Not Much Cookin’

I recently read, and discussed, The Cooking Gene (2017) by Michael W. Twitty, which is billed on the back of the book as an exploration of “the origins of soul food, barbecue, and all Southern cuisine.”

Twitty is a culinary historian who started the first African American food blog and who dons antebellum outfits to cook authentic food. This account of his Southern Discomfort Tour, which the New York Times considers “fascinating,” is more a culinary memoir, in which Twitty uses his DNA to explore family and food migrations to the American South, and the impact of one on the other.

Such a project should be intriguing, especially when this African American author also identifies as homosexual and Jewish, which could account for the 2018 James Beard Award for Best Food Writing and Book of the Year. I however had problems with it.

I needed, or wanted, a clearer organizing principle and overall conclusion along with more synthesized and accessible content. These also could have resolved a seeming thematic inconsistent between a focus on cultural variables and a claim of individual complexity, which if not stating the obvious then endorses a hyper-localism and a human essentialism.

I was more troubled by a self-induced challenge to his credibility. Twitty reports in his notes at the end that a genealogist and also his uncle, who contributed to this project, are not responsible for his conclusions, and that he used their findings to confirm “feelings” more than verify facts (428).

Twitty I realized foreshadowed this problem early when he reports a trip with his father. His father according to Twitty refuses to use a roadside gas station for a bathroom break but instead sends him with a jar into the woods to recreate his own experience as a child for his son (51).

Who I thought needs a jar in the woods? Why wouldn’t Twitty just fill the jar in the car or relieve himself on the ground? And would his father actually contaminate the jar just to give his son the same experience?

I realized only after plodding through pages of disconnected details that this book might have been Twitty’s felt truths rather than factual interpretations. I also was reminded that genres have emerged and evolved for reasons, and that any admixture must be more than merely the sum of its parts.

This one actually seems less than that. As such, it remains too mired in the author’s memories and mental whims, which is a disservice to those readers who waded through these in the hope of some solid ground on the other side.

Twitty, Michael W. 2017. The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South. New York: Amistad.





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