It’s a good thing that fusion cuisine is a thing these days, because the combination of flavours and culinary traditions suits Michael Twitty to a T.
Twitty, who hails from the Washington, D.C., area, is black, Jewish and gay. As a food book author and blogger, Twitty brings all those elements to his description and preparation of food. His first book is called The Food Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South.
His Twitter handle is @KosherSoul and, as the name suggests, Twitty promotes a unique blend of Jewish and African-American culinary traditions.
An engaging and dynamic speaker, he will be the headliner at a culinary and cultural event at Toronto’s City Shul in April. He’ll discuss his journey to Judaism and how he brings together elements from black and Jewish cuisine, to create unique dishes.
Twitty has spoken at dozens of universities, has appeared at hundreds of historical and academic venues and written articles about his passion – food.
In a telephone interview, he told the story of how, at age seven, he was attracted to Judaism, after watching the movie, The Chosen.
At the same time, growing up in a suburban neighbourhood in Maryland, there were Orthodox, Conservative and Reform congregations, and they had a “great impression on me.
“I felt that was me,” he said, “I felt a magnetic pull to Judaism.”
An autodidact at first, he began the process learning as much as he could about Judaism.
After he finished college, and while he was working as an intern at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, he was asked to develop a “Jewish foodways” program for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
Twitty contacted noted cookbook author Joan Nathan, who directed him to a Sephardi synagogue in Maryland. He immediately felt welcomed by the congregation. “It was a loving community, where people were intrigued by my curiosity,” he said. “They taught me brachot, how to put on tefillin and to pray.”
That’s where he began his conversion process, which he completed when he was 22. At the same time, he picked up some interesting recipes that would eventually get the Twitty treatment.
You bring everything of your identity to your kitchen.
– Michael Twitty
“You bring everything of your identity to your kitchen, to your plate,” he said.
A descendant of slaves, Twitty holds cooking events at Southern plantations, where he recreates the food his ancestors once prepared for their slave masters.
Much of American cuisine owes a debt to those slave cooks, he said.
There’s also a black-Jewish culinary connection, as black cooks often worked for Jewish employers, preparing foods that blended the traditions of both cultures, he said.
Some of his current recipes reflect that, such as his Senegalese chicken soup with peanuts, or barbecue with the flavour of eastern Europe.
Then there are his Moroccan “cigars,” a samosa-like dish that’s shaped like a torpedo and contains shredded Carolina barbecued beef.
He’s even developed his own, Americanized recipe for humus, which substitutes black-eyed peas for chickpeas.
Twitty is proudly Jewish and observant, and he wants the broader Jewish community to understand that the colour of his skin does not make him any less Jewish. Yet, he’s found that he turns heads and is often asked to tell his story when he attends services.
White Jews can bring all elements of their backgrounds to shul and no one questions it, he said. “But when you’re a Jew of colour, people get uncomfortable and ask questions that are condescending or inappropriate.
“Why am I perceived as exotic or different?”