The Unforgotten: On Michael W. Twitty’s ‘The Cooking Gene’

March 14, 2018 | 1 book mentioned 12 min read

When the first recipe appears on page 24 of The Cooking Gene, it arrives as a kind of unmerited gift, a gratuitous offering to us, the community of readers. It’s a simple recipe for “Kitchen Pepper,” but it is as if Michael W. Twitty is giving away something into which an entire history has been condensed. It immediately follows the question, “How exactly did I get here?” and so does not arrive simply as a try-this-at-home kind of recipe, but as an invitation. Twitty is inviting us not so much to theorize about cultural foodways and to sample the flavors of ancient cultures, as to do. This simple recipe for Kitchen Pepper comes with an implicit interrogative force: are you just going to sit there, an armchair culinary historian, or are you going to cook—and not just for yourself but for your neighbors? And while you do, ask yourself too: how exactly did you get here?

To publish a recipe can be—especially in the world of rock-star chefs, cooking-themed reality television, and the general atmosphere of cooking as a variety of warfare—an act of self-conscious display of culinary erudition or imagination. It can have the effect of dangling before the reader the lure of the possibility of participating, however briefly, in the ex nihilo genius of a famous chef who somehow thought of putting ingredients together in a way designed to wow and astonish our dinner guests.

There is another way in which a recipe can be written, however, and more importantly, received. It can be written as an invitation into a reality that you did not recognize was possible before, an invitation into a kind of fellowship or communion. 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: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South.

This is partly because 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 moves from historical excursus to culinary memoir to travelogue in often breathtakingly sharp turns. It is constantly looping back on itself, and sometimes leaving discussions feeling stranded in the way an oxbow lake is left isolated by the changing course of the River. These fragments are made of the same stuff as the river, but do not flow with it.

This can be perplexing for the reader, but is in a way entirely consistent with the logic of the book, which is that the quest for personal identity is almost never straightforward but is instead sinuous, and results in bits of personal history that are at a slight distance from but never superfluous to the main thread of the story, if such a main thread can be found. It is illustrative of the cost of such a search, that finding oneself in the stories of one’s ancestors is never cut-and-dried or without anecdotal cul-de-sacs that can stand alone but have become unmoored and adrift from the general flux of personal history, whatever that turns out to be. It is also, in Twitty’s case, intentional:

My aim has been to give a sense of the bric-a-brac mosaic that is the average African-American’s experience when he or she attempts to look back to recapture our cultural and culinary identities obscured by the consequences of racial chattel slavery. If it were possible to give a linear, orderly, soup to nuts version of my story of any of my family’s without resorting to genre gymnastics, I would have considered it. Instead, I am pleased with the journey as it has revealed itself to me.

“The journey as it has revealed itself” to Twitty amounts to a sort of record of discovery, not unlike the formation of potlikker. It is not the stuff that sinks to the bottom that is important, but the gloss on the surface, the greasy, flavorful sheen that “winks back at you.” The Cooking Gene is the sum of the surprising accretions of ancient history that rise to the top that reveal who its author is. In this book, Twitty seeks his own reflection in potlikker—from the time it was mixed with cornbread to make his first solid food to when it was smeared on the bodies of enslaved men and women on the auction block to make them appear “shiny, a little fat, and machine lubricated.”

But what makes The Cooking Gene more than simply a personal memoir is its attempt to reconstruct this personal and cultural history through food. The book is a literary extension of Twitty’s work as a chef and historical interpreter of antebellum culinary habits among enslaved peoples, developed initially through Twitty and his then-partner’s “Southern Discomfort Tour.” Twitty’s goal on the tour from 2011 onwards was to “travel the South looking for sites of cultural and culinary memory while researching the food culture of the region as it stood in the early twenty-first century.” Along the way, Twitty cooked the way enslaved people cooked, and in using their ingredients, their methods, and their tools, found more than just historical curiosities: “I lost arm hair and eyebrows, a little blood here and there; I was scalded and branded, burned and seared. These are the marks of my tribe”

One might expect such a tour to have left Twitty jaded and cynical. But for Twitty: the result of the “Discomfort” experience is a hopeful, capacious vision of Southernness and its promise for the American future:

I dare to believe that all Southerners are a family. We are not merely Native, European, and African. We are Middle Eastern and South Asian and East Asian and Latin American, now. We are a dysfunctional family, but we are a family. We are unwitting inheritors of a story with many sins that bears the fruit of the possibility of ten times the redemption. One way is through reconnection with the culinary culture of the enslaved, our common ancestors, and restoring their names on the roots of the Southern tree and the table those roots support.

White families in America often have the privilege of a recorded history. Their deeds are frequently a matter of public memory. Domestic mythology may often trace a white family’s history back to a romanticized utopia, a green and pleasant land from which one’s forbears valiantly “chose” to sail to the New World. Or they may hang up family crests which may or may not be authentic—they help to shape a sort of familial sense of self, of belonging to a particular tribe with a particular past, however factitious or fabulous. In any case, white families may often be able to trace their lineage back several hundred years with impunity, without ever noticing what a privilege such a record can be.

