When Michael Twitty was seven years old, he turned to his mother and told her he was Jewish.
“No you’re not,’ she replied. I said ‘yes I am,’ and my mother let me be Jewish for a week,” he recalls.
Though Twitty, now 37, felt the stirrings of Judaism from a young age, he didn’t formerly convert until he was 25, through a Sephardi congregation outside Washington, DC. Since then he has taught at a variety of Jewish and Hebrew schools in the DC area, while pursuing his love of cooking and studying the culinary history and food pathways of his African-American ancestors.
But his life path took a sharp turn last year, when a blog post Twitty wrote on his site went viral, catapulting him into culinary fame and sending him on the global journey he’d always dreamed of.
This weekend, he’ll be featured at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival’s “Delicatessen” section on culinary cinema, speaking on Friday afternoon about the connection between African-American and Jewish cuisine.
On Sunday afternoon at the Abraham Hostel, he’ll host a master cooking class and dinner exploring the collaborations between his culinary heritages.
In July 2013, Twitty decided to write an open letter to Paula Deen, a US celebrity chef who made a living peddling Southern cuisine. She had recently come under fire for a lawsuit which alleged she used racial slurs against workers and discriminated against black employees. Twitty’s letter, posted on his blog afroculinaria.com, however, took a different approach, calling Deen out not for her racial epithets but for “systemic racism in the world of Southern food and public discourse.”
“The Southern food you have been crowned the queen of was made into an art largely in the hands of enslaved cooks,” he wrote. “We are surrounded by culinary injustice where some Southerners take credit for things that enslaved Africans and their descendants played key roles in innovating.”
Twitty extended to Deen “the invitation to do teshuvah – which means to repent – but better – to return to a better state, a state of shalem – wholeness and shalom – peace.”
Amid the flurry of controversy surrounding the disgraced chef, Twitty’s blog post quickly went viral.
“I did that letter and I thought: no one is going to listen to me, no one is going to read it,” he recalls. “I sat in my library where I live outside of DC and then all of a sudden I started seeing the retweets and reblogs and the Facebook messages... it was thrilling and threatening at the same time, because that was the moment I knew I had to amp up my game, I had to really be true to my dream.”
Suddenly Twitty was an in-demand culinary lecturer, instructor and presenter across the US, and even internationally.
He is now also working on his book The Cooking Gene – scheduled to be published in 2016 by Harper Collins – about his journey tracing “the food-steps of his ancestors in the Old South, using the story of African American foodways to follow his ancestors from Africa to America and from slavery to freedom.”
“I’m writing, I’m reading, I’m eating and cooking,” said Twitty, who studied African- American studies at Howard University.
After stopping to teach Judaics full time, “I have the time to do that and then I do a lot of college visits and demonstrations and presentations and cooking demos.”
And Twitty is now on his way to Israel for the second time in his life – the first being a Taglit-Birthright trip in 2004.
“I had a few reservations about coming even though I don’t think of Israel as being an unsafe place,” he said. “On the other hand I’ve been saying for a while that I need to get back to Israel and this is my bashert opportunity.”
In addition to his appearances in Jerusalem, Twitty is hoping to visit Safed and other parts of the Galilee, as well as explore the country’s culinary offerings, despite the trauma of his last visit.
“We got to Yerushalayim and I thought I was going to have this wonderful, slightly archaic dish” of shwarma, he recalls, “and they put french fries on it! I was so horrified.”
Though he didn’t grow up Jewish – despite the fact that his mother always bought challa every Saturday – Twitty discovered some Jewish ancestry in his heritage, even backed up by DNA testing he has done in research for his book. Today he considers himself to be traditional, calling himself “flexidox,” and he generally sports a kippa, which can invite some attention in public.
“I get a lot of interesting questions,” he said diplomatically. “I’m happy to say that more often than not now I get many more people who go ‘oh that’s so great, that’s wonderful,’” he said. But, at the same time, there are “stupid questions, stupid comments” from people he meets.
“The more that I learn how to carry myself with a sense of self-confidence and really not take that kind of attitude and behavior, the less things like that happen to me.”
That confluence of his Jewish and African American heritages, which Twitty refers to as “Kosher Soul,” is the focus of his talk in Jerusalem, and at many lectures he gives to Jewish audiences. He likes to mix the two culinary styles together, with dishes like black-eyed pea hummus and egg rolls with turkey pastrami and collard greens.
“I like to show those journeys and...
talk about how one food applies in this culture and how one applies in this culture,” he said, “and how those two cultures have different narratives, but if you really look into them, they end up being very complementary.”
At his cooking class in Jerusalem, Twitty said he’s planning to create burekas filled with Southern-style barbecued meat.
“Judaism is so complex because it’s the religious culture of the Jewish people, and there is not one single aspect of life that it doesn’t touch on,” said Twitty. “Food is obviously a very important part, not only because of kashrut, but because every group had to make a Jewish identity with the scrips and scraps it was allowed in whatever corner of the world it was in.
Then all of those cultures came together in Medinat Yisrael and they forged in Israeli cuisine a new understanding.”
Twitty doesn’t shy away from discussing any part of his complex heritage, and continues to call out injustices he sees. In 2012 he led what he called his “Southern Discomfort Tour,” across Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama and other southern states, visiting the sites his ancestors were enslaved in and tracing the roots of their cuisine. Earlier this year, he wrote in The Guardian ahead of Thanksgiving about the myths of the holiday’s food and “cultural sleights of hand” that led to its creation.
Above all, he is grateful for the opportunity to reach others, and “to learn from every single person and every single way that I can.”
“Bashert is bashert, but it really was an exercise in emunah [belief],” he said. “You have to trust that these things happen in the right time, at the right place, and I leapt off and did it.”Michael Twitty is scheduled to give a lecture on “Afro-Sephashkenazi Cuisine” at The Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival on Friday, December 19 at 12:30 p.m., and a “Kosher Soul Food Master Class and Savory Meal” at the Abraham Hostel at 1 p.m. on Sunday, December 21.