Issue 31 — Integrity in the Kitchen
The Cooking Gene, by Michael W. Twitty
Big news. I ran my first 5K road race in <gestures vaguely> forever last weekend. It was a stacked field, including several herding dogs and Ted Lasso.
I tucked in with a group of elite seven-year-olds and their parents, and held my own. It remains true that if I were to start a rock band, it would be called the Screaming Hamstrings. But at least I can get out there and shake off the cobwebs every so often, without needing immediate medical assistance.
This week we take on our first book about food. As we enter the cozy months here in the Northern Hemisphere, I have several further titles related to food and agriculture all teed up to enjoy. Stay tuned.
The Cooking Gene:
A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South
Michael W. Twitty
Harper Collins, 2018
It was at a 2016 wedding in Charlottesville, Virginia that I learned from a Christian clergyman about the Jewish myth of the shattered vessels. I sat in the church listening to the sermon, blocks away from what was to be the site of a white supremacist, antisemitic rampage just one year later. The priest related a Jewish creation myth developed by a 15th-century Rabbi called the Ari. According to the story, when God created the world he made ten precious vessels filled with divine light. But the vessels weren’t strong enough to contain the power of the light. They shattered, covering the earth with a myriad of tiny burning sparks. According to author Howard Schwartz,
That is why we were created -- to gather the sparks, no matter where they are hidden. God created the world so that the descendants of Jacob could raise up the holy sparks. That is why there have been so many exiles -- to release the holy sparks from the servitude of captivity. In this way the Jewish people will sift all the holy sparks from the four corners of the earth.
And when enough holy sparks have been gathered, the broken vessels will be restored, and tikkun olam, the repair of the world, awaited so long, will finally be complete. Therefore it should be the aim of everyone to raise these sparks from wherever they are imprisoned and to elevate them to holiness by the power of their soul.
We had visited Monticello the day before, and seen the new exhibits that attempt to document the history of the enslaved people on Jefferson’s hilltop. Cabins had been reconstructed. Stories of the Hemings family and others, bought and sold and bound to labor for the Jefferson family, were finally being told. Archaeologists were studying the area, researching the history of the Monacan people who were displaced from the site. So many stories had vanished, so many lives were lived and lost, all without a trace in the historical record. So many sparks were scattered.
The vast, violent sin at the heart of the American project was much on my mind that morning. The priest at the wedding offered the young couple and their supporting congregation a real gift by sharing the idea of tikkun olam: a vision of repair, of how we might work actively for justice in the time we are given, in order to make ourselves and our world whole once again.
As I read Michael W. Twitty’s memoir, The Cooking Gene, I was reminded of that day. Twitty, a culinary historian and historical interpreter who grew up in Washington DC, started a food blog in 2011 called Afroculinaria. Yearning to know more about his ancestors, he then launched his Southern Discomfort Tour in 2012. He visited the places where his forebears had been enslaved, and met with community groups to share historic foodways and foster communal understanding. The Cooking Gene ties together his search for his own roots with his deep insights into Southern agriculture, food, culture, and history.
As Twitty writes in his preface,
The Old South is a forgotten Little Africa but nobody speaks of it that way. Everything black folks gave to the aristocracy and plain folks became spun gold in the hands of others—from banjos to barbecue to Elvis to rice and cotton know-how. Everything we black Southerners kept for ourselves, often the unwanted dregs and markers of resistance, felt like markers of backwardness, scratches of the uncivilized, idolatry, and the state of being lost. And yet I loved that Old South, and loved it freely in all her funkiness and dread. To be honest, I never hated white people for their strange relationship to us, their colored kith and kin, but I grew up with the suspicion that they had no clue just how much of us there was in their family trees. Maybe if they did, we would know less enmity toward one another.
The Old South is where I had to return.
