At a table in Fredericksburg, Virginia, surrounded by loved ones, Michael W. Twitty will celebrate Passover this year with a Seder plate that speaks directly to his identity.
Twitty, an African American food historian and author, will make his haroseth, a dish that symbolizes the mortar Israelites used while they were enslaved by Egyptians, with pecans and molasses. The molasses represents the sugar cane that was central to the American slave trade, and the pecans represent African American resilience and celebration in the South.
Sweet potato, an important vegetable in the African diaspora, will serve as the karpas, signifying hope and renewal; it is usually dipped in salt water, a symbol of the tears Israelites shed during oppression. Collard greens will represent the maror, the bitter herbs that serve as a poignant reminder of the bitterness of slavery.
“Blackness deserves a seat at the Seder,” said Twitty, 45. “I use food to guarantee not just a place, but a legacy to build on.”
Passover, which begins this year on the evening of April 15, is one of the most important holidays for Jews around the world, a day in which liberation and freedom are not just remembered, but venerated in the Seder, the holiday’s ceremonial meal. The Seder plate, which bears an array of symbolic foods, is a source of reflection and celebration. Other common holiday dishes in the dinner that follows — like braised meats, fish and soups — also allow for cultural symbolism and let Jews make the experience their own.
“Food is a very pliable, necessary, constant and interesting way of being able to define who you are and what you are not,” Twitty said.
For Black American Jews like Twitty — author of the book “Koshersoul,” about the intersection of Jewish and African diasporic cuisine, which will be published in August — the table can be a place to claim and create their own culinary traditions, ones that reflect both their faith and ethnic background. It’s also a space to reaffirm their identity and place in American Judaism, where questions of authenticity often plague Black Jews.
According to a 2021 report from the Pew Research Center, there are about 5.8 million Jewish adults in the United States; the overwhelming majority identify as white and non-Hispanic. In a 2021 study commissioned by the Jews of Color Initiative, an organization devoted to supporting and empowering that community, 80% of roughly 1,100 self-identified Jews of color from across the country said they had experienced discrimination in a Jewish setting.
One percent of Black Americans identify as Jewish, but in younger generations, that percentage is increasing, and young American Jews overall are a far more diverse group than their older counterparts.
“Jewish civilization has, can and will look like us as much as anyone else,” Twitty said.
There are clear parallels between the Black American experience and the story of Passover.
In the biblical book of Exodus, God inflicts the 10 plagues — including the killing of each family’s firstborn child — to persuade Pharoah to let the Jewish people go. (God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites to sacrifice a lamb and mark their doors with its blood, so the Angel of Death might “pass over” their homes.)
God then frees the Israelites from slavery in Egypt after four centuries of bondage, parting the Red Sea so they can escape; then they wander in the desert for 40 years. It is a tale of struggle and liberation — the same kind of liberation that Black Americans experienced after the Emancipation Proclamation and still seek today.
Robin Washington, 65, a journalist and editor at large of the Forward, and a longtime prominent voice among Jews of color, tells a story about reaching for a book to prop up his laptop during a virtual Seder in 2021 at his home in Duluth, Minnesota. Halfway through dinner, he realized he had grabbed Taylor Branch’s “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63,” about Martin Luther King Jr.’s early work and accomplishments during the civil rights movement — a divine coincidence.
“Passover, for me is empowerment,” Washington said. “As far as liberation from slavery is concerned, they’re inseparable, in my mind. I couldn’t possibly think about Jews being held as slaves without thinking about Blacks being held as slaves.”
Nigel Quartey, 40, an executive assistant who lives in Baltimore, has roots in Ghana and the Caribbean, and his wife’s family is of Eastern European Jewish descent. Passover is a moment to ensure that his children understand the importance and depth of the story of the Jews, he said — one that “interrelates in such a deep and emotional way with the story of African Americans and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.”
The story, he said, provides an opportunity to reflect: “At each point, the negative thing that happens is a point of strength and a point of pride for the people.” He added, “The tragedies and the intermix between that trauma still goes on.”
Rabbi Sandra Lawson, director of racial diversity, equity and inclusion for Reconstructing Judaism, the central organization of the Reconstructionist Jewish movement, said she feels the parallels. “As a Black woman, I can totally embody the connection between the American slave experience and the mythological sort of slavery experience for Passover,” she said. “The way Jewish tradition works is that we are supposed to imagine ourselves as if we’re currently slaves.”
In many ways, the Passover meal is a lot more flexible than it may seem. While certain foods are prohibited by Jewish law, cooks can still customize the details of the menu to reflect their identifies and priorities.
Lawson, 53, is vegan and keeps a kosher home in Burlington, North Carolina. She and her wife, Susan Hurrey, prepare their own matzo, the unleavened bread that the Jews are said to have made because they left Egypt quickly and did not have time to let the dough rise. (The process has to be supervised by a rabbi — in this case, Lawson — to be considered kosher for the holiday.) “The store-bought matzo is factory-made,” she said. “Ours might not be much of a difference, but I appreciate it more.”
