The following is an excerpt from the 2018 James Beard Book of the Year “The Cooking Gene” by Michael Twitty, an acclaimed Jewish, African-American, gay culinary historian who speaks to the intersections of identity, food, culture, and social justice.
I think there is still a lingering sentiment in the culture that sees Jewish food as a mass of things that go on rye bread; cannot possibly be pronounced without gagging or producing mucus; and are blessed by a rabbi and smell like fish, cabbage, harsh condiments, and crotchety old people. Some even read some sort of sinister kabbalistic workings or blook libels into our recipes. I can tell you none of this is true. Jewish food is a matter of text expressed on the table. Entering the Jewish foodscape changed my life.
Jewish food and black food crisscross each other throughout history. They are both cuisines where homeland and exile interplay. Ideas and emotions are ingredients – satire, irony, longing, resistance – and you have to eat the food to extract that meaning. The food of both diasporas depends on memory. One memory is the sweep of the people’s journey, and the other is the little bits and pieces of individual lives shaped by ancient paths and patterns. The food is an archive, a keeper of secrets.
One of the reasons I am madly, passionately, head-over-soles in love with Judaism is the unrestrained passion it has for questions, analysis, study, review, revision, and that dance it seems to revel in between tradition and intellectual anarchy. This process is not always done with a book. Sometimes it’s lived out through folk and material culture, and with food – the scriptures of Torah and Talmud give a uniquely Jewish life and law to what could just be a means to suppress hunger and, hours later, a reason to read a magazine for ten minutes with your pants down. I love that almost the entirety of the Jewish people will sit down for a seder and discuss and debate the ancient lessons of slavery versus freedom while using an edible Torah to process those lessons in their bodies – through all senses available to the eater.
Passover is, thus, my favorite holiday. Why not? I am the descendant of enslaved people. I take this holiday personally. There is something truly profound about a cultural moment like Passover where this is made manifest, a moment where you are obligated to debate and discuss some of the most important questions and issues of the human condition while debating and discussing the execution of your family’s heirloom recipes.
The Haggadah states, “Now we are slaves . . .” Every day I suit up and go out to the plantation kitchens and cook like our ancestors, I live that phrase, I am not enslaved, but by showing the living what the dead went through, I live a scary and unsettling past. I feel like a doorway for all the spirits of the plantations I visit. I feel their souls passing through me as I cook and tell their stories. At the end of the day, I feel like a terminal and less like a man who is breathing and aware.
There is nothing more frightening than looking through warping glass windows and seeing the glimpses of things you were never alive to see, feeling steps just before your won, knowing that they, the enslaved – the nameless, politicized, maligned, commodified ancestors – are around you, cheering you on, doing the ring shout around your body. It’s as if by cooking you have crossed a boundary, and the dance of pounding, kneading, sweating, choking, and smelling connects with something timeless, all of the movements that came before you become you. I realize that I’m trying to divine a text from the scatterings which our lives and our civilization as a people with shifting freedoms have presented. Passover was one of my inspirations to go back and fetch the medical, spiritual, emotional, familial, and ethnically didactic texts found in the foods of the continent and the Diaspora, in kitchens high and low.
In Jewish culture, much like continental African and African Diaspora cultures, food is a mnemonic device. Whether it’s matzo or hoecake, our civilizations value symbolic food, and passing down foods and food memories from generation to generation, and with them stories as history, pushes us across the globe. In Judaism, memory is a commandment – commands to remember enslavement, to remember the plight of the enslaved, to remember the days of national youth and vigor, to remember through the eating of a sacred meal on Passover, to remember through the reading of the Torah. When I go up to the scroll, I am bid by mystical custom to find a word that begins with the first initial of my name, and once I do the memories of the generations that came before us can be sung; all of this work is about finding myself in the script that has always captivated me. What I’m speaking of is recovering the narratives across time, connecting all of us into one idea – that our food has not just been fodder for our journeys, but embodies the journeys themselves. . . .
In the script of African and Jewish and American and gay histories, my whole journey could be whittled down to a new word. Makom. Hebrew: place, but it’s also a scriptural synonym for G-d. Where you are matters. The same scripture that inspired my ancestors in American slavery inspires me with a bit more flavor. Egypt is called, in Hebrew, “the narrow place.” When you are all the things I am, it’s easy for people to put you in a narrow spot indeed. You have to have a way out.
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