My mom sends me a lot of articles from the New York Times. She does it so often, it’s basically her love language.
To be frank, however, I don’t always read all the articles she sends me. (Sorry, Mom!) But the piece she sent me on April 5 immediately caught my eye.
“‘Blackness Deserves a Seat at the Seder’” is an article reported by Kayla Stewart, a food writer and contributor to NYT Cooking. For the piece, Stewart spoke with multiple Black Jews like chef Michael W. Twitty, Rabbi Sandra Lawson and the Forward’s editor-at-large Robin Washington, among others, to create a compelling through-line between the story of Passover and the Black American experience.
As the main ritual of Passover takes place at a dinner table, the piece naturally focuses on food. In perhaps the most poignant quotation from the piece, Michael Twitty, author of “The Cooking Gene” and the forthcoming “Koshersoul,” tells Stewart, “Blackness deserves a seat at the Seder,” adding, “I use food to guarantee not just a place, but a legacy to build on.”
For Twitty, that means cooking up seder entreés that combine Jewish and African or African-American flavors, like West African-inspired brisket and matzah-meal fried chicken. Additionally, Twitty creates an African-American seder plate. This variation of the seder plate substitutes the traditional symbolic foods with foods that represent the American slave trade or are significant to Black Americans. Instead of Ashkenazi haroset that features apples and wine, Twitty’s haroset combines pecans and molasses. Whereas other Jews interpret karpas to be parsley and maror to be horseradish, his uses a sweet potato and collard greens, respectively.
Though Kayla herself is not Jewish, her care and respect towards Jewish traditions and culture are evident in a piece which serves as both important representation for Black Jews and a necessary reminder for non-Black Jews that myriad kinds of Jewish identity exist.
I had the opportunity to chat with Kayla about her article, moments that didn’t make the final draft and trying Michael Twitty’s West-African inspired brisket.
And, as a special bonus for our readers, you’ll find the recipe for that West-African inspired brisket below.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Well, first of all, I just want to say I loved the piece. It was one of those New York Times pieces that my mom texted me and was like, you have to read this. So how did the piece come to be? What inspired you to write it?
There are a couple of different pieces of inspiration. I should first mention that I have always been interested in theology, particularly in Black American communities. And having grown up in Houston, it’s an extremely diverse place and my first job and probably one of my favorite jobs to this day, actually, was working at my local JCC. In that position, and through the families I met, I was exposed to Jewish culture and tradition and holidays. And I met and worked with a lot of families and spent a lot of holidays with kids and in various communities and really enjoyed it. I’ve always carried those experiences with me.
And so when I came across Michael Twitty’s page, I found it really interesting, because I hadn’t really seen the story of Jewish faith and identity told through a Black American lens. I had been following him for a while and he shared his African American seder plate, which I thought was beautiful. And really, it just was pure curiosity, which I think is kind of the foundation of most journalists. And so I wanted to know more about both that seder plate, but also, the experience of Black Jews. I knew food might be a good kind of vehicle to tell that story.
Did you get to try any of Michael’s recipes?
Yeah, the brisket is fabulous. It seems to be a fan favorite. And one of the cool things about Michael’s recipes is that Michael’s an excellent storyteller, excellent cook and chef, and he knows what home cooks need. So it’s a fairly simple and straightforward brisket recipe for most people. But it’s also really lovely because I have personally spent time in West Africa and I really appreciate that this is a West African inspired brisket. It really does capture those flavors that you find in West African food, that pepper and that heat and that kind of earthiness that exist in a lot of the dishes that you’ll find in the region.
Wow, that’s great. It looks so delicious.
Yeah, yeah. It’s hard to resist any of Michael’s food.
So why do you think telling this story is important right now?
I think this goes back to the job that I had. I think I was so welcomed in the Jewish community, having grown up Southern Baptist in Texas. And I felt so welcome and so valued in the Jewish community. And in general I think we should have empathy for everyone. But of course, because I knew a little bit more about this particular community, and the specific types of antisemitism that exist, and the discrimination that [Jews] face, I think it’s always just kind of been a personal mission to tell more stories about these communities that have been marginalized in various ways, and to learn more about the type of diversity that exists within the Jewish faith. Because I think for the average person, most people have a very specific idea of what a Jewish person looks like. And that is not to the fault of them, it’s just what a lot of us have grown up with. And so I think, for me, I always knew that and still know that Black people are everywhere. And it’s really important for me to pull out those stories of where [Black people] are and how we exist and show up in the world, particularly in spaces where people might not expect us to be.
