The exhibit “Gut Feelings” at the Zuckerman Museum of Art at Kennesaw State expands the dialogue on food’s connection to history and consumption.
During a panel talk titled “Listen to Your Gut” at the exhibit Wednesday, April 19, culinary historian and kosher soul food chef Michael Twitty discussed food as a cultural narrative. Twitty, who was raised outside Washington D.C., takes inspiration from the black and Jewish diasporas to bring a history lesson to palates around the world.
Twitty examines how cooking preserved African-American culture and how food became an integral part of cultural identity.
“The food should always tell you a story about who you are, just like your image of G-d will tell you who you are,” said Twitty, who conjures his slave ancestors playing the role of cook in historical re-enactments on plantations.
“When you’re in your colonial or 19th century clothing, it freaks you out. You see those pictures of those enslaved people with the caps on with these haunting eyes, and all of sudden you look in the mirror and that’s you,” Twitty said. “As a Jewish person, when I put on the tallit, the kippah and the tefillin, I’m already in the spiritual mindset that what I put on my body reflects what’s in my head, and there’s a connection there. When you put the tallit on, you know rabbis for centuries, from Jesus to Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with MLK, wore that same tallit.”
He recently visited Mississippi for a weeklong re-creation of the antebellum South. He said his presence is important because he offers a different perspective on the African- American experience than expected.
“It’s the same thing when I wear these enslaved people’s clothing; I call it a robe of responsibility. I’m going to cook for the benefit of schoolchildren who don’t get any black history,” Twitty said. “I have to teach our kids about this. I have to let them know their ancestors were not victims, but their ancestors were victorious because we’re here. It means a lot to me. “
Exploring black food ways to understand the cultural narrative is only preparation for the much larger task of translating the journey. “We can’t forget about the fine print,” said Twitty, who has uncovered a brutality in the slave kitchen that led many cooks to commit suicide.
He said slave cooks were forced to wear masks to “not get a taste of humanity,” to cook in sweltering heat and to go without drinking water.
“If an enslaved person was accused of stealing food, talking out of turn or being disrespectful, they put a bit in their mouth or a mask on them or a half-mask,” Twitty said. “So there are images from Brazil, Cuba, the American South, Haiti and Jamaica, and other parts of South America where black women, in particular, and also black men had to wear an iron mask locked on their face until such time as they were considered corrected in behavior, like you do a dog or a horse.”
It’s the ability of enslaved people to overcome the harshest of circumstances that excites Twitty. He begins his work by dissecting dishes to reveal the ingredients the enslaved used not only to survive, but also to influence the world.
“What happened when Africans were brought to the Americas? We transformed the culinary skills, lovemaking, the praying, the religion, the clothing, the music — the whole planet grooves to our soundtrack forever,” he said. “We ended up enslaving the palates of the people who enslaved us.”
Food has maintained culture across continents and generations and gives Twitty power and a boost to his outspoken sense of self.
“To be black, gay and Jewish, you have to have humor to survive. You have to have style. You literally have to prepare to go to your death fabulous, and that’s something,” he said, snapping his fingers. “But the food part is what got me, because my first solid food after mother’s milk and cow’s milk was cornbread and potlicker. We didn’t have Gerber.”
At Passover, Twitty uses a seder plate with different foods to honor the African-American journey from slavery to freedom. He prepares an Ethiopian-inspired brisket and greens to represent the bitter herb.
Cooking in his everyday life also goes beyond the Jewish mainstream.
“My kosher soul food is not the same that Ashkenazi Jews in the South adopted or had made for them at the hands of black women who transformed traditional brisket, kugel, matzah ball soup into matzah ball gumbo, matzah-mill fried chicken, brisket with Coca- Cola, sweet potato kugel and black-eyed peas with kishka,” Twitty said. “There is some of that, but I’m interested in the fact that Jewish people and Africans have had diasporas that have been in the same place and sometimes at the same time, so there is a globalness to it.”
He said it’s natural to represent Senegal, Brazil, the American South, Israel, Poland, Morocco and Persia on one table. “It enables us to tell a global story and a global story of Jews of African descent and Jews of color.”
Enriching the kosher options for Jews of African descent makes an additional part of history accessible and opens eyes in the Jewish Diaspora. He said 60 percent of the people in Israel would be considered people of color here.
“There are Palestinians who look white and Palestinians who look more African than I do. There are Jews who look more African than I do and Jews who look like they’re from the North Pole and then in the middle. I got tired of people encountering me and questioning my identity and my validity,” Twitty said. “So I figured if you sit them down and put food in their mouth, they can’t say something stupid because they’re too busy eating, and while they’re chewing, that’s when you tell them about their business.”
For Twitty, kosher soul food validates the black Jewish existence and is a way for him to say that his people are unique and valid.
“They think we’re a newfangled thing. Before there was a single Muslim, Bilal, who served Prophet Muhammad, before there was a single Christian, before an Ethiopian messenger got baptized on the road back to Jerusalem, we were already here as Jewish people who were black 3,000 years ago,” Twitty said. “A mixed multitude left Egypt, so when people try to make us feel like we’re Sammy Davis Jr.’s cousin, I say, ‘No, no, we’ve always been here.’ ”