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When cooking matters

Vivian Henoch, editor of myJewishDetroit talks taste and tolerance with chef Michael Twitty

“I don’t believe in ‘race’ except for the human one,” says Michael W. Twitty. Black, devoutly Jewish and gay, this American chef who grew up outside Washington makes no bones about the complexity of his identity, but chooses to explore it and demonstrate how food connects us. 

Bringing diversity to the table is Twitty’s objective and with such hybrid specialities as black-eyed pea hummus, mac ‘n’ cheese kugel and matzo ball gumbo, he has carved out a culinary niche merging African American (Southern Antebellum) and Jewish cuisine. 

It’s no surprise his mix of Creole and kneidels has made him a star turn on the US shul circuit and his skills at the stove also comes with a fascinating backstory about his conversion to Judaism. 

“Growing up alongside Jewish neighbours, it was nothing for me to go and build and play in a succah when I was little and in my mother’s kitchen, challah was a weekend staple, as the only bakeries open on Sunday were Jewish.” 

Twitty was seven when he saw the film adaptation of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen and wanted to give being Jewish a go. “I thought, wow, I can relate to this spiritual thing, so I told my mother I was Jewish. She said, fine, and let me be Jewish for one week. I made a baseball cap into my pseudo kippah, and refused to eat bacon for breakfast or read the New Testament.” 

Deterred by his mother’s warning of a second circumcision, Twitty’s eventual immersion into Judaism occurred later when he met Jewish cookery author Joan Nathan at a festival and was introduced to a Sephardi synagogue in Rockville, Maryland. “The first person I met there was an African American man about my age and I took it as a sign.”

 Twitty eventually became a Hebrew teacher facing all kinds of “questions of validation” from students of mixed orthodoxy.

“I was the Yid of a different colour – a young, male, African American of Jewish descent by conversion,” he says too kindly of the curiosity, but he loved teaching and also learnt about Sephardic and Mizrachi food. 

As an acclaimed culinary historian, Twitty traced his ancestry – both black and white – in his award-winning book, The Cooking Gene, using recipes from Africa to America and slavery to freedom. The tasty tome is the tale of his ancestors’ survival over three centuries, and he continues to explore the traditions of Africa, African America and the African diaspora on his popular erudite blog, Afroculinaria.com. 

Michael Twitty

It is in that space he shares his thoughts and recently wrote in response to events: “Black Lives Matter means I should be able to do normal things without dying” and revealed for the first time his own experience of racism with American police. The incident occurred on Tisha B’Av, when a white friend was driving him to synagogue.

“I was the passenger,” he says, and describes being tailed by an unmarked car, which suddenly put on a siren, indicating for them to pull over. Twitty was holding a Siddur when the Maryland police officer told him to put his hands on the dashboard and accused him of holding a gun. 

“It was my prayer book with God’s name in beautiful gold Hebrew letters gleaming at me on a sunless day,” he writes, which shocks and shames.His kippah was knocked to the ground. No demands were made of the white driver and a police check revealed neither passenger nor driver had a record.   “I was too scared to say anything or file a complaint,” says the chef with 52.4K followers. “But had that cop been turned up one more notch I would not be writing this – I’d have been fat, scary, Black, worthless and dead.”

There is an incomprehensible chasm between his experiences as a black man in his homeland and his profile, @Koshersoul on Twitter, where he celebrates black-eyed pea hummus. 

“Jewish food and African American diaspora food share a lot of similarities because we are both migratory people who have often been at the same places at the same times,” says Twitty. “Black-eyed peas are a traditional Rosh Hashanah food, which is part of the ancient Talmudic menu and eaten by Sephardim who believe they increase one’s mitzvot in the year to come.”

TWITTY’S BLACK-EYED PEA HUMMUS

Black Eyed Pea Hummus

Ingredients

  • 15 oz can black eyed peas, rinsed and drained
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • ⅓ cup tahini
  • ⅓ cup fresh lemon juice
  • 1 ½ teaspoons salt
  • 4 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • ½ teaspoon cumin
  • ½ teaspoon coriander
  • ½ teaspoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon brown or raw (demerara) sugar
  • 1 teaspoon hot sauce
  • 2 teaspoons minced parsley for garnish

Directions

Throw everything but the parsley in a food processor and run it until everything is smooth and mixed together. Taste and add more spice, hot sauce or whatever you think it needs. Serve with the parsley sprinkled over and a drizzle of olive oil on the top.

The Cooking Gene by Michael Twitty is published by Amistad  and is available at www.amazon.co.uk

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