Michael Twitty finds commonalities and connections where most of us would see chasms between disparate worlds. Black, Jewish and gay, Twitty is devoted to exploring the culinary history of his African and Afro-American roots, but equally interested in Jewish cooking. He teaches both African-American genealogy and Judaic studies when he isn’t writing his blog, Afroculinaria, speaking to groups or writing his forthcoming book, The Cooking Gene, and he weaves comments about Jewish and African-American cooking together without skipping a beat.
Twitty was not born Jewish, but his connection to Judaism and Jewish food began in childhood. His mom grew up in Cincinnati where the only bakery open on Sunday was a Jewish one, so she was used to buying challah. She regularly served it to Michael, and at seven years old, he decided he was Jewish.
Since then, he has studied Judaism, learned much about its rituals and cultural roots and become a Jew by choice. Now he melds the black and Jewish parts of his world, and not just in his KosherSoul Twitter handle and email address. For example, in an open letter to Paula Deen that he wrote at the time of the controversy about her use of racially charged epithets, he called on her to do teshuvah (repentance) (although he didn’t use the Hebrew word). And when he went to the Jerusalem Cinematheque’s Jewish Film Festival last December, he gave talks entitled “Afro-Sephashkenazi Cuisine” and “Kosher Soul Food Master Class and Savory Meal.”
Twitty sees much commonality between the culture he was born into and the one he adopted; he says they are linked together in a “dialogue of Diasporas,” especially when it comes to food. They began in similar places in his view; it’s just that the Jewish food world has had more time to research and develop an understanding of its own roots.
The list of books that inspired him to start Afroculinaria reads like a “who’s who” of Jewish food writing and cookbooks: John Cooper’s Eat and Be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food, Gil Marks’s Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, Joan Nathan’s Jewish Cooking in America and works by Claudia Roden and Faye Levy. Twitty observes, “In African-American foodways, there was none of this rigorous attempt to give meaning to food….I wanted to have a rigorous explanation of these things and to give a really Jewish sense of meaning [to my exploration].”
Twitty describes his role in creating Afroculinaria as being “personally charged with preparing, preserving and promoting African-American foodways and its parent traditions in Africa and her Diaspora and its legacy in the food culture of the American South.” When conversation detours to Southern cooking, he points out that Southern Jews, especially those who could afford household help, ate food cooked by black women and that the foods of the two cultures often got “mixed up.”
He delights in fostering that mixing of food traditions, so it is no surprise that he describes kugel as Jewish people’s macaroni and cheese and takes particular delight in creating dishes that pull together African-American and Jewish food traditions, such as matzah meal fried chicken, Carolina barbecue bourekas (phyllo pastry triangles filled with barbecued meat) and kreplach stuffed with collard greens.
Here is his version of a Kosher Soul Shabbat Dinner:
- Challah, of course, maybe with sweet potato or dried mango
- Chicken soup with collard green-stuffed kreplach or Senegalese chicken soup with ground nuts and knaidlach filled with green onions and hot peppers
- Roast chicken with yassa from Senegal, rubbed with lemon, spices, onion and mustard, or berbere, an Ethiopian spice mix
- Vegetables stuffed with red rice, akin to the West African dish called jollof (rice sautéed with tomatoes, green bell pepper, onion and hot pepper) inspired by a dinner Twitty attended honoring Claudia Roden where he was served stuffed vegetables (memula’im)
- Sweet potato tsimmes cooked in sweet kosher wine
- Stuffed collard greens (like stuffed cabbage, only with collard green leaves)
- White and yellow sweet potato kugel (peppery and sweet)
- Roasted or barbecued flanken ribs with horseradish, deli mustard, black pepper and salt
- Rugelach made with sweet potato dough
- Caribbean compote
- Peach noodle kugel with streusel topping