But in such cases what counts as material evidence in a family history (or mythology) does not include a bill of sale for a human person.

Twitty uncovers one such document late in The Cooking Gene, related to his ancestor Harry Townsend. It is a salutary lesson about what “white privilege” really means: it means, in part, not having to reconstruct your family’s history from receipts. It is different for the descendants of enslaved peoples:

We know so much, but know so little, and the fine details keep shifting, but unlike any other American ethnic group those details are always hotly debated. We are not allowed the peace of mind of our own self-rumination. Every aspect of our history becomes a contested article on social media, a gospel truth to be disproved by experts at conferences, and a groupthink to be contained. Our cultural myths we design ourselves around are not sacred like other people’s myths; our anchors are constantly being pulled up to make white people feel as it they’re in control, and because of this we have struggled to come up with a cohesive and empowering narrative of our own.

At the heart of The Cooking Gene is the reality that a material record is not available to the descendants of enslaved Africans who were brought here against their will for 250 years. The lives of the enslaved were often anonymous, their deaths not recorded by name, their bodies not marked with hand-carved headstones. Their history is often inscrutable and at best conjectural. Slavery is, in part, the condition of being deprived of a genealogy, a “heritage denied.”

Michael Twitty’s family history is vivid and detailed, but his recorded history only goes back so far. In The Cooking Gene, he sets out to reconstruct—by his own family’s oral history, by documentary research, and by DNA testing—his own genetic composition, to find some semblance of a story of himself that crosses the vast ocean of oblivion separating America from Africa, that traverses the boundary that divides before and after slavery.

coverThe Cooking Gene is itself a kind of literary descendant of Alex Haley’s Roots—which was not just a literary but a pan-cultural event when the television adaptation aired when Twitty was a small child in 1976. Roots inspired a generation of African-Americans to “connect to a place and a people,” and to ask “Who would we become once we confronted the Africa we longed for?” The series inspired African-Americans to identify their own “furthest back person,” their “Kunta Kinte.” In many ways The Cooking Gene is about the liberative power of being able to give your own past a name.

As a stylist, Twitty has a distinct fondness for the inventory. Whole paragraphs sometimes consist of little more than lists of names—of things, people, places. Chapter Twelve, “Chesapeake Gold,” is a paradigmatic example. When Twitty cites Letitia Burwell, Frederick Douglass, Frederick Law Olmsted, and George Bagby in this chapter, he often gives us their lists of foods. He recites activities on tobacco plantations with a certain relish in the poetry of the sound of it all, and a wonder at the often forgotten diversity of African American foodways. These lists are evidence for Twitty of a world that “seemed to burst at the seams with a diverse variety of crops.”

The book begins with an account of building a fire for a presentation on a plantation in a way that gives the flavor of Twitty’s style:

The hardwoods are like friends, and each one has a different conversation with your food—the smell-the burn, the colas, the heat, the smoke—the hot intensity of white oak; the savor of hickory; the mellowness or pecan, the red oak, ash, apple, and maples. Sometimes you have to split the big logs up so that you can stack them like a chimney. When that happens, the day begins with the brooding energy of iron and all of its accompanying West African spirits—Ogun, Ta Yao, Ndomayiri.

A youthful fascination with words nourished by the civil rights movement and the 1976 national bicentennial, Sesame Street and Yan Can Cook, inspired Twitty with a curiosity about his own origins, which he would later find the words for:

Familiensinn: German, the feeling and sense of family connection. I longed for it. I cultivated it despite the pain it has often caused me—family is not easy to seek or create. Toska: Russian. According to Nabokov’s translation of the Afro-Russian writer Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, it is “a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause…a longing with nothing to long for.” Fernweh. Back to German, “a longing and homesickness for a place you have never been.”

One possible response to this is simply to be overwhelmed and maybe a little glazed over by the seemingly endless array of foods that flourished at the hands of enslaved people. And this is, it seems, precisely the point of Twitty’s fondness for the list: when recorded by Frederick Douglass, the repertory of the dishes served at the Big House in Maryland is an instance of reportage from personal experience; so too is Olmsted’s recollection, but from a seat at the table and not as a servant. Both accounts are suffused with wonder—at the sheer variety of meats, fruits, vegetables, and grains that constituted a single meal in the antebellum South. But only one side—the enslaved people who prepared these meals—could have known the ingenuity and the back-breaking labor that went into the preparation of such feasts, and the cultivation of each ingredient. Every crowder pea and sweet potato is a kind of living memento of the suffering and creativity that brought it to table, every rasher of bacon and hot-buttered roll an unspoken secret of the toil and torture endured by the people who raised, slaughtered, and dressed hogs; planted, cultivated, and picked wheat or corn; and transformed, by some mystical alchemy only they knew, the raw products of the Tidewater farm into the quasi-sacramental matter of the feast.

