Slavery, Geneaology, and Southern Food: Michael Twitty Comes to San Francisco

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Debbie says:

Apparently, I have been living under a rock (where the food isn’t as good as it should be), because I had never heard of Michael Twitty before a few weeks ago, when a friend suggested we go hear him when he spoke at Omnivore Books in San Francisco.

He sounded interesting, so I said “Sure.” When another friend (both white women) was excited that he was coming to town, I realized I’d been missing something. But I had no idea how much.

Michael Twitty is: black, Jewish, gay, and very fat. Also beautiful and compelling. He blogs at Afroculinaria: Exploring Culinary Traditions of Africa, African America and the African Diaspora. His new (first) book is The Cooking Gene, which contains some recipes, but is basically autobiographical, and focuses on his long and arduous journey to learn about his African ancestors. As he said, this has given him the pleasure of learning he’s related to Samuel L. Jackson, somewhat balanced by the disturbing knowledge that he’s related to Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney.

Much more important, he has found his actual African ancestors. When he finished the book, he had not been able to finance a trip to West Africa, but when he talks about being there, and meeting his clan, and having access to a name not forced upon his forebears by slavers, the awe in his voice is palpable.

Twitty is an irresistibly friendly and inclusive speaker. The bookstore is tiny and was jammed, and he somehow made every one of us feel like he was personally chatting with us; it just happened that he was doing the talking, but your turn was coming and he wanted to hear what you had to say. He talked about geneaology, and about visiting plantations for the book (and how hard that was). He told us about cooking in Colonial Williamsburg, and doing a little bit to desanitize that particular (very) overly whitewashed experience.

He also talked about being Jewish (“by genetics and conversion”), and told a few stories of Southern Jews, especially a pair of Polish sisters who were World War II refugees and (unlike many American Southern Jews) always felt that the civil rights movement was a struggle they had to be in.

He read some bits from the book, most memorably one about his father making him eat dirt, not as punishment, but for the experience of tasting good Virgina dirt (!).

He says his next two books will be about Judaism and food, and then about being gay and food (and that third one will deal with body image issues).

He closed by pleading with everyone African-American, African, or Afro-Caribbean to get their genetic history tested. He spoke passionately about how little information there is, and how much more each individual adds to the mix. If you’re reading this and you fit the description, I’m passing his plea on to you.

The Cooking Gene looks awesome. Afroculinaria is a great discovery for me. And I would pre-order the next two books now if I could, but they aren’t much more than twinkles in his eyes at this point.

Check out Michael Twitty. You won’t regret it.