Michael is proud of his heritage and he loves his job – is that such a crime?
Michael Twitty is not your average foodie.
He constantly oscillates between two identities: one he calls the “antebellum chef,” in which he reconstructs the traditional food of his ancestors, and the other as a kosher-meets-soul foodie (he’s a passionate Jewish convert).
As the Antebellum Chef, he’s started the Cooking Gene Project, where he explores how African food influenced southern cooking. He believes food can be a vessel for teaching black Americans about their own history, something that is often left out of textbooks. He told Smithsonian Magazine,
“When I was growing up, I remember fifth-grade Michael Twitty was taught about his ancestors, like, oh, your ancestors were unskilled laborers who came from the jungles of West Africa. They didn’t know anything. They were brought here to be slaves and that’s your history.”
He’s even taught Paula Deen a thing or two. When Deen used the “n” word, Twitty wrote an eloquent response, explaining how southern cooking has both adopted African food and simultaneously ignored it. On his blog Afroculinaria, he wrote,
“Your barbecue is my West African babbake, your fried chicken, your red rice, your hoecake, your watermelon, your black-eyed peas, your crowder peas, your muskmelon, your tomatoes, your peanuts, your hot peppers, your Brunswick stew and okra soup, benne, jambalaya, hoppin’ john, gumbo, stewed greens and fat meat — have inextricable ties . . . to West and Central Africa.”
And when he’s not educating the world about the history of African food in America, he’s a Judaic studies teacher in Washington D.C. He’s even created his own mix of soul food and kosher food, which he says easily go hand-in-hand. He calls this “identity cooking” and told the Washington Post,
“Blacks and Jews are the only peoples I know who use food to talk about their past while they eat it.”
And then, of course, there’s his identity as a gay man. Just like Black Americans, the LGBTQ community has been frequently left out of the textbooks He wrote in an essay for Food52,
“Gay men have been culturally written out of history because we are often branded as individuals who will not contribute to the reproductive flow of the generations and therefore have little or no investment in normative tradition. And yet, so many of my colleagues in living history, historic preservation, and food history are very dedicated gay men with a mission to honor our collective heritage.”
And so, Twitty forges ahead as a black, gay, Jewish chef in the hopes of opening peoples’ minds.
“I will sit anybody down at the same table, but they have to be willing to not go back to the patterns of the past. Sankofa — in the words of my Akan ancestors: take the good from the past and move forward.”