Whose Cuisine is it Anyway? Michael Twitty's "The Cooking Gene"
This essay is part of a feature, Food Writer Friday, which highlights a significant food writer and explores the ways they have shaped us as writers, thinkers and cooks. Tag us online with #foodwriterfriday to share your greatest influences.
Michael Twitty’s book, The Cooking Gene (Harper Collins, 2017, was a punch in the gut. I’m a white southern woman, a lifelong Virginian, a public service lawyer, a foodie. I work in the second capitol of the Confederacy. I live in a county that was mostly destroyed during the Civil War. I was born just a few years after Brown v. Board of Education, but I never attended a segregated school. I was raised by parents who didn’t vote for George Wallace and who hated the Klan.
In conversations about race with folks from other parts of the country, I like to point out that black and white Southerners have more in common than not, especially with regard to food. Michael Twitty agrees with me. Almost.
The Cooking Gene is a study of heritage and race, with a few scattered recipes. I am drawn to one for fried apples. I make them almost exactly the same as Twitty does—sliced, but unpeeled, cooked with brown sugar and the warm spices of your choice (cinnamon and nutmeg for me) in drippings—Twitty calls for bacon or lard. I like to use the fat rendered from country sausage. Once they’ve softened, you add a splash of apple cider, and let them simmer until they are enveloped in syrupy glory.
Twitty reminds me that, however similar our inherited recipes, we are also heirs to a racial divide. I would love to be able to say that the new South is a post-racial society, but I can’t. Neither can Twitty.
“I dare to believe all Southerners are a family,” he writes in his preface, “we are a dysfunctional family, but we are a family.” His book, though overwritten in places and over-thought in others, takes on some of the dysfunction that needs to be addressed.
It is a complicated subject, and Twitty is a complicated man—large, both literally and figuratively. He’s gay, Jewish and phenotypically black. He’s also a food scholar, historical re-enactor and twenty-eight percent white. In his book, Twitty explores his heritage as the descendant of slaves and their masters through the lens of food. It’s a journey that takes him through the depth and breadth of what he terms the “Old South.”
I would define the Old South in the same way he does: It’s the Atlantic coast states from Maryland to Florida, and the Gulf Coast states—Florida to Texas. It picks up Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia. The list is not the same as the states of the Confederacy. Rather, the Old South is a feeling, a sensibility.
Twitty grew up in the Maryland suburbs of D.C. His ancestors came from all over the South, most were part of the Great Migration to the Midwest and Northeastern diaspora. To write this book, he traced the historical record and the physical paths of his family, focusing on what they ate along the way. He cooked on plantations and in other historic locations throughout the South. He picked cotton. He harvested rice. He traced ingredients and recipes and songs.
In other cases, his journeys are much more immediate. He describes being with his father at the family home in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Ordered in 1959 to desegregate, Prince Edward closed its public schools, and they remained closed until the Supreme Court overturned its practice that effectively denied African American children public education. I can only imagine the rage that Twitty’s relatives in that county must have felt.
Twitty believes that our connection to food—not just the need for it, but the origin of our taste preferences—is hard-coded in our DNA. He bristles at the lack of awareness, the lack of respect, the lack of credit given to the African Americans and African ingredients that formed the backbone of Southern cooking. Fair enough.
I too feel a visceral connection to my heritage in the Old South. Many of my forebears arrived in America from the British Isles by 1700. They were not members of the planter class, rather, they were hardscrabble settlers in a rough new country eking out dinner and contributing to fabric of our cuisine.
Theirs was not an independent contribution: what connected them to burgeoning new culinary traditions, including those made by Africans and African Americans, was geography and poverty. Even so, I sometimes hesitate to stake any claim or express my belief because I value racial harmony above personal identity. Then again, perhaps because history recognized my identity, I do not feel the need to express it with nearly the degree of forcefulness that Twitty does.
Twitty loves the South so deeply that he calls out the uncomfortable, including things that are so obvious and so close to home that I am embarrassed not to have made the connection. Case in point: the way he highlights the juxtaposition of the gentrified merchants and clientele at Richmond’s farmer’s market. There they are, selling their nouveau-Southern, organic, humanely raised goods down the street from the site of Lumpkin’s Jail, known as the Devil’s Half-Acre, where as many as 10,000 men, women and children were auctioned in a single month, every month, for decades. That is a stain that Carolina Gold rice and heritage pork cannot erase.
But Twitty also believes that the stain does not condemn the South. Instead, he sounds a call to action, noting that it is not enough to be just white or black at the table: “Complexity must come with us—in fact it will invite itself to the feast whether we like it or not. We can choose to acknowledge that presence of history, economics, class, cultural forces and the idea of race in shaping our experience, or we can languish in circuitous arguments over what it all means and get nowhere.”
I understand the complexity. My office is about a block from the Richmond farmer’s market and Lumpkin’s Jail, daily reminders of how the past influences the present. I know more than one person, including one of my dearest friends, who attended the white private school in Prince Edward County, tuition supported by public grants. My friend was a child. She had no choice. Still, she carries the guilt of her parents’ decisions with her today. She is a good and decent person who lived through a tumultuous time not of her making, but part of her past.
A little more than two years before I read The Cooking Gene, I began to shape a novel that is set in the modern Old South, and addresses themes of race and class. Food plays a prominent role in my work in progress. It’s a comfort that someone else is asking the same sorts of questions, holding out the same hopes and yearning to reveal the same truths.
At its heart, The Cooking Gene is one complicated man’s journey through a complicated past, but its real value is its exploration of a fundamental question in the life of any Southerner who takes a moment to reflect: Is reconciliation possible? If so, how do we get there? Good Lord willing, maybe my fiction will add more detail to the map.
Patricia Haymes is a writer living in Richmond, VA.