A memoir of Southern cuisine and food culture that traces the paths of the author's ancestors (black and white) through the crucible of slavery to show its effects on our food today. Winner of the 2018 James Beard Foundation's Book Of The Year Award.
What could have been a stately tour through the ancient and global roots of soul food is instead a madcap dash through history, a thrilling pursuit of usually enthralling and sometimes horrifying stories, and a heroic attempt to view an ambitiously large part of the African-American experience through the lens of food. This book isn't an archive dump – it's a vibrant, emotionally charged work that crackles with vitality and contemporary stories ... The threads are numerous and long, but when woven together into the book, they tell a story of a diaspora with a remarkably deep cultural memory that is enhanced by (and often comprised of) food ... There seems to be no topic that Twitty is unwilling to dig deeply into. The diaspora of Africans in the Americas is not a monolith – it's a mosaic of languages, cultures, and geographic points of origin that make the food folkways of the American South a virtual labyrinth ... For readers who have not reckoned seriously with the profound and continuing effect of slavery on American culture, this book would be a good place to start ... Twitty has accomplished something remarkable with The Cooking Gene. He has written a book that is deeply personal and at times profoundly emotional without losing sight of an ambitious goal: documenting one of America's foundational food cultures. This isn't a book to acquire, cook from, and discard when the next year's crop of beautifully illustrated recipe volumes hit the shelves. It's a book to save, reread, and share until everyone you know has a working understanding of the human stories and pain behind some of America's most foundational and historically significant foods.
A recipe can be the transmission of a tradition, and to cook from such a recipe is not to 'try this at home' but to enact a performance of that tradition, and thereby to participate in it in a mysterious and unrepeatable way. This is the way that recipes operate in Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene ... The Cooking Gene is not a cookbook. It contains recipes, but those recipes come freighted with the weight of American and Twitty’s own personal histories. They arrive in the context of a sprawling account of inveterate American racism, history, and the quasi-sacramental nature of food. The Cooking Gene is far more than a cookbook. It is a personal memoir, travel narrative, socio-culinary history, diatribe against the food industry, occasional gastronomic rhapsody, and quest narrative. Its moods are as varied as the fragments that compose it: it is by fairly swift turns witty and somber, indulgent and biting, ponderous and winsome ... The Cooking Gene is the sum of the surprising accretions of ancient history that rise to the top that reveal who its author is ... At the core of The Cooking Gene is a profoundly religious vision, a wonder at the beauty of this world of gifts, a kind of relentless hopefulness in the possibilities of human communion, and the fervent desire to give names back to those we have scratched out, to revivify the unforgotten.
Twitty leans hard on the past, yet much of his personality — which shines through these pages — is rooted in his homosexuality and in his conversion to Judaism. Things get extra fascinating when he marches out a brilliant idea for an 'African-American equivalent of both Passover and Yom Kippur, where we atone for our sins and remember our history' by eating 'gross' food from each cuisine. 'Like a Seder plate, we could have a slave plate.'