Manuel Roig-Franzia is a Washington Post features writer and the newspaper’s former Southern bureau chief.
Should there ever be a competition to determine the most interesting man in the world, Michael W. Twitty would have to be considered a serious contender. Twitty, a self-taught independent culinary historian who lives in Rockville, Md., is partial to dressing in the period attire of antebellum slaves, picking tobacco to get a sense of how his African American ancestors once lived and cooking using ancient methods so fiery that he singes the hair off his arms and eyebrows. He is a man of substantial girth — and proud of it. He has described himself as “four time blessed” — “large of body, gay, African American and Jewish.”
“When you are all the things I am, it’s easy for people to put you in a narrow spot indeed,” Twitty writes in his rambling and sporadically lyrical book, “The Cooking Gene.” “You have to have a way out.”
Twitty, a Howard University dropout who has traveled to numerous plantations to do cooking demonstrations and lecture about history as part of his “Southern Discomfort Tour,” came to national attention in 2013 when he posted a searing open letter to celebrity chef Paula Deen on his website, Afroculinaria.com. The letter, which he wrote amid the controversy over revelations about Deen’s use of the n-word, traced the African roots of popular Southern dishes. It went viral. The man who marries his race and his religion via the Twitter handle @koshersoul had arrived.
“The Cooking Gene” is part history of American slavery, part memoir and part personal detective story. Over more than 400 pages, Twitty chronicles his peripatetic travels through the American South, searching to understand himself through the prism of food and his family history, which he traces via DNA testing and facial characteristics to Ghana.
He explains how enslaved Africans set about to “cocreate a language based in the English of their captors that would make the absurdity of their exile bearable.” “Okra,” he writes, sprung from the word “okwuru” in the language of the Igbo people of Nigeria, and “yam” came from “nyambi” in Wolof, a language with roots in Senegal.
Twitty grew up in a Washington, D.C., house that “always smelled of spices, bubbling piquant sauces, and frying.” His first solid food was “cornbread mashed up in potlikker, the stock left over from a pot of Southern greens. That’s the oldest baby food known to black people in America.”
As a child, he writes, “I hated soul food and I didn’t really like being black.” When he was 7, he says, he suddenly declared that he was Jewish after watching the film adaptation of Chaim Potok’s novel about two Jewish families, “The Chosen.”
When Twitty was a teenager, an uncle took him to the family’s “homeland” in Alabama, where he discovered that a white man named Richard Henry Bellamy, a captain in the army of the Confederate States of America, was his “presumed great-great-great-grandfather.” They sought out the grave of Hattie, Bellamy’s presumed daughter, Twitty recalls, but “the sandy soil had given away. There was a crack in the grave and you could peer into the dark finality of death.”
Years later, Twitty — a man with a penchant for talking his way through any doorway — shows up unannounced with his partner at the plantation in North Carolina that was once owned by one of Bellamy’s forebears, the Rev. William Bellamy. “My people are the Bellamys,” he announces, “and this is my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather’s house and I’ve come all the way from Washington to see it.”
The puzzled owner sizes up the African American man before him and says: “Who’d you say your people were?” Twitty, of course, gets the grand tour and gets to thinking about food. “If he was my ancestor and his sustenance is part of my story too, what of it?” he writes. A historian he meets warns him not to say anything he cannot prove about his ancestry. “I assure her I wouldn’t, but that my imagination might run free,” Twitty writes. He imagines Bellamy eating eels, sturgeon and shad pulled from the Tar River, and envisions barrels of oysters being brought over from the coast.
“I don’t know how to feel about William,” Twitty writes. “Should I be proud of his achievement, a properous Tidewater North Carolina cotton and naval stores plantation at the heyday of King Cotton? Forty-six enslaved black people building, cooking, milking, digging, picking, gardening, raising his livestock, and waiting on his family hand and foot made this possible.”
Far from presenting an idealized view of plantation lives, Twitty portrays the estate’s kitchens as the setting for countless rapes of enslaved women. But he also writes with passion about the wonders created in those spaces. He sprinkles recipes throughout the book: “Cowhorn Okra Soup” made with bacon drippings and blue crab meat, and “Trough Mush,” a buttermilk, cornmeal and potlikker concoction that he instructs to finish off with “your tears.”
As an adult, Twitty returns to Alabama, where he neatly knits his African American heritage with his adopted faith: “I have always described Birmingham as my grandparents’ Poland. It was a place to escape from, not endure in.”
But Twitty isn’t interested in escape. He’s interested in discovery.
“By showing the living what the dead went through, I live a scary and unsettling past,” he writes. “I feel like a doorway for all the spirits of the plantations I visit. I feel their souls passing through me as I cook.”
By Michael W. Twitty
Amistad. 443 pp. $28.99