The Cooking Gene

A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South

By Michael W. Twitty

Amistad. 443 pp. $28.99 nolead ends

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Reviewed by

Manuel Roig-Franzia

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Should there ever be a competition for most interesting man in the world, Michael W. Twitty would be a serious contender. A self-taught independent culinary historian who lives in Rockville, Md., Twitty likes to dress in the period attire of antebellum slaves, pick tobacco to learn how his African American ancestors once lived, and cook with old methods so fiery, he singes the hair off his arms and eyebrows. He describes himself as "four time blessed" - "large of body, gay, African American, and Jewish."

The Cooking Gene is part history of American slavery, part memoir, and part personal detective story. Over more than 400 pages, Twitty chronicles his travels through the American South, searching to understand himself through the prisms of food and his family history, which he traces via DNA testing and facial characteristics to Ghana.

Twitty grew up in a Washington, house that "always smelled of spices, bubbling piquant sauces, and frying." As a child, he writes, "I hated soul food and I didn't really like being black." When he was 7, he says, he suddenly declared he was Jewish after watching the film adaptation of Chaim Potok's novel The Chosen.

When Twitty was a teenager, an uncle took him to the family's "homeland" in Alabama, where he discovered that a white man named Richard Henry Bellamy, a captain in the army of the Confederate States of America, was his "presumed great-great-great-grandfather." He goes to Bellamy's home in search of history.

Far from presenting an idealized view of plantation lives, Twitty portrays the estate's kitchens as the setting for rapes of enslaved women. But he also writes of the wonders created in those spaces. He sprinkles recipes throughout the book: "Cowhorn Okra Soup," made with bacon drippings and blue crab meat, and "Trough Mush," a buttermilk, cornmeal, and potlikker concoction he tells us to finish off with "your tears."

On a return trip to Alabama, Twitty neatly knits his African American heritage with his adopted faith: "I have always described Birmingham as my grandparents' Poland. It was a place to escape from, not endure in." But he's interested in discovery, not escape.

"By showing the living what the dead went through, I live a scary and unsettling past," he writes. "I feel like a doorway for all the spirits of the plantations I visit. I feel their souls passing through me as I cook."

This review originally appeared in the Washington Post.