Michael Twitty explores intersection of Jewish and Black food in newest book

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

"'Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African American Jew,' is recovery food," writes Michael Twitty in the preface to his latest book. That book, written during the post-Obama years, was meant as a balm for high political tensions, for the seemingly never-ending culture wars.

"Each twenty-four-hour media cycle saw an uptick of red-meat policies to punish marginalized, oppressed, and outlier communities," wrote Twitty, who is Black, Jewish, gay and an immensely talented writer.

"Koshersoul" tells the story of the Jewish and African diasporas and the cultural melding those forced journeys created. Many of those enduring food traditions serve as a reminder that the hope of a celebratory meal was sometimes a matter of survival. "That they, and we, have all survived yet again is another testimony to whatever magic lies in our traditions," Twitty writes.

This interview has been edited for length.

Southern Kitchen: Can you give some perspective on how large the intersection of Black and Jewish food is?

These two diasporas have made it to every inhabitable continent, by choice or by force. Not only that, lived in some of the same countries at the same times, and therefore have had to deal with being outsiders in those cultures. If you are people who are in exile, people who are othered, your food has to strengthen your identity. Your food has to tell stories about where your people came from. Your food has to be a form of resistance. And both African-Atlantic and Jewish foodways are part of that.

Michael Twitty's latest book, "Koshersoul", features challah on the cover, which represent the author's many identities. "Anybody who knows anything knows I'm referring to Jewish, black, gay identities, and all rolled up into one," Twitty said.

Both of these cultures are also extremely absorbent. They know how to bring other cultural and culinary elements in and make them part of the culture in such a way that you don't know when the other begins and where ours ends.

At some point in time, you had African Americans in the Deep South who cooked in the homes of Jews, particularly Ashkenazi Jews, who eagerly wanted the cooking to be fused together because assimilation was very important. It was also very fairly cordial. It was a coming together and having dialogue. A lot of the Jewish families that I interviewed in the Deep South had very positive associations and did not think that their way of eating okra soup, red rice, fried chicken, challah that was made to pull apart like biscuits, black eyed pea kishka, matzo ball gumbo, they did not think this was weird. They, in fact, thought that the deli food from New York was exotic.

What moments in recent history inspired you to write this book?

I spent the last full year working on this project waking up to synagogue shootings and harm done to my people in everyday life, in situations that didn't need to be escalated. And also strife between the two communities because now we've injected a certain type of old school American cross-ethnic, cross-people competition, you know, distrust in allyship.

On the other side of things, I've recently encountered, in trying to call for dialogue, some people just like, "Nope, you're offering an olive branch." And I'm like, conversation is not surrender.

These projects that I do, "The Cooking Gene," "Koshersoul," and others to come in the future, they're really about trying to create informed conversations that put us in a better place. The bottom line is, between the pandemic, between the political scene, between so many other elements, we really had a huge setback as a society, and I think we need to come to grips with it. So "Koshersoul" to me is the chicken soup, the recovery meal, after the hangover.

I think collectively the world needs therapy. And particularly American culture, we're really bad at reckoning with what has happened to us on an emotional level.

When we talk about food bringing us together, we have to be about the work of actually having people understand why they have the food, who and where the food comes from, and having empathy and compassion.

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I remember many years ago, I learned about the Conflict Kitchen in Pittsburgh, about how they would use the food of North Korea or Iran or other places to teach that the people there are human beings. They have children; they have lives. I try to use food the same way, to remind people that Black and Jewish foodways and stories, together or apart, do communicate the heritage, the stories and the history and, because they do, you have an amazing opportunity.

James Beard Award-winning writer Michael Twitty.

I was very intrigued by the parallels between Yiddish kitchen rituals and West African kitchen rituals. Can you talk more about that?

I was thinking of chopping and beating. There's this whole soundtrack to the kitchen and how they operate them, and also the sensibility of spirit in the kitchen. (In Yiddishkeit), there are prayers that you say over certain foods, because those foods have a spiritual and religious importance. The idea that in the old school Black kitchens, and even still to this day, the idea that by singing a spiritual or hymn, that helps you time the food. So there is a sonic, aural and tactile part of magic that goes into making these foods with the explicit idea that these things are there to benefit the family, to strengthen the family's resolve to get up another day.

People can't forget for these two communities, one day they got up and it was the Holocaust. One day they got up and it was Red Summer. One day they got up and it was enslavement. One day they got up and it was another battle for civil rights or for equality, freedom of religion, all of that. So, I mean, I come from survivors.

What else do you want people to know about the book?

It's so important to support authors like myself if you want if you like stories like this, if you want people to read about these outlier stories and food and get these recipes, you got to support it. Please buy this book, buy it for friends. Remind your library to buy a copy. It's so important when a book first comes out to put your full love and support behind it. Because it's the time period when publishers and other people are looking at what's selling. And that's not just for the wallet. That is for the sake of knowledge in general. Because if it's a proven success, it means that other people's projects and work will be invested in that will tell more stories that people don't get to hear.

 Michael Twitty's Green Bean Salad with Lemon and Sweet Bell Pepper

Green beans are significant in both African American and Jewish foodways. Seasonally, they make a welcome addition to the table as a side dish. Classic Southern dishes are green beans cooked with smoked meat or potatoes, or they can flavor stews like the Sephardic dish fassoulia, where meat, onions and green beans make a meal.

This green bean salad works well for Shabbat and holidays, when cooking isn’t an option. Here, roasted or steamed green beans treated with acids and oils work together to make it a more palatable vegetable when chilled for a day or two.

Serves 4–6

Ingredients

1½ pounds fresh green beans, snapped and trimmed1 teaspoon sea salt2 quarts water1 bowl ice water

Dressing and Garnish4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice½ teaspoon kosher salt2 cloves garlic, sliced into thin slivers2 tablespoons fresh, roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley2 tablespoons thinly sliced scallions½ teaspoon organic sugar (optional)4 tablespoons total cubed red, yellow and orange bell peppers (use a bag of baby bells, if possible)

Instructions

Place green beans in a large pot of boiling water well seasoned with sea salt.

Cook 5 minutes, then immediately drain in a colander and plunge into the ice bath until the beans are just barely warm.

Prepare the dressing while the green beans are in the ice bath. In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, salt, garlic, parsley, scallions and optional sugar. Place the green beans in a nonreactive mixing bowl, add the chopped peppers, splash on the dressing, mix well for a minute or two, and then allow the green beans to marinate in the dressing for an hour or so. Toss well before serving.

Variation: Instead of lemon juice, use balsamic vinegar. 

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com