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Jew of color Michael W. Twitty’s ‘Koshersoul’ is ‘a challah braid’ of a food memoir

Now on shop bookshelves, the award-winning author’s new book is a wild ride that includes culinary history, recipes and personal experiences of Jews of African descent in America

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Michael W. Twitty prepares matzah balls with ginger and cayenne pepper for Passover, April 2022. (Johnny Shryock)
Michael W. Twitty prepares matzah balls with ginger and cayenne pepper for Passover, April 2022. (Johnny Shryock)

If macaroni and cheese kugel, matzoh ball gumbo, collard greens-stuffed kreplach, or Yassa kosher chicken arouse your appetite, then you will find award-winning author Michael W. Twitty‘s new book delectable.

Published on August 9, “Koshersoul” is full of delicious recipes and menu suggestions, but it isn’t simply a book about soul food cooked according to Jewish kosher food laws. In fact, it isn’t really a cookbook. Rather, it is a fascinating work on how Jewish and African Atlantic food traditions intersect and inform one another.

At its core, “Koshersoul” is about Twitty’s embracing his identity as a Black Jew and sharing it with others, especially through the breaking of bread.

“‘Koshersoul’ is a challah braid of a food memoir, culinary history, recipes, and personal experiences of myself and other Jews of African descent in contemporary America,” Twitty told The Times of Israel.

In a conversation from his home in the Washington, DC area, Twitty said he conceived “Koshersoul” as the second book in a trilogy. His “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South,” looks at the question of the race-loaded question of who “owns” Southern food, and tells his family’s story through the foods that sustained them over three centuries from the Middle Passage to today. That book won the 2018 James Beard Book of the Year Award.

Twitty said the final book in the series will be about being queer in the kitchen. In “Koshersoul” he refers frequently not only to his identity as an African American Jew, but also to being gay.

A Jewish educator and culinary historian, Twitty was born and grew up in the DC area. His family is from Virginia, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. Their African roots are in Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Gambia, Cameroon, Angola, and the two Congos. He converted to Judaism in January 2002 and, although deeply familiar with Ashkenazi Judaism, feels most comfortable as a Jew of Color attending a Sephardi synagogue.

Michael W. Twitty praying in April 2022. (Johnny Shyrock)

Although he fell short of completing his undergraduate degree in Afro-American studies and anthropology at Howard University, Twitty has passionately pursued his interests as an autodidact. A teacher, he does not claim to be an academic, or that “Koshersoul” is an academic work. However, the book’s bibliography is extensive, and Twitty’s writing style is accessibly intellectual.

The book runs some 360 pages and weaves together different subjects and genres. The content either alternates between or combines historical background, references to Jewish sources and practices, personal anecdotes about being a Black Jew in America, and conversations with other Black Jews (about food and other matters). The stories from the author’s life take place anywhere from a bus stop to his suburban DC Hebrew school classroom to Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn.

‘Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African American Jew’ by Michael W. Twitty (Amistad)

“You have to write for multiple audiences. You have to assume that some people know nothing about the African Atlantic and the African diaspora in the Americas and beyond, and some people don’t know much about Jewish learning and life. So how do you get into the happy middle while not always having to explain yourself? That’s very hard to do because very few people live at that intersection. I know that because I’ve lived it for 20 years,” Twitty said.

“And I am starting to get more comfortable with playing around with not being that straightforward, that linear [with my writing].

“One thing I learned early on in this trilogy project is that when you are telling the story of marginalized, oppressed people for whom amnesia is a great enemy, you quickly learn that… it is very difficult to tell Jewish history [in a linear way]. There are huge missing pieces of our story. And that is where meaning and myth step in to fill in the blank so we feel cohesive. Every people on earth does this because no one has a yichus that goes back to whenever and is perfect,” he said, using a Yiddish term for lineage.

As he did his research for the book, Twitty came across a cookbook detailing the Jewish dishes of Curaçao.