Her Passover menu prioritizes simplicity, she said: “For me, it’s an opportunity to get closer to the earth and eat as closely to the ground as possible without a lot of extra stuff.”
Quartey uses the Passover table to reflect his family’s rich background, using spices like suya and hwentia (also known as selim pepper) to season his chicken; simmering flavorful pepper or groundnut soup instead of the more common chicken soup; and preparing kontomire stew, which he makes with spinach, palm oil, dried fish, tomatoes, pepper and eggs.
Twitty follows the tradition of holding two Seders at the beginning of Passover, both of which feature his African American Seder plate and the traditional Seder plate. The meals that follow include Afro-Judaic dishes like his Senegalese-inspired chicken soup, made with tomatoes, minced herbs and nutty suya spice; matzo meal-fried chicken; a West African-inspired brisket bathed in a fragrant sauce to be served with rice or fufu; and kachumbari, a tomato and onion salad with roots in Kenya.
Twitty, who won a James Beard Foundation award in 2018 for his book “The Cooking Gene,” is a leading scholar on the connections between Black and Jewish foodways. An active social media user with a large following, he has also been recognized as a prominent voice among Jews of color.
Tema Smith, 38, a multiracial Black Jewish woman in Toronto who works as an educator and diversity advocate, said she felt inspired by the work of Twitty, a friend and colleague.
“As Jews become more diverse in the U.S., and are in more racially diverse leadership roles, modeling that it’s OK to bring all of your culture into Judaism is really beautiful and important, because food is such an important part of who we are,” she said.
Twitty recalled his first Passover celebration, when he was in high school, as the moment he connected with the holiday’s deeper, progressive themes. “My general impression was that it was these ideas about freedom and about your culture’s destiny, and your people’s destiny, that were being discussed,” he said. “It develops into a full-blown conversation that lasts the better part of the whole night.”
The holiday, he said, can be a reminder of the work that needs to be done in the United States and around the world.
“We’re making a claim on how we do our culture,” he said. “There have been Jews of African descent since there was Judaism. And we won’t stop telling that story.”
—Recipe: Matzo-Meal Fried Chicken
Recipe from Michael W. Twitty
Michael W. Twitty’s use of matzo meal to coat his fried chicken is an ode to the innovative Black women of the American South, including his own ancestors. Marrying the traditions of Black southern cooking with Southern Ashkenazi Jewish culinary ones, Black women in cities like Savannah, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; New Orleans; and Nashville, Tennessee, preserved their African heritage and local Jewish customs through this fried chicken. The fragrant spice mixture is enough to gather droves of people around the table, and the dish’s Southern charm is evident with the first crispy, tender and juicy bite.
Total time: 2 hours, plus chilling and resting
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
2 teaspoons poultry seasoning
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
2 whole kosher chickens, preferably fryers (3 to 3 1/2 pounds each)
Neutral oil, for frying (see Tip below)
1. Combine the salt, pepper, poultry seasoning, paprika, ginger, cinnamon, allspice and cloves in a bowl.
2. Rinse chickens and pat dry. Cut each into pieces: breasts, wings, drumsticks and thighs. If the breast halves are very large, cut them in half crosswise. Season the chicken all over with the spice mixture, cover and refrigerate for a few hours.
3. Beat the eggs with a fork in a shallow dish, then mix in 2 tablespoons water. Place matzo meal in another dish. Set up two racks over two large baking sheets lined with paper towels. Dip each chicken piece in the eggs to thoroughly coat, then in the matzo meal. Set on the racks, arranging breasts, wings, legs and thighs together. Let sit for about 15 minutes at room temperature so the coating can set.
4. Meanwhile, add oil to a depth of 1 1/4 inches in a large, deep frying pan or Dutch oven and heat over medium to about 325 degrees. Working in batches by chicken parts and adjusting the heat as needed to maintain a steady sizzle, fry the breasts then the dark meat until browned all around and 165 degrees or higher for white meat and 175 degrees for dark meat, 7 to 8 minutes per side. If needed, continue cooking pieces to brown evenly or cook through, about 4 minutes. Use your best judgment (and a meat thermometer): Crispy and golden brown on the outside doesn’t necessarily mean done on the inside.
5. Line large platters with paper towels. As the chicken pieces finish cooking, remove them with tongs and place them on the platters to drain. Sprinkle with salt, if you’d like, and serve hot or warm.
If needed or desired, use oil that is kosher for Passover. If following Sephardic kosher for passover guidelines, use corn or peanut oil.
