For over a decade, culinary historian and living-history interpreter Michael Twitty has been exploring the intersection of kosher and soul food. Today and tomorrow, he will be sharing that extensive expertise with audiences here in Madison.

“Kosher Soul Talk with Michael Twitty” will take place tonight at Temple Beth El and “Kosher Soul Cooking Demo & Talk with Michael Twitty” will take place Thursday, April 14, at Meadowridge Public Library.

“I’ll be talking about how I have created and participated in the culture of Black/Jewish food,” Twitty tells Madison 365. “The feeling is that I am taking the parts of these two great cultures and putting them in dialog on my plate … trying to figure out how those two food cultures talk with each other since I am of both of those cultures.”

Twitty is a food writer, independent scholar, culinary historian, and historical interpreter who prepares, preserves and promotes African-American foodways and its parent traditions in Africa and her Diaspora. He also studies its legacy in the food culture of the American South. Twitty is also a Judaic studies teacher from the Washington D.C. metropolitan area and his interests include food culture, food history, Jewish cultural issues, African American history and cultural politics. His food blog, Afroculinaria, highlights and addresses food’s critical role in the development and definition of African-American civilization and the politics of consumption and cultural ownership that surround it.

With Dr. Henry Louis Gates wrapping up taping of part of "Many Rivers to Cross."
With Dr. Henry Louis Gates wrapping up taping of part of “Many Rivers to Cross.”

“Trial and error and personal experience led me to this. So many people have an ‘a-ha moment’ when confronted by anybody with a complex identity like being black and Jewish,” Twitty says. “I decided to take out the ‘a-ha moment’ and conceived an idea that it is perfectly understandable. I’m not a dragon; I’m not a phoenix. I actually do exist … and hey, the bottom line is that when you use food, a lot of times these arbitrary barriers that we have between human beings break down. It’s really an opportunity to educate people. I stopped getting sensitive and started getting in the kitchen.”

Growing up, Twitty cooked alongside his mother, father and grandmother, absorbing family history while learning fried chicken and barbecue. Kosher/Soul is the brand that deals with what Twitty has termed “identity cooking” – about how we construct complex identities and then express them through how we eat. Very few people eat one cuisine or live within one culinary construct.

As the blogger behind Afroculinara, Twitty has a significant online presence. It is the first website/blog devoted to the preservation of historic African-American foods and foodways as well as a record of his own journey as African American Jew in creating his own culinary traditions. The duties of a cook no longer end at the kitchen door — they extend to the social and political realm, too. In that way, Twitty is a full-blown Cheftavist.

“We think of food people as service industry people and that’s actually very unfortunate because that’s not actually the role of the chef in the development of western cuisine in the 18th and 19th century,” Twitty says. “Oh, no. He’s as much a trendsetter, an artist, and a social commentator as anybody else. In the 20th century, a chef became a service industry professional again. But now, we’re back to the chef being a creative artist and commentator.

Michael Twitty
Michael Twitty

“A part of that is social justice, which is a term that a lot of people have used in a pejorative way like being P.C.[politically correct],” he adds. “What they need to understand is that this is not arbitrary … this comes from a very specific cultural tradition. It’s Abrahamic in origin and specifically Jewish. That’s where I cut my teeth. It’s the moral suasion of the civil rights movement with the social justice and culture of American Judaism. It’s about knowing about the people who make your food, about the fairness of the food, about the history and culture and truth of the food, and about how food can be used to benefit and uplift marginalized and oppressed people.”

Twitty’s profile as a Cheftavist gained a huge boost in June of 2013 shortly after the disclosure of Food Network star Paula Deen’s past use of the n-word got her in deep trouble in the culinary world and beyond. Twitty posted an open letter to her on in which he addressed Deen as a fellow Southerner and didn’t chastise her use of the racial epithet but instead took her to task, along with the food establishment, for failing to give credit to slaves for their starring role in the creation of Southern food. His writings to her went viral and it made Twitty famous worldwide.

“After that, I was scared to death — and I rightly should have been — because people wanted to hear more and more from me,” Twitty says. “When you finally get heard and appreciated for what you have to say you really have to keep up with everything. It’s a big demand, but it’s a blessing that I don’t ever regret. Because of that, I was able to attract the literary agents I needed to sell this book. Because of that, I’ve traveled around the world. Because of that, I was able to speak at the MAD Symposium in Copenhagen. What more can I ask for in terms of blessings?”

Twitty said that he didn’t want the discussion to be all around Deen’s use of the n-word. “I think people take a very simplistic approach to what they think racism is. ‘Racism is name-calling, a little bullying, a little discrimination.’ No, no, no. Racism is systemic,” Twitty says. “It’s to the blood and to the bone and it is a mental illness … a mental illness that many of us have whether we like it or not. We’ve all been affected by this disease. It may never go away, but it’s our responsibility to fight back against it. My way of fighting back against it is food.”
Chasing culinary memory and identity and a personal mission to document the connection between food history and family history from Africa to America, from slavery to freedom, inspired his upcoming book, “The Cooking Gene: A Journey through African-American History in the Old South,” a memoir and culinary history with recipes.

“’The Cooking Gene’ is basically me tracing my family history from Africa to Atlanta from slavery to freedom through food,” he says. “Looking at how during every step in the journey, food has played a critical role in shaping the destiny of my ancestors and my present life right down to my personal health.

“No American food writer or culinarian has gone to the level of ‘What did my ancestors eat from day to day for the past 300 years?’” he adds. “No one has done that … not in this country. That’s why I wanted to be the first and I wanted it to be an African-American story because our story is America’s story.”

Twitty has conducted classes and workshops, written curricula and educational programs, and has given lectures and performed cooking demonstrations for over 200 organizations. He stressed that you don’t have to be black or Jewish to explore how you create your own food identity.
“I love it when people who are not black or Jewish see themselves or their heritage in my work,” he says. “Ideally, my work is about the human family and how it feeds itself. The best thing I’ve ever heard was when a young man came up to me and said he was going to go back to Italy to see where his great grandparents came from before America and he wanted to do something similar to what I was doing with his own roots. That was very emotional for me because I feel like by telling my truth as it is I have given him a gateway to explore and know where he is coming from and to participate in his ancestor’s legacy. And anybody can do that. We all have the opportunity to grow in the knowledge of where we come from in our cultures.

“What I want to bring to Madison is a real understanding that food can be the glue between the generations,” Twitty adds. “Food can help us to understand ourselves. Food can bring us together to not just agree, but to argue in a more rational, responsible, and respectful way.”

“Kosher Soul Talk with Michael Twitty” will take place tonight, 5:30-9 p.m. at Temple Beth El, 2702 Arbor Dr. “Kosher Soul Cooking Demo & Talk with Michael Twitty” will take place Thursday, April 14, 10:30 a.m.-1 p.m. at Meadowridge Public Library, 5726 Raymond Road.