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Michael W. Twitty: Joy And Trauma In The Kitchen

The award-winning author and chef is working to embrace multiple overlapping identities through food.

Zagat Stories makes coverage of Black subjects a priority year round, along with people and subjects underrepresented in media generally. In recognition of Black History Month 2021, all Zagat Stories in February will focus exclusively on interviews with Black chefs, restaurateurs, bartenders, brewers, bakers, and others in and around hospitality.

Michael W. Twitty is a chef, author, and culinary and food historian whose work examines his own history and roots in the African-American, Jewish, and gay communities. His first book, The Cooking Gene, won a James Beard Award among other accolades. He’s now at work on his next book, Kosher Soul.

We have just barely survived the Trump era. I don’t want to call it a victory until it is an actual victory. It will be a victory when we don’t have elected officials re-enacting and canceling Reconstruction.

Misogyny, homophobia, racism, and xenophobia exist and are rampant. It’s rampant hate for the people who make up the majority of this country, the working core—and all these things need to change. Open, outlandish racism was already forced to change.

I am working on a book, Kosher Soul, that I’m hoping will help heal some of the horrifying things that have come in the shadow of the Trump era. The book is about my identity as an African American, Jewish, and queer person. All of those three peopledoms have very similar elements, including a bit of shame and regret.

Intersectionality and multiculturalism have been made into dirty words by a right wing that is only perpetuating white supremacy. My goal is to write about these things through food. Some people get derailed because they only want recipes—they want to be denuded of politics, even though we know food is politics. Food is the root of politics. Historically, there is no way of getting around that because bureaucracy and rulers have staked their power through getting people fed. Food sits at the intersection of economics, public satisfaction, personal satisfaction, religion, spirituality, and culture. All those things impact us whether we know it or not. There are so many layers to why we eat what we eat, how we eat it, and who we eat it with, and those are wedded to our human experience and history.

I could write a cutesy book about Black Jewish food and make it very kitschy because that is how a lot of people read African-American Jewish life, unfortunately. They talk about Black people who are Jewish as if they are something bizarre. But at a time when there are deep divides, a proper conversation is critical. I want to talk about it through food because food can also break down those layers of history and identity. If you listen to a people’s food culture and really try to understand who they are and where they come from, then you can get to all of that. But, as we know, it’s easier for people to talk about Italy, France, England, or some other place with more exactness, discipline, and rigor than it is to talk about people of color. I don’t want the trivial. I want you to understand us so that you don’t spew the bullshit again.

I am the first person to defend our indigenous and aborigional cultures and the cultures of the developing world, but I think that people who have not seen the rest of the world don’t understand that colonialism has denuded that world of its respect for queer people. It’s read as “they don’t like gays.” No, they have been taught not to like LGBTQ people because they never even had those labels in those cultures.

Being Jewish is a peoplehood before it is a religion. Don’t hit me with all this prophecy nonsense. I am Jewish, I am a human being, my family is made of people who joined it through birth, conversion, it doesn’t matter. So when you go into the kitchen, it’s how trauma manifests itself. As a Jewish person, the food is a deliberate expression of joy. The traditional African-American food and the diets of all the people who were enslaved in the Americans weren’t about white people throwing anything at them. It was ingenuity, ownership, and us teaching others how to cook in the African way.

Michael W. Twitty researching culinary history for ‘The Cooking Gene.’ Photo: Johnathan M. Lewis.

When we walk into our kitchens, there is a competition between joy and trauma and just trying to be a good host. But there is all that other stuff, too—the kitsch, the gaudiness, the appreciation for really fine, wonderful things. Performative Blackness is a real thing, especially in the age of social media. It fascinates me what people choose or don’t choose to show in their restaurants, kitchens, and homes to represent their Blackness. The performance has a little ring to it as being fake, but it’s not fake, it’s just that I want to demonstrate the fact that I, too, am ethnic. I’m not just a color. I am a people.

I think that one of the most painful parts about the pandemic is that it has revealed a lot of issues and inequalities that people have swept under the rug. I think that has really been exacerbated by Trumpism because the idea is to never see the bad and only see the parts you won. To nullify and shut down the things that we don’t like. That has had a deep effect on everything, from health to food, restaurants—you name it.

We have an entire group of people going back to their ancestral roots to survive in an economic health crisis that, I hate to say it, but we’re pretty used to. That is something that is directly related to our past. We’re not just used to it, but know how to deal with it because we’ve been telling these stories to ourselves and our kids to remind them that our ancestors did not fail. You’re told as an American Black that if you just stop complaining, you will be okay. If you stop telling those stories, you will be okay. But those stories are how we know how to survive. The bank won’t give me the money for that loan to have a brick and mortar? I’m cool—my friends and I can cook from somebody’s kitchen and serve outside a window.

