Michael Twitty is a renowned culinary historian and educator. He researches, reconstructs, and preserves cooking practices and food traditions, intertwining his explorations with the study of cultural history and genealogy. In his first book, the James Beard Award – winning The Cooking Gene, he explored his own ancestry through a combination of genealogical research and historically-informed cooking. All of Twitty’s work — his excavations, his writings, and his teachings — are grounded in his experiences as a Black, gay, Jewish person who loves food and believes in its power.
In the early stages of writing Koshersoul, his newest book about African Jewish cooking and identity, Twitty was told he was not writing about Black food, but about Jewish food. “No,” he responded. “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.” And with this forceful assertion — one that we learn Twitty has been made to repeat again and again—Koshersoul begins.
Twitty’s book is a record of lives lived and meals cooked. Through a combination of interviews, oral histories, personal anecdotes, recipes, history, and advice, he details the ways that Black and Jewish food traditions perceived to be disparate have overlapped, influenced, and mirrored one another throughout history. He writes of how diasporic living, migration, oppression, marginalization, and movement shapes food.
As Twitty makes clear, labeling anything as Black or Jewish is not so straightforward. While personally specific, these labels are capacious and contain vast histories. Such nuance poses a problem of sorts for Twitty, who states that while he set out to “open up an entire world of Black Jews mixing up foods from both worlds,” he did not quite find the recognition and affirmation from others that he’d been looking for.
Throughout the book, Twitty transcribes interviews with other thinkers, Jewish, Black, and/or queer, who are also thinking through identity and food. Lists of ingredients and dishes sit alongside stories of aggressions both micro and macro, as well as accounts of moments when Twitty felt seen as a Black Jew. He gives historical context for various dishes, explains the racism, privilege, and oppression that live in the histories of what we eat, and in one compelling chapter traces the migration of Western Sephardic Jews, outlining the cultural expansion that occurred as a result of the influence of West and Central African and Afro-Caribbean culinary traditions. The book ends with recipes and meal suggestions, mouthwatering collages of different folks’ perfect Shabbat dinners, and guidance for how to shape one’s own culturally informed food practices.
It’s a lot to fit into one text, and on top of the breadth of subject matter, there is nothing pat, easy, or straightforward about the connections being drawn. Twitty doesn’t pretend otherwise; but without a narrative arc, and with many chapters presented in different formats, the book can be hard to hold onto. Nonetheless, it is a heartfelt documentation and celebration of the lives of a people diverse but still mishpocheh. Still kin. Still family.
Koshersoul is Twitty’s joy- and pain-filled assertion that he and the many others living and cooking at the complicated, vibrant intersection of Black and Jewish are here and always have been. “Hineni,” he writes. “I am here.”
Russell Janzen is a New York-based writer and a dancer with the New York City Ballet.