The Cooking Gene is about my search for my food roots and family routes during the first 250 odd years of American history. My book traces the history of African American foodways in its main crucible, slavery in the colonial and antebellum South, with deep roots in the civilizations of West and Central Africa. From enslavement to emancipation, I put the microscope on myself to discern my own place in our shared history. Who am I as an African American, a Jew, a gay man, the descendant of four centuries of Black Americans, and an avid, obsessive devotee of living history, the gastronomic craft and the history of Black cuisines, namely but not exclusively that developed by enslaved Blacks in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries—not just for themselves but for their slaveholders, who inevitably were also my Ancestors along with a trickle of others, including Southeastern indigenous nations. Who owns Southern food and who created Southern food is a question that has mostly been in the mouths of those whose perspective has been one of privilege by position, authority by default and a history written by the victors in the centering of white supremacy.
This is personal, I didn’t know who I was, where I came from, what our names were, why were here at all. I have used food my whole life as the pathway into our collective and my distinct familial past. We are here for a reason —-to make our way back and forge a path forward. Sankofa—the ancient Akan philosophical idea from what is now Ghana—the guiding principle of my work, that going forward is blessed by looking backward and now is the only time to do it.
I could be a white man telling this story. I might be considered unbiased or heroic, even restorative by default, because I dared wade into the waters of Black guilt and white shame. I am not a white man, and I realize that every time the word slavery enters my mouth I run the risk of being accused of being an instigator in the culture wars. I realize that when others have cataloged and detailed slavery from the perspective of white slaveholder descendants their work is seen as careful detailing of human legacies, while I run the risk of denoting the trivial and unnecessary, especially in what amounts to fields notes of a journey to discover the story of our cuisine. Recipes are valued over people, human lives are secondary to technique, flavor profiles, ingredients and innovations worthy of trend. I comprehend that when I tell this story, I run the risk in this current America of being called a race bator, a social justice warrior gone awry, or at worst, in my opinion at least, the bearer of superfluous details in a narrative that would be better centered on white import than Black lives, stories, histories, cultures, identities or meaning. Africa on the backburner, white saviors and soul food secrets to be appropriated or critiqued on the front, with our collective Black humanity up for appeal.
But neither am I free from critique from the Black mind and gaze. Am I an Uncle Tom, or worse and Uncle Ruckus, hellbent on giving white people a fantasy of a time when they had total control? Do my interpretive clothes humiliate not just me but an entire group of people for whom racial uplift is goal number one? Does the food I cook engender our captivity, lack of self love, spurn for health and common sense and modernity? Or does it just sit there glaring at us, bubbling over with stereotypes? Am I emphasizing slavery over kingdoms, civilizations and an Afrofuturistic promised land where we can forget all of that and just move on?
Tonight, I have not come to batter you with a narrative of why I believe the story I tell in this book is important, I don’t need anyone’s validation to tell me my Ancestor’s lives matter or that their names matter or that my search to find them matters. This is not debateable. What is also not debatable is the fact we cannot sustain another 150 years of cold civil war. It is not our destiny be beholden to arguments over flags and statues or live in a country where the context of those symbols is lived out in a constant cycle of law enforcement overreach, voter suppression and general distrust of our neighbors based on their phenotype or assumed identities. My work is focused on bringing all of us to the table in a constructive and yet confrontational way. To be the first Black cook in the colonial and antebellum Southern culinary tradition in the 21st century is itself a construction bearing the pressure of confrontation. We will never be free of our inherited myths until we understand our unspoken truths, my purpose for cooking is to foment that understanding.
Food is not just something we consume. In the traditions of many pre-literate peoples the staples of our cuisines are family. Food is inseparable from our lineages. To my Igbo ancestors, the yam, a food central to the diet and spirituality is the product of splicing the first lineage and planting them in the ground. The yam is not just food, it is family. Sugarcane, the crop that ignited New World slavery is not just food, its seen as an ancestor. Corn, our alma mater upon arrival in the early Southeast was the mother of the local First Nations. Taro, born in Southeast Asia and migrating to Africa and Polynesia about the same time, what we called elephant ear in South Carolina, was someone’s brother.
