Michael W. Twitty’s first book, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South, was released August 1, 2017. Twitty, an African-American culinary historian, traces his family tree back to his ancestors’ first steps on New World soil. He explores the possibilities of who came from where based on family lore, DNA testing, and the history of human migration — and it all comes together on the kitchen table.
With genealogy as a backdrop, Twitty dives into the heritage of Southern cuisine and culinary tradition. In the process, he tells the painful history of America: enslavement, cultural destruction and denigration, but also of survival. The chapters of this book provide a syllabus for an American History unknown and unacknowledged by many (read: white people, people who use the term “heritage not hate,” those who went to school in places where social studies is an afterthought, etc.) that should be reviewed, read from, and read aloud from sea to sea.
Translation: I’m going to geek out over his references and resources. There’s a lot! The Selected Bibliography makes me want to add a jillion things to my Amazon wishlist. I have dog-eared so many pages and underlined so many names and places in this book that it’s starting to look like a Bible.
The Authors Note is enveloping. The interviews, records, books, and historic sites Twitty pored over provide more than just data, they provide emotional journeys and he acknowledges that role in his research process. The sources mentioned in the text serve an objective purpose — to tell the who, what, where, when, and how — but this section is more emotional. It provides the why. The “why I chose this” is often just as important as the “what it tells us.”
There’s a passage in the Author’s Note (p 418) that resonates with me in a way I can’t fully express, though it makes me want to go back to every single paper and report I’ve written since freshman year in college and start making amends:
Another element to consider is that my knowledge base on the topics listed above spans my entire lifetime. As an autodidact it can become difficult to tease out all the pieces that have impacted my thinking and direction. To that end, I have provided, in the bibliography, an extensive listing of source works that, taken as a whole, give the reader an idea of the scope and breadth needed to pursue such an ambitious and unusual project as this. It is really difficult to write outside your own headspace and to remember that your reader may, in many cases, be unfamiliar with elements of the subject matter.
(I know that’s probably Writing 101, a class in which I paid no attention, but I really appreciate seeing this message as a lapsed informational professional and one-time wanter of a PhD.)
As I’m very unfamiliar with this book’s subject matter, I appreciated the copious acknowledgements and recommended texts. I probably spent more time Googling the experts, authors, titles, and institutions referenced in the The Cooking Gene than I did reading the actual book. Here are just a few of Twitty’s resources that guided my path:
Books, full-text and open source:
- Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself., by Frederick Douglass. An autobiography of Douglass’s life in enslavement, his escape into freedom, and abolitionist work.
- The Old Virginia Gentleman, by George William Bagby. Think of this as the Prairie Home Companion of the pre-Civil War South.
- Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northup. This text is available courtesy of University of North Carolina’s Documenting the American South project. The autobiography details Northup’s kidnapping and enslavement in Louisiana.
Libraries, archives, and resource centers
- Atlanta History Center: A detailed site focusing on Atlanta history collections, with browsable finding aids, a database of digitized photographs, and a gallery of artifacts pertaining to Atlanta history.
- Heinz History Center: Wow. I haven’t crossed paths with this institution before and, wow. Totally bookmarking this for future use. Related to the topic at hand is the African American Program, guiding research into the history and life of African Americans in western Pennsylvania.
The Center has a hearty listing of outside resources, including Pitt University Library’s Free At Last? online exhibit on slavery in Pittsburg in the 18th and 19th centuries.
- Monticello: Thomas Jefferson’s former home/research center offers a plethora of resources on Jefferson’s work and writings, as well as his relationship with slavery (spoiler: he was a big fan). Of interest is the Plantation Database of enslaved people who worked at Monticello.
- Whitney Plantation Museum: The only plantation museum in Louisiana dedicated to educating the public about slavery has an informative website with information on the site’s history and a gallery. The Whitney Plantation Slave Database includes downloadable PDFs of plantation owners’ inventories of enslaved people. Think about that: lists of people as property. That’s fucked up. But the Whitney uses that information to bring their names to light, and the museum’s aim is to acknowledge their humanity, hardships, and lives.
- Colonial Williamsburg Foundation: Colonial Williamsburg. The grand dame of field trips and historical reenactment. Michael W. Twitty is Colonial Williamsburg’s first Revolutionary in Residence — think TED talks, but merging the contemporary with the past — or reconciling with the past — in restored buildings instead of modernist concert halls. Did I mention he’s also a TED Fellow?