A culinary historian travels the routes of his ancestors in the Old South, immersing himself in a complex weaving of food history and politics, genealogy and genetics, and discovers on the way surprising truths about family, identity, and the destiny of the Southern table.
In search of a culinary homeland, Michael W. Twitty decided to retrace the steps of his family’s journey from Africa to America and from slavery to freedom, using food as his lens. The Cooking Gene Project garnered international attention as Twitty searched for not only his own food story, but that of all Southerners and the ties of the table that bind. He wondered, like many before him, who really owns Southern food? But also: How had food been changed by and changed the story of the African and African American experience—and what culinary justice exists for the descendants of enslaved people whose contributions are celebrated and mass marketed but enjoy little of the fruits of their heritage in the face of poverty, food deserts, chronic illness and enduring racial tensions.
The narrative journey takes Twitty through his development as a historic chef and culinary justice activist to his Southern Discomfort tour retracing his ancestor’s food-steps—from places to ingredients. He visits the graves of ancestors both white and black on the grounds of their former plantations, cooks and shares meals with the descendants of his family’s former slaveholders and journeys to West Africa to explore his direct ethnic ties through DNA research, all in the effort to discover his culinary “(R)oots” in a personal and moving way. From dinners with Confederate re-enactors on historic battlefields in Virginia to community based farmer’s markets in Atlanta’s inner city to kosher soul food cooking classes at a synagogue in Birmingham, he opens up the conversation to engage Southerners of all stripes in dialogue about how food and family stories shape the regional self. He looks at this journey from every angle, mixing it up with scholars and chefs who help him in his culinary-genealogical detective story to uncover a fresh and unfiltered part of the American table in all of its glorious complexity. Twitty emerges from his confrontation with his—and the American–past—with a new sense of what “family” means, with hope and directives on a greater vision for our collective culinary future.
The Cooking Gene, forthcoming in 2016 from HarperCollins