If Michael W. Twitty’s The Cooking Gene doesn’t win the 2017 Pulitzer Prize, there’s something very wrong with the committee.
Then again, there always has been something wrong with America, as Twitty details with a righteous anger both searing and enlightening. This heavily researched “cookbook” (there are some recipes in it) is Twitty’s effort to unravel his past, a difficult task for any African-American.
All this gets explained, with the kind of writing that you want to linger over. But it’s hard to, as when he describes in detail how slave auctions worked, through the eyes of his own relatives, and why most African-Americans are part-white, through the eyes of those who were raped, sold, and brutalized in ways large and small over centuries.
Yet through it all, the food shines through. This is the book’s deeper meaning. Southern culture is distinct from northern culture because it’s African at its heart. What we eat, the ingredients we use, our spicing and love of the land, it all comes to us from Twitty’s people. Every southern white man, no matter how white he may claim to be, has African languages, attitudes, and ways of living deep in his heart.
Twitty’s search was made possible by both DNA science and a host of people who have made it their life’s work to tease out the past lives of black Americans through painstaking archeological work as well as hints given in old newspapers, court records, letters, and ads for slave auctions. Portuguese traders bought blacks from black princes, whom they treated as equals. Later waves were simply seized from lands where cash crops like rice were cultivated, and still later waves were seized merely as bodies to work the growing cotton fields as they drifted west. Along the way black men and women brought us barbecue, bourbon, burgoo, pepper sauce and jollof rice, which became a host of different dishes including jambalaya. Among other things.