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A Black woman in a white chef's coat opens her arms toward a table full of food.

Chef Imani Jackson welcomes everyone to the table, finding comfort and establishing community through her food. She opens her arms around the table holding her fan-favorite sliders, Israeli salad, and Buffalo chicken.

Photo courtesy of Imani Jackson

  • What Is Blewish Cooking? Imani Jackson Blends Black and Jewish Cuisine

    A shawarma lover would be puzzled to see Chef Imani Jackson pull apart the chicken for her sliders. Common in Middle Eastern countries, shawarma is served as thinly sliced meat in between toasty pita, but she prepares this classic Levantine street food with an African American barbeque-style twist.

    Jackson runs the Black Jewish—or “Blewish”—catering company Chopped & Served in Minneapolis, and today, she is preparing a shawarma bar with Israeli salad, pickled cabbage, onion, and carrot, and a garlic cilantro sauce for a banquet. Hers is the only Blewish catering company in the Twin Cities, carving out space for Blewish culinary traditions and identity in an otherwise mostly white Jewish community.

    But Jackson, a biracial Jewish woman, didn’t grow up with the dream of becoming a chef. Born and raised in St. Louis Park, just west of the Minneapolis metro area, she is the youngest of three raised in a single-parent household. Her grandmother was an observant Jew, but her mother wanted to provide more space for self-discovery, so Jackson grew up in a non-religious household. Although she lived in what was nicknamed “St. Jewish Park” because of the large Jewish presence in the neighborhood—Jackson still sources her kosher meat from a butcher there—she was the only Black person in her grade in elementary school.

    Her immediate neighborhood and apartment building, however, were full of people of color, so she grew up constantly code switching to fit in. “I became too Black for the white people, and too white for the Black people,” Jackson says. “My whole life, I’ve had two different feet in two different doors. And at this point, I just created my own door.”

    After high school, she participated in the birthright trip to Israel and discovered that Jewish people of color, like herself, are not the odd ones out. On her travels, Jackson met many people who looked and practiced like she did. Sitting across from them at a table, she learned her way into a larger community.

    “We can bond and break bread,” she says. “We can be compassionate toward one another if we just have a meal. A lot of my ancestors always said, ‘Just come sit down with me and get to know who I am.’” She took this newfound feeling of belonging back with her to the Twin Cities.

    An aluminum catering dish filled with deep brown, glazed pulled chicken, topped with sliced parsley.
    Jackson’s guests are invited to dig into delicious pulled chicken, in the style of shawarma.
    Photo courtesy of Imani Jackson

    As of 2020, eight percent of Jewish adults residing in the United States are Black, Latinx, or multiracial, and age patterns suggest that this number is growing. As such, there is a vital Jewish population seeking out food and community that reflect their cultural histories, especially as Jews of color often face exclusion and questioning at synagogue. Organizations like Jews in ALL Hues, the Jews of Color Initiative, and the Jewish Multiracial Network are actively fighting for racial equity within the American Jewish community, including access to food like Jackson’s that represents the fusion of African American soul and Jewish cooking.

    Raised by an observant Jewish grandmother and a mother who continued her family’s culinary traditions, Jackson was familiar with cooking kosher and had been surrounded by Blewish food growing up. She started catering part-time while attending the University of Minnesota. A first-generation college student, she approached the campus Hillel director with an offer. She would cook kosher in exchange for housing while attending school.

    The arrangement lasted a year and a half before renovations and the COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone out of shared housing. She was forced to pivot and, with her accumulated capital from part-time catering, was able to go into the catering business full time and hire people to help her cook, prepare, and serve the food. In fall 2022, Jackson opened a brick-and-mortar kitchen, or physical homebase, for Chopped & Served, in George Floyd Square. Down the line, she plans to host cooking workshops and sell healthy to-go meals, sharing the flavors of Blewish cooking with Jews and gentiles of the Twin Cities.

