In ‘Koshersoul,’ Michael Twitty Explores Black and Jewish Identity

On the very first page of Koshersoul, culinary historian Michael Twitty is already fighting to be understood. Twitty, whose 2017 memoir The Cooking Gene uses food to trace his ancestry from Africa through the slave trade and the American South, is asked by another writer if he’s traded writing about Black food for Jewish food. “No,” Twitty responds, “this is a book about a part of Black food that’s also Jewish food; this is a book about Jewish food that’s also Black food because it’s a book about Black people who are Jewish and Jewish people who are Black.”

That’s an intimidating task, and not just because many people refuse to acknowledge the possibility that someone can be fully Black and Jewish, as Twitty recounts in the book. Twitty’s pitch for the book encompasses an astounding variety of experiences: centuries-old Black Jewish lineages in Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean, South America, and Europe; historic Black Jewish communities in Harlem, Chicago, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and across the U.S.; Black people descended from white Jews; historical accounts of Black slaves who cooked for Jewish masters; modern Black people who have become Jews by choice; not to mention white Southern Jews, the Nation of Islam, and a litany of other overlapping culinary traditions and influences.

Through a series of interviews and stories, Twitty maps this constellation, all while reflecting on his personal and professional experiences with food and Jewish education. He asks people about their Shabbat dinners, spice cabinets, and creative kosher substitutions. He spends pages discussing the civil rights movement, Driving Miss Daisy, agricultural calendars, and Lenny Bruce — all points in a larger conversation about what it means to cook food that’s Black and Jewish.

“The bigger blessing isn’t so much in our encounter with the past,” Twitty writes, “but the fact that as we pass these smells and flavors and tastes and textures on, we pass the conversation on. It did not begin with us, and it will not end with us.”

Eater joined that conversation with Twitty. Our exchange covered, among other things, the impossibility of linear narratives, civilized dinner-table talk in the Donald Trump era, and the small moments that make American history.

Eater: There are recipes in this book, yet you say this is not a cookbook but an “eclectic recipe file of diverse and complex peoplehood.” What’s the difference and why is this the right form for this project?

Michael Twitty: We have enough cookbooks. What we don’t have is writing that shows the interplay between foods in people’s lives and especially the lives of people of color. Black lives don’t just matter when they’re on asphalt or during a tragedy. They matter when they’re vibrant and lived and joyful.

Koshersoul is a braid of food memoir, culinary history, recipes, my personal vulnerabilities, confessions, and conversations with people. The book is based around having conversations at the kitchen table, breaking things down in a way that we can have nicer, more efficient conversations. Not kumbaya, but more civilized.

Conversation also defines the book’s methodology. As opposed to The Cooking Gene, which was rooted in historical analysis, Koshersoul is based on contemporary conversations with people about their lived experiences of race, religion, and culture. Were you more comfortable working in one time period or another?

I love digging stuff up in the past a lot more. These days in particular you can always get it wrong. People don’t like you. I call it the hamster wheel: Someone says, “This isn’t who we are,” and someone else pipes up, “No, this is who we’ve always been!” So what’s the answer? Thank you for telling me the muck and the mire. Do you have a way to get us out of it? Those kinds of land mines are scary.

But also I could have confessed a million more grievances and a lot more blessings, and I chose not to. A lot of shit can happen in 20 years [of working in a field of study]. You meet a lot of great people. I plucked a few things, as opposed to kvetching the entire time. That’s hard because we are a kvetching culture. I’m using my “we” broadly. We’re also a blues-telling culture. That’s an easy hole to fall down in.

You have to keep it about the food. You have to use the food as a vehicle. That’s what I tried to do. The past is easy — well, the past isn’t easy. In The Cooking Gene I was looking at weather patterns, climate changes, geological events that happened millions of years before I was a thought. This is different. This is the unpredictable, the chaotic, the contemporary.

There’s a quote in your book from one interviewee: “I joke that making koshersoul food and shoving it in someone’s mouth shuts them up before they say something stupid, but it also gives them a taste of who and why I am and why the parts of me and we fit together.” That speaks to the way food is a vehicle, as you were just saying. But you also write, “‘Food brings people together’ is a tired-ass cliché, and it doesn’t begin to hint at the hard work it takes to have conversations about how food can take us on emotional and intellectual journeys in the efforts of self-understanding, healing intergroup conflict, or informing us about the ways our paths necessarily intersect or diverge.” So how far can food really take us?

Food only takes us so far. It doesn’t do all the work. [Former Trump advisor and speechwriter] Stephen Miller still feels comfortable sitting down to eat Mexican food. That means food has not done the work at all. When the Klan in North Carolina goes to a Black restaurant to get a catering order, the food has not done the work. It’s talking about the meaning behind the food and the recipes that give it context and texture. The food is like any other thing. Does putting on the costume of an American subculture make you any more likely to vote a certain way? Not really. Does it make you any more empathetic? Not really.

Together with your interviewees, you wrestle with a lot of big unanswerable questions. At one point you note, “To read or study any rabbinic literature is to note that the emphasis is on the questions asked, not the answers given.” What’s the goal of an unanswerable question and does it have a place in our modern dialogue?

To [make people] see the world differently but also pursue different work. “Here’s a recipe, cook it” is not enough. “Have a conversation with your neighbor who you don’t understand” is not enough. It’s a lot of things you have to work at to put it together.

