I’ve been trying to nail down Michael Twitty for an interview since May, when he won the James Beard Book of the Year for The Cooking Gene, as well as the award for Best Narrative Writing. And the awards are for his first book, which makes them even more impressive.
Twitty’s book explores the history of his Black ancestors through Southern food, his Jewishness, his coming out as a gay man, and more. You will find the history of race, politics and enslavement through his lens. It’s a long, complicated, funny, sad (about his slave ancestors), and thoughtful book that will stay with you. A section about discovering a relative who was a slave made me cry, and his good humor made me laugh out loud. His genealogy history is beautifully researched, something difficult and challenging to do well.
It’s been tough to get Twitty’s attention. This year he’s given hundreds of talks, held cooking events, been interviewed a bunch of times, taken people on a trip to Africa, worked on his second book, and he wrote this piece for Bon Appetit. Before that he wrote some op-eds for The Guardian, if you’re curious about his other published work. Also see his blog, Afroculinaria, which launched his writing career.
He deserves all these opportunities and more. If you haven’t read The Cooking Gene yet, what are you waiting for? It is not your usual food memoir, which is a really good thing. We were overdue for something fresh and complicated. It’s much more complicated, actually, but worth your time. I’ve read it twice.
After a few months of emailing, I tried Twitter to contact Twitty. That worked better. Twitty answered my nosy questions with great thoughtfulness. Some of what he wrote surprised me, because Twitty made me think about old ideas in a new way. In this interview, you’ll also learn about risk, sacrifice, and what it takes to write a national award-winning book.
Here’s Michael Twitty on winning the James Beard Book of the Year, and what it was like to write The Cooking Gene:
Q. How has being a winner changed you?
A. It’s taken a lot to really sink in that I’ve won two James Beard Awards. I am still pinching myself. It’s an incredible honor.
But it does go to the point about manifesting what you want and need.
I downloaded a picture of two James Beard Awards about the time I was writing The Cooking Gene. I stared at that picture every single day. The feelings around those meditations were very clear: I wanted to create a work that was worthy of the Beard canon.
How has it changed me? I want to see more people who are not the usual suspects like me win the award and benefit from its cachet.
Q. Why did you want to write The Cooking Gene?
A. Write the book you want to see, right? Write a book where your passions are unified. For me that’s the intersection of the historiography of early Black America, genealogy, food writing, racial reconciliation and healing.
The Cooking Gene is one part of my story in book form. It’s part of a literary triptych. I was told very early on that stories like mine don’t matter. Too niche. Too minority. That really hurt because it meant that to some, my invisibility was necessary to maintain a status quo.
For me the ancestors are the star. In American food writing, references to “Africans” are really lazy and uncomfortable. These ethnic groups are not just “Africans,” as one cultural bloc, but many ethnic groups. They have millennia old cuisines. As consumers, it is really important to restore our respect and humanity to these shapers of the American and global table.
Q. Did people want you to pare this memoir down from its many subjects: Black, Jewish, gay, Southern food historian, researcher of your descendents?
A. There has been that critique by some. But to do so would obscure the point. All of this energy is in one body. We are all like that. But in our personal bricolage, sometimes just talking about one part is not enough. Answering the questions and challenges about our intersectionality through food memoir is really important, especially when you come from cultures where material expression engenders its own vocabulary and narratives.
Q. It’s not really a food memoir. Was that a conscious decision?
A. Oh it’s totally a food memoir, but it’s not the food memoir people are used to. I made the conscious decision to really explore — beyond nostalgia — the life of the African American table. This is one of the first works in American food literature that is not a cookbook that traces the chef back to the chef’s culinary origins. Instead of that being the parsley on the plate, I made it the entree.
Q. How hard was it to find an agent and publisher?
A. After my viral hit post on Paula Deen, about a dozen agents flew at me. Publishers were very keen to see I was already working on something.
Q. It took you six years to write The Cooking Gene. Do you consider that a long time?
A. Well, sort of. I had no idea I was researching a book and that actually made the writing time longer in the end. I should have been more disciplined early on. In other words: take real notes, make real outlines, free write.
In 2012 I did most of my Southern Discomfort Tour with my ex partner. By 2013 I was ready for a next step but it wasn’t until Paula that I had a direction. I had to take two years to do a lot of mental revisits when I could have captured it best the first time around. By 2014 I had a contract. I hit a snag in terms of delivery, and by mid-2017, the book saw the light of day.
Q. What was the process like?
A. Genealogy is really difficult to work with in today’s world. The DNA results complicate matters. I was very dependent on a process that is no respecter of contracts.
I wrote the different layers of the book– genealogical, culinary, personal, genetic — and interviews in stages and kind of did a word lasagna. When you read The Cooking Gene you’re looking at 300 days a year for three years going to a coffeeshop at 4 a.m. and not leaving until 11 p.m. It’s dragging piles and piles of books with you everywhere. I brought 50 books on vacation just to write!
And I cooked. I paid a lot of attention to my feelings during historic food demos and I noted memories that came to mind as I made family recipes. I was constantly harvesting my own culinary history along with that of our Ancestors.
Q. Now you’re working on another memoir about being Black and Jewish, correct? And there will be a third on “bearness and Blackness?”
A. My next book, Kosher Soul, is indeed slated for publication next year. It will center on Jewish food and learning and the intersection between being Black and Jewish. I’m working on it as we speak. I hope it will be followed by a book about LGBT identity and food, especially being a member of the “bear” subgroup of gay men. Not a secret: we like to eat.
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- Want to write food memoir? Take this class in December.
- Read these other posts about memoir writing.
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