Jessica Leigh Lebos
Michael Twitty on Jewish Food and Soul Food
Matzah meal fried chicken, black-eyed pea hummus, turkey gumbo — for some, these combinations might not resemble the traditional culinary heritage passed down from the shtetl to the suburbs.
For Michael Twitty, however, such recipes are not only delicious takes on the global Jewish food experience, but evidence of the dynamic connection between African American soul food and American Judaism.
The writer and scholar first touched on these ideas on his blog, Afroculinaria, which broke the internet in 2013 when he published “An Open Letter to Paula Deen,” gently reminding readers of the true origins of “Southern” food. He quickly became a coveted lecturer and panel guest, garnering awards and accolades from the likes of Saveur, Tastetalks, and TED. His 2018 book, The Cooking Gene, won two James Beard Awards (including Book of the Year) and follows the flavors of his African lineage back to the continent. With his gift for translating historical facts into entertaining narrative, Twitty is currently chronicling the Afro-Jewish culinary connection and his own personal journey in Kosher Soul, due out in late 2020.
A Jew by choice who taught at Hebrew school in his native Washington, D.C., Twitty might be the only person right now who could write such a book: Arguably the world’s only black, Jewish, gay culinarian, this “yid of a different color” (his words) has resisted any attempt to categorize his work into easily digestible bites. Instead, he continues to set a rich repast of complex ideas that challenge and expand the boundaries of our traditions — and our palates.
Twitty has been on my radar since 2013, and it has been a joy to see his voice rise. He recently passed through my home of Savannah, GA to discuss the connection between Southern Judaism and African American soul food, his cooking mentors, and the secret to true kasha varnishkes.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
So, nu, what is Jewish food to you?
For some people, it’s plugging into the rules and regulations, or maybe just the secular customs and cultures of Judaism. I think it’s more than that, like the mitzvah of hospitality, of feeding other people, of making food beautiful for the sake of a holiday or because you want someone to feel nourished when they’re grieving.
What’s your take on the difference between kosher and Jewish food?
Well, all kosher food isn’t Jewish and all Jewish food isn’t kosher, right? For example, a Reuben sandwich: very Jewish, not kosher. There’s also the kosher movement around veganism and vegetarianism that I think is really interesting and wise. Plant-based eating obviously has less impact, which fits into tikkun olam, the mitzvah of protecting the world and making it a better place.
In The Cooking Gene, you talk about food as a “mnemonic device” for both Jews and African Americans. What are the parallels?
Herring and chitlins are the examples I often give, respectively — Jews and African Americans don’t necessarily eat these things because we like the taste, but because of nostalgia. It connects to memory, to the ancestors. It’s all about taste memory, I believe, passed down through our DNA.
What’s your favorite Jewish dish?
Kasha varniskes! I love the onion, the garlic, the stock… the caramelized onions, the gravy, oy, so good! But I think sometimes people don’t take the time with these middle-of-the-road, classic Ashkenazi dishes. You’ve got to use fresh herbs and real schmaltz, I’m talking about globules of chicken fat in there. When you do, they become really awesome. It makes my heart sing.
Who are your Jewish food mentors?
Obviously, I wouldn’t be here without Joan Nathan. I grew up watching her show, and when I had an opportunity to work with her, it was just a revelation. Cookbook authors Claudia Roden and Faye Levy are also extremely important.
More than anyone else, [Matzoh Ball Gumbo author] Marcie Cohen Ferris has been extremely supportive, and I was able to find the other part of my voice — the Jewish part — through her work. There are so many narratives when we talk about Southern Jewish food. I think one of the most important things that Marcie did was to give examples of regional food but also the context. The interaction between Black cooks and Jewish households in the South is a very important story to tell.
How will you address that in Kosher Soul?
It’s a follow-up to the Cooking Gene, so I’m exploring the ways in which we process our identities through food. (This is actually a trilogy of projects — the last one will be about being gay in the kitchen.)
Realizing how many Southern Jewish families had Black cooks preparing their Passover meals, these stories may not have ever been recorded. I don’t want to get too much into what Marcie’s already done as much as bring it full circle and acknowledge that this is not just a part of the Southern Jewish experience but American history, period.
Do you think Jewish food is still evolving?
Absolutely. People are constantly rediscovering that Jewish food is global, that it’s political, that it’s as much about the constructs and not just the [Ashkenazi] canon. “Jewish” becomes the inclusion or omission of an ingredient, a certain ancestor’s preference over another, which flavors become validated over the generations. It’s very provincial and can always change. There is a whole different take on Jewish food in Toronto compared to the American Northeast — I had never heard of Miami ribs until I read a Canadian Jewish cookbook! And then, of course, it gets really interesting where there’s more Sephardic, Middle Eastern, and Mizrahi cooking.