The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South, written by Michael W. Twitty, is an incredibly detailed personal memoir with a focus on Southern cuisine, food culture, and genealogy. Many of the chapters end with a collection of one to three recipes for dishes such as West African Brisket, Hoecake, Fried Apples, Red Straw Persimmon Beer, Catfish Stew, and New Year’s Day Black-Eyed Peas. I will also be sharing Twitty’s recipe for Sweet Potato Pie at the end of the review.
Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Amistad in exchange for my honest review. All comments and opinions are my own. This post contains affiliate links.
Michael W. Twitty is a food writer, culinary historian, and Judaic studies teacher currently based in Silver Spring, Maryland. He is the creator of Afroculinaria, the first blog devoted to African American historic foodways and their legacies. Along with over 250 talks and appearances in the media around the world, his work has appeared in Ebony, the Guardian, and NPR. First We Feast named him one of the twenty greatest food bloggers of all time, he was listed as one of “Fifty People Who are Changing the South” by Southern Living, and he has received readers’ choice and editors’ choice awards from Saveur for best food and culture blog. He is also a Smith fellow with the Southern Foodway Alliance, a TED fellow and speaker, and the first Revolutionary in Residence at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Beginning with The Cooking Gene project in 2011, Twitty has worked to connect the food history of his ancestry from slavery to freedom in America back to West and Central Africa to promote the recognition of African Americans’ contributions to Southern cuisine. This work led to The Southern Discomfort Tour in 2012 where he traveled from Maryland to Louisiana visiting the sites of his ancestors, living relatives, plantation kitchens, cemeteries, and more while conducting research, giving cooking demonstrations, and lecturing along the way.
His research and experiences have been brought together in this book of over 400 pages. From DNA results pinpointing specific ethnic groups to the history of family members (a family chart going back eight generations is included for reference), I learned so much in this remarkable memoir. He writes: “Nothing lacks importance; no detail is to be left behind. Our stories and our parents’ and grandparents’ stories- and even beyond to their parents’ and great-grandparents’ stories- are precious in a world where the narrative of who we are and were usually lasts no more than three generations.”
He shares his first experiences with food, intimate moments with family, and his ancestors’ history- from being sold as children to the slave owners themselves. He fully explores crops such as tobacco, corn, sorghum, and rice down to the specifics of how they are cultivated, prepared, and the hardships involved (rice production in the Low Country of South Carolina was met with marshes filled with water moccasins, canebrake rattlers, alligators, fungal diseases, and mosquitos). Even foods used to clean the intestines of parasites are mentioned.
I learned about the dishes popular in the South with regional differences in diet from the coastal areas to deeper inland, plus the influences by the South’s indigenous cultures. I was particularly fascinated in the connections of the dishes between the continents. The holy trinity of bell peppers, onions, and tomatoes used in Cajun and Creole cooking originally came from the Senegalese, Dahoman, or Kongolese while the rice and bean dishes came from the Senegambians. Twitty even includes how the present-day words for certain foods came about- the word for Okra came from the Igbo okwuru, gumbo from kingumbo, and yam from the Wolof nyambi.
Different areas are mentioned from the Chesapeake Bay to Richmond, Charleston, and New Orleans with their involvement in slavery to specifics about their cuisine. I especially love the mention of the chefs behind the food, past and present, including James Hemings (owned by Thomas Jefferson, who now receives credit for many of his creations, and classically trained in French cooking) and Leah Chase (chef and owner of Dooky Chase in New Orleans).
Many of the chapters are followed by one to three recipes, 21 in total (ingredients are listed in US Customary). You won’t find any photos of the recipes themselves, but Twitty does include a collection of 14 photos grouped together towards the end of the book of different sites visited during The Southern Discomfort Tour. This book is a great pick for those interested in genealogy and the African Americans influence in the development of Southern cooking.
Sweet Potato Pie
Sweet Potato Pie is a holiday classic that comes together fairly easily. A mixture of mashed sweet potatoes (boil them until softened, peel, and mash well), spiced rum, molasses, butter, nutmeg, and eggs are combined until smooth and poured into a prepared, unbaked pie crust.
The recipe calls for 3-4 eggs. I used 3 large eggs and baked the pie until it was set enough for the edge of a knife to come out clean, about 45 minutes.
I used light molasses because I had it on hand, but Sorghum is an African grass (used to make taffy in the Sahel in West Africa) that has been grown in North America since the colonial period. The cane is cut and pressed to excrete a green juice that is boiled down into a thick, golden brown molasses.
This homemade pie crust from The Hungry Hutch (with video) includes both butter and shortening for an extra flaky texture and great flavor.
Along with the Sweet Potato Pie, I also made Kitchen Pepper, Beaten Biscuits, Mr. Wesley Jone’s Barbecue Mop, and Macaroni and Cheese the Way My Mother Made It.
Kitchen Pepper is a spice mix that “goes in everything in place of just pepper.” This mixture comes together easily with a combination of black pepper, white pepper, red pepper flakes, mace, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and ginger. It is one of the ingredients used to make Sorghum Brined Chicken Roasted in Cabbage Leaves.
I first came across Beaten Biscuits while in Easton, Maryland. The biscuit dough is literally beaten, with a rolling pin, mallet, ax, etc., for about 30 minutes until the dough is smooth and blistering, formed into rounds, and baked until golden.
Twitty adapted the recipe for Barbecue Mop from Mr. Wesley Jones, a barbecue master who cooked during antebellum slavery. Sautéed onions and garlic are simmered in a sweetened and spiced apple cider mixture for half an hour. It can be used as a light mop sauce to glaze barbecued meat or as a dip for the cooked meat.
Twitty’s mother’s Macaroni and Cheese is so wonderfully decadent. The just al dente elbow macaroni is coated in a creamy sauce made from butter, cream cheese, milk, evaporated milk, eggs, sour cream, and cheddar cheese (both sharp and mild). For extra texture, half of the cheddar is shredded while the other half is cubed. Even more cheddar is sprinkled on top and the whole dish is seasoned with a spice and sugar mixture and paprika.
Sweet Potato Pie Recipe
Sweet Potato Pie
Excerpt from The Cooking Gene
2 large boiled sweet potatoes (orange, yellow, or white)
2 tablespoons spiced rum
1 cup of sorghum or light molasses
dash of salt
1/4 cup freshly churned butter
Pinch or two of nutmeg (optional)
1 (9 inch) pie shell
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Mix all of the ingredients for the inside together and pour in to fill the crust. Bake for 45-50 minutes or until the knife or fork comes out clean.