Food and cooking are universal. We all eat, we all need to get food on the table, and even if it’s not us directly, someone needs to cook. From small galley kitchens in apartments to large farmhouse kitchens looking out over lush, green backyards, whatever kitchens we are destined to be “stuck with” we adapt and we learn how to work with what we have. If we don’t have an ingredient, we try a different one. When my kids were little, in the summer we held taste tests. I would get things they’d never eaten and we’d try them. It was great fun, and the kids had an awesome time choosing what new food, mostly fruit they wanted to try. Some (donut peaches) did better than others (anchovies).
I had the privilege of working one of my first jobs out of college as a civilian for the US Navy’s child development program and through that job met people from all over the country and we shared food and recipes and cultural traditions, and it was wonderful.
One of my mentors, Sylvia was an African-American woman from New Orleans. She had a demeanor of floating on air, gliding through our lives, and expressing and encouraging our wonder in the world and in diversity. I learned so much from her. She was ethereal and offered her words and advice as a sage. From her, I learned to make her sweet potato pie for Thanksgiving.
I followed her recipe exactly for years and my family loved this new item in our Thanksgiving celebration. My mother could not reconcile that sweet potato pie was served cold and as a dessert. She just could not get used to it, and soon it became a side dish in our house. The only difference between Sylvia’s and my version was temperature and time to eat.
After a while, after three kids and depression, and “I don’t have time for this” I converted it to a casserole, but I still miss that original version that Sylvia introduced me to. At the bottom, I’ll share my recipe, which, while excellent is not what you’d find in New Orleans.
Combining Sylvia’s traditions with mine was one way I blended her African American heritage with my Jewish heritage and then further blending Jewish and Christian traditions for holidays, in classrooms as a teacher and in my husband’s Catholic family.
This has been a longwinded introduction to a Twitter friend of mine, someone I met on the social media site in the last few months.
Michael W. Twitty is a proud African-American Jew who expresses himself through cooking and writing about food and culinary history. His Twitter handle is KosherSoul, which exemplifies his focus.
I’m going to quote from his website because this epitomizes how I think of my own cooking: Michael has introduced me to the term, “identity cooking.” “Identity cooking isn’t about fusion; rather its [sic] how we construct complex identities and then express them through how we eat.” This is a truism that if you follow me for any length of time and read my food posts, you’ll see that connecting different foods has always been my cooking style. Bringing together flavors that don’t necessarily go, but manage to surprise. None of us eats in a singular “culinary construct”. We often work with what we have and adapt. My mother-in-law was excellent at pulling things together from her cupboards and turning it into a gourmet meal. She had a rare talent.
As for Twitty, I could easily just copy and paste his website to describe how he blends the two diasporas of African-Americans and the Jewish people and their food, but I’ll let you visit him yourself as he explores their crossroads. He is a two time James Beard award-winning author and his recent book, KOSHERSOUL: The Faith and Food Journey of an African-American Jew was the winner of the 2023 National Jewish Book Council Award for Book of the Year.
Find all his socials below as well as his website and links to purchase his books.
Afroculinaria on WordPress
He also offers classes in the DC/Baltimore area. Information here.
As promised, my recipe for Sweet Potato Casserole
To make this as a pie, pour into a graham cracker pie crust, cover with mini marshmallows and bake for about 35 minutes at 350, until marshmallows are golden brown.
Ingredients & Directions:
1 large can of sweet potatoes (cook, drain, mash)
1 stick of butter
1/4 cup of brown sugar (whatever variety you prefer – I use dark, Sylvia used light)
I don’t measure the spices, but I add about:
1 TB cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
Incorporate everything together and pour into a small, any shaped casserole dish. Cover the top with mini marshmallows and bake for 35 minutes at 350 degrees.
Scoop and serve.
If pie, let cool, slice, and serve.