The Current

Food historian Michael Twitty explores the cultural crossroads of Jewish & African cuisine in new book

Culinary historian Michael Twitty's new book, Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African American Jew, explores his experience being Black and Jewish, and how he brought his different identities together in the kitchen.

Food is 'how we've kept our memories alive,' says the cook and Judaics teacher

In his new book, Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African American Jew, culinary historian Michael Twitty explores his experience being Black and Jewish, and how he brought his different identities together in the kitchen. (Bret Hartman/TED)

For chef and culinary historian Michael Twitty, food isn't just a bunch of ingredients slapped onto a plate.

"It's a gesture of love. It's how we show love to each other," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"It's also how we've kept our memories alive. It's also how we've kept our devotion to our history, our traditions and cultures."

The historical relevance of cuisine is significant to Twitty. As someone who is Black and Jewish, Twitty feels traditional foods, like red rice, tell a story of who his communities are, where they're going, and what persecutions and trials they've been through.

Twitty reaches for cymlings and okra in Natchez, Miss. (Johnathan M. Lewis/Afroculinaria.com)

"These are recipes that, you know, came through the callous of slavery," he said. "So it's not really possible for me to think about those foods, those dishes, recipes, without considering how they passed at the hands of people who did everything they could not to lose them."

In his new book, Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African American Jew, Twitty explores his food journey and the cultural crossroads of Jewish and African diaspora cuisine.

Released in August, the book's title is a commentary on two "inseparable" parts of Twitty's identity. 

I use my meals, my home, as an opportunity to introduce people to the fusion of foods and recipes that, you know, I express in Koshersoul​​​​​-Michael Twitty, culinary historian

Kosher is a term for food that respects Jewish law, but it's also used to indicate when something is considered acceptable in modern English, said Twitty. Soul is "directly connected to the 20th century, mid-20th century African American term that … takes the essence of Black culture, especially soul food and soul music and soul dancing."

"So these two terms for me … brings out this idea that these two parts of me are kind of in a braid. They're wedded and they're inseparable," he said.

Food and tradition

The title, Koshersoul, is a commentary on two "inseparable" parts of Twitty's identity. (Submitted by Michael Twitty)

One of the terms Twitty uses to emphasize the connection between food and Judaism is the Yiddish word fressfumkeit, a combination of the words for 'religious' and 'to eat.'

"It's the idea that you are religious to your stomach in a Jewish sense; that your devotion to Yiddishkeit and devotion to the tradition is primarily … through your plate and your stomach," he said.

Twitty called fressfumkeit his "favourite Yiddish word."

"It has absolutely nothing to do with whether you go to school, or Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah. It has everything to do with whether or not apples and honey — or honey cake, or brisket — makes you not only salivate, but praise the Lord." 

Devotion to tradition through cuisine is something Twitty also sees in Black culinary customs. 

"In African American tradition, the Black tradition, Sunday dinner has a very similar role to Shabbat dinner," he said. "They're going to bring people together, the family together"

Twitty said these dinners are an opportunity to honour his ancestors, "the ones that came before us and the things they brought to the table."

"It's an opportunity to welcome guests, which is a very sacred act," he said.

It's also an open door for Twitty to showcase the best of both of his identities in his cooking.

"So for me, like, I use my meals, my home, as an opportunity to introduce people to the fusion of foods and recipes that, you know, I express in Koshersoul," he said.

'We won, let's eat'

Twitty said the weight of the histories and stories in Jewish and Black cuisines is "almost burdensome."

"Other people can just eat something and do whatever they want to do without any sort of sense of being tethered to history, the past, people's traumas, their suffering, or their triumphs despite their suffering," he said.

But despite the burden and anxiety of whether his communities' traditions will be remembered, Twitty said there's something to be celebrated in those communities' survival against oppression and incredible odds.

"What we say in Yiddish … [is] a responsibility to not just pass down the scarier elements, the more tense elements, the more problematic elements, but to pass down a sense of pride and happiness and love and joy and a sense of overcoming," he said.

"We express [this] in Jewish life as they tried to kill us, we won, let's eat."


Produced by Howard Goldenthal.

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