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Annual Zerby Lecture Brings Popular Culinary Historian

On Tuesday, Oct. 29, the annual Rayborn Lindley Zerby Lectureship on Contemporary Religious Thought, sponsored by the Multifaith Chaplaincy and the Office of Intercultural Education, brought culinary historian and independent scholar Michael Twitty to campus.

The lectureship is offered annually out of an endowed fund affiliated with the Multifaith Chaplaincy. According to Rev. Dr. Brittany Longsdorf, the Multifaith Chaplain, the speaker is chosen annually by staff in the Chaplaincy in consultation with students and campus partners.

The presentation, hosted in the Olin Arts Center Auditorium at 7:30pm, featured Twitty’s comments about his life, career, and beliefs while making hummus.

Twitty’s work focuses on historic African American food and folk culture, as well as culinary traditions of historic Africa. As a Jewish man of color, Twitty also spoke about his own relationship with his religion and his experience with traditionally Jewish foods. Besides his job as a culinary historian, Twitty works as a food writer, Judaic studies teacher, chef, and activist.

His first book, The Cooking Gene, won the 2018 James Beard Foundation Book Award for Book of the Year and best writing. His next book, Kosher/Soul, is slated for release in 2020.

Although it was met with widespread success, Twitty spoke in length of the difficulties he encountered in publishing his first book. “My editors wanted to put me in a certain bubble,” he said. “They were upset with the ‘kosher-soul’ persona and said it couldn’t sell.”

He told the audience that his publishing company wanted to paint him as a black man rescued from crime, with a grandmother who constantly praised Jesus – an offensive stereotype of African-American men.

The book, which tells the story of his family through cooking, features writing on his experience as a black Jewish man. “I realized that I was being told by people who didn’t know me that America just wasn’t ready for me,” he said. “But America is the only place that I am possible.”

Twitty has embraced his uniqueness, and his experience as a Jewish man of color has helped him reflect on what it means to be American. “If you are not multicultural you have wasted your Americanness,” he told the audience. “Your purity is wasted here. I thank God every day that I am a gay black Jewish southerner.”

He added, “Being an outlier shows that there is something more to life than just boredom. We’ve always been here. America wouldn’t have a soul, a spirit, or a body without Jews, black people, or gay people, and I cannot believe that people are trying to erase that.”

During his tenure as a Jewish school teacher, he met stereotypes from his own religious community, as well.

Twitty spoke about the shock he sometimes faced when he told people he was Jewish.

“I won’t talk about how I became Jewish—if I was born Jewish or converted—because I am sick of telling that story,” he said. “But if we want to move the conversation forward, we should be talking more openly about the half a million Jews of color in America. Thousands of people descended from Judaism [that] were rejected from the community.”

A graduate of Howard University, a historically black college, Twitty also spoke in length about his experiences as a man of color.“We are a resilient people,” he said. “People who have sustained deep, intellectual losses. That’s why I am inspired to take back culture and to get pumped about learning more about my own history through food.”

He added that although there is a misconception that black food “isn’t sophisticated or thoughtful,” that it is an incredibly important part of American culture.

“Without African Americans, American culture does not exist as it does today.”

Twitty’s passion for food is less about the process of cooking and more about the traditions it brings.“In my opinion, food is secondary to the home behind it,” he told the audience, as he finished mixing the ingredients of his popular hummus recipe. “The people making the food, and the stories they bring to the table, are the most important.”

To check out his blog, Afroculinaria.

Ellie Wolfe
Staff Writer

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