Twitty’s clarity of thought and intention and his gift for expression carry forward from this early paragraph through the entire book, as he addresses all these themes. Making his way south, he elaborates for the reader the extraordinary diversity of Southern subregions, cultures, and cuisines: Virginia, North Carolina, the South Carolina Low Country, New Orleans, the Cotton Belt. He provides mouthwatering descriptions of seasonal menus, with recipes included. His paean to the persimmon had me ready to plant a tree in my own yard. Yet he also tells harsh truths about the toxic legacy of the scant and miserable rations provided to the enslaved. Twitty manages to convey the full range of black historical experience: from privation, violation, and oppression (“The kitchen in slavery was a sinister place”—the site of untold numbers of rapes) to survival, resistance, and celebration. Twitty’s grandfather tells him:
“Yessir, I puts my cotton bale right here, gets my money, and I left on the Southern Railway the next few days. You know why I did that, boy? So you could write this down in the book. I picked cotton so you could pick up a book.”
In addition to reading a hard copy, I listened to Michael Twitty narrate the audio version of The Cooking Gene. As I heard his voice, the personal elements of the book became even more moving. He shares the way his relationships with his family evolved as he did: from his childhood adventures in the kitchen, to his teenage coming out as gay, to his conversion to Judaism in his twenties, to his pursuit of his roots through archival research and DNA testing. In one memorable vignette, we feel the chill gaze of the white librarian, who doesn’t want to acknowledge that the portrait of the proud Confederate officer might in fact depict the great-great-great-great-grandfather of the black man standing before it.
Since tracing his ancestry back to Ghana and Sierra Leone, Twitty has led food-oriented roots tours to Africa, and he continues to provide guidance to Black Americans on genealogical research and DNA tracing. This year he published a new cookbook, Rice, as part of the UNC Press series Savor the South. He continues to work with Colonial Williamsburg on historical interpretations of the lifeways of enslaved persons—which included gardening at night by moonlight and torchlight.
When he was learning to cook as a curious child, Michael Twitty’s mother often repeated a stern instruction: “Integrity in the kitchen!” Integrity means honesty, and it also means wholeness. I can’t think of a better word to describe Michael Twitty’s search in The Cooking Gene: a search for the truth and a quest to repair what has been shattered, in order to make ourselves and each other whole.
Would we be better off if we embraced this complexity and dealt with our pain and shame . . . Is it too late?
Maybe I’ll just invite everybody to dinner one day and find out.
It is a generous invitation.
Other Voices, Other Forms
Another great source of storytelling about the South is The Bitter Southerner. On this site you will find serious journalism, beautiful photo essays, and even Juneteenth mixology. A recent piece recounts the fight to stop a 500-acre quarry project in majority-Black Hancock County, Georgia.
Poem of the Week
We recently received the welcome news that Honorée Fannone Jeffers will be writing a biography of Lucille Clifton.
Here’s Clifton’s poem “Cutting Greens.”
For Your Reading Radar
Natalie Baszile, the author of the novel Queen Sugar, has recently written a beautiful book entitled We Are Each Other’s Harvest: Celebrating African American Farmers, Land, and Legacy.
The title comes from Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “Paul Robeson,” a poem that speaks directly to Michael Twitty’s project in The Cooking Gene.
For Your Calendar
U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo will be featured at the Miami Book Fair next week. At Noon Eastern time on Monday, November 15th, she will be heard in conversation with Rob Casper, who runs the Poetry and Literature program at the Library of Congress. The topic will be her new book Poet Warrior: A Memoir. Details here.
Bookshop of the Week
The Cooking Gene features wonderful characters from New Orleans that include Leah Chase, proprietor and chef of the renowned restaurant Dookie Chase. She tells her grandson, who has been studying in Paris, “Just wait until you get home and Grandma teaches you some Cordon Noir!”
Our bookshop this week is Baldwin and Company in New Orleans. They have a coffee shop and a podcast studio. On Sunday November 20th, they will be hosting a festival called Let’s Build a Better NOLA Book by Book. All of the book links in this week’s issue are to their site on bookshop.org. You can order from anywhere in the country and get quick shipping.
That’s it for this week. See you next week for our first-ever Holiday Gift Guide. And remember: “We are each other’s/ magnitude and bond.” xo Nicie