Intersectionality through Cuisine: An Evening with Michael Twitty

by
Michael Twitty. Photo Credit: Ryan Smith

The Hyman Forum is filled with the smell of chili powder and cumin. A small group of Goucher students on stage chop lemons and use a food processor to blend and churn ingredients into a delicious, gluten-free, Passover-ready dish: black eyed pea hummus. The audience is relaxed, jovial, and hanging on to every word of food writer and chef Michael Twitty, who sits in the center of the stage. Donned in a teal, Star of David covered African print top, he answers questions and instructs the students as part of a presentation on what he calls “Kosher/Soul.”

“Kosher/Soul” is not solely the title of his forthcoming book, out this December. It is also what Twitty describes on his blog, Afroculinaria, as “melding the histories, tastes, flavors, and Diasporic wisdom of being Black and being Jewish.”

Intersecting identities served as Twitty’s focal point during his talk, since identity, he said, is connected with food. According to Twitty, “[f]ood is a source of power and definition.”   

As a gay Jewish man who is black, Twitty has dealt with his share of identity gatekeepers. During his talk, he described a situation where a publisher would not publish his book The Cooking Gene because they wanted him to highlight his Black identity while downplaying his Jewish identity, saying that this would make him more palatable for a large audience.

“We don’t need gatekeepers to tell us…that we exist. You just need to assert your existence and not let someone else define it,” he said as audience members snapped their fingers in agreement.

Those gatekeepers were in the audience at last year’s James Beard Awards when Twitty won not one, but two awards for his book.

His interest in the power of food began as he began to explore histories, whether they were his own or those of his 7th grade Hebrew school students. Through DNA tests, he was able to reconnect with his African roots, and as a 7th grade Hebrew school teacher, he guided students while they discovered their own roots and family history. According to Twitty, these histories and identities are “express[ed] through how we eat,” and can tell people more about their own histories.

“[Food] is a way to teach people about who we are, where we come from, what we have in common, [and] what we need to resolve,” he explained.  

As Nicole J. Johnson, Assistant Dean of Students for Race, Equity, and Identity, said as she introduced Twitty, being Black and Jewish may seem like “a combination that many folks can’t wrap their heads around.” However, for Twitty, they are directly related, not only because he and many others hold both of those identities, but because of the similar and shared aspects of their histories. He referenced the painting “The King’s Fountain,” which depicts African and Jewish people living side by side in 16th-century Lisbon, interacting with each other daily, and undoubtedly eating each other’s food.

“We’ve been around for a really long time,” he said.

Ironically, the event (which took place on April 17, after being rescheduled from an earlier date in February because of inclement weather) took place days before Passover, Twitty’s favorite holiday. As he named foods that he makes during the holiday, the audience let out a series of “mmm”s. It wasn’t hard to see why; it’s hard to resist treats like matzo dough fried chicken, sweet matzo brei with peaches, and brisket with bell pepper, tomato, ginger, and spices.

With all that talk about food, it only seemed fair that Twitty would let the audience taste one of his favorite recipes: a filling and healthy black eyed pea hummus. The dish, he said, was symbolic; within the Jewish tradition, the black eyed pea symbolizes more good deeds, which will in turn bring more blessings, and in the African-American tradition, it is associated with good luck and change. The dish was also political, he said. On his blog, he says that food is inherently political, as “[i]t is a proving ground for racial reconciliation and healing and dialogue.”

At first, Twitty asked for four volunteers from the audience to help him mix together lemons, various herbs and spices, garlic (his favorite part of the recipe), hot sauce, and two cans of black eyed peas. As time went on, more and more audience members floated on and off the stage, helping slice, mix, and taste the hummus.

And how many Goucher community members does it take to start a food processor? Apparently, quite a few. After several minutes of food processor technical difficulties, Twitty decided to improvise, instructing students to blend ingredients by hand. Luckily, Twitty said the simple recipe was “very forgiving” (a staff member was eventually able to start the food processor; “a Passover miracle,” according to one student on stage).

It was also well worth the wait. Students and staff members passed around samples of the hummus when it was finished. It was slightly chunky and perfectly seasoned, served with carrots and pita chips, and absolutely perfect for any occasion.

“I feel very comfortable here,” Twitty said towards the end of his lecture, and it was obvious throughout. He reciprocated the energy he was getting from the audience, making eye contact with those who were nodding along and speaking directly and excitedly to those who shared his experiences. He connected with everyone in audience, pulling them in with effortless humor, easy vulnerability, and of course, delicious descriptions of his favorite foods.

And if the black eyed pea hummus was any indication, those foods may become others’ favorites, too.

Skyler Aikerson is a Psychology major and Professional Writing minor. She has written for Phluff, and worked as a poetry editor for Horizons, Waubonsee Community College’s literary journal, and as a senior editor for Verge, Goucher College’s journal of undergraduate writing.

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