Except the feast was for other people. In Douglass’s words, all the richness of the plantation table “conspir[ed] to swell the tide of high life, where pride and indolence lounged in magnificence and satiety.” The effect of the inventory, in Twitty’s hands, is to disorient the reader, to disturb and overturn the received perception about enslaved life. The latter was far from monocultural; it was often unimaginably diverse agriculturally as well as culturally; its foodways proved incredibly inventive and subtle, adapting itself to new circumstances and supply. The list as a form is, for Twitty, a kind of act of restoration: it restores to memory the names of things and people we should never have forgotten. These lists are Twitty’s litany of saints, gifts of the good earth, and it is as important that we remember the names of forgotten foods as the names of those who grew and prepared them, who bequeathed Southern foodways to future generations. They serve to destabilize preconceptions of African American foodways, to show that they—and therefore the world and its history—are far more complex, varied, sophisticated, and original than the hitherto dominant narratives of history might imply. They are also signposts of order, in marked contrast to the sometimes confusing and often obscure genealogy of Twitty’s family, which it is his task in The Cooking Gene to uncover and retrace.

But there are darker inventories too, which are not so much reminders of the immeasurable bounty of the earth but of the equally immeasurable, instrumentalizing savagery of human beings. In Chapter 18, “The King’s Cuisine,” Twitty tries to reconstruct, from fragmentary evidence provided by agricultural census and slave schedules, the life of his maternal great-great-great-grandfather, Harry Townsend. He lists five such lists from farms and plantations from Alabama and South Carolina where he has identified his own ancestors. Their names and relations appear only as the result of painstaking research. Otherwise, they are included in a roll-call of the anonymous, indistinguishable from mules, oxen, or bales of cotton.

“This,” Twitty writes, “is what America looked like for over four million people in the decade before the Civil War. They were numbers, human machines with a measurable output. They almost completely disappeared into history after building this country and creating their own unique American civilization.”

The Cooking Gene is perhaps the most significant contribution to the growing field of “foodways” literature. But it stands at least one remove from the farm-to-table, artisanal, small-batch, craft-style frenzies of recent years. His work involves “a return to the sources,” as it were, of Southern—and therefore African—cooking, but in a way that is both more personal and culturally load-bearing. More is at stake for Twitty than simply a resistance to corporate, mass-produced food: “It is not enough,” he writes, “to know the past of the people you interpret. You must know your own past.”

The Cooking Gene is Twitty’s attempt to uncover not just lost methods and recipes, but a self occluded and dismembered by both a relentless schedule and the weight of a uniquely American kind of oblivion of its own past: “crumbling kitchens, rotting auction blocks, graveyards iced in asphalt. With each deterioration, I was becoming someone fading from who I was and where I came from, just in time for the world to catch amnesia with me.”

The recovery mode of contemporary artisanal chic has something in common with Twitty’s project, in terms of a shared awareness of the social, political, and racial implications of the way we eat. Yet the “contemporary reclamation of barbecue, offal, hoecakes, wild foods, black-eyed pea cakes, and other plebian fare by white chefs with the capital to promote and polarize these foods is one of the cornerstone issues of culinary justice.”

But Twitty wants to go further still: the way we eat (and the way our ancestors before us fed themselves and others) makes us who we are. So all our eating—whether we recognize it or not—is the work of anamnesis: “My entire cooking life has been about memory. It’s my most indispensable ingredient, so wherever I find it, I hoard it. I tell stories about people using food, I swap memories with people and create out of that conversation mnemonic feasts with this fallible, subjective mental evidence.” So the goal is not recovery simpliciter, but something stronger: “In memory there is resurrection, and thus the end goal of my cooking is just that—resurrection.”

Human fellowship is still possible, though, in the unlikeliest of places, and it is the common vocabulary of food, the shared stock of folk culinary knowledge, that provides the occasion for mutual recognition. In one episode, Twitty recalls cooking for a group of Confederate reenactors (“never really easy for a black guy”). In this instance, it is Twitty’s persimmon beer that starts as a conversation topic but becomes an almost magical object, with the sacral power to effect a sort of qualified understanding between apparent enemies:

Trading facts and figures and avoiding all other subjects, I had never felt so close to a group of white Southern men with guns who outnumbered me in my entire life. As I traveled more, I noticed kinship with strangers based on knowledge of the old plants. Sour faces turned to smiles at the mere mention of a pawpaw or discussion of techniques for breaking black walnuts and the like. I felt as if I was among a family of people keeping a flame alive—a university of volumes written in the understory and canopy and marsh and streamside that could not be relinquished, but desired, and for our survival’s sake, to be savored. I took a picture with those reenactors that day, for in a small way, we made peace.

The final section of the book has Twitty dreaming about a return to the source of both food and being, to Africa, but is also a kind of hymn to cooperative memory: the work of restoration as a common human task.

The payoff, for Twitty, is the discovery that “the world is a marketplace full of tasty things,” that “there are many good things to eat, but the rest of the world marketplace doesn’t know it yet.” 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.

was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, and studied at Wake Forest University and The University of Cambridge. His work has appeared in Modern Theology, Communio, The Other Journal, New Blackfriars, Los Angeles Review of Books, Commonweal, The Bitter Southerner, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and four boys in Asheville, North Carolina. Fine him online, on Twitter @tweetcandler or a

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