The Cook­ing Gene: A Jour­ney Through African Amer­i­can Culi­nary His­to­ry in the Old South

  • From the Publisher
August 1, 2018

2018 James Beard Foun­da­tion Book of the Year | 2018 James Beard Foun­da­tion Book Award Win­ner inWrit­ing | Nom­i­nee for the 2018 Hurston/​Wright Lega­cy Award in Non­fic­tion | #75 on The Root100 2018

A renowned culi­nary his­to­ri­an offers a fresh per­spec­tive on our most divi­sive cul­tur­al issue, race, in this illu­mi­nat­ing mem­oir of South­ern cui­sine and food cul­ture that traces his ances­try — both black and white — through food, from Africa to Amer­i­ca and slav­ery to freedom.

South­ern food is inte­gral to the Amer­i­can culi­nary tra­di­tion, yet the ques­tion of who owns” it is one of the most provoca­tive touch points in our ongo­ing strug­gles over race. In this unique mem­oir, culi­nary his­to­ri­an Michael W. Twit­ty takes read­ers to the white-hot cen­ter of this fight, trac­ing the roots of his own fam­i­ly and the charged pol­i­tics sur­round­ing the ori­gins of soul food, bar­be­cue, and all South­ern cuisine.

From the tobac­co and rice farms of colo­nial times to plan­ta­tion kitchens and back­break­ing cot­ton fields, Twit­ty tells his fam­i­ly sto­ry through the foods that enabled his ances­tors’ sur­vival across three cen­turies. He sifts through sto­ries, recipes, genet­ic tests, and his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments, and trav­els from Civ­il War bat­tle­fields in Vir­ginia to syn­a­gogues in Alaba­ma to Black-owned organ­ic farms in Georgia.

As he takes us through his ances­tral culi­nary his­to­ry, Twit­ty sug­gests that heal­ing may come from embrac­ing the dis­com­fort of the South­ern past. Along the way, he reveals a truth that is more than skin deep — the pow­er that food has to bring the kin of the enslaved and their for­mer slave­hold­ers to the table, where they can dis­cov­er the real Amer­i­ca together.

Illus­tra­tions by Stephen Crotts

Discussion Questions