Michael Twitty is a culinary historian focusing on the culture and socioeconomics of food in the African and Jewish diasporas. He is the author of the upcoming book The Cooking Gene, which explores the connections between his personal history, the history of food, and African- American history. He runs the blog Afroculinaria, where he writes about Southern food and the culinary traditions of his black and Jewish heritage. The Herald sat down with Twitty to talk about his professional life, food, and family.
YH: Tell me a little bit about the book you’re working on right now.
Twitty: A couple of years ago, I asked my boyfriend, “Do you want to come with me to the Deep South and we can go see these places where my family is from, and try to find my roots?” I thought it’d be some cute Julie and Julia moment, in a neat little package—hell no. It took three trips the year we did it and ever since then it’s been big chunks of my time in the Deep South. This is a South where the musical history and culture, the marketing of history itself, and food—where did it all come from? Slavery. When you talk about that in the South, what you find out really quickly is that black people are not part of any of this discussion. Part of it is not white folk’s fault, part of it is our fault, because we don’t own it. We don’t want anything to do with it. We’re scared of it. Ask a black person what they think about a plantation and they’ll give you a look, like, “I don’t want to go to a plantation.” But they ask that to me, and I’ll say, “But that’s your history.” I really wanted to challenge myself and others to look into that. You can’t say “teach me black history” and then run away from black history, so I wanted to confront that.
YH: Did you find anything surprising while researching your past and your family’s history?
Twitty: One of the things I set out to look for was family. At first, blood family, but then all of a sudden “family” started to take on all these new meanings. Everywhere we went when there were other gay men in the Deep South—that was family. Everywhere we went that was Jewish, that was family. Everywhere we went where there were black people, they told us, “Thank you for doing this.” Even with Asian-Americans in the South who have been there for now 150 years—what is it like to grow up Asian-American in the South? This one Chinese-American friend of mine’s dad had never had Chinese food, but he grew up with fried chicken and pork chops and gravy and grits. That in and of itself—the fact that he’s eating okra and collard greens—says that we are connected in a way that me and someone in San Francisco’s Chinatown would not be. This idea about family really struck me hard. We’re not all the same, but we are all connected. That was a big revelation to me.
YH: Were you always set on going into food? How does one enter the “culinary historian” profession?
Twitty: I skipped the part where you spend 30 years being an accountant then you decide to write about culinary history. Nothing wrong with that, it’s what some people have to do. I paid close attention to food but nobody told me I could study it or that it was even worth serious study. When I worked with the Smithsonian Folklife Festival I learned about the value and import of “foodways”—the interaction between a people’s food culture and the creation and performance of their identity. In many ways it was up to me to put the pieces together, especially for African American food culture, which was pretty much lacking a scholarly voice, save for the work of people like Psyche Williams-Forson and Doris Witt.
YH: How did you come to start cooking kosher soul food? What have you found from bringing these two traditions together?
Twitty: Southern Jewish food was invented by black women working in Jewish households. Or by Jewish women, right off the boat, who basically learned next to black women. There’s no such thing as Southern Jewish food without black people. How the hell did people get kugel? Moses didn’t know what a kugel was. There was no brisket when the Israelites left Egypt. So how did that happen? How do these two diasporas—Jewish and African—meld together, and what do they have in common? For me, the most unique part is moving beyond the simple fusions and going into international cooking. There’s not one corner of the world that is left unexamined between these two diasporas, and it hit me that memory is the biggest ingredient of this food. It’s about memory. It’s didactic. This cuisine is not there just because it’s good to eat, but because it’s there to teach you a lesson. That’s something special to these two food traditions. I haven’t heard of any other food tradition where, “because this happened to us, we eat this,” is an explanation for a certain dish. That is very black and very Jewish. Dishes are introduced with phrases like, “this comes from the days when…” and that’s a rare quality, specific to these traditions. I’m looking for how people think about food and memory. Humor, memory, the idea of survival against oppression—they keep on coming up. And the idea that food can adorn your life when life sucks—at least you can eat well.
YH: How can you employ the work you do to a social justice end?
Twitty: I got asked very early on, very smugly, “So how do you intend to solve the problem of food deserts?” And I said, “Really? I’m supposed to do that all by myself?” I thought, “This isn’t hard. It’s a matter of will.” Simple problems can be solved by simple means. And for me, that means that everyone has to be connected to food growing. There needs to be a field school system. I want people to go to Detroit and South Central L.A. and New York and grow food. That’s one thing about the project—I wanted to find people that were doing these really neat things. There was one gentleman in Montgomery, Ala. who took over a railroad yard and grew food there. There was another gentleman, a Katrina refugee, who had done something similar in Athens, Georgia in an abandoned playground. All of that is important. It’s a matter of taking every inch of soil we have control over and planting it. You have to have a community that sees the urgency of this to do it. It’s really hard for people in places where going to Whole Foods isn’t an option. That’s one of the biggest problems with the food movement in general: we’ve sold out, everyone’s obsessed with Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, but why aren’t we growing the damn food ourselves?
YH: How does your more academic approach to food affect the way you cook?
Twitty: I learned this stuff after a long hard look at everything. I grew up hating soul food. Hated it. It was smelly, it had animal parts in it, it was disgusting. I liked fried chicken and biscuits. I had to learn, because over the years of trying more stuff, I decided I didn’t like other people’s foods. I like the way I do my soul food. Food is global, so why should we be limited? For a black chef to do sushi, and incorporate their own elements into Asian cuisine, or like what I do, with kosher soul food, it should really not be a surprise. It should be, “Where has this been the past 300 years?” And the truth is, it was already there, but in America, unless somebody made a successful business out of a new cuisine or culinary tradition, no one paid much attention to it.
YH: What’s your favorite dish?
Twitty: The problem with this question is that there are very few composite dishes in our tradition. Most of our food was cooked in one pot, boiled up, fried, or roasted. You didn’t have space, time, or money to make a multi- process dish. So, I’m not sure. I could say barbecue, but I don’t know if that’s what I consider a dish, because barbecue is a ten-hour ordeal. And that’s just the cooking part—there’s a whole ritual there. Barbecue is special
to me because it’s the most masculine thing I do. To a Southerner without testicles, barbecue is not a thing. You learn barbecue from your father, and he learned it from his. It’s a very male-proud tradition. To me, it’s less about the flavor, and more about the end product, the ability to stand back and say, “I did that.”
—Interview condensed by the Herald