By Kaylea Granville
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
In his Kippah, or Jewish brimless cap, and a colorful African print shirt, Michael W. Twitty recently gave a small group of Goucher College students and visitors insight on his life as a black, Jewish gay man.
Twitty has published “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South” and briefly demonstrated his culinary skills during his talk. His cookbook won the 2018 James Beard Award for best food writing, as well as Book of the Year.
He said his desire to convert to Judaism started in elementary school.
“When I was 7 years old growing up in D.C., I told my mom I was Jewish and she said ‘No, you’re not,’” said Twitty, using humor to share his experiences as a youth.
He described himself as “any spoiled, only male child” and said it was his life’s dream to beat his mother in an argument. So, for a week, Twitty practiced Jewish faith rules.
His boyhood dreams were crushed, he said with laughter, when his mother said she had done some research on Judaism and discovered he would have to be circumcised a second time.
Fast forwarding to his 20s, Twitty said he had a very religious spirit. By his 40s, however, not so much because he now feels it in a different way. He said there was a time in his life when he came to the realization of his identity and with extensive searching discovered some Jewish heritage in his family. He had always felt “apart of [him] was missing.”
Laughter quickly turned into tears, as Twitty shared his real conversion process that included accepting people in the Shul, or Jewish place of worship.
Twitty has taught Hebrew for 14 years with a focus on children in the seventh grade. He said he had to learn about boundaries and the inquisitive behavior his students had about race.
“As a Jewish man who also happens to be black,” Twitty said he didn’t want to be confined to the labels that people used to define him, including black, Jewish and gay.
He said that he won recognition for his presence on Twitter as @KosherSoul, and tried to get his book “The Cooking Gene” published and marketed. But he said some companies tried to divide and separate all sections of his person.
“Oh, this is all great but that Jewish stuff… ehhh,” Twitty said he was told.
Publishers not only wanted Twitty to eliminate aspects of his character during marketing, but also wanted only his blackness displayed with a focus on recipes that’ll be good for black people in his book.
“America’s not ready for you,” he said someone told him.
Throughout his life, Twitty said he has been a man who has not let society define him or keep him in a box. Over his career, this self-assurance has helped him.
He said his book is a “memoir of Southern cuisine and food culture that traces his ancestry—both black and white—through food, from Africa to America and slavery to freedom.”
After the presentation, Goucher students spoke about the learning experience they had with Twitty as their guest speaker.
“I knew a little bit about Michael Twitty prior to the event as I remember catching him on Bizarre food with Andrew Zimmern a couple years ago,” said Mira Dov, a Goucher student.
Dov said of the session with Twitty that she laughed, cried, ate and learned more about the important role that food has in history and how it can help us learn about our own identities and all their intersections.
“You just need to assert your existence and not let someone else define it. That’s what power is,” Michael said with an immense amount of confidence before he concluded his presentation.
Goucher’s Chaplain Cynthia Terry said she enjoyed Twitty’s speech because of his “unapologetic” manner of being himself.