Talking Kosher/Soul Culture and Food with Michael W. Twitty

April 29, 2016

twittyMichael W. Twitty, a black Jewish culinary historian, teacher and author based in Washington, DC, participated in a forum on “Identity Cooking” at Centennial Hall in the Milwaukee Public Library on April 12. The conversation was the first in a series of lectures exploring ways in which Jewish history and culture is intertwined with the experience of people of color.

Twitty is completing a new book titled The Cooking Gene. The idea for the book began in 2011 when Twitty undertook an eight-month long journey retracing his family’s involuntary journey from Africa to America and from slavery to freedom. Over the objection of his editor he includes kosher substitutes in the recipes as part of what he calls “identity cooking.”
• Blacks did most of the cooking in the antebellum South, so the history of southern cuisine was largely shaped by enslaved descendants from Africa.

• Very little information exists on the individual personalities of enslaved Africans in America. Food is one of the best ways of retrieving that lost cultural sense of identity with black ancestors.

• Protein from the meat of pigs, a common ingredient in soul food and forbidden under Jewish dietary tradition, was not a staple source of food for many Africans until they came to America. Pigs are hardy and can fend for themselves, qualities necessary to a people who were forced to labor all day long attending to the needs of others under the threat of the whip before taking care of their own family needs.

• Black Americans are the only culture in the world whose gravesites can be paved over, turned into golf courses or have buildings constructed on top of them.

• Both blacks and Jews share their cultural history through food.

• There is no single definition of ‘soul food’. Cajun-style, New Orleans cooking is very different from what you would have found on the family dinner table of black slaves working in a Kentucky coal mine.

• Forty percent of all African Americans can trace at least one ancestor back to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina which was one of the major slave markets.

• Twitty said he is offended by the manner in which some otherwise well-meaning people question his legitimacy as a Black Jew.

The Cooking Gene will be published by Harper Collins on November 8, 2016, It is available for preorder now on the internet at