymologist, but…I don’t think that its origins come from slavery times. I’m glad you got a chance to read😊.

  4. Leslie you’ve written a detailed and exact feeling of the way I felt about reading The Cooking Gene, torn. There were surely moments of genius and the wealth of information is staggering. This was one hell of a project to undertake and to deliver as a book. Genealogy, slavery, and African-American culinary history in the south are all complex subjects. The points you listed at the end of your post would have made the book easier to digest surely. Who knows? Maybe Twitty will get a chance to republish his book in the future to include these helpful necessary additions. I hope so. One thing is for sure, I will reread it.

    1. Oh, you think Michael Twitty is going to consult my blog post before publishing a second edition?! Love it!😂 I so agree with your comment regarding: “moments of genius and the wealth of information is staggering;” Yet, I felt all over the place in my reading. It took me a while, and had it not been for you and a few other people who expressed interest in me writing about The Cooking Gene, I might still be slogging my way through. I do wonder, though, about the impact of a second reading. Do you think you will do a video on BookTube about it?

  5. I learned a lot from this post, Leslie, including the meaning of miscegenation. I imagine if we all did the genetic testing that is possible these days we’d be surprised what showed up. Like Robert, I was horrified to learn of an alternate meaning to “seasoning” and will never hear that word again without thinking about it. I enjoyed all your personal anecdotes woven into your response to the book particularly your reaction to that old song Poke Salad Annie!

    1. Hi Susanne, thank you for your careful reading. One of many things that I didn’t discuss in my post was the role that genetic testing plays in Twitty’s narrative. He devoted a good amount of his narrative to what he learned about his ancestry from DNA testing, at one point (page 382) he writes “Then the first outcome came—71 percent African, 28 percent European, the rest ambiguous and uncertain. Many tests later, I am still just that; a little over a quarter European, and in a rare bracket of black people who have more than the average 10 to 15 percent European ancestry.” He visited Dublin and London as part of his investigation into that part of his culinary ancestry.

      I’m glad you enjoyed my personal anecdotes – that was the through line for me to connect with and write about the rich and complicated “work of narrative nonfiction” that is The Cooking Gene.
      By the way, do you remember hearing Tony Joe White’s “Polk Salad Annie”?

  6. An excellent review of a terrific book. I finished reading Twitty’s book a few weeks ago, and was planning to do a blog post and recipe, but I need to process it. Much of it is pretty heavy, and though I loved the culinary and foodie history, parts of it were painful and hurt my heart to read. But I learned a tremendous amount, both from the book and your erudite review. I agree a glossary would have been helpful, as there were quite a few references I didn’t quite get. Thanks for such a great review and post!

    1. I really look forward to the blog post and recipe you develop to go along with The Cooking Gene, whenever you get around to doing it.
      I would say that I am still processing my reading of the book, as well. I first started reading and taking notes back in August! As you can tell, there are many points of interest that my post doesn’t even begin to touch on; and for a while I was overwhelmed until I gave myself permission to not write a point-by-point “review.” Maybe it would have been interesting to read this with other bloggers, with each blogger focusing on a particular aspect of the book!
      Thank you for reading, and I’m glad you enjoyed it!

    1. Thank you for reading, Bernadette. There is so much more to this book than I could cover – so I look forward to learning how other readers experience its content. I did neglect to mention that this 400+ page book includes about 20 recipes, including “Catfish Stew” and “New Year’s Day Black-Eyed Peas” – although I have my own recipe for the latter!

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