I wrote in September about going to hear Michael W. Twitty speak. Now that I’ve finished his first book, The Cooking Gene: A Journey through African-American Culinary History in the Old South, I want to write about his work again, because — even more than he did in person — the book conveys how very physical his work, his memories, and his struggles are.
In The Cooking Gene, Twitty manages to combine his love of the South and Southern food, his deep personal and ancestral feelings about slavery, his (Jewish) religious faith, his search for his genetic lineage, and more into a compelling, emotional, complex, sensual narrative. And every step of the way, he writes about what it feels like, and how committed he is to experiencing his passions with his body.
On an intellectual and emotional level, he certainly added to my understanding of culinary history, especially in the American south and Africa, but also in northern Europe and elsewhere. He gave me a whole new slant on what the transition of southern economy from edible crops to cotton meant in terms of slaves’ daily lives and diets. He gave me a much deeper comprehension of what being descended from enslaved people means in his (and by extension, millions of other people’s) daily life. He brought me into the experience of an African-American man doing geneaology.
But here’s the embodiment piece: millions of people may wish to, and work to, find out about their African ancestry and understand their history as the descendants of enslaved people, but how many of them spend a day every year actually picking cotton? Here’s Twitty on the experience:
Damn, I hate picking cotton. I wish to G-d I could stop, but every fall I find myself in a Southern cotton field for sixteen hours, alone, picking cotton until my hands bleed and my back gives out. I used to shake my head in disbelief at Shi’a and Catholic penitents who mortified their flesh to prove their faith and their distrust in the corporeal form.
Now it appears I have joined their ranks in my solitary, twenty-first-century flagellant way, lashing my body with slave narratives and history books until I truly understand those that “wore the shoe.” One basket is about fifteen pounds of moist, raw cotton. Based on one overflowing basket, my work is not done until twenty-three of said baskets have been dumped on a cloth on the edge of the field.
All of this makes my experience very “history lite.” I didn’t, however, come to learn just what it was like to pick cotton. I need to understand how an entire crop affected my family’s story and those of the majority of African Americans.
He goes on to a thorough and disturbing explanation of how cotton changed the landscape of the south and the lives of the slaves, largely by replacing edible crops that slaves could get some leavings from to an inedible crop which vastly reduced the variety and already minimal health benefits of a slave diet. He elucidates the economics of cotton and how and why it took over the south. I found all of this valuable, and much of it new, and I found it much stronger because it was permeated by feeling into his physical reactions during those sixteen hours a year — and feeling in to what that might be like if it was an involuntary sixteen hours a day.
Another example of the way Twitty interwines embodiment with thoughtfulness relates to my own heritage and experience. Twitty is a converted Jew, who teaches the religion to children. He has been drawn to Judaism since he was six years old. I’ve been to at least 60 Passover Seders (the ritual meal), probably more, and yet he taught me something brand-new about them:
One of the reasons I am madly, passionately, head-over-souls in love with Judaism is the unrestrained passion it has for questions, analysis, study, review, revision, and that dance it seems to revel in between tradition and intellectual anarchy. This process is not always done with a book. Sometimes it’s lived out through folk and material culture, and with food–the scriptures of Torah and Talmud give a uniquely Jewish life and law to what could just be a means to suppress hunger and, hours later, a reason to read a magazine for ten minutes with your pants down. I love that almost the entirety of the Jewish people will sit down for a seder and discuss and debate the ancient lessons of slavery versus freedom while using an edible Torah to process those lessons in their bodies–through all senses available to the eater.
I know of no experience quite like the one of having someone articulate a truth which I knew, but could not have identified.
The whole book is a marvel. Leave out the embodiment and it would still be full of things I wanted to know, and ways I wanted to understand the world. With the embodiment, it is (at its best moments) more like living those experiences than just learning them.