Magazine article Moment

Michael Twitty's Kosher Soul Food

Magazine article Moment

Michael Twitty's Kosher Soul Food

Article excerpt

Chef Michael Twitty--a writer, culinary historian, cook and Hebrew school teacher--is an African American Jew (he converted at age 22) who uses his culinary prowess to explore the threads of his identity. In 2013, he became a well-known presence in culinary circles when he wrote an open letter to celebrity chef Paula Deen, which quickly went viral: Deen's use of the n-word had recently come to light, but Twitty was more upset by her erasure of black contributions to the culinary world. " W e are surrounded by culinary injustice," he wrote, "where some Southerners take credit for things that enslaved Africans and their descendants played key roles in innovating." Twitty's new book, The Cooking Gene, explores the history of African American cuisine and its contributions to American Southern food with what he characterizes as a "very Jewish-meets-black-sensibility." He speaks with Moment about the symbolism of Jewish and African foods, and how the two culinary traditions differ and come together.

You write that you feel an obligation to understand what your ancestors ate and h ow they ate it. Why? This is a very Jewish question: Why do I feel this responsibility to observe these laws, these rituals, argue about their meaning? We're still talking about things that were created thousands of years ago. In black culture, tradition is tradition. If Grandma says bow your head and say grace, you do it. There is no inner dialogue about the meaning.

But for me, African Americans should feel obligated to do this journey, in their own way, because our ancestors are depending on us to make their memory a blessing and honor their legacy. We need to appreciate where we are and appreciate that our descendants may have things easier than us, and therefore they may forget.

Why do you believe that it is critical to strive for "reconnection with the culinary culture of the enslaved"? You can have conversations around food that are a little bit more difficult to have otherwise--conversations about power, access, exploitation, agency. In fact, food as an artifact weaves itself in and out of hair-raising conversations about race. When people know that black-eyed peas came from Africa--that they were fed to enslaved Africans who were underweight so they would get fatter or heavier, so they could survive and look well fed after the journey from Africa to America--they know that the black-eyed peas have symbolism. When black-eyed peas get to their plate, they understand where they come from.

You say that Jewish food is text expressed upon the table. What do you mean by that? In the Torah, the basic ingredients of the whole Passover seder ritual are spelled out, and in the Mishnah, they're spelled out even further.

So recipes are artifacts, so to speak, from the lives of our ancestors? Yes. They're basically the reincarnation. I say "reincarnation" rather than "apparition" because they're not exactly the same. They change. They have to change so that they matter to the generation receiving them.

You first wanted to convert to Judaism at age seven. How has your relationship to Judaism changed since then? At age seven, I did not know that Judaism was a religion of questions. I knew it was a religion of tradition, and I knew that it had some kind of oppositional relationship to Christianity. At age 40, I know that Judaism doesn't need to have an oppositional relationship to anything. At the same time, Judaism has the same wonder to me that it did when I was seven. That feeling of must, the word must: I must. I should. I am. That's all immovable to me. I must do this to improve my outlook on my own humanity. So therefore I must pray. Therefore I must eat this way. Therefore I must do this ritual. Therefore I must join other people to do this.

How does Jewish food play into your culinary thinking? To me, Jewish food is revelatory. I understand it in a way I don't understand Korean food. I understand that Jewish food is diaspora food. …

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