    Her cooking not only represents Blewish identity in a mostly white Jewish community but also celebrates how Minneapolis has a long history of Blewish cultural fusion. Taressa Stovall, a woman with Askenazi-Russian Jewish, Black, Native American, and white ancestry, recalls her mother’s “Blewish” cooking fondly. Her parents met because Minneapolis, unlike other parts of the country , allowed Jewish and Black people to live side by side during the Great Depression. Stovall fondly recalls her mother’s chicken soup and collard greens, two staples that she grew up eating on New Year’s Eve and continues to do to this day. Jews of color, like Stovall and Jackson, scholar Michael Twitty argues in his recent book Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African American Jew, are critical contributors to both Black and Jewish cultures.

    A woman scoops a rice dish from a silver pan into a glass bowl for serving. Three people stand in the kitchen behind her, talking and watching.
    Imani Johnson prepares food in the kitchen, wearing her iconic Chopped & Served insignia on her chef’s coat.
    Photo courtesy of Imani Jackson

    Moving into George Floyd Square meant a lot to Jackson. When George Floyd was murdered by police at this intersection of Chicago Avenue and Thirty-Eighth Street on May 25, 2020, it sent shockwaves through Minnesota, the United States, and the world as one more example of police brutality aimed at African Americans. Immediately, Black, Latinx, and other Minnesotans created a small memorial with flowers, candles, and posters outside of the Cup Foods convenience store.

    Chopped & Served moved in directly across from Cup Foods. For Jackson, her location encourages her Jewish and non-Jewish customers to think critically about how the world memorializes those killed as the result of racially and religiously motivated violence.

    “Why can I walk in a random park in Boston,” Jackson questioned, “and I just come across a beautiful Holocaust memorial with stories, names, statues, and pictures, but you go to George Floyd Square, where it shook the world three years ago, and we can’t get any money toward the community? We can’t get any memorial.” Although the George Floyd Global Memorial preserves the offerings left outside Cup Foods, it does not have the funding or federal backing for a plaque, statue, or stone memorial like those of Holocaust memorials around the world. It speaks to state and federal denial and erasure surrounding police brutality and race-motivated violence and murder.

    Jackson continued, “We just have the same stuff that the community brought together, and that is beautiful, but we are deserving of so much more, and through the food, we can showcase what it can become and what it deserves to be.”

    Jackson’s food both represents the existence and vibrancy of Black Jewish communities and serves as an intangible memorial. Her business uplifts two communities intimately familiar with loss, oppression, and state-sanctioned violence. Her cooking also brings them closer together. Every person who takes a bite of her steak and caramelized onion crostini, shakshuka, and Mama’s Buffalo Chicken is actively removing barriers and recognizing racial bias and exclusion within American Jewish communities.

    Her catering company celebrated its six-year anniversary in August. Right now, she is working on a Blewish sushi roll. Instead of using sushi rice, she plans to use quinoa. Instead of nori, she will use a grape leaf or collard green to “incorporate both of my worlds into one roll.” At the end of the year, Black communities enjoy black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes, and collard greens, she explains, symbolizing a bountiful and lucky year to come. She plans to use these ingredients—remembered fondly by Stovall—to create something uniquely Blewish, doused in homemade shakshuka sauce.

    Of course, sushi rolls, shawarma, and chicken soup are not originally from or specific to Jewish communities. It is only through cultural borrowing that these foods came to Israeli and American Jewish plates. While some may see the adoption of these foods as cultural appropriation, they reflect the impact of culinary exchange when different communities meet. Jackson’s cooking is just one example of how the meeting of two different groups yields a unique style of cooking, one which acknowledges its roots in each group’s history.

    Jackson’s business is reinvigorating food traditions by and for the Blewish community. As she says, “Chopped & Served is reintroducing what sovereignty means, looks like, and feels like so we can recondition our souls back to a sovereign diet similar to our ancestral ways.”

    For her, this means celebrating the Blewish cooking of her mother so that she can share it with people from both communities and one day pass it along to her four-month-old son. When she looks around her kitchen filled with kosher meat, candied yams, and okra stew, she feels wrapped in Blewish joy, culture, and love—key ingredients for her food.  

    Emma Cieslik is a museum professional in the Washington, D.C., area and a former curatorial intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

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