The Cooking Gene

It took me six weeks to complete Michael W. Twitty’s part autobiography, part narrative history, part cookbook. It’s only 400 pages long. My slow burn through rate is not a reflection on the writing which is often beautiful and lyrical and always well-crafted and considered. No, my pace is a common occurrence when faced with the grim reality of slavery as a lived experience. If I’m not taking it in small bites, I’m avoiding it entirely. Black grief isn’t for me, which is why I haven’t seen 12 Years A Slave or Hotel Rwanda or made my way to the end of Fruitvale Station.

I made it through The Cooking Gene, though, with my heart bruised but intact. Twitty makes plain what it must have been like for his specific ancestors and thus, the kin of many of us for whom enslavement was our forced entry into these United States. In the lived experience, we can feel in our bones the back-breaking work of picking cotton under the crack of the whip. We must consider the soul-crushing work of toiling in hot kitchens for our enslavers (who might also rape us on a whim and treat the children from the villainous union as property). In the papers from the time, we might understand the cruelty of the middle passage, the diet built on malnourishment (which plagues the genetic makeup of black folks to this day), the crimes of family separation. In the sober hunt for and re-telling of our shared history, we might stew in anger at the willful ignorance of those who would like to pretend slavery was something other than it is, and who endeavor to revisit those sins on people living today.

In the food, we might find where hope was found and resiliency fortified. In the food, we might find where the roots of true American cuisine began. In the food, we might see even more nuanced ways in which wealth, power, and culture were taken from black bodies, black hands, black ingenuity. In the food, we might find threads of our family trees back to Louisiana or Virginia or the Carolinas.

I don’t know my own history beyond a few generations on my mother’s side, but through The Cooking Gene, I can imagine my people were first brought to this country in the rice growing lands. Perhaps my love of the food comes to me from my ancestors, deep in my bones, in my DNA. What might I learn if I go wherever that thread takes me? What parts of Africa and Europe might I land?

Tiffany is cooking a true Southern meal today of smothered chicken, collards, and mac & cheese (macaroni pie, in the old words). If I get my gumption up, I might whip up a batch of biscuits to sop up the gravy and potlikker. It smells like kitchens of my youth in our house today. Like my grandma’s and great grandma’s homes in the summertime. It probably smells like the kitchens of their youth. And the kitchens our enslaved kin toiled in as well.

They only rarely would’ve been able to make such a meal for their families, producing it instead on the regular for Sunday dinners for the white people who had bought their bodies and claimed to own them.

It took me six weeks to finish The Cooking Gene. To move any faster would’ve felt like disrespect to the memory of the spirits Twitty stirs. To go more quickly would have removed the emotional release valve I require to process America’s terrible history.

In retrospect, a month and a half is a short time with Twitty’s tales. They will stay with me for much longer.


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