Cook­ing Gene delves into mul­tira­cial DNA of South­ern food

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - JERIANN GELLER

Like the au­thor him­self, The Cook­ing Gene (Amis­tad, Aug. 1) by Michael W. Twitty de­fies easy cat­e­go­riza­tion. Not quite a mem­oir, nor his­tor­i­cal non­fic­tion, nor a cook­book, it com­bines el­e­ments of all three to take us on a his­tor­i­cal jour­ney that shows how African food­ways formed and in­formed the Amer­i­can diet and how the history of a peo­ple can be writ large in the food they ate.

When Twitty ap­proached pub­lish­ers about his work as a culi­nary his­to­rian in­ves­ti­gat­ing the African roots of South­ern cui­sine, he was told that his iden­tity was too com­plex and his work didn’t fit neatly into any one genre. But his unique, in­ter­sec­tional per­spec­tive as a black Amer­i­can gay Jew brings in­sight to ev­ery facet of The Cook­ing Gene. Twitty ex­plores av­enues of­ten over­looked in the development of South­ern cook­ing by ex­am­in­ing the very el­e­ments of his ex­is­tence — from his fam­ily history and the food he grew up with to his DNA. As Twitty writes, “It’s as if by cook­ing you have crossed a bound­ary, and the dance of pound­ing, knead­ing, sweat­ing, chok­ing, and sweat­ing con­nects with some­thing time­less, all of the move­ments that came be­fore you be­come you.”

What is re­vealed is a nu­anced and com­plex pic­ture of a coun­try’s history through our food by teas­ing apart the tra­di­tional foods and cook­ing styles of African, Amer­i­can In­dian and Euro­pean tra­di­tions. Twitty doesn’t flinch from hard truths that he dis­cov­ers along the way — the crops that made America great and fu­eled bel­lies and the na­tional econ­omy were of­ten bru­tal to the en­slaved. Rice and sugar cane were sources of back­break­ing and of­ten deadly la­bor. Cot­ton drove the en­slaved deeper into mis­ery and forced a wan­ing slave trade back into high de­mand.

Twitty traces the twist­ing and tan­gled trail of how the peo­ples of West Africa adapted to what they en­coun­tered, by seiz­ing the fa­mil­iar, adapt­ing to new foods, and el­e­vat­ing the recipes they were taught. He learns how Amer­i­cans are as in­ter­re­lated as the food they love, dis­cov­er­ing white an­ces­tors who con­nect him to black cousins and a white woman who came to America as an in­den­tured ser­vant and mar­ried ac­cord­ing to class, not race.

The culi­nary in­ter­sec­tions that make up his iden­tity as a black Jewish man are equally il­lu­mi­nat­ing. “Jewish food and black food criss­cross each other through­out history. They are both cuisines where home­land and ex­ile in­ter­play. Ideas and emo­tions are in­gre­di­ents — satire, irony, long­ing, re­sis­tance — and you have to eat the food to ex­tract the meaning,” he writes.

Like Twitty him­self, The Cook­ing Gene is far more than the sum of its parts. The poetry of his lan­guage em­pow­ers the jour­ney of a man who be­comes the avatar of what was to be­come America. He re­veals a South that has one foot in its tu­mul­tuous history and an­other in a di­verse fu­ture.

As Twitty writes: “The Old South is where I cook. The Old South is a place where food tells me where I am. The Old South is a place where food tells me who I am. The Old South is a place where food tells me where we have been. The Old South is where the story of our food might just tell America where it’s go­ing.”

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