The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South, by Michael W. Twitty is another book that I picked up from the Millennium Library’s New and Noted Section. If you can get past all the latest and greatest diet and nutrition fad books, there are generally one or two worthwhile titles to pick up and read. I was particularly interested in this book after having recently read John T. Edge’s the Potlikker papers.
I first heard of Twitty when I came across a link to a talk he gave on Culinary Justice. I was unfamiliar with his work, and when I went looking for some background information, that is I Googled him, I discovered that he first came to prominence when he wrote an open letter to Paula Deen. This letter came amid Deen’s firing from the Food Network over her use of racist language.
Twitty was already in the process of laying the groundwork for what would end up as The Cooking Gene. The book is a deep and complex look into Twitty’s family life and history, and how that family life and history is intertwined with the history of The Old South(he explains at the opening of the book his own definition of what The Old South means). Twitty identifies as a Black, Jewish, Gay man, and these three combine to
I’m not sure how well qualified I am to review this book. Being a middle-aged, white, Canadian has kept me far removed from the outrages and injustices visited on Twitty, his ancestors, and his modern, black contemporaries. I will however give a few thoughts.
The main body of the book ends: “Se wo were fi na wosankofa, a yenkyi, a Twi proverb: ‘It is no sin to go back and fetch what you have forgotten.'” It may seem strange to start a review at the end of a book, but at it’s heart, this is what The Cooking Gene is attempting to do. By telling his own story, and linking it with the history of Southern Cooking, and the history of slavery, Twitty is going back in time to gather his own story, much of which has been forgotten.
Cooking is one very natural way for Twitty to approach this. For one thing, cooking is one of the things that defines what it means to be Southern. Another and maybe more important thing, is that culinary history is always complicated. These complications make natural bridges for Twitty to discuss the complicated narratives of Black Southerners, especially the complications inherent in slavery.
One of the questions that Twitty sets out to examine is the question of descent. Where and who does he come from. Having slaves for ancestor makes this difficult. It is one of the ironies of slavery, that it is easier for a black man to trace his roots through his ancestors owners, than through his ancestors themselves. His single greatest resources is the records of the slaveholders. It’s a stark reminder that his ancestors were valued, not because they were people, but because they were commodities, just like the corn, and cotton.
One part of the book that really stands out, is Twitty’s search for his own roots through the use of DNA. Rather than stick with just one DNA testing company. It displays not only is commitment, but also shows the way in which he has approached other things, such as learning culinary terms. Twitty uses several, and as each test is done it reveals more and more the complexity of Twitty’s ancestry. Among other things this shows how complex questions of race are, and also sheds light on nonsense surrounding racial purity.
At times Twitty’s anger flares as he writes. I’m actually surprised he is not angry all the time. At the start he lays out some of the problems he has had as an individual, getting his work appreciated. How he has need to know twice a much about food to get half as much credit for that knowledge. This should resonate with anyone who has found their minority status holding them back.
As the book progresses, and he digs deeper into his roots and history, he tells of the slave journeys, auctions, and living conditions. Many of these stories are heartbreaking and infuriating, all the more so, because we know that the same practices occur in different forms today.
Yet despite all this, the tone of the book is largely hopeful. Even in tense situations, such as cooking for Civil War Re-Enactors(as he points out early in the book, this is still referred to in The South, as the War between the States), he finds himself making connections, and building relationships, however limited, with the people who should be his enemies.
It is clear throughout that his experiences as a gay man, and his Jewish convictions play a large role in Twitty’s ability to offer hope of reconciliation and a way forward. In the first instance, it is the unconditional love his family gave him, from the moment he came out to them. In the case of the second it helped him to realize, not only his own place, in the world, but the idea that there should be a place for everyone.
The ending of the book, quoted above also marks a beginning. The Cooking Gene is just one part of Twitty’s journey. The next part is to explore his roots even further. To go to Africa, and connect with the various people groups. He has already begun to do this.
As with most of the food books I review, I try at least one recipe listed. I chose the one below for The Cooking Gene.