Recipe: Kachumbari (Tomato and Onion Relish)
Recipe from Michael W. Twitty
In his book, “Koshersoul,” food historian Michael W. Twitty explores the varied cuisines of the global Jewish diaspora. Kachumbari, the Swahili word that means “pickle,” can be traced to Kenya and other East African countries where the tomato and onion mix is served as a salad or relish. This dish exemplifies a tradition of hospitality: Appetizers or snacks — salatim in Israel, kemia in North Africa and mezze in the Middle East — are offered to house guests. After tasting the small plates, the visitors then decide if they would like to stay and enjoy the main meal. This deeply flavored kachumbari can be served with nearly any fish or other protein-based dish, and can also be offered alongside plantains, or with hummus and pita.
Total time: 15 minutes, plus resting
4 ripe but firm tomatoes, very thinly sliced
2 medium red onions, halved then very thinly sliced
1 carrot, peeled and sliced
1/2 cucumber, peeled and sliced
1 lemon, juiced (4 to 5 tablespoons)
1 tablespoon chrain (beet horseradish) or regular prepared horseradish
1/2 teaspoon red-pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon garam masala or curry powder
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1. Place the sliced tomatoes, onions, carrot and cucumber in a bowl. Squeeze lemon juice over the mixture and add the horseradish. Sprinkle with the red-pepper flakes and garam masala, then season with salt and pepper. Toss together to mix.
2. Allow flavors to develop at room temperature for at least 30 minutes or up to 3 hours, then serve as a relish or salad.
Recipe: West African-Inspired Brisket
Recipe from Michael W. Twitty
During Passover, this brisket, an American Jewish dish deeply influenced by food historian Michael W. Twitty’s Black heritage, will entice guests. Made with vibrant ingredients common in the cuisines of West and Central Africa, Twitty’s brisket gets its culinary power from the fresh flavors of bell peppers, onions and tomatoes, and the aromas of ground chiles, garlic, ginger and turmeric. Bathed in a piquant sauce, this brisket pairs well with rice or fufu (pounded tubers or plantains). According to Twitty, it may encourage table conversations spoken in Pidgin rather than Yiddish.
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground mild or medium red chile powder
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon coarse kosher salt, plus more to taste
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
2 large red onions, cut into rounds
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 white or yellow onions, diced
3 bell peppers (green, red and yellow), diced
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes (Kosher for Passover), drained
2 cups chicken, beef or vegetable stock (Kosher for Passover)
1 teaspoon prepared horseradish
2 fresh or dried bay leaves
1 sprig fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
1. Heat oven to 325 degrees. Combine the paprika, garlic, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, chile powder and cayenne with the salt and pepper. Save 2 teaspoons for the vegetables, then sprinkle the rest all over the brisket and rub in well.
2. Arrange the red onion rounds in a single layer in a roasting pan or large baking dish that can fit the brisket and drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil.
3. Heat the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium-low in a very large Dutch oven or large, deep skillet that fits the brisket. Cook the beef until lightly seared (don’t let the spices burn), about 5 to 6 minutes on both sides. Transfer to the roasting pan, placing the brisket on top of the red onion rounds.
4. Add the diced onions and bell peppers to the oil in the Dutch oven and season with the saved 2 teaspoons of seasoning. Raise the heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes, mix together, and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring often.
5. Add the stock, brown sugar, horseradish, bay leaves and thyme. Spoon the vegetables over the brisket to cover it and pour everything else from the Dutch oven into the roasting pan.
6. Cover the pan tightly with foil. If the foil touches the top of the brisket, cover the brisket with parchment paper first, then cover the pan with the foil. Bake until a fork slides into the brisket with only a little resistance, about 3 1/2 hours.
7. To serve right away, transfer the brisket to a cutting board and cut across the grain into thin slices. Transfer to a serving platter, sprinkle with salt and spoon the vegetables on top. You can serve the remaining sauce alongside or save for another use. To make ahead, cool the brisket, then cover tightly and refrigerate for up to 2 days. Once the brisket is chilled, cut off and discard excess fat if you’d like, and then slice the meat against the grain. Place the sliced brisket in a pan or pot, cover with the vegetables and sauce, and heat in a 350-degree oven until heated through, about 30 minutes.
Fried chicken goes with just about any wine, as long as the wine is not too oaky or tannic, which essentially means that you can choose anything you like. I love Champagne — it goes beautifully with most fried dishes. Riesling is great as well, either dry or moderately sweet. My other top choices among whites include Chablis, dry chenin blancs and assyrtiko from Santorini, Greece. If you prefer red, pinot noir is a great choice. So is Beaujolais or sangiovese. You could drink a modest Bordeaux or a restrained malbec, whether from Mendoza, Argentina, or Cahors, France. If you are preparing this dish for Passover, many of these wines are available in kosher versions. You could also try good Israeli producers like Domaine du Castel and Tzora, or kosher American producers like Hagafen and Covenant, which makes wine in Israel as well. — ERIC ASIMOV
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.