“In a lot of cultures—Black, Jewish, Latin—for that queer boy in the kitchen, I can only speak for the dudes, that is one of the most safe spaces you can be in. That’s the place where nobody is nasty to you because you didn’t pick up the ball or throw the ball at the right time, it’s that space where that knowing auntie, or mom, or grandma knows who you are and knows that you need love too.” — Michael W. Twitty
On January 19, 2023, culinary historian and James Beard award winning cookbook author, Michael W. Twitty shared nourishing words of love, wisdom, and frailty of the Jewish, Black, and queer experience during the event Nosh at the J with Michael W. Twitty at the Prosserman JCC in Toronto.
Interviewers Rivka Campbell, Rob Shostak, and Ozoz Sokoh’s questions invite Twitty to share his story with honesty, gumption, and humour. The event celebrated D.C.-based Twitty and the publication of Koshersoul. A book that explores African-Jewish cooking and unites the two cultural and religious aspects of Twitty’s world. In their conversation, Twitty unravels the make-up of not only his soul but the soul of society. It is an expansive discussion that we share a small, condensed, slice of. Specifically, three moments Twitty shared with each one of the interviewers. Dig in.
RC: How can our overlapping food histories benefit the new attempt at creating dialogue among Jews of all hues and non-Jewish Black people?
MT: We could talk for hours about that. It’s important because food is a vehicle, it’s not the end. Please don’t ask me about my technique. I put food in a cast iron pot, I stir it, and it’s done. That’s my technique. When I wrote this book and when I wrote The Cooking Gene, one of my good friends, who is an editor, told me, I want you to stop writing like an academic and start writing like we’re having a conversation. I want you to talk to me through the paper. I want you to imagine the people you’re writing to are sitting across the kitchen table with you and you’re just sharing a moment as you cut vegetables, or stir a pot in the kitchen. I want you to have that in your mind. Don’t write a paper, don’t write a dissertation, write a conversation.
We come in all different forms. And our history has led us to different places. I said this years ago, the Jewish community cannot afford an unexamined whiteness. The Jewish community, particularly in North America, Israel, and Europe cannot have an unexamined whiteness, we are a mishpacha. I use the word faith on the cover of Koshersoul because I understand some people can’t think outside that box. But that’s not the most important thing about us. The word family is the most important thing about us. So what we need to do and understand is that we need to welcome each other. We have a lot of work to do. But that work’s not going to be done until we amplify all the voices to be amplified. Let’s have a conversation and know that conversation is not surrender.
RS: Stereotypically, African American and Jewish foodways only scratch at the surface when you think about them. And when I was reading your book, it really got me thinking about if there is queer food.
RS: What can make food queer? At the surface it’s rainbow anything. And you can see it on the cover of your book, there’s a challah that’s braided in a rainbow and that’s the shorthand, and then there’s the pandering that comes from every corporation during Pride. What I think intuitively are queer foods—I feel like Jello is queer.
MT: A vegetarian dinner, wink wink. If you know, you know.
RS: I feel like hamantaschen are queer.
MT: They are! If you know, you know.
RS: Potlucks are very queer.
MT: Potlucks are extremely queer. Hummus is queer as hell.
RS: What are your thoughts on queer foodways and what makes food queer?
MT: The third book I’m doing in this trilogy is actually about queer people in food. We use food to bring people back into the sphere. Because for so many of us, family becomes really weird territory. Some of us are very lucky. My other half is very lucky, he doesn’t realize how cool it is to not have to argue with your parents about who you are, and he has churchgoing parents. For other people, like me, it’s sort of in between. And for other people, it’s just absolutely terrible.
We put our erotic concerns even in our Jewish tradition. Rabbis say it is important to make sure that you eat as much garlic as you can on Shabbat, if you know, you know. And actually they were right. Every culture has foods associated with reproduction, with the delivery of children, with the healing of the mother post-pregnancy; foods that you make because you want to impress someone; foods that are made specifically for a wedding or other occasion; foods that are made to seduce; foods that are made to improve the sexual health of the body. So in a queer sense, in the book, I talk about how I’m quadruple queerness, as a big man, as a Black man, as a gay man, and as a Jewish person. Queer does not just mean sexual queerness, queerness is also one’s exoticness compared to a normative reality. My friend Jamie said something about bringing his Chinese Canadian family’s food to school and people going ew. But now that queerness is abated by the fact that every white person thinks they’re cool by eating certain kinds of Asian food. But when he was growing up that was him being a queer person because his food was not normative. Same thing with Jews and a lot of Jewish behaviour.
