The first question Michael Twitty said he is often asked is, “How are you black and Jewish?” The Washington cookbook author, chef and educator doesn’t answer people with words, but with flavor.
“The best way to shut a Jewish person or a black person up is to put food in their mouth,” he told an audience at the University of Maryland on April 4. “Then all of a sudden, the stupid questions stop. No more questions about ‘How are you black and Jewish?’ I’m like, ‘Would you just eat the collard green kreplach and just shut up? I will tell you who I am if you chew and digest.’”
Earthy and irreverent, Twitty, 41, said that food is a byproduct of cultural identity. The cuisine he invents combines his African-American and Jewish identities.
Twitty, who converted to Judaism in 2002, said he uses food as an ice breaker at discussions about race and American culture. His dishes often reflect the meshing of cultural identities, such as hamantashen made from the recipe for his grandmother’s tea cake dough — a food native to African American culture.
He said his lessons sometimes result in tense discussions with audiences who are bound to tradition. There was the time he and fellow cookbook author Marcie Cohen Ferris gave a presentation to a group of chasidic women about how Southern Jews constructed their identity through food that included treif, non-kosher food.
“They were angry,” he said of the audience. “They were about to kill somebody in this presentation, because they were hearing about Jews eating ham biscuits at the end of Yom Kippur. They were like, ‘No, Jewish culture is about maintaining our culture and tradition. This is awful. Why are we celebrating this?’”
Twitty remembers his response.
“‘Eating the ham biscuit on Yom Kippur offends you, but the owning enslaved people didn’t?’ I went there. Oh, it wasn’t pretty, but I went there,” he said.
Twitty set up another awkward situation when he served black-eyed pea hummus to an audience of Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem.
“There were these two friends in the room, both chefs. One was Palestinian, one was Israeli,” Twitty said. “And they loved to argue and disagree. I don’t know how they’re friends, but they’re friends,” Twitty said.
The chefs asked him who “owned the hummus?”
“Everyone is waiting for my answer, I’m sweating bullets,” he said. “Who owns the hummus? Obviously, it’s the Jews. So half the room starts grumbling. But who owns the hummus? Obviously it’s the Arabs. They start cheering.”
Twitty then told them that hummus was created by a “Sumerian woman whose kids were hungry, and she only had chickpeas, olive oil and garlic to concoct something that would satisfy their appetite.
“Who owns the hummus? Obviously it’s neither one of you,” he told the Palestinians and Israelis. “Therefore you can thank some woman in ancient Fertile Crescent for your damn hummus.”
He said black-eyed pea hummus is one of his favorite foods to make at gatherings because of the diversity of people who will eat it.
“The vegetarians can eat it, the vegans can eat it, the Muslims can eat it, the Jews can eat it, the black folks can eat it, the white folks can eat it and everybody can eat it … unless you don’t like beans,” he said.
The university’s Joseph & Rebecca Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies hosted the event. Junior Mary DiMambro, who is double majoring in anthropology and food science, said she was intrigued by the premise of Twitty’s talk.
Hayim Lapin, the center’s director, said he was excited to try one of Twitty’s recipes.
“Matzah balls with chilies and red peppers sounds like a plan,” he said.