“What I miss in the U.S. food movement is an urgent sense of history,” writer and activist Raj Patel told Civil Eats last year when asked about racism in the food system. Patel added that he wanted to see more people talking “about the soil on which local food is grown; about the blood of First Nations and slaves in that soil; and about the legacy of settler colonialism that lets some folk obsess over kale while those harvesting it can’t afford to buy it.”
Michael W. Twitty’s new book, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South, puts that urgent sense of history into print.
Hailing from the Washington, D.C. area, Twitty is a gay, Black, Jewish culinary historian, chef, and food writer whose blog Afroculinaria went viral after he posted an “Open Letter to Paula Deen” in response to Deen’s use of racist language in 2013. Before that, Twitty had embarked on what he called the “Southern Discomfort Tour,” a three-month journey during which he researched his family history and the roots of Southern food culture, from Maryland to Georgia to Louisiana to Tennessee, and everywhere in between.
The Cooking Gene is a literary map of Twitty’s journey that plots his discoveries about his enslaved ancestors (and white, slave-owning ancestors who fathered children with enslaved women) and juxtaposes them with memories of meals with his family and his own personal stories of cooking on plantations to connect to his past.
“My entire cooking life has been about memory. It’s my most indispensable ingredient,” Twitty writes. In the book, he evokes his own memories and those of his ancestors while tracing the pathways that brought enslaved people who knew how to cultivate and cook rice from Africa to South Carolina, and investigates the overlap between the Jewish and Black experiences while eating matzo ball gumbo in New Orleans.
Understanding the true history of Southern food can help all Americans understand the African-American experience and how the intersection of race and food is lived today, Twitty argues. That’s especially true at a time when the U.S. food system still operates based on exploitative minority labor, people of color are underrepresented and underpaid in every sector, and writers of color are often trolled for speaking up on the topic.
“The Old South is a place where food tells me where we have been,” Twitty writes. It’s “where the story of our food might just tell America where it’s going.”
Civil Eats recently spoke with Twitty about the book, the current political moment, and his larger mission to get more Americans to think critically about the history of food.
What do you hope people take away from this book?
That the Black experience with food in America is complicated—and that it’s part of our civilization. A lot of people think that Black food is simple comfort food, and it’s junky and unhealthy … [without] even giving a thought to understanding what that food actually means to us or that it can be more than those stereotypes.
This “Black grandma in the kitchen,” is all people think of when they think of Black [food] traditions. The book has a Black grandma, but my Black grandma was almost white… and she got that way because the kitchen was a place where Black women were violated during slavery.
That speaks to a major theme: that Black people’s experiences are missing from the narrative of Southern food today. What needs to happen for that to change?
First of all, we need an education system that corroborates basic facts. I mean, I went to the Culinary Institute of America and delivered a lecture about African-American impact on American foodways, and I heard from a lot of the students of color that it was the first time in three to four years of being there that they had heard such a lecture. That’s not the only place where I’ve heard this. I’m brought in to do these talks, finding out that I am it, and that’s very uncomfortable.
Number two, we have to know the [Black chefs] who are already out there. But I don’t want them to be treated as Black chefs; I want them to be treated as chefs.
And I gotta say this: I feel like people have tended to label a lot of articles with me in terms of my opposition to white chefs. I have no oppositional relationship with white chefs … I have no quarrel with individual people who I don’t really know personally. But I have a deep quarrel with a food media that’s so white, and that expects that Black people are going to jump through hoops or fit into bubbles to be acceptable.
How do you feel like the book fits into the current political landscape?
At first, I really wanted this to be a Barack Obama presidency book, and I worked my butt off to do that, but I failed miserably. Then it was going to be a Hilary Clinton presidency book [in terms of the timing of the release]. Then our country failed us, our system failed us, and people who were just apathetic failed us, and we have a Trump presidency.
Now, we have a regime that wants to kill the planet. We have a regime that wants to lock up men and women of color, jokes about police brutality, marginalizes people who are not Christian, and makes people who are LGBT persona non grata. So yeah, I think the Black-Jewish-gay-Southern thing is applicable.
Right now, we’re in a blitzkrieg culture war where we have to actually wake the hell up. It’s not about being woke; you’ve got to already be out of bed, have had your coffee, and be in the car ready to go. That’s the way things are now. These things I’m trying to bring up about cultural awareness, about the interconnectedness of human beings, about how Americans are really more related than they think they are, about knowing what oppression does to people generationally—all of those things matter now in a glaring way.
You say in the book that the intrinsic value of knowing where our food comes from “pales in comparison to the task of providing economic opportunity, cultural and spiritual reconnection, improved health and quality of life, and creative and cultural capital to the people who not only used to grow that food for themselves and others, but have historically been suppressed from benefiting from their ancestral legacy.” Does the current food movement focus too much on the former over the latter?
I’m going to put it to you like this: food security, culinary justice, food justice, food sovereignty—these are the basis of health, the environment, education. It is for me the greatest civil rights issue we have today, and it all goes back to what we put in our mouths, how it gets in our mouths, and how the people who labor put it into our mouths.
Author photo by Johnathan M. Lewis.