Michael Twitty’s “The Cooking Gene” Made Me Unapologetically Proud of My Culinary Lineage

When Stefani Renée Thibodeaux Medley started her food blog, she wanted to share the complexity of Southern cuisine. Her research led her to Michael Twitty.

Collage of Michael W Twitty with his book "The Cooking Gene"

Simply Recipes / Amistad

This story is a part of our Juneteenth collaboration with Eat the Culture, where we tapped writers and cooks to share “love letters” to their favorite Black cookbook authors. 

It was March of 2021, and although I was tired of constantly being on Zoom after Zoom for work, when I heard that Michael W. Twitty was having a virtual 3-day workshop where we explored the culinary connections between West and Central Africa and the American South, I signed up without hesitation. 

I had no idea what to expect from the session and was a little nervous. The first night of class, however, all of those jitters dissipated and every session after got better and better. The moments that will stay with me the most were when Twitty would mention a subject or a food or a scenario and Black folks in the class started chiming in on the Zoom chat with different responses—whether it was to co-sign with another participant, give affirmation by saying “Ase,” or to shout out the similarities of our many rice dishes. Even though it was virtual, it felt like I had met long lost cousins. It was that cooking gene.

Genes can be defined as those biological things that are passed down from parent to offspring and contain the code that makes up specific traits. I always say I inherited a love of cooking from my Granny Octavia, and she—along with other family and extended family—have been pivotal forces in how I view food and food culture. Food is more than just for our physical well being; it has the power to impact us at the emotional and cellular level. 

I’ve always been interested in the history of food, my family’s history as it relates to food, and the history of Southern food and how it connects to Black Americans. And it’s not just about the preparation of food but the fellowship—the recipes that have been cooked for generations, the stories that come from the gossip that happens during the preparation of those recipes, and the community that is cultivated.

When I started my blog Savor and Sage I wanted to share how soulful and Southern cooking go far beyond what’s typically portrayed in popular culture. I wanted to show that it  embodies a delicious mix of simplicity and complexity, texture, and dishes full of flavor with deep roots in the African diaspora. I had no idea how I was going to embark on this journey, where it would lead me, or what I was going to do with the information. Quite honestly it felt a little daunting, but I could feel in my bones it was something I needed to do. 

"Food is more than just for our physical well being; it has the power to impact us at the emotional and cellular level."

I don’t remember the exact recipe of my Granny’s I was researching to learn more about its history, but that search led me to Michael Twitty and his book “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South” and ordered it right away. I could not wait to take a bite out of this book and when it finally arrived, I dove right in and quickly learned that this was what I had been craving. 

“The Cooking Gene” is filled with the history you don’t learn about in school. It brought back memories of conversations I remember interloping on, where I would eavesdrop on  “grown folks” conversations. It shares the forgotten recipes I heard elders talking about. It centers the art of oral storytelling. It weaves the intersectionality of food, politics, health, and other social conditions. It is a telling of our ancestors' story in a way that had not been told before.

Stumbling upon this book right as I started to become more interested in my family’s generational ways of cooking was perfect timing. Twitty’s documented culinary journey in “The Cooking Gene” is more of a history book with recipes tucked throughout and articulates the storied history of Black food—American food—filled with joy and also tinged with pain. Twitty writes about this duality beautifully and challenges us not to look away from the past, but to have conversations about change, equity, healing, joy and take pride in our food lineages. In an excerpt of the book he writes:

Full confession: I am not dispassionate and unbiased. I didn’t come to genetic genealogy services to be underwhelmed or go back to a vague appreciation of my heritage. I’m here to use a developing technology to sort out what has survived history in order to tease out a fuller understanding of my origins and my family’s story. I am unapologetic about my enthusiasm, but I’m also cautious because I feel the need to protect the integrity of the history.

All I ever really wanted was a recipe of who I am and where I come from. 

Twitty is a culinary griot, and has been a huge inspiration in my culinary journey which ultimately goes beyond cooking food. He’s helped me embrace the history of my family, honor the kin I have never known and those I may never meet, and bask in the connection Black food has across the diaspora and beyond. Twitty affirmed what I knew all along: our food has a complicated past, there are generational traumas that we faced, and through all of that there are a multitude of generational (food) gifts that our ancestors have given us.  I will forever be audasiously and unapologetically proud of that ancestral legacy, the cooking gene.