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