The Cooking Gene is about food and about so much more than food. It is about history, and identity, and memory. It is about the complexity of the American present, about the hidden away memories in plain sight. Michael Twitty’s poetic prose is mesmerizing; my copy arrived one day and I sat down with it, intending to skim. The cream of the text slowed me down and forced me to read one delicious paragraph after another. Hours later I had devoured the whole thing.
In chapter 4, Mr. Twitty addresses the simplicities and complexities of Jewish identity and food. I have never seen such a wonderful description of the links among ethnicity, identity, and gastronomy. He also describes the phenomenon of the longing which brings many of us to Judaism via conversion. I look forward to recommending the book to my students.
As a Southerner, I felt this book returning a part of my soul to me. I grew up with certain erasures and with many things that must never be said. I did not realize what a weight they put on the heart until I began learning from Mr. Twitty and learning to appreciate the unsaid, the uncredited, and the secret aspects of Southern identity.
This book is about holy healing work; it is about the memory in the kitchen. I recommend it without reservation.
I am reposting an article from Michael Twitty’s blog Afroculinaria because it is a beautiful teaching about racism, a subject that surrounds us but which most of us don’t understand.
I encourage you to read it and pass links to it among your circle of friends. I also encourage you to click the “Donate” link on the right side of Mr. Twitty’s blog. Supporting a teacher of Torah is an important mitzvah, because it preserves Torah for the next generation.
The minute I say that I’m African American people cast that word “race,” on me faster than the net that they used to catch Kunta Kinte in Roots.
Race is a dangerous concept and it’s source, the evolution of the Western response to human differences and diversity, from treating non-Europeans as titillating alien curiosities to enslaved chattel, colonial subjects and global pawns in a game of winner take all; is the end result of 2000 years of wrangling over what human means, what the divine means, what our destiny means when it doesn’t look like us.
African American is not a race. African American is a cultural designation. It’s as socio-political as Black, Negro, Colored, before it. Its an old term, first appearing in print in America in the late 18th century. Jesse Jackson didn’t invent it and please don’t bore me with “you’re not African,” because it’s…
Over on Afroculinaria, Michael Twitty has some wonderful teaching about a traditional Sephardic food for Rosh HaShanah: black eyed peas! (Please go read that post – you won’t regret the time – a fabulous description of Sephardic food customs among other things!)
I ate black eyed peas on January 1 when I was growing up in the South. The custom was that if you ate the BEP’s you would have good luck and prosperity in the New Year. Michael Twitty does a great job of explaining why the Sephardim eat them – go read his article!
If you are unsure of what to do with BEP’s, get a can of them at the grocery store. If you are used to making dried legumes, you can go that route. Either way, once you have firm edible beans, you can mix them or serve them with rice for a delicious dish. Personally, I don’t do much at all to them, just serve with rice and a selection of hot pepper sauces. Let your guests choose the level of heat they want.
Some recipes call for meat in the peas. I make mine from dried peas in the crock pot, no meat, just water and beans and some chopped onions until the beans are soft. Then I season to taste with salt and pepper, spoon them over rice and serve. The tray of assorted hot sauces makes for some pleasant conversation at the table.
Happy whatever kind of New Year that you celebrate!
Today my country is observing a solemn day, the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma, Alabama. I remember that day. I remember it from the point of view of a white child who was nowhere near Selma, who was told that the communists were having a march down there in Alabama.
I grew up in a conservative white Catholic family in Tennessee. I mostly held conservative political views until I spent my early 20’s in a company town and realized there were an awful lot of questions I’d never thought to ask. Coming out as a lesbian in my 30’s raised more questions and gave me a taste, a small taste, of being Other in America.
Lately I’ve been working a private study project on Twitter. I’ve had a sneaking suspicion for a long time that I wasn’t as knowledgeable about race as I’d like to be, but I was not clear what to do about it. I felt stuck until I realized that on Twitter, I could just listen and learn from people who actually know something. People mostly welcome a “follow” as long as you don’t tweet stupid things to or about them.
I agreed with myself that I was going to be quiet and listen. When something interested me, I would back up and read for context and do some research. If I were truly, truly lost I could ask a question, but I wouldn’t argue and I wouldn’t defend. Mostly I just listened and followed links.
Holy cow, I have learned a lot from listening to conversations and following links! It helped that my little project coincided with the advent of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag.
I thought my heart and my mind were open, but I was kidding myself. If, reading this, you are assuring yourself that you’re pretty knowledgable, I challenge you to follow some smart people and listen for a while. Follow their links. Follow the articles they write, their blog posts. Find some thought-leaders in their fields, and see where they lead your thoughts. You will know you have found the right ones to follow when it gets uncomfortable.
If you insist on a short cut, there’s an essay I can suggest. I found it challenging to read with an open mind, but well worth the effort. How to Steal Things, Exploit People, and Avoid All Responsibility by Ta-Nahisi Coates is an eye-opener, especially if you’ve wondered to yourself how a well-meaning 21st century white person can be held responsible for the legacy of slavery in the US. Put the shields down for a few minutes and read it – easier said than done. If that’s too raw for you, too much information and anger for you, I recommend the writing of Michael Twitty on his blog Afroculinaria. He is a gentle healer of a man, but what he has to teach is no less powerful.
