by Linda Viertel –
Michael Twitty’s bestselling book, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in The Old South, is the winner of the 2018 James Beard Foundation Book Awards for writing and “Book of the Year.” On May 18, this noted culinary and cultural historian will be discussing his writing at the Philipsburg Manor Visitor Center in conjunction with the LitFest celebration being held throughout Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown. Pinkster, a holiday originally celebrated by Dutch and African New Yorkers in the 1700’s, became a time when slave-owning families gave their captive men and women time off to see loved ones and family who often lived far away. By the late 18th Century it had grown into a time of merriment: Dancing, eating, elaborate vendor stalls, music and game-playing brought Africans and Europeans together – a fitting local celebratory time for Twitty to be presenting at Philipsburg Manor.
The Cooking Gene is no ordinary Southern cookbook; though traditional recipes appear throughout. Twitty’s text is a deep-dive into his racial heritage, as he recounts in his Afterward, “a work of narrative non-fiction intended to weave together elements of genealogical documentation, genetic genealogy, first-hand accounts from primary sources, the most recent findings of culinary and cultural historians and personal memoir.” Readers travel with him to sugar cane mills, tobacco and rice farms from pre-Civil War times to the present, and plantation kitchens and cotton fields once farmed by his enslaved ancestors.
In non-linear fashion, he weaves his consummate historical and foodways knowledge of enslaved African Americans, slave owners and Indian tribes in the Old South into a compelling stew of overlapping culinary traditions which still informs how we eat in America today. Photographs of plantation meals, barbecues, farmer’s markets, gardens and slave market sites enhance the power of his message. A comprehensive bibliography attests to his prodigious historical research and suggests how inextricably linked all ethnicities were in America’s southern culture, and, still are
In the end, by attempting to understand his heritage in all its complexities through food, agriculture, and kitchen traditions, his mission resonates: to bring all of us to the table – together.