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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.

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

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During that time, he immersed himself in old records, bills of sale, and other historical documents on Ancestry.com.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

Since his first hit single "Keep Your Head Up" in 2011, award-winning multi-platinum recording artist Andy Grammer has made a name for himself as the king of the feel-good anthem. From "Good to Be Alive (Hallelujah)" to "Honey, I'm Good" to "Back Home" and more, his positive, upbeat songs have blared on beaches and at backyard barbecues every summer.

So what does a singer who loves to perform in front of live audiences and is known for uplifting music do during an unexpectedly challenging year of global pandemic lockdown?

He goes inward.

Grammer told Upworthy that losing the ability to perform during the pandemic forced him to look at where his self-worth came from. "I thought I would have scored better, to be honest," he says. "Like, 'Oh, I get it from all the important, right places!' And then it's taken all away in one moment, and you're like, 'Oh, nope, I was getting a lot from that.'

"It's kind of cool to break all the way down and then hopefully put myself back together in a way that's a little more solid," he says.

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Since his first hit single "Keep Your Head Up" in 2011, award-winning multi-platinum recording artist Andy Grammer has made a name for himself as the king of the feel-good anthem. From "Good to Be Alive (Hallelujah)" to "Honey, I'm Good" to "Back Home" and more, his positive, upbeat songs have blared on beaches and at backyard barbecues every summer.

So what does a singer who loves to perform in front of live audiences and is known for uplifting music do during an unexpectedly challenging year of global pandemic lockdown?

He goes inward.

Grammer told Upworthy that losing the ability to perform during the pandemic forced him to look at where his self-worth came from. "I thought I would have scored better, to be honest," he says. "Like, 'Oh, I get it from all the important, right places!' And then it's taken all away in one moment, and you're like, 'Oh, nope, I was getting a lot from that.'

"It's kind of cool to break all the way down and then hopefully put myself back together in a way that's a little more solid," he says.

Keep Reading Show less
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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."