“Incorporated into an old Sephardi repertoire were lots of dishes rooted in West and Central Africa and the Afro-Caribbean. Much like Surinam, the influence was long and deep owing to the slave trade that lasted from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. The recipes I found were from the heart of the Guinea coast and Kongo-Angola. Fritter and fried plantains for Hanukkah, soup for Shabbat, stews for other holiday meals — all mixed in with recipes drawn from all over the globe,” he writes.

Michael W. Twitty examines ingredients for Passover cooking, April 2022. (Johnny Shyrock)

This book is just one example of how the concept of koshersoul is not limited to the meeting of Jewish food — Ashkenazi and Sephardi— with African American culinary traditions in the American South.

Twitty maintains that the term koshersoul indicates the result of the intermingling of Jewish and African cultures in various parts of the world at various points in history. He calls these different interpretations “a dozen cousins who sort of come at a similar way of cooking.”

Koshersoul therefore includes the food of the Black women who cooked for Ashkenazi Jewish families in the deep South; African Jews; African-American Caribbean Jews; and Non-African Jews of Caribbean and Latin American heritage, such as those from Cuba and Brazil.

“And there is the ‘koshersoul’ of people like me who play happily in ‘fusionland,'” Twitty said.

The author is concerned that in this period in which he perceives relationships between Jews and Blacks in America deteriorating, some members of both groups will resist reading this book. He sees this as a missed opportunity to get to know the other without prejudice.

Michael W. Twitty prepares soup for Passover in April 2022. In ‘Koshersoul’ he provides recipes for Charleston Bunch Soup and Okra Gumbo for the holiday. (Johnny Shyrock)

“Some people of color will assume the minute I say ‘Jewish’ I mean ‘white’ and therefore none of their concern. I’ve especially seen this among the younger generation on college campuses and elsewhere,” he said.

And he has already had some Jewish people tell him that he is in no position to tell them about anything Jewish.

“Why can’t a Black person who is born into Judaism or converts or is a Jew By Choice teach Jews who don’t look like them about Judaism?” he retorted.

Those who make negative assumptions will miss out on some intriguing and delicious recipes at the end of the book. Twitty said he welcomes vegans and vegetarians to adapt the recipes, and said that available ingredients could be substituted for ones that may be unavailable in some locations (such as kale for collard greens).

Here’s a recipe to try instead of your regular Shabbat dinner chicken soup:

Senegalese-Inspired Chicken Soup

(Fleeing the Inquisition, some Jews from Portugal settled in the Senegalese town of Saly-Portudal.)

1 medium red onion, diced
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon fresh minced ginger
1 teaspoon suya spice (see recipe below)
½ teaspoon of turmeric
½ teaspoon of chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cayenne)
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 pound raw boneless chicken,
diced (you can also use leftover
roast chicken or leftover rotisserie breasts)
5 cups chicken stock (or vegetable broth)
1 teaspoon thyme
2 cups crushed plum tomatoes
Salt, to taste
¼ cup peanut butter
1 cup thinly sliced scallions
1/3 cup chopped peanuts,
green onion, and 3 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley for garnish

Cook diced onions in olive oil until soft and translucent. Add garlic and
cook for 2 minutes. Add ginger, suya spice, turmeric, and chili powder, red
pepper, black pepper, and coriander and fry for an additional 2 minutes. If
dry, add a small quantity of olive oil until moist.
Add the diced chicken to onions, garlic, and seasonings and sauté. (If
using leftover cooked chicken, just add and mix together.)
Add stock and scrape the bottom of the pan very well with a wooden
spoon. Add thyme, crushed tomatoes, and salt. Simmer for 30 minutes. Stir
often and scrape the bottom every few minutes. Do not boil.
Combine peanut butter and half of the liquid soup stock in a blender or
food processor and purée, adding small quantities of broth as necessary if
too thick. When smooth, add the purée to the remaining soup and stir well.
If the soup seems too thick, add broth to taste.
Add scallions to soup, cooking 5 minutes more, remembering to reserve
a few tablespoons for the finished soup. Garnish with remaining scallions,
the chopped peanuts and parsley.

Suya Spice

1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground cayenne
1 crushed kosher bouillon cube
Mix all ingredients together; store in a cool place.

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