How one man’s DNA results influenced his work as a culinary historian and a food writer.


What do food and family heritage have in common? Well, for Michael Twitty, a lot.

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What did you have for dinner last night?

Do you think your great-grandmother — or great-great-grandmother — ate the same thing for dinner? Chances are, you probably haven’t given much thought to why your meal is what it is — or whether your great-grandparents ever ate the same thing.

All images via Michael Twitty, used with permission.

But ever since he was a child, culinary historian Michael Twitty has thought about these kinds of questions. So when Twitty became curious about his own ancestral roots, food was always going to be a part of his research journey.

When he combined these two passions — culinary history and genealogy — it led him on an incredible trip exploring the food and history of the old South, one that would change how he saw his family’s role in history and culture forever.

Twitty decided to embark on a journey to learn the truth about his heritage by taking an AncestryDNA test.

“For African-Americans, the desire to know what makes up your conglomerate blackness is deep,” Twitty says.”It’s in every one of us, and we take that journey very seriously. We want to know who we are and where we come from … because of slavery.”

Not only did he want to know where his family came from but also whether some of the stories passed down in his family were true — including the stories about his white ancestors, the people who had once held his family in bondage.

“We had an incredible oral history that said a lot of things about who we were,” he says, “and quite frankly, we couldn’t always prove those things.”

For example, he had been told that his ancestor was a captain, and his family believed they knew his name and the story of how his great-great-great-grandmother was born, but there was no way to prove it, no birth certificate to name him as the father, because she was born a slave.

Twitty not only wanted answers, he wanted to understand what it was like to live his ancestors’ life. So, he embarked on a journey from Maryland to Texas and back again.

During that time, he immersed himself in old records, bills of sale, and other historical documents on Ancestry.com.

He also visited restored plantations, farms, and battlefields.

He met with a 101-year-old man who had lived through the Jim Crow years, he spoke with Civil War re-enactors, and he spent a lot of time eating and cooking alongside black, white, Native American, Latino, and Asian chefs to understand their role in the shaping of southern history and culture.

To better understand his ancestor’s experience, he picked cotton for 16 hours, primed tobacco, plucked Carolina rice, cut sugar cane, and sucked on red clay.

He also took an AncestryDNA test to get to his genetic roots.

The results revealed that his origins were 69% African and 28% European. His ancestors had come from such places as Ghana, Senegal, Congo, and Nigeria while his European ancestors were largely from Scandinavia and the Iberian peninsula.

Michael Twitty’s AncestryDNA results.

He encouraged others in his family to take the tests too — including his grandfather, an uncle, and his cousins — and because his AncestryDNA results allowed him to compare his DNA against a large population of others who had also taken the test, he was able to slowly piece together a much clearer picture of who his family was, where they came from, and how they moved around the United States.  

In fact, with the help of his AncestryDNA results and records from Ancestry.com, he was able to identify and name at least a dozen new ancestors, black and white, going back two centuries — helping him prove that a lot of those old family stories were, in fact, true.

“When you can actually take your genealogy — your genetic genealogy — and see that yes, indeed, you are a part of these historical practices, migrations, journeys. When history is a narrative … all of the sudden, you’re real,” Twitty says. “You’re real in a way that a book can’t tell you that you’re real.”

This trip also showed him how much his family’s story overlapped with the history of today’s “southern cuisine.”

The forced migration of domestic slaves transformed food in the region because cooks brought their tastes for certain food with them. And his family was a part of that story.

For example, he says, “soul food was a cuisine, a memory cuisine brought by people who were migrating to other parts of the country from the South, but it was based on that survival cuisine that we made in the old South that kept us going for generations.”

Twitty’s quest to learn more about himself and his roots had a dramatic effect on his work as a culinary historian and food writer.

It changed how he saw the role of food both in his family and in the old South as a whole — and it changed how he felt about history. Knowing who his ancestors were, seeing the records of their lives, learning where they were from, and discovering the role that they played in the history of food and the South brought that history alive for him in a way nothing else could.

This led him to write a book called “The Cooking Gene,” which will be available this August.

“I wanted to take our entire country on a journey, and I wanted to use that information from the ancestry test to backup my claims,” Twitty says.

“This is where soul food comes from in Africa — look at my genes. My genes show that yes, it did come from Nigeria and Senegal and Congo and Ghana and other places. That story is in our blood — it’s in our bones.”

Twitty believes others might find themselves creatively inspired by their results too. “Your AncestryDNA results can be a new way into whatever your creative passion [is],” he says.”A memoir or cookbook is just one outlet, it could be a quilt, a garden, a social media group, a novel, you might travel … your results are an infinite invitation.”

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