Food is more than just what’s on the plate. Writer and historian Michael Twitty uses it as a catalyst for discussions on history, economics, and the power structures that shape modern society.
A Black, Jewish, and Southern queer man, Twitty won a James Beard Book Award for his ability to probe the intersections of personal experience, culinary tradition, and the racial politics of food. His books “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South” and “Rice: A Savor the South” scrutinize American history to reveal the African diaspora’s impact on the foods we eat today, from barbecued meats to Jambalaya.
To Twitty, food is a roadmap for discovering truths about human connection.
In his new release, “Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African American American Jew”, the author takes readers on a journey through the food traditions of the African Atlantic and global Jewish diasporas to uncover the similarities between the two.
“I want food to help you understand why you exist at all,” Twitty told Billy Penn. “It’s a way [toward] empathy, compassion, and consideration for your neighbor.”
The Weitzman Museum of American Jewish History on Sept. 22 hosts a ticketed book signing and discussion with Twitty and Jewish culinary researcher Joan Nathan. The event comes just before Rosh Hashanah (aka the Jewish New Year) where foods like apples, honey, and round challah bread are symbolic offerings for the year ahead.
Ahead of his conversation at the museum on Independence Mall, here are three takeaways from Twitty about introspection, uncovering your identities, and exploring culinary tradition.
History doesn’t happen in a vacuum
Twitty’s writing frequently centers on what can feel like an unexpected notion: people in what he terms the Old South are “far more related to one another than not.”
For him, the idea is a reminder that when communities live side by side in a specific location for hundreds of years, their cultures will begin to mix, creating something that uniquely expresses that place. “It’s interconnectedness. It’s intersectional. There are so many cultural crossroads involved,” Twitty said.
Some examples: The way the Charleston red rice preserved by Gullah communities along the South Carolina and Georgia coastlines resembles West African jollof rice, or how Black Jewish cuisine is “where schmaltz and smoked turkey and horseradish and hot sauce meet.”
But understanding how communities were intertwined throughout history is only part of the story. Twitty said he wants his work to facilitate conversations around America’s ingrained power structures and systemic racism, which he hopes will help correct misconceptions about the cuisines of marginalized people.
The author, for example, is clear about why there’s so much African influence in American food — it’s because of the enslaved Africans who were brought here. When it comes to Southern cuisine in particular, Twitty noted that it’s the context surrounding those foods that creates different culinary traditions.
“From a food perspective, white and Black Southerners should be on the same page most of the time. But why aren’t we? Because the food is similar, but ain’t the same. And the purpose behind the food ain’t always the same,” Twitty explained. “The one element that white Southerners totally lack in their food — resistance.”
It’s that resilience and persistence that Twitty believes makes Black food culture distinctly different.
White communities weren’t confronted by the unique pressure displacement places on maintaining culinary traditions, Twitty said. “They weren’t constantly having to watch where the goalposts landed,” and while the food has connections to Africa, it has “no bearing” to them because they “don’t see themselves as … cultural descendants of Africa.”
Think about the multiple, overlapping purposes of food
Twitty encourages readers to think of the layers within a recipe, which carry stories about where ingredients came from, their symbolism, and who brought them here. Exploring your own culinary history starts with thinking about a specific dish’s purpose.
When he begins any research, Twitty said, he always asks this guiding question: How does food shape people?
“Food is maintained for its purposes,” Twitty said. Shabbat dinners, Sunday feasts, and even Eagles gameday spreads all are designed to bring people together. Food can also be a window into specific moments in time.
“Food also changes on multiple levels. It’s regional. It’s seasonal. It’s chronological. It expresses history and time,” Twitty said, explaining that you can see the histories of the African and Jewish diasporas through their cuisines. Each endured seismic changes — and stories of survival carry on in their food.
As Africans and Jews were dispersed across the globe, Twitty said they adapted their traditional recipes to new ingredients. Africans replaced sweet potatoes with yams in the Americas, while Ashkenazi Jews fed their communities with pickled herring on rye in Northern Europe. These changes, said Twitty, helped these diasporas maintain “essential” connections with their homeland and culture.
Don’t expect the research to be a linear process
When Twitty began researching his culinary heritages, he started with his family’s oral histories and collective memories. From there, Twitty said he strove to learn as much as possible from many different sources, branching out from cookbooks into history textbooks and even religious texts.
“Food is one of the more holistic aspects of our lives. It connects with our health, connects with our family traditions, and [connects with] our spiritual traditions,” Twitty said. “So leave no stone unturned.”
Twitty also suggested holding on tight to the idea that food is constantly evolving and acting as a reaction to moments in history.
“One of the biggest mistakes people make is that they go into this with an attitude of, ‘Oh, nothing has changed,'” Twitty said. “[But food is] changing right now.”