It was hard to write this book because of the last administration’s impact on American culture. It made it patently painful to exist. A lot of people were telling me they were so broken they couldn’t go to shul [because of] the attitudes of [Trump supporters]. I would get messages all the time on Twitter telling me I wasn’t speaking enough about this or doing enough about that. When you hear “What good are you?” many times, it’s not cool. I was recently hit with a pretty nasty tweet that said I should be canceled because I wasn’t part of any Jewish community. At least one guy told me to go back to Israel (that was funny), called me a degenerate, and said something negative about being of African descent. I never heard things like that before. People were too embarrassed to say such things out loud. This era has given me my first death threats. I mean, really? Thank you for thinking of me.

Some of that visibility comes from The Cooking Gene, which won two James Beard Awards and got a lot of praise. Do you find that status or the reception of your first book influenced how you wrote Koshersoul?

Hmm, no. Not at all.

You had your plan and you stuck to it?

Yeah. I have my own particular way of looking at these things. I want a little culinary history. I want to interview people and hear their voices. And I want to put myself down on paper for standing for [certain things]. Creating these little grab bags of info that show you different versions and colors and lenses on a story is what I do.

When you’re writing the stories and histories of people that are marginalized and exiled and outliers, it’s hard to write a linear narrative. It’s not an A, B, C. What people struggle with (and why, I don’t know) is that everybody has these missing spots in their timeline — personal, national, familial. Those missing spots are where we put all our myth and meaning, which tie everything together. I struggle with that, wondering why I’m not writing a linear narrative that’s straightforward. It’s because that shit doesn’t exist. That’s the part they don’t want to tell you. Especially if you’ve been broken by burned books, destroyed lineages, exiles, and slave ships, it really messes up your game. I just threw off the chains and said I wouldn’t let people burden me with their nonsense. Let them try to do this.

Any culture contains multitudes. Why is it particularly difficult to gather stories at the intersection of Black and Jewish identities?

It’s baked into the cake. Especially when you talk about Jews of African descent, it’s a lot of mosaic history. There are all these tiles that are visible. You can probably guess what they add up to, but you can’t definitely say that’s what it was. That’s why I didn’t try to write a definitive history of African Jews in the New World or from Africa to America. There are little bits and pieces, but we don’t really know how they all add up. Do you want to be valued because you have a yichus, a lineage? Or do you want to be valued because of the sum total of your merits and what you’re doing now? It came to the latter.

I can tell you from the work of lots of other scholars that there were Black Jews in Amsterdam, in Italy, in other places. It’s not a total wash. There’s the Black woman in the corner in one of the pictures in the Sarajevo Haggadah. There are plenty of other Jewish texts, especially from Renaissance Italy, where you see Black people in the margins or in the paintings. Friends ask if I’ve read about enslaved Africans who tried to help out hidden Jews during the Inquisition, the synagogue in Suriname that was run by the enslaved, the words that trickled down from Aramaic and Hebrew into Maroon languages, or the villages in West Africa where people were reading the Torah when the slave trade came. I’m like, this is all wonderful, but I don’t have a way of writing that up in such a way that’s unassailable. So I didn’t try. All that stuff is out there, but that’s not what makes us important, authentic, or meaningful.

When people are looking for that narrative, what are they looking for? Evidence they should respect. I know how this game works. If you don’t give them evidence they should respect, they say it’s not really that important. It is important because guess what: The two original sins of the West are anti-Semitism and anti-Blackness. They’re born at different times but they converge at the same time, 1492. That’s when the West decides there is an “us” and there is a “them.” And it’s not just Christian and non-Christian. It’s in the blood, the bone, the facial structure. And that’s what we call race.

How did you approach your interviews? What were the key details you knew you wanted to include?

The big problem was that COVID happened, so I just let people talk. I’d heard the stories of [radio host] Marc Steiner and knew I had to get them down for this book. His story about integrating a Boy Scout troop is how America was born. It wasn’t born just in marches and protests. It was born when two little boys [Edwin Johnson, who is Black, and Steiner, who is white] on a Boy Scouts trip exchanged their dinner [hot dogs for lamb chops]. That’s how it happened. We shouldn’t teach history that only valorizes big moments and big people. It’s little events that change the tide. I heard about how Steiner’s mother integrated Paul’s Restaurant, a Jewish restaurant in Baltimore, just by having [Johnson] there. To me those things get lost so easily. That’s why it was so important to get people’s real lived experience on paper.

“Koshersoul” isn’t hyphenated or a portmanteau, but an amalgamated word that represents what you’re talking about — but also obviously cannot. Why did you choose it for the title?

Koshersoul to me is about a lot of cousins with the same family but different stories. I was definitely against a [statement like] “This, I believe, is koshersoul.” We done lived through the preppy handbook, the hipster dictionary, and the grunge dictionary, which was completely made up by a secretary. I didn’t want to be that guy that said, “I’m the expert on koshersoul” and then two minutes later we stop talking about it because I made it up.

I wanted to talk about a whole confluence of ideas. It’s not just Black folks. I made a point of including white [Jewish] Southerners, whose Southern culture is steeped in intersectionality and that African heritage. The white Southerners I spoke to all happily acknowledged — which is not that common — that without Black people, without Africa, there is no South as we know it. Without Indigenous people there is no South as we know it. Southern isn’t just what British and Scots-Irish people came up with. A lot of the food they talk about is the same damn food that my Black informants talk about, even the ones who are Muslim. There’s a whole other ring of intersectionality and connection that’s koshersoul.

It goes across these different boundaries. That’s the whole point. This division that we perceive, that’s both real and imagined, doesn’t penetrate everything. There’s definitely a Venn diagram here that we live in, whether we like it or not.