Inspired in part by Roots author Alex Haley, culinary historian Michael W. Twitty takes a hard look at his own ancestry—both black and white—in his new book, The Cooking Gene. Through the lens of Southern food, he traces his roots from colonial rice farms and plantation kitchens to the black-owned organic farms of Georgia today.
Twitty, who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, was in Charlottesville, Virginia when we discussed the memoir, preparing for his speech at Monticello’s annual Heritage Harvest Festival. “I hate the fact that this town is associated with what went down,” he said, referring to August’s white nationalist rally. “Charlottesville is nice, quiet place, a very progressive place. But for the first time that I have been involved in this program, they’re checking all the bags going up the mountain to Monticello. That hurts. This family event, which brought together people across many different cultures and colors, has now become a high-security situation because some of assholes with tiki torches.”
This weekend, he’ll come here for the Atlanta History Center’s Fall Folklife Festival. From 10:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, September 23, Twitty will cook on an open hearth in the center’s Smith Farm Kitchen. A few days before, on September 21 at 7:00 p.m., he’ll discuss The Cooking Gene as part of the Atlanta History Center’s Author Program, which he sees as an open dialogue as opposed to a lecture. “We have a lot to talk about,” he says. “I want Southern food to be the basis of a new discussion on shared Southern identity. But this time, I want us to really have our voice fully articulated, and I’m only one of those voices.”
As for what he’ll be cooking Saturday: fried chicken, yeast rolls, and “whatever vegetables I can get out of the ground,” he says. “I want people to see what life was like on a Georgia plantation and how a meal was prepared in real time. I love the look of wonder on people’s faces; they can’t believe the chicken got fried in a fireplace and looks so damn good!”
What drove you to write The Cooking Gene?
I wanted to locate myself in my own work. How do I fit into this flow of the generations? How can I best represent them, and how can I bust through the foundation for the future? It’s about taking on these mega responsibilities and really having a sense of where you come from beyond a cursory note. I read a lot of cookbooks and they had a little bit of bio data, and a little ancestral data, but nothing more than a couple pages, right? I wasn’t satisfied with that. I wanted to be able to locate myself in ways that nobody had before or since.
What did you come away from this work thinking your responsibility is?
I think the smaller goal is to help my people, African American people, to really understand our heritage and make a useful narrative out of our food journey. Then the universal goal is to really help all humans, but especially all Southerners, appreciate and respect our common roots as a Southern family and understand that’s what anchors us as humans.
What do you want people to think about when they think about Southern food?
I want them to think about what it took to get Southern food to the table. I want them to be appreciative of how that food got to the table and it gets to the table today. And I want them to understand all of those processes, from the individual feelings of the people who are purveyors of food to those who are cooking the food. Their experiences and their lives matter. I want us to really think through what human cost did it take, and does it take, to make the story of Southern food. To birth it, and to nourish it, and to continue it. I want people to be responsible consumers of food and history.
Isn’t this true of all food, or is it more important in the South because of its particular history?
It’s a little bit of both. Southern food matters because it’s the backdrop of one of the most explosive social struggles in modern world history. There are ethnic conflicts and other kind of conflicts all around the world, but this conflict caused the world’s first great democracy to split apart. Now we’re in what some people are calling the Third Reconstruction—and not in a good way. We have things we need to deal with. We have responsibilities we need to handle.
Unfortunately, the food has been used for quite some time—from the Antebellum Period onward—to just to be able to say, “See how great things are? It doesn’t matter what color you are, we eat the same food.” It’s like, “Stop it. Stop hiding behind this wondrous thing, which came at a great cost, to hide the fact that you’ve got a lot of work to do.”
At the Decatur Book Festival, you said that Southerners are the source of their own redemption.
Yeah, we’re our own best friend and worst enemy. Not everything that is progressive and revolutionary comes from without. A lot of it comes from within. People saying, “Enough,” people saying, “Stop,” people saying, “Let’s do something different and better and good.” In the book, I interview people who are tired of always looking for someone else to, for example, bring a farmer’s market to their inner-city communities. In Georgia, those were the people at Truly Living Well, as well as Matthew Raiford in Brunswick, Georgia—folks of color who are taking matters into their own hands, saving their own communities, and also putting out an olive branch and saying, “We can all work together.” We could be the source of an education for the entire country. I’m very proud of that.
But that’s the story that you don’t see in the food media. You don’t see it in the media, period. It’s this depiction of us as only being protestors. I don’t mind protests, but I also like projects. You have to actually put your feet to the ground and get something done.
What are some of African American people’s contributions to our cuisine that we need to recognize?
Well, I think we need to move the conversation about the contribution of African Americans beyond things that can be directly attributable to Africa and into their role and translators and transmitters. People don’t think of us that way, but we were the pioneers. We were the one sent into the bush to cut things down and figure out what was poisonous and what wasn’t. We built our own homes. We made these plantations grow and work, and that meant incessant human labor. To do that, you had to have brute strength, but you also had to have extremely good brains. Because guess what? The wilderness will kill you.
Also, we were so multicultural! I can’t get over it. Do you realize that in the state of Georgia alone, black people were speaking Ladino—it’s the Spanish-Jewish language—Cherokee, Highland Scots, English, Gullah. That’s Georgia in 1790—that says some stuff right there. And if they’re doing all of that, they’re obviously mixing the food, too.
Do you feel like that conversation is more urgent now given our political climate?
Yes. If we don’t untangle these thorny bits, we’re going to have another 150 years of a cold civil war, and I don’t want that. I want to stop it now while I still have breath.
I am so tired of the way that women are treated in this world. The inequalities, the unequal pay, the body stuff. It infuriates me. I’m tired of the homophobia. I’m tired of the racism. I’m tired of the ableism. I’m tired of the ageism. I’m tired of all the -isms. I don’t want everybody to be so damn alone anymore.