When food writer and historian Michael Twitty traveled to Caesarea National Park in Israel several years ago, he was struck by the broken mosaic among the rubble on a dining room floor.
There were thousands of “pixels” of stones shaped like lobster, crab, oyster, meat bones and vegetables — a veritable nonkosher Roman feast shown all in fragments to the contemporary onlooker.
To Twitty, the author of James Beard Award-winning book “The Cooking Gene” and “Rice,” the mosaic was emblematic of this work that blended his research in African and African American foodways and cooking in the American South, as well as his African American, Jewish, gay and southern identities: fragmented and incomplete histories that when combined, are greater than the sum of their parts.
Twitty shared his research and Jewish and African American food traditions with a virtual audience on Dec. 16 as part of the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History’s Jewish food series. The program was in partnership with Philadelphia-based Jews of color advocacy organization Jews in ALL Hues.
“A lot of our history, a lot of our culture, a lot of our food is bricolage,” Twitty said. “It’s little bits and pieces that we have, and everybody has the responsibility of putting it together for themselves.”
Twitty’s journey to putting those pieces together began when he was a child, cooking in his family kitchen since he was in the single digits, supervised by his grandmother.
“I quickly moved from crayons and coloring books to shredding greens, washing rice,” Twitty said.
His love of cooking, paired with his study of anthropology and African-American studies at Howard University, precipitated his 2010 food blog Afroculinaria, where he was able to document his research on various foodways.
Twitty’s scholarship has seen him synthesize his research and lived experience as a Black Jew into ever-evolving ideas about what it means for marginalized and oppressed peoples to survive and flourish.
African American and Jewish people share a diasporic link, he said.
“People get it when you say that there was a civilization we as Jews created that was portable … What happens when you don’t have the holy city, Yerushalayim, and the Bais Hamikdash [Temple of Jerusalem]? The base of all these things — you carry it here and here,” Twitty said, pointing to his head and his heart.
The notion of carrying a culture and sense of home internally is shared by the African diaspora, Twitty argued. Preservation of ancestry and culture takes place when one partakes in a variety of practices.
“You march, you dance, you cook, you preach, you sing, you write, you create and you reinterpret the reinterpreted,” he said.
Internally, diasporic peoples also carry the memories of ancestors, which is combative against “historic and cultural amnesia.”
“Someone told me recently that the most radical thing they think we can have these days is a long memory,” said event moderator Daniel Samuels, WNMAJH public programs manager.
Twitty agreed and wove these abstract ideas about intergenerational memory and diaspora with stories of his family.
He challenged preconceived notions about Ashkenazi food being bland and heavy: “It’s the food of the people; you’re talking about people who were necessarily inventive, frugal, creative. The food had color.”
He dismissed the reductive history that soul food was a cuisine developed by Black enslaved people using food scraps from white slave owners: “You’re denying the resistance of enslaved people, you’re denying agency, ownership, the fact that they actually curated the passing down of culture from Africa to America,” Twitty said.
But just like in documenting the past, Twitty is far from eager to understand his research as definitive or comprehensive. His work is as ever-changing as the identities he holds and the person he is becoming.
“We don’t have to have all the answers; some of the answers reveal themselves; the conversation is sometimes the answer,” Twitty said. “We as the Jewish people — our identity is complex for a reason because it’s not supposed to be easy. We are supposed to be a God-wrestling people.”
Twitty was hosted by WNMAJH in partnership with Jews in ALL Hues as part of the museum’s mission to create “educational programs and experiences that preserve, explore and celebrate the history of Jews in the United States,” Samuels said.
For Jews in ALL Hues founder and Executive Director Jared Jackson, acknowledgment of Twitty’s work from other institutions is a step toward expanding the roles that Jews of color sometimes fall into when in predominantly white spaces.
“It’s often the case where there are Jews of color who are presenting, and all we talk about is racism or all we’re called upon to talk about is racism,” Jackson said. “It’s really good to see that … we’re getting into more celebratory spaces.”
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