Michael Twitty, the African American Jewish writer and culinary historian, known for writing an open letter to Paula Deen for not recognizing the role of African and African American food culture in the creation of Southern food, is bringing his eye-opening rhetoric to Los Angeles. And he’s just in time for Passover.
In the form of a lecture and culinary demo at the Skirball Cultural Center on April 13, Twitty will discuss his experience of being both African American and Jewish, as well as explore Passover through the lens of food. He will be exploring the connection between the African American and Jewish diasporas’ cultural connection to food, and Twitty is poised to give his audience a new way to think about the centuries-old religious holiday.
What can people expect from your talk at the Skirball?
It’s going to be a Passover talk. I do have a complex black and Jewish identity but I really want people to look at this talk as a different way of looking at Passover. It’s also going to focus on the Passover menu and the different ways of executing that menu and eating. I want people to have the opportunity to see Passover from a different Jewish lens and understand that not all Jews are this color, that color, this way or that way. For them to see that we are a rich and complex people who define ourselves as one family. And that should give us pause to reflect on the last time we treated someone as anything but family.
You talk a lot about the parallels of the Jewish and African diasporas and the influence on both cultures’ food and the experience of food. In what ways do you see these two experiences as uniquely similar?
They’re both oppressed cultures — where the luxury of terroir isn’t a reality. You know, you just don’t have it [terroir] because you’re in exile and you’re oppressed and you’re suppressed as you’re forcibly made to migrate in search of a peace of mind. It’s also simply survival — through the mental fortitude of humor, the mental fortitude of memory and the mental fortitude of resistance. There are other similar, old-food traditions, but none that really go into the dialectic of humor and resistance and memory and pain, as well as black and Jewish diasporic food cultures. Not many people have that, where that’s what they need their food to do and to be for them.
You use the term “terroir” a lot when speaking of these diasporic food cultures, in particular you often say that terroir is “in their genes” in these cases.
In this case it’s not so much the land you’re stepping on but what’s in your blood. It’s what’s in your blood and your memory. It’s what’s in your heritage and your family history — especially when you come from a people who were denied land, given land, taken it back, you know this constant sort of push and pull of having just a little bit of power and then none at all.
In the time of my great-great or great-great-great-grandparents, your sense of food and how it relates to nature had to be portable, it traveled with you, and you had to renegotiate with the natural world. You were forced to get your ingredients from maybe a 30-mile radius from where you lived. And you couldn’t really do much more with your culinary traditions than what was allotted to you. So that’s what terroir in your blood means to me.
How do you see the preservation of African and Jewish traditional food cultures taking form in 2017?
It’s always changing. It’s a little bit of living out these cultural experiences and a little bit of creating something new. I think what’s important is to not ask of these traditions or to force the new. The new will come on its own. Tradition will inevitably lend itself toward improvising something that suits the generation in front of us. You’re seeing that both in the world of Jewish food and in the world of African American food and African diaspora food. It’s definitely an urge toward taking tradition, remixing it and using it as inspiration for forward movement as well as forward culinary movement.
What does a Michael Twitty Passover look like?
This year I’m going to be with Tori Avey in L.A. but normally I do it on the eighth night, and that’s because in the diaspora it may or may not count. I call my cooking Afro-ashke-phardi to be kind of tongue-in-cheek, and I like a mash-up of all these different parts. Also, that way I can have someone who is Ashkenazi eat kitniyot because Passover is technically over. I take blander Ashkenazi foods and jazz them up with African and Sephardic ingredients and spices or take African foods and soften them into plain-Jane Ashkenazi foods or Sephardic foods. I’m constantly trying to remake dishes and flavors and trying unusual things out: a lot of lemon, ginger, mint, rosewater, rhubarb, juniper berries.
You’ve said before that you wouldn’t call how these cuisines hold on to part of their history but also push forward and blend with others, fusion. And that fusion is the wrong way to look at it. What would you call it?
Mixed marriage [laughs]. It’s culinary intermarriage. It’s a dialogue, really. The way these African American, African diasporic, and Jewish food cultures interact with others. It’s a different kind of conversation. There are two or three or more food cultures slamming into each other. There’s no such thing as Afro-Antarctic ice cream but that might be what I’d call a fusion. People are going to merge when they’re born and they have access to other communities apart from themselves, but I don’t think that would mean a real fusion food.
We’re a diverse culture of people in Los Angeles. That’s been especially true in the last decade or so as younger chefs have brought their unique food cultures into the mainstream — from Filipino food to modern Mexican. Do you see similar movements with African American and African diasporic food cultures in America?
There’s been a new thrust toward that, with my work at least. I’m hoping and waiting as the growing West African restaurant prevalence starts to affect and inform the way African Americans eat. To get more African Americans in line with West African and Afro-Caribbean food traditions that could be healthier or alternatives to the usual overdosing of celebration foods. That’s what people mean by “soul food.” When they say “that bad, heavy soul food” they’re talking specifically of just one variety of African American cuisine. But we should be talking about the whole picture.
Is there a moment in your research or experience of writing your forthcoming book, “The Cooking Gene,” that particularly sticks with you?
I was in Birmingham. Ala., and I met two sisters who had survived the Holocaust who had come to Alabama to build new lives, marry, have families. And these two sisters were admiring my hamantaschen that I make from teacake dough, which is an old Southern cookie. And they explained to me that they had spent these years of their lives fighting segregation when it wasn’t a very popular thing to be doing. They had been spat on; head pinned, assaulted, trying to fight segregation. And these women said, “We’re so glad that we did that so that you can get to come home to Alabama.” And these two women had lost all of their immediate family in the Holocaust. But the most important thing to them was that I got to come home to Alabama, the place of my grandparents. And I totally got it.
You famously called out Paula Deen for not acknowledging the fundamental role of African American and African food traditions in the creation of what we call Southern food. How do you feel calling her and chefs such as Sean Brock out has changed the overall conversation of Southern food?
Every time we get really, really embarrassed about race, then all of a sudden an advance will happen. Are certain white chefs willing to see certain territory and make space at the table? That’s the real question. You know? And until we really change the narrative, the old narrative, and cement change, it will all be for none.