Michael Twitty gathers ingredients for okra soup and barbecue cottontail rabbit at Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo/Courtesy Michael Twitty)
Michael Twitty gathers ingredients for okra soup and barbecue cottontail rabbit at Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo/Courtesy Michael Twitty)

Black historian of southern cooking brings side of Jewish identity to S.F.

One might not expect to find a chapter titled “Mishpocheh” in Michael Twitty’s memoir chronicling his “journey through African-American culinary history in the Old South.”

But then, Twitty is an unusual guy. Gay, black and a Modern Orthodox Jew, he is a chef, food blogger, culinary historian, Jewish educator and Colonial Williamsburg’s first Revolutionary-in-Residence.

And now he is the author of “The Cooking Gene,” which follows his very personal quest to “document the connection between food history and family history from Africa to America, from slavery to freedom.”

“Someone once called me a polyman,” Twitty said in a recent phone interview from his home in Silver Spring, Maryland. “I thought that [description] was very good.”

The creator of the food blog Afroculinaria — who goes by the Twitter handle @koshersoul — will be in San Francisco on Aug. 29 for an event with the Museum of the African Diaspora titled “Diaspora Dinner.” Twitty, who designed the dinner menu with MoAD chef-in-residence Bryant Terry, is the keynote speaker.

As a “black, openly gay, progressive Jew — pretty much the reason God created the Bay Area,” Twitty is “the true embodiment of the diaspora,” Terry says.

Twitty, 40, launched the Cooking Gene Project in 2011 and his “Southern Discomfort Tour” in 2012, but things really took off the following year after Paula Deen’s use of the N-word came to light and Twitty posted an open letter to her on his website.

In his heartfelt, tongue-in-cheek yet biting outpouring, Twitty took Deen to task for (among other things) ignoring the African-American roots of the foods she touted on her popular Food Network show, and invited her to join him at a dinner gathering on an historic antebellum plantation. “As a Jew,” he wrote, “I extend the invitation to do teshuvah — which means to repent — but better — to return to a better state, a state of shalem — wholeness and shalom — peace.”

She never responded.

But many others did. “That piece went viral,” Twitty recalled, “and I had 12 [literary] agents reaching out to me.”

He thinks it was the tone of his letter that drew such broad attention. “People saw it as a different sort of take on race relations. I was willing to send an olive branch for the sake of conversation and dialogue.”

And he gave Deen the benefit of the doubt. “I don’t think people are always aware of their own prejudices,” he allowed.

Atwitty-genePart of Twitty’s generosity stems from what Judaism has taught him — that “humans are fallible, humans make mistakes — not because they’re sinners, but because they are human,” he said, adding, “My worldview changed from Christianity to Judaism many years ago.”

As he explains in the Mishpocheh chapter, Twitty was just 7 years old when he “declared myself” Jewish to his mother. (He had just watched “The Chosen,” a 1981 film based on Chaim Potok’s book, and was mesmerized.)

Twitty formally converted at 22.

That’s where his friend Joan Nathan, the noted chef and Jewish cookbook author, comes in. They were doing research in Washington, D.C., for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. At her suggestion, he visited Magen David Sephardic Congregation in North Bethesda, Maryland.

“The first person to come out to greet me was this tall, African American young man,” he recalled. “There were so many brown people and dark-skinned people. It was a rainbow.

“And I loved the openness … That was very appealing.”

Magen David became his shul.

“Around here [in the D.C. area], even now, there are boundary issues,” he said. At some synagogues, he continued, people want to know, “Who are you? What are you? Why are you?”

At his congregation, Twitty feels at home.

As for kashrut, that can be a challenge. “I keep kosher at my house,” he said, viewing it as “an invitation to be creative” in the kitchen.

But when he’s on the road, visiting old plantations and cooking Southern comfort foods created by his forbears, well, that’s another story. “Is it going to be kosher plantation food? No.”

Twitty did confide, “I worry sometimes that cooking treyf and being around it for some people negates part of my identity.”

Certainly, though, no one can deny that he knows Judaism. For many years, Twitty taught youngsters at synagogues of all streams. “I was a glorified melamed [teacher of Hebrew language and traditions].” In 2013, he was a scholar-in-residence at a three-day Be’chol Lashon Family Camp, a retreat for Jews of color in Petaluma.

Now that he’s gained a degree of fame (and a fatter income), he focuses more on adult education and describes himself as a Judaics teacher. “I did love it,” he said of his former teaching years.

Doubters aside, Twitty takes some consolation from his research: “Jews in the South historically did not keep kosher,” he said, “because they did not want to stand out any more than they [already] did.”

One of the highlights of his Southern tour, in fact, was meeting Mrs. Mildred Covert, a food writer who’d read about him in Southern Jewish Life Magazine and invited him to meet her in New Orleans. In his book, he describes her as “every bit Jessica Tandy in ‘Driving Miss Daisy,’ fortunately albeit without a drop of the backhanded prejudice.”

“She sat me down and said, ‘Do you know why you’re here?’“ Twitty said. Then she added, “I want you to know that we [whites] learned how to cook from the black ladies.”

That hit a nerve. “I struggle with people who don’t want to give credit to the black people for the black culture, for the culture they created,” Twitty said. “When she said, ‘We became Americans through them,’ that’s deep. It’s like everything got really quiet when she said that. It was profound for me.”

Covert wasn’t the only Jewish Southerner who reached out to him; synagogues invited him for Shabbat services, as well. “I felt more welcome in the Jewish Deep South than anywhere else I’ve been to,” he said.

As he continues to explore “sites of cultural memory,” cook and do presentations (often in garb reminiscent of what slaves wore), Twitty is a busy man.

And now there are book talks, too.

“The Cooking Gene,” published Aug. 1, “is a lot of different things,” Twitty said. But given who he is and the story he tells, Twitty knows his book might not be the next bestseller.

He still bristles at one potential publisher’s reaction, who told him, “I just don’t think America’s ready for this.”

His thought at the time: “Baby, I am America!”

“The Cooking Gene” by Michael W. Twitty (464 pages, HarperCollins). Author talk at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 30 at Omnivore Books, 3885A Cesar Chavez St., S.F. Free. 

Diaspora Dinner with Michael Twitty begins at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 29 at Museum of the African Diaspora, 685 Mission St., S.F. followed by dinner at St. Regis San Francisco, 125 Third St., S.F. $250. 

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.