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‘Koshersoul’ blends history, culture, identity

Author Michael Twitty explores Black, Jewish, gay identities

TaRessa Stovall
‘Koshersoul’ blends history, culture, identity
The Forward’s Editor-at-Large Robin Washington interviews author Michael Twitty during an event at Greater Boston JCC in Newton last Wednesday. PHOTO: COURTESY GREATER BOSTON JCC

When Michael W. Twitty talks and writes about food, he goes beyond delectable gastronomic creations that tantalize the taste buds. The master chef and renowned culinary historian aims to satiate people’s souls by turning his unique blend of culture, tradition, identity and social justice into an irresistible feast that celebrates humanity. His latest book, “Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African American Jew,” explores the foods and traditions of the two diasporas that encompass his identity.

“I wanted ‘Koshersoul’ to be a love letter to being Black and Jewish in the state that we’re in this country in this moment,” he said. “This book is like challah: a weaving of food memoir, recipes, personal essays, human vulnerability and about the long story of the intersection of Black and Jewish history and culture. This is not an academic journey, and it’s purposely not a cookbook. It’s an eclectic recipe file of diverse and complex peoplehood.”

Black, Jewish, gay and Southern

Twitty has penned a powerful narrative about the many dynamics of inhabiting his intersections — Black, Jewish and gay with Southern heritage — while always affirming the quest for a more just society.

“My greatest hope comes from the ingredients that Blacks and Jews bring to the table,” he said. “Onions and satire. Garlic and irony. For people who have struggled so much and had so much pain, we know how to laugh. We know how to celebrate. We know how to eat. We know how to be hospitable, and we also understand the power of analysis and deep thought and critical approaches. That is so important, and all of that gets woven into what we do. It keeps me motivated to know that these things are part of the recipe.”

In the preface, Twitty describes “Koshersoul” as “the second in a three-book trilogy about the intersections between food and identity.” His first book, “The Cooking Gene,”  explored race by tracing Twitty’s Black and white ancestry through Southern cuisine from Africa to America, from slavery to freedom. It was named the 2018 James Beard Foundation Book of the year.

This new book “is a chicken soup for the soul,” he said. “I wanted to honor our people and say, ‘Since 1619, here we are. We’re still here, we’re still alive, we still have hope, we still have something to cling to.’ We’re survivors of the West’s original sins. That’s what I wanted to bring to the fore and with other Jews the fact that we’re still dealing with antisemitism.”

Preserving historic foodways

Twitty is one of the few recognized international experts of his craft, the reconstruction of early Southern cuisine as prepared by enslaved African American cooks. He was named one of the greatest food bloggers of all time by for Afroculinaria, the first blog devoted to preserving historic African American foods and foodways, and one of the “Fifty People Who Are Changing the South” by Southern Living.

A resident of suburban Washington, D.C., Twitty was one of 20 people selected globally as a 2016 TED Fellow for his talk, “Gastronomy and the Social Justice Reality of Food.” His television appearances include “Bizarre Foods America” with Andrew Zimmern, “Many Rivers to Cross” with Henry Louis Gates Jr., “High on the Hog” with Stephen Satterfield, and Michelle Obama’s “Waffles + Mochi.” He is a National Geographic Explorer, and the first Revolutionary in Residence at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

The goal of “Koshersoul,” he writes, is “to remove all the labels, not create another one. I want people to understand it’s not all about cheffing in the kitchen or professional spaces. We need more writings that aren’t just recipes from different people, different cultures, because people are so used to seeing one lens.”

Showcasing Jews of color

“Koshersoul” features the voices of prominent Jews of color including Tema Smith, the director of Jewish Outreach and Partnerships at the Anti-Defamation League; Yavilah McCoy, activist, educator, and founder of Ayecha, a nonprofit providing educational resources for Jewish diversity and advocate for Jews of color; Tony Westbrook, assistant director of the Hillel at Washington University in St. Louis; Shais Rishon, an Orthodox rabbi; and Chava Shervington, a Black Jewish culinarian. 

“Much like the people within these pages who have shared something of their lives, ‘Koshersoul’ is not to be taken at face value,” Twitty said. “It’s not just the food traditions of Jews of color that matter – it’s the people and their lives and the legacy they want to leave in two peoplehoods where tradition and the power of heritage loom large, even when the choice is to cast off or change directions.”

‘Living in a Venn diagram’

He writes movingly of his own journey through Judaism, being “Kippa’ed while Black,” and teaching Hebrew school while consistently promoting an expanded perspective of intersectional identities. “The bottom line is people think they can succinctly define Jewish or Black and they know inherently they are bigger than color or religion. So many factors go into those labels. Let’s acknowledge the fact that caste, class, phenotype, ethnotype, genotype, personal choice, geography and region all go into defining these elements of one’s Blackness and one’s Jewishness. It’s living in a constant Venn diagram, in a constant place of many worlds. It’s not that complicated because a lot of people live that way, but it can be really exhausting to deal with other folks’ interpretation of that.”

Twitty is frank about the struggles that come with living his multidimensional life. “I’m using all of my senses and my experience to process traumas and to be a fuller, better human. But I’ve noticed that some people do have a bias against people like me in particular,” he said. “Perhaps they have deep trouble conceiving of someone like me being a full dimensional individual, or that I might have anything to say to them of value about spirituality and food as part of one’s holistic well-being. Sometimes people just want me to tell them little recipe secrets, like ‘Show me how to cook and shut up.’ It’s no different than telling Black athletes to ‘Shut up and play — make me laugh or dance. I didn’t ask you for all that.’

“Well, I’m sorry,” Twitty continued. “I didn’t come in to be that. Food is not apolitical. Food is not acultural. Food is not divorced from our histories.”

Food as a global passport

In “Koshersoul,” he offers food as a passport to better appreciating the complexities of Jewish identity on a global scale. He includes several recipes in what he calls “a community cookbook,” with delicacies such as “Koshersoul” collards, Caribbean compote, yam kugel, black-eyed pea hummus, berbere brisket, kosher-Cajun rice dressing, Senegalese-inspired chicken soup, and “Koshersoul” mac and cheese kugel. 

His work is fueled by a vision of nourishing love and connection. “On multiple levels you have to feed people: physical, mental, spiritual, and social. Feeding is what heals us and what helps bond us as families.”

Some sections of the book are anecdotal, he explains, while others “are more prayer-like. It’s all modeled around the table. I wanted to have a literary structure that mirrored how we converse and relate to each other around a kitchen or dining room table. That setting helps break the ice so it’s easier to have these strong conversations. That’s what I want the book to do.”

This article was originally published in the Forward.

Koshersoul, Michael Twitty