Culinary scholar Michael W. Twitty’s The Cooking Gene (Amistad, 2017), which won James Beard Awards for writing and for book of the year, traced the origins of Southern food culture through three centuries of his family history. In Koshersoul (Amistad, Aug.), Twitty considers the foodways of the African Atlantic and the global Jewish diaspora. He spoke with PW about research, recipe development, and food as a vehicle to understand the past.

What was the genesis of this book?

When it was due the first time, in 2020, we were in the middle of a serious reckoning about race and violence in this country. It was irresponsible to write something that didn’t address those issues, especially because there are unities and tinderbox moments between the two communities, and have been for quite some time. Anti-Blackness and anti-Semitism are the original sins of the West. There’s a reason why, when we sit down to eat as Jews, the prevailing joke is, “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” In both cultures, food is a symbol of survival. Koshersoul documents the story of how these two diasporic food traditions have been around each other and have shaped each other for quite some time.

What surprised you in your research?

The thing I’ve learned in trying to document marginalized parts of our human experience is that they’re really not as marginalized as we imagine they are. This is an old conversation, but there’s very little documentation; a lot has been either lost or obfuscated. That’s what got me. It’s all intertwined with the history of the Atlantic world and the way in which the Holy Land is positioned between Africa, Asia, and Europe. It was important for me to begin to tell this story and create a blueprint and a framework. But this isn’t the last word on the subject.

Which recipe are you most excited to share?

The kosher soul roll! I was walking through Borough Park in Brooklyn and I went into a kosher eatery; they had egg rolls with pastrami and cabbage. I’m like, “Oh, my God, put some collard greens in this. Just put some hot pepper in this, put the pastrami in there, put the onions in there, and you’re good to go.” People have been begging me for the recipe for years—I made it for Andrew Zimmern on Bizarre Foods, and he loved them so much, he ate every single one.

What do you hope readers will get out of the book?

This book has more recipes than The Cooking Gene. There’s a whole literature of Jewish food; I’m driving people to the things that inspired me, and I’ve tried to preserve some of the character of the wording as people dictated these recipes to me. Food is one of the ways in which people can truly see the breadth and diversity of Jewish life, food, and custom. I want people to understand the social issues—what people call politics, but what they really mean is what you and I see in the mirror as people of color in a white world.

Like every other community, we bring those issues to the table with us. We bring those issues into the kitchen with us. We use the kitchen as a space to solve problems: a problem is stated in terms of ingredients and resolved in terms of food and the dishes we create. And those dishes bring solace, and joy, wholeness, and warmness to each other and to our guests. This book is an invitation to better understand Black Jewish people, communities, institutions, and the tables that we create.

Return to main feature.