At the end of Michael W. Twitty’s genre-busting book, “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History of the Old South,” Twitty declares, “The book you’re holding now took nearly 400 years to ripen.” Part history of the Old South, part genealogical detective story and part memoir, Twitty has embraced all of his identities in this remarkable story. As Twitty describes himself, he is, “Four times blessed—large of body, gay, African-American and Jewish.” His genius lies in the way he organically connects all of these realities in an inspiring, inimitable book.

For over 400 pages, Twitty chronicles his unique wanderings through the American South as he researches personal history against the backdrop of slavery. Twitty, who was born in 1977 and grew up in Washington, D.C., remembers a childhood home filled with the aromas of “spices, bubbling piquant sauces and frying.” He recalls that his first taste of solid food was “cornbread mashed up in potlikker, the stock left over from a pot of Southern greens. That’s the oldest baby food known to black people in America.”

The kitchen has a heightened role in Twitty’s life story. At 16, he came out to his family in the kitchen—the bustling epicenter of his childhood home. For Twitty, the kitchen table was also “a place of worry, argument and resolution.” Family memories are made at the table. The table was also a place of transformation for him. On Sundays and holidays, the table was covered with a white tablecloth and elegantly festooned with lit candles. Twitty carried that holiness into adulthood as he celebrated Shabbat. The table became “an altar of the table as it always had been, setting a place as it were for my Creator.”


The kitchen also carries the “dual legacy of the Southern food heritage—these were not neutral spaces; these were places of power against the enslaved in the most dehumanizing ways possible.” Twitty poignantly confronts the pain as well as celebrates the creativity and even the love in those kitchens when he cooks in plantations. He does this in full period regalia as he conjures the food his enslaved ancestors ate. “Memory is the most indispensable ingredient” in his recipes. It functions like choice pan drippings and gives everything he cooks a distinctive flavor. As he cooks he also invites the dead and the living to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him.

Although Twitty evokes history, he says that he is not a historian, but a “historical interpreter.” To enhance his experience and his memory, he picks cotton, chops wood and works in a rice field, enduring what his ancestors suffered in slavery. His Jewishness is also very much present. He notes his affinity with the Sephardic kitchen. It’s a cultural touchstone where “women chatting as they stuffed vegetables was as familiar to me as my mother and grandmother cleaning collards. Everything was fragrant and fresh, nothing lacked a story.”

(Courtesy Harper Collins)
(Courtesy Harper Collins)

Food is faith and Twitty finds that faith in his dual heritage. He instructs the reader that traditional African religions “have a complex understanding of food in the service of faith. Food is often a necessary vehicle between one’s ancestors or the spiritual forces that guide our destiny.” Twitty’s cooking also has mystical edges. During what he calls his “Southern Discomfort Tour” he stops at plantations to cook, one of which was Gen. Robert E. Lee’s birthplace in Virginia. He observes that his “pots contain wisdom and the dead.”

The plantation is his ancestors’ American “Arbeit macht frei.” While some may chafe at the comparison to a concentration camp, I experience it as Twitty boldly proclaiming his Jewish birthright. Things become even more interesting when he suggests a slave version of the symbolic seder plate and an African-American equivalent of Passover and Yom Kippur to recollect and atone for history.

“The Cooking Gene” is a breathtaking journey in which Twitty’s African-American and Jewish cultures constantly intersect. It is the story of a young man who knew he wanted to be Jewish when he was 7 years old. The book is a genealogical and spiritual triumph in which Twitty creates sacred spaces wherever he goes. He writes: “In the script of African and Jewish and American and gay histories, my whole journey could be whittled down to a new word. Makom. Hebrew: place, but it’s also a scriptural synonym for God. Where you are matters.” And Twitty has been everywhere in the Deep South, exploring his ancestral homeland all the way back to its African roots and excavating the rich, deep veins of memory and identity.

Hear from Michael Twitty in person at CJP’s Read On event on Monday, April 9.