Chef Michael Twitty describes his first book, the award-winning The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South, as “a blend of culinary history, personal memoir, and social commentary sprinkled with a few recipes.” He chose this approach for a simple reason. “I wanted my whole being represented,” he explains. “I’m an African-American, I’m gay, I’m Jewish, I’m of Southern heritage, I’m a bear, I’m all of these things crossing paths. And I wanted to write a book that responded to that history and those stories in a precise and personal way.”
The Cooking Gene follows Twitty’s heritage and Southern cooking back through the lives of enslaved Black people (and white plantation owners), back through the Great Passage, back to Mother Africa. While Africans brought many of their traditional recipes with them to America, they became innovators here as well. “Enslaved cooks and free people of color who were bakers, pastry makers, ice cream makers, chefs, and tavern owners changed the story of American food for the good,” he says.
Having completed his journey, Twitty now serves as a guide, teaching others how to travel their own tangle of ancestral roots. He acknowledges that the experience can be “a roller coaster of emotions…. You get overwhelmed by happiness, sadness, joy, pain, and it’s all at once simultaneous wonder.”
“In Nigeria, I got a little boastful about being a man cooking on the open fire back in America [as women do the traditional cooking in Africa],” Twitty recalls. One woman, he says, “looked at me, squinted her eyes and snapped her fingers and sashayed away — then came and gave me a hug. I didn’t need a translation! She was calling me out as a queer man but in a very fun way. She knew my T.”
On the other hand, Twitty says, “To see peeks of gay life in Africa on the margins is sobering because in many places it’s illegal, so you keep that part of yourself cloistered away and not public. And then there’s the dealing with the legacy of the slave trade and dealing with the challenges left by colonialism and poverty while trying to understand how all of this fits in with your story.”
Race and American racism invariably flavor Twitty’s experiences. Last summer, when the corporate world started to respond to the cultural moment addressing systemic racism, Twitty posted a Twitter thread about an experience with a publisher who essentially asked him to “tone down” the Jewish parts of himself.
She “simply didn’t want me to be outside of my box as a Black author,” he says. “To her, being ‘openly’ Jewish — and she was Jewish herself — was inviting distraction from me being a Black author writing what for her was a Black book.” Twitty argued in the meeting, “Look, we bring everything with us to the kitchen. That kitchen can be kosher or kosher-ish, be a legacy of the journey from Africa to America, be a place to come out or to make a meal with your partner, all at the same time.”
He recalls, “She rejected attempts to have the book and shrugged it off as a disaster waiting to happen. She literally said, ‘America’s not ready for you.’ I’m sitting there thinking, My America was here before you, waiting for you, working so you could be part of [it].”
“It’s irresponsible in a multicultural democracy to say that simply being [your whole self] can be a reason to count you out of our national experience,” Twitty muses now.
Success is its own revenge, and Twitty got his when he won two awards from the James Beard Foundation “right in front of her.” He accepted his honors “while wearing a dashiki and the full kente cloth I brought back from Ghana,” and his speech included a Jewish blessing and a poem by the gay Black author Langston Hughes, “where he talks about the dream of being seated at the table equally. That’s what we call shade,” Twitty says.
HarperCollins, which published Twitty’s first book, will also publish his next, Kosher Soul, which, he explains, “is about my Jewish self but with the other parts of me in tow, much like TCG was about my Black and Southern self, with other parts in tow. They are both part of a trilogy on food and identity and memory and history all rolled together.”
The final book in the trilogy will focus on being LGBTQ+ in the kitchen “and the role food plays in queer identities” and being Black, gay, and a bear. “There is a dearth of this perspective,” he says. “But I don’t intend to be the only or the last. My dream is to inspire all the outliers of the outliers living in their niche to use their passions to tell the world who they are.”
2.5 pounds chicken wings, drumettes separated from wing portion
2 tablespoons West African wet seasoning (below)
2 tablespoons light brown, turbinado, coconut, or palm sugar
1 tablespoon suya spice
2 tablespoons low sodium soy sauce
¼ cup water
3 tablespoons canola oil and the juice of 3 fresh limes
½ cup natural peanut butter, no sugar or salt added if possible
3 thinly sliced scallions for garnish and flavor sesame seeds (benne) if you like
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
1. Combine all ingredients except scallions in a large bowl and add chicken and coat. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for three hours.
2. Prepare a long flat roasting pan by covering the bottom with parchment paper or foil. Add the chicken and bake uncovered for 45 minutes or so until juices run clear.
3. Remove wing pieces and toss in a clean bowl with cut scallions.
4. Serve on another platter and watch them disappear!
1 teaspoon each: garlic powder, ground ginger, ground cinnamon, chili powder, paprika, ground nutmeg, onion powder, black pepper, sea salt, ground allspice, smoked paprika, ground cayenne; 1 crushed Maggi Seasoning cube.
West African Wet Seasoning
1-inch piece of roughly chopped fresh turmeric or 2 teaspoons of powdered turmeric
½ bunch roughly chopped flat leaf or curly parsley (not cilantro)
2 roughly chopped celery stalks, leaves and all
3 sliced green onions
7 fresh garlic cloves, smashed
2 roughly chopped fresh shallots 1 small sliced red onion
1-inch piece of roughly chopped ginger
1 small Scotch bonnet pepper (spicy) or 1 medium chopped red bell pepper, stem removed (not spicy)
1 crushed small Maggi Seasoning cube
1 tablespoon canola oil
1. Using a food processor, add all ingredients and pulse until the mixture is fully pureed. Scrape down sides and process again. Repeat until it is more or less smooth.
2. You can prepare the seasoning in large batches and freeze it in ice cube trays or in snack bags in amounts of two inches each. After the rub ice cubes are frozen, remove the cubes from the trays and store in snack bags in freezer. Add the butter and swirl until the sauce is smooth.