Queerness to food is an attitude. It’s what queer chefs have to put up with. The kitchen is a very hyper masculine place. It’s a place where I’ve heard from my lesbian friends, who are in the chef game, that they get a different sort of response when they enter the kitchen. They have to become their most masculine version of themselves. If they present that way, or choose to be that way, then people leave them alone. It’s really a gendered place, the kitchen. It’s also the fact that there have been many gay chefs throughout history. I’m still thinking about and developing this big project, but it hit me like a rock when I reread parts of The Masters and the Slaves by Gilberto Freyre, he was the godfather of Brazilian sociology and anthropology. It’s a book about Brazilian civilization. And he says the most important cook in Brazil is the Black homosexual. He goes on to talk about the best cooks and what they are. And if you know Brazilian African religions like Macumba, Candomblé, Umbanda, they are not shy about the place of Black queer people in the religion. They’re welcome to embody some of the divinities and to embody some of the spiritual realities because there is no gender because they’re spirit, they’re not human. And so those who walk that fine line between those two spaces are more than welcome. That’s why I like the nuance makers because it shows you, like it says in Kohelet, there’s nothing new under the sun. You can’t bury these things. They make it, they survive to our ears and eyes for a reason. We are Ruth and Naomi. We are David and Jonathan. We are the totality of it. God did not make the Adam creature to be alone. And God didn’t make mistakes.
OS: The many things that fascinate me about your work is your culinary interpretation. Where you work to recreate and explore what life was like for enslaved people who cooked and lived, embodying the pain and torture while also sharing knowledge. I’m currently fascinated with museums, and I know they have their problems, but I wonder what an installation of your kosher soul might be. What would it look like, sound like, smell like, taste like? Who would you have curate it?
MT: It’s something I need to think about. I write what I write and I do what I do as a blueprint for other people. Mishpacha means the world to me. I love it the most when I’m sitting with someone who I have nothing in common with and all of a sudden we find out we are, in some way, family. That’s the purpose of being a human being. It’s not being comfortable in your bubble. It’s knowing that anyone could be your family, that you can reach out to someone in your most dire moment and see your own self. We’re not supposed to be looking at each other through windows, we’re supposed to be mirrors to each other. You’re supposed to look at me and see the deepest, most beautiful part of you. And I’m supposed to be able to do the exact same thing. When I was in Sierra Leone, I had the occasion to meet two very strong masquerades. So my mother’s lineage is Mende, which is one of the major ethnic groups in Sierra Leone. And the Mende is a masquerading culture. One is the masquerade for the women, the Sande, and the other one is the leopard mask. Sande made me weep because she is the spirit of all of our mothers. So when the spirit Sande greeted me, it was as if the mothers of Africa were coming back on my child. You’re not motherless, you’re not homeless anymore. When I met the spirit of the leopard, he wears leopard skin all over his body, when he twirls and he stops to bow to you, you have to bow to him. And around his crown are mirrors, so when you look at the embodied presence of the spirit of your ancestors, you have to look in the mirrors and see yourself and know this relationship is reflexive.
All I ask of you is to leave this space and maintain that reflexive relationship with every human being, even the ones that are difficult to love and like. Because that is why we are here, to see the God in each other, to acknowledge B’tzelem Elohim, the image of the embodied God’s spirit, the creator. May he, she, they be blessed forever. Amen.
The event was organized by Marnie Mandel, Cultural Arts Director at Prosserman, in partnership with Jewish&.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Header image design by Orly Zebak.
The event Nosh at the J with Michael W. Twitty at the Prosserman JCC in Toronto. Twitty was interviewed by Rivka Campbell, Rob Shostak, and Ozoz Sokoh.