Black Jewish historian of southern cooking bringing “Kosher Soul” to St. Louis event

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CHERYL BAEHR , SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

One of the most striking moments in Michael Twitty’s life happened four years ago when he was on a trip to Nigeria. There, the author and food historian found himself in the presence of a traditional diviner whose wisdom was informed by an oral tradition dating back thousands of years. When Twitty sat down with him, the first words the man said to him struck him to his core.

“The first words out of his mouth were, ‘your ancestors are extremely proud of you and are guiding you,’” Twitty recalls. “He told me that they are here with me and that I don’t have to worry. It was a moment.”

For Twitty, that moment was confirmation that the journey he’d undertaken, beginning as far back as he can remember, was the right one, even if it had been forged in a way many might see as unconventional. Born in Washington, D.C., Twitty, 44, recalls feeling the weight of food stories before he had the language and maturity to unpack them. He found himself drawn to the pre-cable cooking shows of PBS and characters like Martin Yan of “Yan Can Cook,” Justin “I gar-on-tee” Wilson and Nathalie Dupree whose “Southern Cooking with Nathalie Dupree” was particularly thrilling for him because of how much it reminded him of his grandmother. Less about the instructional aspects of the shows, Twitty was drawn to the storytelling and the cultural exploration they engendered.

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“Nobody actually lives in a culture where food stories aren’t important,” Twitty says. “They have an inkling that these stories can be exemplary in their lives. These shows were a way of saying that you had to embrace the diversity of culinary impressions – not just the style of them, but the different people and places and their motives and mentality. I was being exposed to things that got me curious about other things.”

Twitty’s childhood curiosity turned into a full-fledged exploration fairly early in his life. Thanks to those PBS shows, a formative trip to Colonial Williamsburg with his father, and intense training with his mother in the kitchen (he recalls her regularly quizzing him on over 200 culinary terms while sitting at their dining table), Twitty fell in love with the historical and cultural aspects of food on an academic level. All of his big writing assignments in middle school and high school revolved around Africa and food, and he vividly remembers writing his first major paper in high school on Afro-Brazilian food. At 20 pages, his paper differed significantly from his less-enthused classmates in terms of substance and length – something he internalized from his parents.

“Being a minority, your parents tell you that you have to be twice as good to be just as good and that your smarts will not always get you places,” says Twitty. “I learned very early on to shock and awe and overwhelm. I knew that going overboard would carry me and that this is what I was going to do, even if I didn’t know where I would land.”

Twitty knew that he was interested in foodways, history, and culture, but he was unsure of how to get to where he wanted to go. At the time he entered Howard University in the 1990s, food was something you pursued through culinary school, not academics. He attempted to forge his own path in college, and though he encountered teachers who inspired him, he mostly found himself unsatisfied and unable to bear the financial burden associated with attending an education that was not necessarily leading him where he wanted to go.

“It was hard because I didn’t have the language to describe what I needed and what I wanted to say and who I wanted to be,” Twitty says. “That’s what’s painful; you know that you have this idea, but it isn’t really happening because the world isn’t quite there yet.”

After leaving Howard, Twitty gradually realized that, if he was going to explore food and culture in the way he wanted to, he was going to have to create that path. Empowered by internships with the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and the scholars he encountered there, he began to develop a language for speaking about foodways. At that time, he also was exposed to writers who explored food at a deeper level than just flavor, and he began cooking himself, becoming a guest chef at Union Square Greenmarket Monday in New York City.

He also realized that blogging could be an outlet for his work. After seeing the film “Julie and Julia” when it came out in 2009, Twitty left the theater feeling overjoyed by the realization that he could write about his food journey and share it with the world. Inspired, he launched Afroculinaria, a blog about African, African American, and the African Diaspora foodways and their legacy in the food culture of the American South, in 2010. A year later, he began work on what would become “The Cooking Gene,” for which he won the 2018 James Beard award for Best Food Writing and Book of the Year.

Twitty, who converted to Judaism at the age of 25, is now focused on his forthcoming book, “Kosher Soul,” which explores culture through the lens of Jewish food. As he explains, learning about Jewish food culture has been especially transformative for him because of its long tradition of storytelling and understanding cultural identity through its dishes – an approach to thinking and talking about food that feels full-circle for him.

“When we talk about what food tells us about who we are – who made the food, what inspired us and how we use it as a living skill – it tells us interesting narratives about where we came from,” Twitty says. “In a multicultural society, we are happily contaminated with each other and have a responsibility to know one another, figure out where we stand, and appreciate our diversity as more than just cosmetic.”

Michael Twitty will be a featured guest at the Jewish Community Relations Council 2021 Tzedek Awards on May 25 (see below for event details) 


JCRC 2021 Tzedek Awards

When: 6:30-8 p.m. May 25
Where: Virtual
How much: $36-$108
More info: Honorees include Harvey Schneider, who will receive the Batya Abramson-Goldstein Legacy Award; Frances Levine, who will receive the Norman A. Stack Community Relations Award; and Julia Mendelow, who will receive the Michael and Barbara Newmark Emerging Leader Award. The event will also celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Michael and Barbara Newmark Institute for Human Relations. For more information about the event, visit jcrcstl.org/annualevent.html