the cooking gene - learning about southern foodways and how food explains the past and present

(Originally posted Oct 29, 2017)

The first book on this journey was The Cooking Gene by Michael Twitty. I chose to start with this book for many reasons, but mostly because Twitty gave a talk at Boston University on October 24, and I wanted to finish reading it before attending.

I wasn’t sure what the expect when I started reading this book - I knew vaguely that it addressed Southern foodways and tracing genealogy through food, but it ended up being much more than that. Michael Twitty is an incredible writer, and my notebook is filled with poetic quotes. I learned a lot about slavery and southern food, both of which I had little detailed knowledge of going in. Instead of getting too deep into anything, I think I’ll summarize some of the main things I learned/found interesting in this book:

1) The contrast between the perception of southern food and the reality of food from Africa was super interesting. Southern food is known for being unhealthy, or even “self-destructive”, but traditional food from Africa is actually incredibly healthy, and consist mostly of fresh vegetables, fruits, and grains. Some of the healthiest diets in the world come from West Africa.

2) Twitty went to inspiring lengths to understand his heritage. He tracked down generations and generations of his family, learned to cook with completely traditional methods, picked cotton just to understand what his ancestors went through, and traveled all over the world to find connection with his past.

There are so many family stories and vignettes in this book, and I won’t try to do them injustice and summarize them. They are incredible.

3) Slaveholders had a better understanding of African ethnic groups than African Americans do today - they were often selected/bought for the skills they possessed from their home countries.

4) Growing own food was a symbol of resistance for slaves, but they became detached from the land after slavery in order to fight for opportunities by moving into the cities. Now, farmers markets are predominantly white spaces.

5) One of my favorite parts of the book was an interview with Tambra Raye Stevenson. She found NativSol Kitchen, which is “on a mission to reclaim the health and spirit of the African diaspora by creating a movement to restore heritage foods into people’s daily lives.” In the book, she says, “What I"m trying to do is dismantle culinary nutritional imperialism and gastronomic white supremacy…the next wave of human rights abuse is in the form of nutrition injustice when we don’t have access, can’t afford, and lack the education of our nutrition-rich heritage foods due to food gentrification, discrimination, western food subsidies, and cultural food appropriation” (280). Twitty touched on this briefly during his talk - eating more like our ancestors makes sense for our own health, as our bodies are all different. This part really resonated with me.

6) Cotton is the biggest reason for lost family members of slaves. Before cotton, slaves were not sold/bought as often, and as a result were more likely to be able to stay with their families. After the need for slaves exploded with cotton, the enslaved could be traded 2-3 times in their lifetime, with no concern for family relationships (mother and children were separated regularly).

7) Science says that an African American is on average, 15-25% European, but any ownership of that is not really acceptable socially. Twitty’s response: “Our ancestors had complicated relationships accross color lines, or were violated. It’s not our responsibility to make people feel comfortable with this fact or to rationalize the rules of cultural inheritance” (383).

8) Why this book matters? “The real history is not in the food, it’s in the people. We are working against the loss of our cultural memory, against the consequences of institutional oppression; against indiscriminate and flagrant appropriation; and against courts of public opinion that question our authenticity, maturity, and motives in the revolutionary act of clarifying and owning the past” (404).

I really enjoyed this book. It wasn’t what I was expecting and it probably won’t be like any other of the books I’m reading for this project, but I think it’s important to establish food in the context of history and culture. Food is not just food, for most people in the world. Food is incredibly public but intimately personal, and that’s why food justice is so important. I wish I could talk about this book in more detail, but it’s definitely one of those books that has to be experienced in it’s entirety.