Cooking with The Cooking Gene
I was originally going to make the Black Eyed Pea Hummus found on page 80, but I had trouble finding canned black eyed peas. So, I decide to go with the West African Brisket found on pages 78 & 79. I’ve since located the canned black eyed peas, so I will give the hummus recipe a try at a later date. Both recipes are ones that tie together Twitty’s African roots and Jewish faith practice.
West African Brisket
1 teaspoon of ground ginger
1 tablespoon of sweet paprika
1 teaspoon of coarse black pepper
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1 teaspoon of chili powder
1 teaspoon of cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon of kosher salt
5 pound Brisket or 5-7 pounds of short ribs cut across the bone.
4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 large piece of ginger, peeled and minced
4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
3 onions, peeled and diced
3 bell peppers-green, red and yellow, seeded and diced
1 small hot chili or more to taste
10 ounce can of diced tomatoes
1-2 tablespoons of brown sugar
1 tablespoon of prepared horseradish (chrain/red preferred)
2 cups of chicken, beef or vegetable stock
2 bay leaves
1 sprig of fresh thyme or a teaspoon of dried thyme
2 large red onions, cut into rings
Preheat your oven to 325 degrees.
1) Combine the spices and salt. Save about two teaspoons for the vegetables. Rub in the minced garlic and ginger, then sprinkle with the remainder of the spice mixture. Heat three tablespoons of olive oil in a large Dutch oven or pot. Sear the beef all around, or about 3-5 minutes on each side to an even brown. Remove from the Dutch oven and set aside.
2) Add the onion, bell pepper and hot chili to the oil in the pan. Season with the remaining seasoning. Saute until the onion is translucent and add the tomatoes and mix together and cook for about five minutes.
3) Add the sugar and stock, horseradish, bay leaves and thyme. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
4) Place the onion rings at the bottom of the pan and sprinkled with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Place the brisket on top of them. Cover with the vegetables and stock.
5) Cover tightly and bake in the preheated oven for 3.5 hours until the brisket is fork tender.
6) Remove the brisket. If you wish to serve hot from the oven, allow 15-30 minutes to rest and absorb liquid, then remove and carve against the grain. If you are planning on serving it later in the day or the next day, cool and refrigerate. Once the brisket is chilled, you can remove excess fat and slice—always against the grain. You can then use the sauce to cover in a pan or pot and heat gently for a half an hour or more until heated through.
By and large, I followed the recipe as it’s found in the book, but there were a couple of things that didn’t work out. One, my thyme management skills are not what I thought they were, so I was almost finished the recipe before I realized I didn’t have any thyme. So, this is now a thymeless recipe. Two, I only had regular paprika. Three, I added seven hot peppers. They weren’t overly spicy individually, but they add a sneaky, spicy kick to the final product. Four, and final, I didn’t have a big enough Dutch Oven, so I used a flat bottomed wok that one of my colleagues gave me when he was downsizing.
The piece of brisket I had was almost 5 pounds exactly. I cooked it for 3.5 hours, and then after checking it, put it back in the oven for another half hour. It was fork tender by that time, and the flavour really hits you in the chops.
One thing I intend to take away from this recipe is the mixture of spices and salt at the top, along with the ginger and garlic rub. This will make a great rub for any number of dishes. The spices work well together or with the ginger and garlic.
This recipe could also serve as a culinary stand-in for what Twitty would hope to see arise out of his cooking and writing. The recipe blends a variety of different traditions. As he describes it: I often serve this West African Style Brisket on Shabbat, which is inspired by recipes from Nigeria, Senegal, Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. This recipe borrows something from many traditions, acknowledging all of them, but creating something new. From reading The Cooking Gene, that would also seem to be Twitty’s hope for people everywhere. That in examining and acknowledging the past, particularly the painful, shameful, and immoral parts, we can truly appreciate what each person and group of people have brought to the table, and create something new and better.
Having written this, I feel there is so much I have missed. This is definitely a book that bears multiple readings. The Cooking Gene is a great addition to any library. You don’t even need to appreciate food to appreciate this book, but it helps.