I think that we should look forward to things changing, like how we defined restaurants and how we define food service. I think the situation may open up opportunities for chefs whose lives and careers have been impacted by systemic racist practices in terms of loaning of money, in terms of who gets profiled and talked about.

Let’s face it—Black and Brown people have been affected by these things in ways unimaginable compared to the rest of the population. At the same time, COVID has opened up opportunities for folks to think outside of the box—and we’re really good at that. That’s what we, as survivors, do. We think outside the box. Non-minorities always had the control panel and denied other people access to it, therefore they could only think inside these boxes that perpetuate a sort of capitalism that we sit down to consume and can’t understand, even though it’s killing us.

The Obama years inspired a certain amount of creativity, and there was a renaissance of the arts. I’m including culinary arts in that because Obama appreciated a good meal. Then you had this monstrosity coming in saying he doesn’t like anything different. His idea of respect for Latinos is eating a taco salad. He obviously does not appreciate the fact that north Africa and southwest Asia are responsible for thousands of years of culinary excellence. I despair at the fact people think that cuisine can boil down to a few bullet points, when we know that Mexican food is not tacos. It is a 10,000-year-old cuisine.

I think the Trump era has forced a certain type of activism, awareness, and energy—not always positive—in the food world. All the women and men who are representing their communities are saying, “We are not bad people, let me feed you and show you that not only are we not bad, but we are part of the American dream.”

The government and the current administration has to invest in our industry. They have no problem investing in war, in violence, and in perpetuating a military-industrial complex. The bottom line is that restaurants should have been paid to cease, not forced out because of the pain of this pandemic. Bars and restaurants are critical not just because they feed us but because they employ so many people. The economic chain is long, and it’s deep, and people need to understand that, if one part of the chain goes, the rest goes down with it. And if it all goes down, then we are screwed. They should have made sure that any sort of easement or protection for restaurateurs and their staff was made on every single level—state, local, and federal. It should have never gotten to the point where we are at. It is devastating.

To move forward, we have to respect this industry and the fact that people need to gather. So we are at a point where we have to make decisions about what our priorities are moving forward. I think it is critical that we understand that what needs to happen and should have happened and will happen is not going to happen from the above down, but from the ground up.

If you want to support people who are making and cooking food, you really have to hone in on your hometown heroes. Know what they are doing and be there for them. It’s important to put money, time, and donations behind it. We have to become more self-reliant. There is a limit to what the powers can do, and a limit to what they are willing to do. The minute you understand what they are not willing to do is the minute you understand where your advocacy needs to grow.

The antagonism against practicing things for the societal good in the United States is stunning. I see people on TV and entertainment and social media brag about the fact that they are not like the rest of the people of the world. There’s nothing to brag about. There are certain really beautiful and important things about American food culture, but when you kill off family farms, restrict access to open land where people would forage and get food and fish and hunt, when you love corporations so much that you are willing to completely deny and destroy the mom-and-pop places, the local cottage industry, and local food making—then you have a problem.

I wrote a story for Juneteenth that came out in Bon Appetit during last year’s mess. People thought the magazine had sort of cobbled together a pacifier Juneteenth article, when it actually made history in Black involvement—a Black photographer, a Black writer, Black chefs, and a Black food stylist. People didn’t understand that this article was commissioned and put together at least a year in advance. You are not doing anything supportive by getting in my face, except proving that you don’t know how this industry works. You want to burn down the institution? What are you going to do once it is burned down? Why haven’t you been supporting our own institutions? Our own magazines? Why haven’t you been making our own media and periodicals and publications about food journalism? Why do you always want to go to these other folks? For them to provide a mirror to your own validity? I do believe in holding publications accountable, but we, as the marginalized, have to remember that we have to create our own media, and our priorities have to shift to make sure that our people make it in print.

One of the most important things is that we really need younger people of color to be in positions where we’re testing food, doing regular food writing, and learning the intricacies of every part of this industry. And it has to be a diversified portfolio. All the articles that have been done about the food culture are kind of a creepy exotification of what people perceive to be ghetto culture.

The future of the food industry holds a lot of promise for people who are willing to do things that no one has done before. Does it mean people are actually cooking their food with chefs in places with masks on? Are we going to borrow methods from other places like Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where you go to the fish market, point at the fish, and have someone take it to the restaurant and cook it directly?

There are so many possibilities and things to learn. America needs to be part of the world again and learn as much as possible, while also engaging with immigrant Americans, who are very different in terms of food knowledge. Right now, immigrant Americans are looked at as cheap labor. But they have all this knowledge from around the planet, and we don’t take advantage of it in terms of learning about food. It’s all about finding those spaces and intersections in community that we have forgotten exist, because we have been under this call for the past few years trying to deny progress.