The Cooking Gene

27 02 2019

I read this book recently, so I will just jot down some thoughts here. In general, reading books like this remind me of how shallow my roots are in this country. Mexican cuisine tends to be celebrated (even if in a bastardized form), while “soul food” such as collard greens and corn grits are little appreciated outside of the South and historically black communities. Personally, I like Southern food, and I think it just as nuanced and cultured as any other cuisine. Good gumbo or fried chicken is an art. At the same time, there is a sort of gentrification of these rural “uncultured” foods that I can also recognize as a concern. The throwaway foods of yesterday become the delicacies of today, and that can be very problematic.

I liked the image of the table creaking under the historical weight of the food. That is, of foods that crossed the ocean and were lovingly preserved and seeped into the general culture. “Black culture” is for me the most important glue in “American culture,” often the only stuff worth appreciating. One interesting (if unrelated) anecdote was how Twitty cooked in a traditional style on a plantation where Confederate Civil War reenactors were having their weekend. In spite of their differences, Twitty and the wannabe Confederates bonded over the food.

Twitty also touches upon such pressing issues as food deserts and nutritional deficiency in the black community. Food colonialism is still very much a problem, as relatively nutritious foods of the past are replaced with prepackaged foods and sugary drinks. Such foods also lead people to forget how to cook, making them all the more dependent on artificial products mass produced by multinational corporations.

In general, it is hard for me to appreciate the genealogical aspect of Twitty’s book, but I am not black nor am I very “American”. Having roots firmly in Mexico, genealogy has been the last thing of interest to me, but then again, Mexican food is generally celebrated whereas “soul food” has been historically underappreciated. Homogenization threatens the culture of my childhood far less than it does the culture that Twitty describes in his book.

Overall, I greatly appreciated Twitty’s family stories and his efforts to keep old food ways alive. I am not sure I would want to cook over an open fire in humid Southern summer heat (his description of this made me uncomfortable just reading about it), but part of me is really glad someone is making the effort.


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