Afroculinaria, Michael Twitty, Washington DC
The Jewish soul is nourished by chicken soup, and for Michael Twitty, that bowl includes gospel. Twitty grew up in Washington, DC, a black, gay man who found Judaism as a child and converted in his mid-20s.
Twitty expresses himself through matzah-meal fried chicken, among other outlets. He founded an innovative blog, Afroculinaria, in 2013. His work, as he calls it on his website, is about “melding the histories, tastes, flavors and Diasporic wisdom of being Black and being Jewish.”
Food, he writes on his website, “is a proving ground for racial reconciliation and healing and dialogue.” Twitty writes that his work braids together, like a soulful challah, the Antebellum South and his kosher soul. In an interview with Tablet Magazine, he said, “What I do with kosher soul food is to combine the survival gene in the Jews with the survival gene in black folk, and I make it work.”
For Twitty, identity comes through cooking, and his identity is fraught with discomfort, which he attacks head on. He has organized events on plantations and explores difficult discussions of the origin of food and dishes across his social media accounts. Twitty wrote the James Beard Award-winning The Cooking Gene in 2017. He’s in the process of finishing Kosher Soul, slated to be published at the end of this year: his truest expression yet of the intersection of Jewish and Black culture through food.
Tsion Café, New York City
Ethiopian food in Harlem—but make it Israeli. Tsion Café embodies the wandering spirit of the Jewish people. It is here that shakshuka—eggs poached in a fiery tomato sauce—sits snug against a spongy, earthy roll of injera, the ancient Ethiopian bread, ready to soak up remaining juices.
Owner Beejhy Barhany hails from Ethiopia, part of the Beta Israel group of Jewish Ethiopians who fled to Israel. Formative years spent on a kibbutz, she made her way to New York City, where she was part of the Beta Israel of North America Cultural Foundation, which promoted Ethiopian Jewish heritage and history and sought to change the negative stereotype of the community.
At the café, “kik alicha [split pea stew] and shiro wot [chickpea stew] are staples of the Ethiopian diet, so it was natural to start there,” she said, “but to honor my time in Israel, shakshuka is a favorite. We added a twist of Ethiopian influence by seasoning it with our berbere spice—the underlying spice in all Ethiopian foods. This blend of cultures and ingredients create a heavenly flavor.”
The essence of Tsion Café speaks to Barhany’s multilayered background, cooking at her grandmother’s side and using her mother’s spice blend, but “at the same time, I spent most of my formative years in Israel and eating and living there, and it’s had a profound impact on how I see myself and how I integrate Israeli food.”
Just as impactful is the neighborhood, Barhany says. The café sits in Sugar Hill in Harlem and was once a famous chicken restaurant that hosted Art Tatum and Billie Holiday. “We celebrate this heritage with jazz nights and wall art, but also in our commitment to community and building and encouraging dialogue between people of different backgrounds and makeup.”
“There is no boundary to the identity of Jewishness and thus it incorporates the local flavor from these different cultures. With the right balance and blend, the end product is something to behold.”
763 St Nicholas Ave, New York, NY (online ordering only)
Lee Lee’s Rugelach (By A Brother)
Like Barhany, Alvin Lee Smalls is a New York transplant who spent his formative years in food. Arriving fresh from South Carolina to Manhattan in 1964 at age 20, he landed his first job in the bakery section of the New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Cooking and eating completely new baked goods like danishes, he encountered a rugelach recipe in the pages of a local paper and fell in love. Intrigued, he honed his baking skill at work and at home, eventually opening his famed bakery, which led “to the beginning of a cross-cultural legend in the Village of Harlem,” according to the bakery’s website.
“Despite being a traditionally black neighborhood, the Jewish pastry became hugely popular” at the shop, he writes. “Before long, the rugelach had become a neighborhood institution.”
While his recipe is proprietary, he admits that it includes butter, a nontraditional ingredient in Jewish pastries that usually utilize oil to keep the pastry pareve, or non-dairy.
Smalls opened his first bakery in 1988, moving to its current location in 2001 in Harlem. Lee Lee’s has become a destination, attracting celebrities and landing on tourist maps. Years later, the fame hasn’t waned, and he maintains his classic style of baking—almost Old-World style, rolling each rugelach by hand and utilizing no artificial ingredients. Lee Lee’s delivers across the country via Priority Mail, ensuring those rugelach don’t lose their signature flake.
Lee Lee’s concentrates on what it does best. The rugelach come in just three traditional flavors: apricot, chocolate and raspberry. The café, when open, also churns out Rugelach By a Brother Ice Cream (vanilla ice cream with chunks of rugelach).
283 W 118th St, New York, NY
917-493-6633 (online store is closed; phone ordering only)
Top photo courtesy of Tsion Café