Chef Michael Twitty--a writer, culinary historian, cook and Hebrew school teacher--is an African American Jew (he converted at age 22) who uses his culinary prowess to explore the threads of his identity. In 2013, he became a well-known presence in culinary circles when he wrote an open letter to celebrity chef Paula Deen, which quickly went viral: Deen's use of the n-word had recently come to light, but Twitty was more upset by her erasure of black contributions to the culinary world. " W e are surrounded by culinary injustice," he wrote, "where some Southerners take credit for things that enslaved Africans and their descendants played key roles in innovating." Twitty's new book, The Cooking Gene, explores the history of African American cuisine and its contributions to American Southern food with what he characterizes as a "very Jewish-meets-black-sensibility." He speaks with Moment about the symbolism of Jewish and African foods, and how the two culinary traditions differ and come together.
You write that you feel an obligation to understand what your ancestors ate and h ow they ate it. Why? This is a very Jewish question: Why do I feel this responsibility to observe these laws, these rituals, argue about their meaning? We're still talking about things that were created thousands of years ago. In black culture, tradition is tradition. If Grandma says bow your head and say grace, you do it. There is no inner dialogue about the meaning.
But for me, African Americans should feel obligated to do this journey, in their own way, because our ancestors are depending on us to make their memory a blessing and honor their legacy. We need to appreciate where we are and appreciate that our descendants may have things easier than us, and therefore they may forget.
Why do you believe that it is critical to strive for "reconnection with the culinary culture of the enslaved"? You can have conversations around food that are a little bit more difficult to have otherwise--conversations about power, access, exploitation, agency. In fact, food as an artifact weaves itself in and out of hair-raising conversations about race. When people know that black-eyed peas came from Africa--that they were fed to enslaved Africans who were underweight so they would get fatter or heavier, so they could survive and look well fed after the journey from Africa to America--they know that the black-eyed peas have symbolism. When black-eyed peas get to their plate, they...