Great Books: Koshersoul, by Michael Twitty
Several years ago, Michael Twitty came out with The Cooking Gene, which was a fantastic exploration of African-American culinary history. I gave it a rave review on this blog. That book explored the West African roots of both African-American food and Southern food as a whole, with Twitty’s own personal experience intertwined. Twitty has followed this work with another magnificent book: Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African-American Jew. Twitty writes about his own Jewish journey, the experiences of America’s many Black Jews (both African-American and of other backgrounds), and how these play out both in the kitchen and in White Jewish communities.
Koshersoul is memoir, history, food book, and conversation all at once – and Twitty balances these very deftly. Historical explorations, ethnography, and analysis are intertwined with Twitty’s own well-narrated stories. You learn a lot as a reader – but also come to appreciate not only the intersections Twitty experiences every day, but also the way he can connect these to wider ranges. Twitty also is the rare memoirist that does not come off as self-indulgent – and, in fact, he shows a great deal of empathy and care for the many people he chronicles as well.
The book meanders – which I think adds to its excellence. The stories Twitty tells are not chronological, but rather go back and forth across his life and across history. What this structure does is make the book feel more like a story being told in person, rather than a tome. In addition, because it reflects how we tell stories in person, I found that the structure made it easier for me to envision certain things – particularly when it came to the discussions of food, or some of the more intense stories from Twitty’s Hebrew school teaching years.
I think this book is an important one. White Jews like myself would do well to read it. Twitty is not only unflinching about racism and racial dynamics in the Jewish community, but also the impacts of “mainstream” Judaism’s headlong rush to whiteness on their fellow Jews’ very real lives. There is also a very important analysis embedded in the book of Jewish food culture – and how much of the politics around Jewish food comes from a distinctly unsavory tradition.
The food discussions in the latter part of the book are fascinating, and also have a realness to them that I find refreshing. Discussions of Jewish food are oftentimes sappy with nostalgia or a distinct unrealism about the cultural balance Jews – and especially Jews of color – face. Twitty faces these head on, with frank discussions about the role of enslaved Black folks and domestic workers in cooking Jewish cuisine, their influence on Jewish foodways, and also the balancing Jews by birth and choice do between cuisines and kashrut. I think a lot of Jewish food writing could learn from Twitty in this regard.
Twitty ends his book with some fantastic recipes. These recipes combine West African, African-American, and various Jewish traditions. Some are by him, and some are by the many Black Jews who Twitty worked with as he crafted the book. Keep the book because these recipes are ones you will want to come back to again and again. Two personal favorites are the Jollof Rice and the Tahini-Nokos Dressing.
Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African-American Jew, by Michael Twitty. I provided the book link here, but please try to buy this from a Black-owned bookstore if you can.