When Michael Twitty was growing up outside Washington, D.C., the treat in his house every weekend was challah—a taste his Lutheran mother developed during her childhood in Cincinnati, where the only baker open on Sundays was Jewish. When Twitty was 7, after seeing the film adaptation of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, he informed his mother that he was Jewish. She humored him for a week, before warning him that he’d need another circumcision if he really wanted to be Jewish. Twitty backed down, for the time being.
But his attraction to Judaism, and Jewish food, remained. At his Jewish friends’ homes, he would seek out the grandmothers, because they were the ones feeding him. Watching their hands, he would learn their recipes—and the differences between various Jewish communities. As Twitty grew older, he wanted to connect more deeply with Judaism.
After college, Twitty was working as an intern at the Smithsonian, and he was tasked with developing “Jewish foodways” programming for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. He approached Jewish cooking expert (and Tablet contributor) Joan Nathan for help. One day, she sent Twitty to a Sephardic synagogue—Magen David in suburban Maryland—in search of a recipe. The first person he saw there was a young African-American man like himself. “That was an ot, a sign,” Twitty told me recently. He didn’t initially intend to convert, but slowly became part of the synagogue’s community, which was particularly welcoming to people of color. About two years later, when he was 25, he went to the mikveh and completed an Orthodox conversion.
At 37, Twitty wears a yarmulke and tzitzit, and he’s taught at Hebrew schools across the religious spectrum. And he has carved out an idiosyncratic culinary niche for himself, concocting fresh fusions that bring together elements of African-American and Jewish cuisine, and sharing his ideas around the world. “I am so glad that Michael has had the strength to pursue his passion,” Nathan said in an email. “I am glad that he found his own voice.”
When I met Twitty in Israel last month, he was a guest of the Jerusalem Cinematheque’s Delicatessen Culinary Festival, where he gave a talk about “Afro-Sephashkenazi” cuisine and led a master class on kosher soul food. (This was before his widely reported, infuriating and humiliating experience at Ben-Gurion Airport security, when he was trying to board his flight back to the States.) Next weekend, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he’ll prepare a Shabbat dinner of BBQ chicken and matzo ball gumbo for some 200 attendees at Congregation Beth Emeth in Northern Virginia, to be followed by Shabbat services featuring music by Joshua Nelson, the “prince of kosher gospel music,” who’ll give a full concert the next day. And in March, Twitty will give a lecture on “Kosher/Soul” at the San Francisco JCC. He also writes the blog Afroculinaria and has a book forthcoming from HarperCollins next year.
In addition, Twitty regularly holds cooking events at historical plantations in the South where, in full period dress, he recreates the food his enslaved ancestors once ate, demonstrating the huge debt Southern cuisine owes to African Americans. In Jerusalem, he told me about the unexpected Jewish parallels: “There’s not a thing that the Southern white folk did that black men and women did not touch, influence, revolutionize to the point that they did not know where they began and we ended,” he said. “And it’s the same thing with Yehudim. You can’t throw a stone in Europe without finding the Jewish influence, or Jewish genes. It’s funny how people that are oppressed tend to end up being everywhere and everything. You can’t get rid of us, you can’t put us down. We use our food to empower ourselves. What I do with kosher soul food is combine the survival gene in the Jews with the survival gene in black folk, and I make it work.”
Combining Jewish cuisine with African-American cooking yields some unexpected recipes. “I just mix it all up,” said Twitty. “The Jewish and African diasporas are all around the world, so you have this amazing access to almost every cuisine the human race has to offer. I make Senegalese chicken soup with peanut butter and matzo balls. The spices give it the context of Shabbos or Yom Tov.” He rattled off more combinations: roast chicken with the Nigerian spice suya, fried chicken with matzo meal, black-eyed peas and kishke. For a larger meal, he makes a kosher spin on feijoada, the Afro-Brazilian stew. For dessert, he’ll bake sweet potato rugelach, or hamantaschen with teacake dough; instead of poppy seeds and apricots, he uses sesame candy, peach preserves, and blackberry preserves all mashed together.