When writer and culinary expert Michael Twitty was a child, an image struck him. As someone who grew up oriented around the kitchen with his mother and grandmother, he found himself captivated by an image of Thomas Jefferson wearing an apron and serving food — it took Twitty years, he said, to figure out that the person behind the pictured food was someone like him.
Twitty explained the way he found the connection between food and culture during his talk “Kosher/Soul” on Feb. 18, in Schultz Banquet Hall at Allegheny College. He gave the talk following his success as both a writer and cook, having won the James Beard Foundation Award for Book of the Year in 2018 for “The Cooking Gene” as the first Black author to receive the book award, and placing 45th on The Root’s list of the 100 Most Influential African Americans, of which performer Beyonce was No. 1.
A Washington, D.C. native, Twitty said food represents each of his identities, from his Black, African American and Jewish heritage to his sexuality. In American history, the Black population held the “best cooks,” Twitty said.
“We’re the first people to walk the Earth,” Twitty said. “We are fire, we are the first cooking pots, we are the first domestication. And we are just really fantastic.”
The kitchen was Twitty’s mother and grandmother’s space, according to Twitty. When he was young, Twitty said his father, a Vietnam War veteran, gave him military clothing to wear for pictures.
“What I’m actually doing in this picture is guarding my grandmother’s yeast rolls and yeast bread,” Twitty said. “The kitchen is … where I learned a lot about my identity and where we came from.”
Twitty grew up in a multicultural suburb within Washington, D.C., an area that allowed him to be exposed to food from a variety of cultures at a young age — after trying new food, he could read more about that culture’s food, a practice that led him to love the connection between cooking and identity.
“There’s food, but food is not just ‘I’m hungry,’” Twitty said. “Food is … ‘that’s not me, that’s not us.’ Food is when I’m sad, when I’m hurt. … Food is when I want to try something new.”
It was this desire to connect with his identity through culture that led Twitty to begin researching his ancestry and the food associated with it. In this process, one that began with his childhood curiosity, Twitty learned more about the picture of Jefferson that he had been so fascinated with years ago. The true cook behind the food in Jefferson’s hands was Jefferson’s brother-in-law James Hemings, a mixed-race slave who studied cooking in France.
“When you come from trauma, when you come from hurt, the healing is very important,” Twitty said. “The food operates as a healing agent.”
Food, Twitty said, becomes a vehicle to celebrate each other, to celebrate a collective humanity.
When Twitty was teaching in Washington, D.C., he worked with a student on a section about the Holocaust, during which he saw, Twitty said, “extraordinary intellectual human life that was irreplacable” in Yiddish culture — and he began to want to connect this sense with Black culture. These were the ideas Twitty took with him when he began mapping his family’s history and capturing his experience in writing, with pieces like “The Cooking Gene.”
The work he put into his writing was not always met with praise, Twitty said. As he captured his own cultural experience, he was asked why he felt the need to delve into and separate his culture — why, he was asked, did he have to distinguish himself as an African American rather than an American?
“(I responded,) ‘Why won’t you let me (be American)?’” Twitty said. “You ain’t gonna let me be American until it’s convenient for you.”
Twitty discussed how he hopes his writing will reach many different audiences of various demographics.
“I’m not speaking to an academic person, I’m speaking to different parts of an audience, who look different, have different agendas when they read my writing,” Twitty said.
With his writing, Twitty wanted to remove stereotypes surrounding Black cooking culture, specifically that it came from miracles slaves were able to create from food scraps.
“That takes all the agency, pride, ingenuity and genius out of the hands of Black cooks, both domestic and professional,” Twitty said.
While Twitty neared the end of his talk, he invited Hillel co-Presidents Maximus Levinsky, ’21, Shula Bronner, ’22, and Intern Ethan Kennelly, ’21, to make hummus while he finished speaking. As he continued his talk, Twitty simultaneously guided the three students on how to make the hummus and how to remedy the mistakes they made without even turning around to look at them, eliciting laughter from both the audience and three students.
“I thought it was really exciting to have someone like him on campus,” Bronner said. “Usually he’s very different from a lot of the speakers we normally get. For me, what I related to most was the conversation about Jewish identity, but it also meant a lot for some African American students and queer students, and I thought it was great ot have him at Meadville and Allegheny.”
Describing cooking for Twitty as “nerve-wracking,” a job that was a surprise for all three students, Bronner said she ultimately enjoyed the experience. Levinsky agreed that the surprise was not a bad one.
“It was surprising to end up as an impromptu cooking assistant for someone with two James Beard awards, but it was a really fun and memorable experience,” Levinsky said. “Twitty was a great guest for our campus because he embraces his intersectionality and does amazing interdisciplinary research.”
As the students handed Twitty the finished hummus, he captured his feelings on the connection between food and all cultures.
“All of our stories are deep, ancient and valuable,” Twitty said. “There’s no hierarchy here. We’re all human, we all have something to bring to the table.”