Food and consumption is also a vehicle for the flow of history. A thirsty man or woman in New Guinea discovered a grass full of sucrose heavy juice; if they hadn’t I wouldn’t be giving this lecture and you who are Black might not be here as well. Our Ancestors were “seasoned,” in The West Indies, readied to produce wheat, corn, rice, sugar, cocoa, coffee, arrowroot, peanuts, and any number of other edible plantation crops from orchard fruit to cowpeas. But most of all, we, the possessors of Black bodies were to quote one scholar, “delectable,” spoken about in terms with which one discourses on meat cuts throughout the literature of slavery, we walked onto slave ships terrified white cannibals would eat us, and we were partly right, the consumption of enslaved Africans was the largest forced migration in world history but beyond that in the United States we became the most valuable single commodity, more valuable than any tobacco, cotton or indigo, even as enslaved grown tobacco paid our debts to the French, enslaved grown wheat fed a starving revolutionary Europe and enslaved grown cotton alone constituted 2/3 of America’s 19th century economy. Black history is a veritable dialectic of consumption and consumables in which the exploitation of our existence depends on the hunger people have for our culture, our labor, our bodies, our lives.
Food is power and food has meaning. The kulitch of a Cossack and the challah of resident of the Jewish shtetl may be very similar but the Cossack is conducting the pogrom and his bread is for the resurrection of a man Judaism was certainly man but not G-d. Form and taste are not priorities over season and purpose. Just because oppressed and oppressor share similar foods does not mean we can create false equivalencies. This red line is drawn through the entirety of the culinary experience—access to food, preparation of food, consumption of food, the economy being full participants in the culinary marketplace. In other words, can that enslaved person raise an animal, grow a garden, catch a fish, hunt an animal, Whether the food itself is inherently “Black,?” is not the issue, but rather how as the Black approach to food been defined by strictures, migration, changes in ecosystems and power systems.
So let’s talk about food. I wanted to write a work that would explain how the larger vernacular Soul Food came to be. It depends on all of these parts and an acknowledgement that our culture was defined by its agency, its resistance to oppression, and its mnemonic ability to preserve the memory of African cultures and cuisines and their associated knowledge and lore. Even though I have acknowledged that soul food is not slave food—I use Soul food to define the wider vernacular cuisine as well as the memory cuisine of the great and great great grandchildren of the enslaved. Our terminology is clear—we are speaking in terms of people who were enslaved not slaves—one is a condition and the other is an identity.
Imagine for a moment one recipe, just one. Okra soup. If you are in Senegambia you call it soupakanja, kanja is from Wolof and Fulani, West Atlantic and kanjo in Mande for okra. Okra as we know it is a merger of terms nkruma—in Twi, okwuru and okro in Igbo. It is fevi in Fon, the language of the kingdom of Dahomey an empire that held sway over a port that exported no less than 1 million Africans to the New World, not the least of which was Haiti and Martinique and New Orleans . There were African chefs in the French locales learning and mixing African and French culinary styles during the first 150 years of European engagement with the transatlantic slave trade. It was no different that the interaction with the Portuguese. The palate they were working with involved the foods and ingredients of five continents. No place in the world had greater diversity of pantry than tropical West Africa where Africa, Asia and the Middle East, Europe, and North and South America came together. By the time you hit Central Africa it is kingumbo, all of these names make it to the New World.
But it was my grandmothers—sitting together, evicted by war, exiled by racism—making their mutual pots of okra soup that created Southern food. There were European pots, Native American ingredients, but they had African hands and minds. This culinary creole—the foodways of African America was about negotiation. Receipt/or cook books give us a vote but not a veto—because their writers were not enslaved women. We look at garden records, receipts for purchases, archaeological remains, oral histories, and examine the stories passed down to us for evidence, and more than anything else—we cook and test and test and cook until we can say with some degree of accuracy that region by region, soul by soul, name by name, this is how it was done and we know why. Here are the practical reasons but here is what it did for the community.
And yet the most important thing we have is our ability to draw from this history not so much technique and style and taste and all of the cosmetic elements of the gastronomic experience but the bottom line here is justice. Justice to them, justice for ourselves and our neighbors and justice to future generations. In a time when our multicultural discourse is more war than discourse we owe it to ourselves to pursue a cuisine, a gastronomic exploration based on justice, on fairness to the people of the past, respect for those here now, and concern and empathy for those to come. We have to summon our best selves in this work, acknowledge our failings. There is nothing that the American table cannot express, cannot articulate or clarify and it is our journey through this history, to understand, comprehend and make reconciliation that will be our cause for generations to come.
I want us to feel good about the country we can become if our demons are faced, I want us to rejoice not so much in America the legendary but in America, the purposeful and directed attempt to repair the world. I want a South that hungers not for statues but for souls at peace. Or country will and dies depend on us for a lasting justice. We are at this hour depending on ourselves and our knowledge of the past for a new glimpses of what we can be as a family of humans bound by a history with tangled roots leading to luxurious possibilities.