Passover is a Jewish holiday celebrating a journey of emancipation, symbolized by food on the Seder plate. That’s fertile ground for a culinary historian who also happens to teach Judaic Studies. Talking with writer, historian, and chef Michael W. Twitty is to pivot around several simultaneous conversations: Judaism, blackness, history, activism. Twitty susses these things out on his food blog, Afroculinaria. The site is dedicated to preserving and reconstructing the diaspora cooking traditions of the antebellum South, and looks into identity matters of being both black and Jewish (or what he calls “Kosher/Soul”). Twitty, who is based in Washington DC, made a name for himself with an impassioned open letter to Paula Deen, and spoke at the prestigious Mad Symposium about his culinary-genealogical project known as the Southern Discomfort Tour. Pesach, the Hebrew word for Passover, translates as “mouth speak.” We thought it was the perfect moment to ask Twitty to mouth-speak his own thoughts on his favorite holiday, and what he plans to cook for Passover this year.
CHOW: What are your views on Passover as symbolic ground for both Jewish and diaspora traditions?
Michael W. Twitty: Passover to me is informed by the Seder ritual, but it’s more than just that. It’s a Jewish holiday par excellence because every day should be a day where we remember the drive towards freedom. It’s something we should strive to preserve and protect. The month of April marks Passover, and it is the same month that the Civil War ended in 1865. During this time my great-great-grandfather and his brother were at the courthouse the day we signed the terms of surrender with Grant. They had been enslaved Africans at a tobacco plantation in Virginia. And on this day, their former slaveholder comes up to them and says, “You’re free.” I like to think of them as the first black people to realize that the nightmare was over. As a result, I really feel this sense of cyclical, constant meaning that never dies.
So in other words, Passover has a larger narrative.
Yes. The whole idea of the Exodus has been so important to American identity and reality. That’s what drove the Puritans and the Great Awakening, recalling the Exodus. It was the crux of the Afro-Christian tradition. It wasn’t so much the story of Jesus. It was more the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt. That’s why those songs and spirituals were developed during slavery. It was practical. It sounded like a plan. What’s cool to me is that most Americans can tell you what goes on a Thanksgiving table: turkey, pumpkin pie, potatoes, gravy. That’s a ritual meal in so many ways. Pesach, more than any other holiday, brings out the culinary DNA in each family. That’s why for me it’s important to use it as a time to fuse these two diasporas and traditions together to make a meal of the story I want to tell.
On your blog, you talk about issues of consumption and cultural ownership in terms of Southern cuisine. It also seems as though a similar model can be applied to Jewish cooking. It’s difficult to pin down a definition, and yet many people, myself included, take a narrow view of deli food and Ashkenazi (i.e., Central and Eastern European) tradition. What is Jewish cooking exactly?
It’s ironic that people assume that Jewish food is the food of the group that actually was the minority up until 1492. In terms of global Jewish populations, the Ashkenazi was by far the smallest, and not especially the most significant until the fall of the Jewish communities in Spain and Portugal. People assume that the Ashkenazi way of doing food is the crux of what Jewish food means. The reality is that Jewish food is a text, and there’s different types of text. Oral and written, of course. And then you have the text of the land of Israel. Then comes the diaspora itself. In other words, it’s your personal identity with the text, the idea of Israel, and where we live.
There are very few actual Jewish foods. A lot of it is meaning, what meaning you put onto things. Judaism is not just religion but a culture based on a search for meaning. It’s not the ingredients, the cooking methods, or even the techniques. It’s how you dig into this larger universe of Jewish meaning.
Diversity also applies to Seders. What are the main differences you see in Ashkenazi and Sephardic (i.e., Spanish and Portuguese Jews, plus their descendents in North Africa and elsewhere) cooking?
In Ashkenazi households, you have the egg, the brisket or chicken, the gefilte and horseradish, and the flourless desserts at the end. In the Sephardic tradition, one of the big differences is that lamb is always going to make an appearance, one way or another, in the form of meatballs or roasted lamb. Next, the charoset is very different. In Ashkenazi tradition you have apples, nuts, spices, fruit, and wine. It’s very Roman. The counterpart Babylonian version uses dates with romaine lettuce. The Moroccans turn this stuff into balls, and wrap it in lettuce. The Iraqis make almost like a jam or spread. One big difference between the two traditions is the role of rice. In the old days, if you were Ashkenazi, rice was a luxury. But sometimes the sacks used to carry rice would also be the same ones used to carry the God-forbidden wheat grains. And if these grains become cooked, they become leavened. So the Ashkenazi rabbis banned rice and corn. In the Sephardic world, without corn and rice you’d be dead. They are the staples to the diet. So rice was not banned, and neither were legumes.
What Seder meal will you be making this year, and what types of adaptations will you draw out?
This year I’m cooking a Seder at a friend’s house, and because they’re Ashkenazi, I’m unable to break out certain dishes. But I will be making one of my favorite things: matzo-meal fried chicken. I use a brine that’s a salt-and-lemon-juice solution, add red and black pepper, and coat it with matzo meal. I love to make grilled short ribs this time of year. I have what I call Yiddishe Ribbenes. To give it a kick, I use horseradish, onion, garlic, black pepper, mustard. I also make sweet potato kugel that involves Manischewitz wine, golden raisins, and sorghum syrup, so you have the down-home country fusing with the Ashkenazi cooking. I’ll be making an apple-rhubarb charoset, and for maror, collard greens and horseradish.
Pesach is a privilege. It’s a call to family, faith, and freedom. It is an unbroken chain. The Holocaust didn’t break it. The fall of the temple didn’t break it. The Inquisition couldn’t. Not even world wars could shatter it.
Photos courtesy of Michael W. Twitty. Middle photo by Nicole Taylor.