In this story, I mention that there’s only a small percentage of Black people that identify as Jewish and are in the Jewish community, but that doesn’t mean that their stories don’t matter. If anything, it means that we should be talking about them and highlighting them and exploring this particular group and exploring and understanding their experiences. I think it helps us to be more knowledgeable, more insightful, more empathetic. And I hope that the story helped in that mission.
I’m sure it has. So I’m also curious, as a reporter myself, something I really love about interviews are the moments that actually don’t make it into the piece. In your conversations with Michael or Rabbi Lawson or anyone else, were there any moments that didn’t make it into the piece, but still stuck with you?
Yeah, Rabbi Lawson, in particular, shared multiple stories actually that detailed some of the discrimination that she experienced. And it wasn’t related to food, it was specifically related to her experience being a leader in the faith. Because the story was a Passover story and focused on food, we definitely talked about the racism and the discrimination that they face, but didn’t include those specific instances. And we talked about it and she understood what the story ultimately ended up being.
To your point about reporting, I love it. Because people often tell just a variety of stories once they get to talking, and, you know, they may not necessarily totally line up with a piece. But they are still important and allow you to understand a little more about the person you’re talking about.
Did any of your interview subjects talk about the ways in which white American Jews can be more supportive of Black Jews in our community or just Black Americans in general?
You know, I did not ask that question right out. But the word “flexibility” and how flexible Passover is continued to come up throughout my interviews. And I should mention, of the Jewish holidays I was familiar with, for whatever reason Passover is the one I was least familiar with. I hadn’t actually celebrated Passover myself with anyone. And so it was very new for me. But I kept hearing this word “flexibility.” I heard that both for Passover and for the Jewish faith, my take from that was that they wanted other Jewish people, particularly white Jews, to understand that flexibility. And understand that certainly the white Jewish experience matters. But it’s not the only one and for white Jews to be able to acknowledge that and understand that and be more open to getting beyond this kind of constant narrative of what a Jewish person looks like, I would imagine that will be one way to help.
I love the quotation from Michael: “Blackness deserves a seat at the seder.” Do you think food is key to making that inclusivity happen?
Absolutely. I think food often allows us, particularly when we’re the ones that are seated and not the ones cooking for the whole group, to relax. It’s a time when you get to talk to people and let your guard down a little bit and have these conversations. Michael had a really lovely memory he shared about one of his first Passover experiences in high school, and how just this particular experience was so important for him and was a really, really critical part of his identity in terms of deciding who he was going to be and what that meant.
I think food allows us to think about things differently, embrace something new, try new flavors and try a new place by way of the table. And I think that really matters, in terms of achieving this goal of Blackness deserving a seat at the seder. And I think Blackness deserves a seat everywhere. My hope is that through food, and through people, like all of the folks that were in the piece, not just Michael, who specifically works with food, but the others as well, that people come to understand that story and that truth.
What has the reaction been to the piece?
It’s been overwhelmingly positive, which has been lovely. People have really enjoyed it. I think a lot of people have had a similar reaction to your mom, where it’s been something new for them or something kind of exciting. And I think it sparked additional curiosity. I’ve had people reach out to mention that they just enjoyed reading the story so much. And, you know, commenters on Twitter and social media being overall really, really curious and really excited to try the recipes, which has been lovely.
West African-Inspired Brisket
Michael W. Twitty and Kayla Stewart for The New York Times Cooking
During Passover, this brisket, an American Jewish dish deeply influenced by the food historian Michael W. Twitty’s Black heritage, will entice guests. Made with vibrant ingredients common in the cuisines of West and Central Africa, Mr. 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 Mr. Twitty, it may encourage table conversations spoken in Pidgin rather than Yiddish. —Kayla Stewart
- 6 to 8 servings
- 4 ½ hours
- 1 tablespoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 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
- 1 (5-pound) brisket
- 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 tablespoon brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon prepared horseradish
- 2 fresh or dried bay leaves
- 1 sprig fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 3½ hours.
- 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.
Recipe reprinted with permission from The New York Times.