In pursuit of truth and identity, culinary historian Michael W. Twitty uncovers his soul in his award-winning book, “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South.” The creator of Afroculinaria, the first blog solely focused on African-American historic foodways and their legacies, uses his lineage and the art of storytelling to explain the intersection of food in culture, tradition, and history. He traces his ancestors back to slavery and their motherlands. He also visits various landmarks in the South such as the Forest Oak Plantation in Nash County, N.C., to reimagine their existence and fare.
Throughout his pilgrimage, he discovers the culinary influences African-Americans have had in the South due to their rich heritage. Twitty couldn’t have done so without mentioning the origins of foods like apples, sweet potatoes, corn, black-eyed peas, okra, and sugar, which added a nice touch to the reading.
Interestingly, Twitty, who grew up in the District of Columbia, hated soul food, hot sauce, and the smell of collard greens when he was growing up. He preferred fast food. He also confessed that he disliked being black. Television played a role in his self-hatred. Twitty learned to cook at the age of six by watching his mother and grandmother in the kitchen. He discussed what that room of the house symbolized to him—sexuality, anger, and love. At seven, he declared himself Jewish and shifted his eating temporarily.
As Twitty comes of age, his skill evolves from watching cooking shows and living in a diverse community, among other things. He says, “All I ever really wanted was a recipe of who I am and where I come from.” So, he compares his deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) results from various kits such as Ancestry.com, AncestryDNA, and 23andMe.com. He explains the difference between maternal and paternal ancestries and shares the importance of testing as many relatives in a direct bloodline as possible. This section gives insight to those interested in learning more about genealogy. Now, when people ask, “Who are you and what does the plate of food you put before me communicate to us who you are?” Twitty’s response is, “My food is my flag.”
This historical book also features almost two dozen recipes. They appear at the close of several chapters. Some are relevant during the time of slavery, grief, and tradition such as the hoecake, the funeral potato salad, and the New Year’s Day black-eyed peas. The recipes consist of familiar ingredients found in many households or local supermarkets. The lists may seem long at times, but the easy-to-follow instructions make preparation quick. Color images grace the pages about halfway through the book. They are mainly of locations and people Twitty met along his journey.
The food and family discussion made me reflect on my own. So, I tested the fried apples recipe to pay homage to my grandmother who also made and loved them. I used six organic Honeycrisp apples, brown sugar, cinnamon, and allspice. I couldn’t resist adding butter opposed to the other options. The recipe called for a splash of cider; I added 100 percent apple juice instead. The sweet fragrance filled the air and the soft, caramelized fruit brought back fond memories, a delicious treat indeed.
Enjoy more great dishes like these in “The Cooking Gene.” It comes recommended for foodies who want to have real conversations about the history of southern cuisine. And most importantly, it will inspire readers to set off on their own voyage to find their own culinary roots and soul.
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