If, as a rabbi, I were to say, “I know all I need to know about Torah,” I would be a fool. If, as a citizen of the USA, I were to say that I know all I need to know about an issue as big as race, I would be no less a fool. We learn by listening, by reading, and by asking an occasional question. If we only talk to people who agree with us, then what we think today is all we’ll ever know.
I am writing this because I think I’ve found a way for a good-hearted person to learn without being a pain-in-the-neck, demanding that on top of everything else people of color should educate me. Twitter is great; it comes in tiny bites. It links to articles available on the Internet. It lets me listen quietly and digest.
Anyway, I thought perhaps there might be a reader interested in my study project, who might have a project of their own for which Twitter is a great medium to learn without being a pest.
Maybe for you it’s some other category. How many LGBTQ people do you know? How many Muslims? How many people with mental illnesses? How many with disabilities? Just remember, when you find some good folks to follow, don’t defend, don’t explain. Listen and learn. Follow the links. Take it in.
Rabbi Nachman said, “All the world is a narrow bridge.” The next line is usually translated “the important thing is not to be afraid” which is not quite right. What the Hebrew really says is, “The important thing is not to panic.” I think that the marchers of 50 years ago would say that the important thing is not to give up, even if panic was all you could do the first time out. Let us not give up, not now, not ever, not on ourselves – and never on one another.
“People assume that the Ashkenazi way of doing food is the crux of what Jewish food means. The reality is that Jewish food is a text, and there’s different types of text. Oral and written, of course. And then you have the text of the land of Israel. Then comes the diaspora itself. In other words, it’s your personal identity with the text, the idea of Israel, and where we live.” – Michael Twitty, in an interview for Chow, 4/10/2014
Michael Twitty teaches remarkable Torah. He is Jewish, African American, a food historian and chef, and he has a way with words. The interview above (click that link!) is chock-full of interesting insights about Jewish food. His book, The Cooking Gene, is a masterpiece on the links among food, identity, and culture.
If I ask a random American what “Jewish Food” is, likely they’ll say something about deli food, or bagels. However, Jewish food is much more varied than that. There’s Sephardic food, replete with rice and rich flavors, and the food of the Israeli street (falafel, anyone?) Digging deeper, there’s the food in every Jewish home, which is as individual as Mom’s best recipes and Dad’s skill with the grill. Jewish food is any food Jews eat around the Jewish table, which over time becomes infused with Jewish meaning.
An example: I grew up in the American South, and on holidays we had something called chess pie. Every slice is a sliver of gooey sweetness. The first few years I was a Jew, I made the typical Ashkenazi things for Rosh Hashanah, but eventually I switched over to making my chess pie, because I don’t know of any sweeter dish on earth. For me and my family, it’s a Rosh Hashanah dish now, and every bite includes not only sugar, butter, and spices, but the hope for a sweet year. I swear it made the pie taste even better.
Another example, this one for Passover: A friend gave me her mother’s recipe for brisket, a very elaborate and wonderful old Hungarian recipe. I made it, and tinkered with it, and fiddled with it, and a few years ago I realized that it had morphed into something entirely different, a brisket that was a mix of the original recipe and the techniques I learned from my grandmother. Here it is, and unlike the chess pie, it can be made kosher for Passover:
beef brisket, approximately 1/2 lb per person
2 cans tomatoes, with liquid
1/2 potato per person, carrots, and onions to cover the bottom of your roasting pan
fresh ground pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon mustard
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Buy brisket for the number of people you have coming. I normally figure 1/2 pound per person.
In a deep roasting pan, put a layer of cut up potatoes, carrots, and onions.
Cut the brisket into as many pieces as you need to to handle it easily.
Brown the brisket on all sides on the stovetop over high heat. Brown the fatty side first, then brown the other sides of the meat in the fat.
Put the browned pieces of brisket in the roasting pan on top of the vegetables.
Sprinkle with fresh ground pepper, 1 teaspoon of paprika, and 1/2 teaspoon of ground mustard.
Deglaze the browning pan with a cup of wine (I use red, white is OK, do not use a sweet wine.)
Add 2 large cans of whole tomatoes, cut up, to the browning pan and bring it to a near-boil.
Pour the liquid over the meat and veggies, cover the pan (either with a lid or foil, but get a good seal) then put in the oven.
After 15 min, reduce heat to 300.
Allow it to cook until the meat is falling apart. Normally I cook it for 8 hours or even more.
Remove the brisket to a carving board and allow it to rest for 30 minutes before slicing. Slice perpendicular to the grain.
Strain out veggies, reserving liquid, and put them in a separate bowl.
Put the liquid in a saucepan on the stove and heat to reduce it for a gravy.
Are there any foods that have taken on Jewish meaning in your Jewish home? Share recipes if you are willing!
Kitchens around the country are warming up: Thanksgiving is coming. Chanukah is coming.
(Deep-fried turkey, anyone?)
Around some tables, there will be talk about Pilgrims and Indians. And around some tables, we might talk about our ancestors and Thanksgivings past. Perhaps at some tables (I hope!) there will be conversations about the unique relationship between the United States and its Jews, and about what Chanukah might mean here. And here’s another view of the Thanksgiving holiday, shared by Michael Twitty (@KosherSoul) an expert on the foods and lives of enslaved African Americans.
If you are about to click away nervously, thinking that you don’t want a load of guilt dumped on you — don’t. Really. Mr. Twitty is not about guilt. He is about enlightenment and education, and fascinating facts.