Food Story

This chef’s looking to his roots to put a new twist on soul food

Michael Twitty
Michael Twitty TED

Michael Twitty doesn’t cook the same macaroni and cheese his mom taught him to make. It’s loaded with cream cheese and sour cream, and anyone who’s eaten at a Kosher deli might say it tastes kind of like noodle kugel.

The chef and author has adapted and transformed a lot of the foods he grew up cooking with his mother and grandmother in the D.C. suburbs, blending together his African-American and Southern roots with his Jewish identity to create cuisine as rich in tradition as it is in taste.

“I like flavors that are reminiscent of all the different heritages,” Twitty said. “And one of the greatest things about Jewish diaspora and African diaspora is, they’re global. They touch every single inhabited continent, and they’re influenced by an interplay with hundreds of cultures.”

Twitty’s mother was determined to give her son “a homegrown culinary education,” he said. Stacks of cookbooks cluttered the house, and the two spent Saturday afternoons watching cooking shows on PBS.

While Twitty described his mother as an innovator in the kitchen, he said his grandmother was tied to tradition. She never wrote any of her recipes down — everything she cooked came from her head.

Twitty wanted to hold onto that unwritten knowledge.

“That’s what it takes to pass down a tradition,” he said. “You have to really, sort of, like, love it and cling to it.”

Twitty was the featured guest Friday at “A Taste of Southern Food History,” a kickoff event for a joint-project we’re calling Macon Food Story. Over the next several months The Telegraph will examine food and how it intersects with health, access, history and culture with our partners, the Center for Collaborative Journalism, Georgia Public Broadcasting Macon and 13WMAZ.

As a food historian, Twitty traces foods back to their origins, examining how cultures and cuisines can intermingle and evolve. His first book, “The Cooking Gene,” tells the story of his own family’s relationship with food, migrating from Africa through slavery to present day.

But it’s not a cookbook, Twitty said. It’s a food memoir, inspired by the works of one of his favorite food writers, Ruth Reichl.

“We need stories about our food,” he said. “We need stories about our food makers. We need another kind of narrative that isn’t just dumbing things down.”

In an age when it seems like every chef wants to make it big on Food Network, Twitty said it’s important for those in the food industry to know their heritage, so they can see what sets them apart.

“You have to have a food identity,” Twitty said. “People have to know what you stand for as a food person. Where do you come from? What’s unique?”

Twitty certainly doesn’t follow a typical script when he cooks. Last week, for the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, he whipped up a spread that only someone with such deep ties to both Southern and Jewish cuisine might imagine.

He made brisket with homemade apple barbecue sauce, peach kugel crusted with corn flakes and couscous tossed with black-eyed peas.

It’s not always easy for Twitty to introduce new recipes to his family and friends. He said they were skeptical at first when he started serving Mediterranean salads inspired by Middle Eastern Jewish cooking. Sometimes, though, all it takes is a bit of framing to make something foreign seem more familiar.

“When you put it alongside the idea, ‘OK, well, we had the potato salad and the coleslaw at every Southern gathering,’ people get it a little bit more,” he said. “But it’s just the idea that, you know, you learn to diversify your palate and your kitchen based on all these different things. And that also becomes a big part of you.”