Turn on the Food Network, or browse the cooking section of a bookstore, and you’ll find a satisfying glut of famous chefs who pride themselves on specializing in the food of their heritage. Are you interested in the traditional cooking of Italy, Japan, or Lebanon? You can find personalities and recipes to satisfy your interest in the commixture of food and culture.
And, truly, food is culture. It is not just sustenance. It means something. Preparing food and eating it is a political, social, economic, artistic, religious, and cultural act.
The Elephant in the Room of Modern American Food
All of the above you know. But Michael W. Twitty realized that there was something no one was talking about. No one was discussing it on the Food Network. No one was writing cookbooks about it.
Twitty is quite the food personality himself. He is an expert in traditional American cooking, and a cultural historian with an interest in genealogy. He is from Washington, DC, and (according to his book bio) lives in Maryland, not far from me.
Because he could not bear the silence and emptiness of not knowing, Twitty went on a long journey to discover his roots, both genetic and culinary. He traveled around the U.S. and world doing research. He wrote a book, which is also a cookbook, to document what he discovered. In this 2017 work, The Cooking Gene, he exposes that elephantine thing that people in the food industry don’t talk about.
(No, it’s not about making elephant stew. . . . Lame joke alert.)
It’s about African-American history. Here’s what Twitty has to say about our collective cultural omission:
“For generations, when black cooks were enslaved they were called ‘born cooks,’ our ability to slay in the kitchen considered a genetic ability rather than a combination of circumstance, nurture, and personal choice and ability. Only now that cooking with a story becomes a jackpot and an ideational diamond mine does this particular branding of people of color become conspicuously quiet, and there is something unmistakably peculiar about that.”
Peculiar, indeed. (Almost as peculiar as a home-cooking recipe that will serve 3800 people. . . . Lame joke alert.)
But seriously. We have a media situation in the U.S. whereby chefs are capitalizing on their unique culinary heritage and making a fortune on books, TV appearances, and so on.
But for African Americans to talk about their culinary heritage, if they go back just a few generations, they have to talk about slavery.
That’s not easy for anyone. It’s not easy to talk about, and it’s not easy to listen to.
Twitty is willing to talk.
I’m willing to listen.
Let’s Dish Up That Unsavory Elephant
I met Michael W. Twitty in person, briefly. He gave a talk at a writer’s conference I attended last year. Impressed by what he had to say, I bought his book, and he signed it. He came across to me as simultaneously tough and big-hearted. He comes across that way in his book, too. He gives the impression, both in person and in writing, that he’s been through a hell of a lot, but that he’s a big-time fighter who won’t give up on himself and those who stand with him, in a world that often wants to beat him down.
Twitty, who is black, gay, and Jewish, was determined to get to the bottom of his culinary heritage. He was determined to uncover as much truth as he could, no matter how many unsavory facts, wrong turns, and dead ends he encountered on the way.
Here’s a peek into why he wanted to take such a difficult journey:
“It profits me nothing to be a culinary orphan of the West sans pedigree.”
Implicit in this statement is that he believes African Americans have been culinary orphans. This is partly because of the omission (the elephant in the room) in American culinary media and culture. Twitty is not saying that an African-American culinary tradition does not exist. He is saying that the details of its history and origins have been obscured, because of a long tradition of people not talking about it.
He also points out that African-American genealogy is tricky to piece together. Enslaved people were often illiterate (and often kept so purposely). Family histories were not kept as people were mercilessly bought and sold. And many freed people changed their names after the Civil War, an understandable choice that obscured a past that they were not keen to remember.
Twitty, though, wanted, and needed, to know and to remember. Here is what he was determined to do:
“To go beyond assumptions; to interrogate our pain; to see the faces of my ancestors, to cook with them, to know them intimately the only way I can know them after decades of memory loss—those are my paths.”
And that’s what he did, and what he recounts in The Cooking Gene. Fascinatingly, he follows his ancestors back in time, traversing multiple continents and culinary traditions. He discovers ancestors of his from many cultures. He discovers ancestors who were enslaved, and ancestors who were slave owners. He discovers ancestors who lived in the American South, Africa, and Europe. He follows their stories and the food they ate, and how their food shaped who they were. And he discovers, to the extent possible, the paths that eventually resulted in the birth of him.
It is a cathartic, harrowing, and love-filled journey.
The book that resulted is told in a poetic style unlike anything I’ve read before. It is a style all Twitty’s own.
Are you a listener?