Washington Cooks: An heirloom approach to Rosh Hashanah

By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 7, 2010; 11:49 AM

For the Jewish New Year, Michael Twitty likes to cook produce with a traceable past: crisp Pink Lady apples from Virginia, creamy-fleshed Hayman sweet potatoes, shiny Green Glaze collards.

Then again, he has made a concerted effort to grow and eat heirloom fruits and vegetables for the past decade. The 33-year-old Washington native teaches Hebrew school by day and fills the rest of his time with living interpretations of African American history and, as he says, "cooking from the heart."

Somehow, he has managed to blend the disciplines as seamlessly as his conversation travels from Carolina black peanuts to his conversion to Judaism in 2002. The man can talk - with obvious enthusiasm, and occasional Yiddish.

"Rosh Hashanah is about connecting with the flow of the Creation, starting at the beginning," Twitty says. "It's about knowing our origins and blessing the new fruits of the future."

Connection is a recurring theme when Twitty relates a life journey that just returned him from presenting a paper on African American foodways at the 2010 Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery in July. Not bad for a young man who learned to cook "everything" from his mother, Burtonsville resident Pat Townsend.

"I watched my grandmother cook, but my mother taught me: how to make a proper stock, how to turn rolls over fresh from the oven so they don't sweat and ruin the bottoms, that sort of thing. Lest I forget, it was my mother who bought me Great Blacks in History posters when I was a kid, so I was never without that sense of pride in who I was and the people I came from."

Twitty's fascination with Jewish culture began at age 7, after he watched the movie version of Chaim Potok's novel "The Chosen."

"It was hilarious. My mom let me be 'Jewish' for a week, which meant I didn't eat pork. I turned a tricorn hat from Williamsburg into a yarmulke and read the Old Testament."

Fast-forward past public school in Montgomery County and a few credits shy of a degree in Afro-American studies at Howard University; Twitty interned at the Smithsonian and helped develop a Washington Jewish foodways program for the 2000 Folklife Festival.

He invited Jewish food maven Joan Nathan to participate - she later curated food culture for the event in 2005 - and quizzed her about where to go for immersion in Sephardic ways. She suggested he visit Magen David congregation in Rockville.

"The place felt warm and welcoming, very diverse. The first hand I shook was that of a young African American man," he says.

After informal study over the course of a year and many Sabbath meals at congregation members' homes, Twitty became a convert and started teaching in the junior congregation, the religious school and, later, at Har Shalom in Potomac, where he met the family who has made him a part of their Rosh Hashanah celebration for the past eight years. He went on a birthright trip to Israel in 2004. All the while, he has studied foodways of slaves in America and of his grandparents, who lived in South Carolina and Alabama and sought out active ways to make those stories come alive for others.

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