HM - May 2019 - Book Review

What Have You Been Reading?


Book Review: The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South
By Michael W. Twitty

Reviewed by Stacey Kerr, Central Michigan University

Social studies educators are not unfamiliar with the use of food to create interest among students. If you’ve ever been in one of Scott Roberts (one our History Matters! editors) professional development sessions, you are probably familiar with his famous “cookie map” story which tells the tale of an ill-conceived geography lesson heavy on sugar, flour, and baked goods in the shape of continents, but light on any real academic rigor or substance. Despite the often gimmicky integration of food into the teaching of social studies, the use of food as a teaching tool, by virtue of its familiar and ubiquitous nature in our everyday lives, can be powerful in engaging academic topics far beyond the food itself. Such is certainly is the case in Michael W. Twitty’s, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South. Twitty, a culinary historian and winner of the 2018 James Beard Award for Best Food Writing and Book of the Year, explores the intertwined histories of slavery, crop and livestock production, and cooking practices, in addition to the relationships between Native Americans, enslaved Africans, and colonizing Europeans in the production of what we now call, Southern Cuisine. He succeeds in the tough task of presenting troubling historical material in an accessible and almost light tone while not diminishing any of the seriousness or complexity of the addressed topics. Events such as the Middle Passage, Civil War, and the Great Migration, figure prominently in The Cooking Gene, yet take on a new life when analyzed through the lens of food production and consumption and told in Twitty’s engaging narrative voice.
Teachers of history may find The Cooking Gene to be an asset in their resource library. Twitty’s detailed historical accounts and analyses have the potential to help students decode present-day intercultural relationships by examining the origin stories of something as banal as a biscuit. These new ideas and novel examples could be infused into already existing lessons, but older students may even benefit from reading individual chapters or excerpts to engage with relevant content as well as the practices of historical research. This is because Twitty, a trained historiographer, not only uses The Cooking Gene to educate readers on the connections between history, identity, and Southern food, but he also provides insight into his use of historical research methods for the writing of this book - genealogical testing, archival and document analysis, oral history interpretation, site visitation, and artifact examination.

It is important to note, however, that Twitty’s book is just the tipping point for educators. His frequently updated blog, Afroculinaria, provides a wealth of material for the creative history teacher. There are maps related to slavery, food production, and demography, a copy of his viral letter to celebrity chef, Paula Deen, after her public usage of racial slurs, and a plethora of other short musings that could help students recognize the presence of history right in the things they eat every day. Powerful history instruction occurs when students are prompted to recognize how academic concepts are embedded in their everyday lives, and food, as presented by Twitty, is the perfect avenue for teachers to access and use. In The Cooking Gene, we see how our histories, geographies, and economies are deeply connected to major events in the past, but also what we pull together in our kitchens and put in our mouths.
Stacey Kerr is Assistant Professor of Geography at Central Michigan University

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The National Council for History Education provides professional and intellectual leadership to foster an engaged community committed to the teaching, learning, and appreciation of diverse histories.