Literary Travels: The Cooking Gene

20200212_185516I’ve been talking about joining a book club for a long time but could never seem to make it happen.

I had lots of excuses: no time for personal reading while I was working on my master’s degree, no point in joining when we were moving across the country, no way to fit it around my schedule while I was working in the agency world, no idea how to find and join one, etc.

The real reason I didn’t join one is that the thought of sharing my highly personal and random reflections about a book I had just read with people I didn’t know made me nervous. What if other people started talking about something in the book I couldn’t remember? What if I got asked a question I couldn’t answer? What if I didn’t have anything to contribute?

As anyone who knows me will attest, I absolutely love to read any style of book by any sort of author, and I love telling anyone who will listen all about whatever it is I’m reading and learning. I should be among my tribe joining others who want to get together and discuss whatever it is they’re reading–not treating this like some sort of graded homework assignment!

Really thinking it through highlighted the ridiculousness of my concerns, and I decided 2020 would be the year of the book club. Around the holidays I started looking online and at our local library for a local book club I could join. Turns out there are about one million of them in every shape and size in a very small geographical footprint surrounding our house. From different themes, to different meeting locations, to different levels of obligation to participate—there’s quite literally something for everyone.

One that immediately caught my eye on Meet Up was called the North End Foodie Book Club. Once a month, this group comes together over a shared interest in food and books. They read a book that has something to do with food, everyone makes a dish that’s mentioned in the book or inspired by the book, and they have a potluck to eat the food and discuss the book.

Are you kidding me?!?! Sign me up!

I signed up to join them in February for the book, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty. I downloaded it on my Kindle from the library, set about reading it, and this past weekend finally/agonizingly picked out a recipe in the book to make for this week’s event—sweet potato pie.

I’ve never made sweet potato pie, but after looking through some of my other recipe books at home I quickly discerned that the traditional recipe in the book we read is not the same as the more modern version I imagine most people today are making and eating. I’m not sure if there’s a copyright issue with me sharing the author’s recipe so I won’t disclose it in full, but I wanted to share the main ingredients so you can see what I mean:

  • Boiled sweet potatoes
  • Spiced rum
  • Eggs
  • Sorghum or light molasses
  • Butter
  • Nutmeg

I decided to double the recipe and make two pies just in case one didn’t turn out. It took forever to boil the sweet potatoes, the final mixture that went in my pie crust was so think I had to ladle—rather than pour—it in, and I was constantly checking to make sure they didn’t burn. It was a stressful experience!

However, I’m really proud of the final products! They don’t taste anything like ‘modern’ sweet potato pies, but they aren’t bad. You can really feel the texture of the sweet potato and you can really taste the molasses, which isn’t sweet. I would be interested in making a different recipe to compare both the process and taste to more modern recipes.

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As much as I learned from baking these pies, I learned so much more from reading this book about the 1600s-1800s in this country, the forced migration of thousands of enslaved people from various nations throughout Africa (and beyond), and the extremely complicated nature of genealogical exploration for African Americans today.

Imagine the impossibility of tracing your family tree when generations of your ancestors were only documented by description rather than name (if they were documented at all). If you’re lucky enough to find these elusive recorded names, you then have to contend with your ancestors having been renamed multiple times throughout each generation’s lifetime depending on who ‘owned’ them. If–after all of that–you’re still able to trace a blood line, imagine knowing it’s only half accurate as the white slave owners who forcefully imposed themselves on their black female slaves are only in evidence in family lore and advanced genomic coding, which many people can’t afford to pursue, rather than in any birth records or other recorded history.

By triangulating family stories, historical records, and genomic information, the author discovered his ancestors were 70% from Africa—primarily Ghana and Sierra Leone—and 30% from Europe—Finland by way of the U.K. Some of these ancestors came to America willingly and others did not. Some were free to build their lives, choose their spouses, and raise their families, and others were not. What a complicated narrative to weave, and what an eye-opening reminder to me about the luxury I have, generally knowing who my ancestors are and where they came from.

The author—who is a famous culinary and cultural historian—attempted to explore his identity and family history in part by following the culinary evolution passed down by his ancestors, only to find how convoluted those recipes became over time as slaveowner tastes and tolerance limited access to traditional ingredients, and family recipes were modified by the nuanced influence of other cultures (in the case of soul food, African, Native American, and French influences, among others). Even when a recipe can be accurately traced back to its roots, in many cases the specific plant varietals or animals no longer exist to make that dish as it was traditionally prepared. I had no idea scientists have work underway to bring back heirloom vegetables so people can make the actual dishes their ancestors once made—that’s fascinating to me.

In addition to educating me about the complexity of African American genealogy and cuisine, this book opened my eyes to how much I don’t know about our country’s history. Did you know that the federal law prohibiting the importation of enslaved people was enacted in 1807— 50 years before slavery was abolished? That because of this act, slave owners developed “breeding programs” to ensure they would retain sufficient enslaved laborers?

There’s a lot of work to be done to revise textbooks, museums, plantation tours and more about the ‘Glorious Old South’ to incorporate the perspective of those who were victims of human trafficking and slavery and who literally broke their backs to build and feed this country. Those voices—from Africa, indigenous tribes, etc.—were certainly not part of the narrative I learned in grade school, and I’ll be listening for them the next time I’m traveling in the south.

Perspective is imperative and what I am constantly seeking to gain by reading, traveling, and learning from others.

If I can be honest, the additional research I did and the conversations about race, heritage, history, culture, genealogy, and ethnic food I had with Brian while I was reading the book went much, much deeper than anything that was discussed in the very short evening of this book club, which ended up being more about the dishes we made than the book we read. I was also deeply disappointed that there wasn’t a single African American voice in our conversation. I love the premise of this book club and the idea of combining food and literature, but I would have liked to have had more time to really focus on and discuss the book (thank you for indulging me here). Maybe next time!

I won’t make the March experience, but in April they are reading We Fed an Island by Jose Andreas and in May they’re reading Eating Việt nam by Graham Holliday. I look forward to giving the book club experience another try, and I can’t wait to learn more as I read and cook my way through these upcoming books.

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