Book Review: The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael Twitty
And now for something a little different.
When I heard that Michael Twitty was writing a book exploring African American culinary history, I knew it was a must-read.* For those who don’t know him, Michael regularly blends the history of food into his thoughts about African American history, Jewish history and cultural understanding. I suspected I wouldn’t be getting a cook book, but a look at history from a perspective I haven’t seen (and grew up on the other side of).**
“The Cooking Gene” is many things: a look at history, an autobiography, and a genealogy. It’s Michael’s journey of self-discovery of his roots and culture. Woven throughout is how African culture and cuisine played a role in life and growth in the US. It is a hard look, being open and frank about the role slavery played in bringing African influence to American cuisine, and does not soften that role in the slightest.
Michael tells the story in much the way he discovered it. As a result, it’s not a linear journey. We’re reading parts of a life journey of discovery of faith, gender, heritage, and identity. And in almost every page are subtle nods to the role food plays, both for him and for the people of the times in question. Whether BBQ, veggies, or sugar cane, we learn how African culture has influenced it to this day.
Let me be clear: this is not an easy book to read. It’s going to make you question a lot of what you knew (or thought you knew) about food, but also about race and history. And that’s a good thing, because if it didn’t make you question then it would have failed in its job. This is definitely a success.
Is it worth a read? Absolutely.
Is it worth owning? I certainly think so. Again, let me clarify that this isn’t a cook book (although there are quite a few excellent looking recipes). This is history.
* “The Cooking Gene” was crowd sourced funded. I did contribute a small amount. I was not paid for the review and purchased my copy.
** One of the places Michael visited was Middleton Place in Charleston, SC. I’ve visited there myself as part of a family reunion, since I am a Middleton on my father’s side of the family. It’s definitely eye-opening to get a perspective from the other side.