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My culinary journey through the Jewish South began in my hometown of Blytheville, Arkansas, a community that defined both my Judaism and my love for food. I am often asked, "How did you get interested in food?" The answer lies in my childhood in Blytheville, where I was surrounded by food worlds reflecting the diverse Jewish and Gentile worlds that comprise the South.
There was the Dixie Pig, where you could order barbecue chopped, shredded, plate-style, or a "white pig sandwich with cheese," possibly one of the most nonkosher combinations in the world. In the summer we drove to Wicker's Barbecue in Hornersville, Missouri, where sprinklers gently watered the tin roof to keep customers cool. When waitresses cleared tables, they poured leftover iced tea onto the sawdust-covered floor. The meal ended with warm peach cobbler served in a paper cup and eaten with a plastic spoon.
There were also meat 'n' three cafés with white and black proprietors where my father and I ate when we drove to visit his construction sites in rural Arkansas. Once I ordered a tuna fish sandwich. "You can't order tuna fish here," Dad growled. "Get the special." He was right.
Anna Dildine's drive-in on Main Street served the best catfish, the Kream Kastle featured cherry vanilla Cokes, and the Sonic was known for its Frito Pies. Middle- and upper-class whites belonged to the Blytheville Country Club, where women golfers lunched on chicken salad-stuffed tomatoes and deviled eggs and couples gathered on Saturday nights to enjoy seafood Newburg and broiled steaks. There were black-owned "soul food" restaurants like the Dew Drop Inn on Ash Street, which paralleled the white Main Street in Blytheville, but we never ate there. Their world was divided from ours by the legacy of Jim Crow.
My family ate at The Villa, an Italian restaurant with a dark, wood-paneled interior, brightly colored glass candleholders, and plastic red baskets filled with buttery garlic toast. My favorite dishes were hamburger pizza and spaghetti covered in a thick red sauce served on heavy china platters. Dad and I sometimes drove to a small Mexican restaurant in nearby Osceola that was decorated with sombreros and rugs on its walls. We always ate tortilla chips with a Rotel cheese dip, followed by plates of tamales and refried beans.
When I ate in the homes of Gentile friends, I discovered foods never served in our home. Their meals featured homemade biscuits, sausage, flour gravies, pork chops, barbecued ribs, field peas, fresh tomatoes, macaroni and cheese, fruit pies, and homemade candy. Many of my friends had grandparents in the country who tended vegetable gardens and who brought homegrown tomatoes and zucchini to their in-town relatives. My father's secretary, May Dixon, lived across the street from our home and was an excellent cook. Aunt May kept a canister on her stove top labeled "drippings" and used bacon fat to flavor her pole beans. She made dishes like chicken cacciatore and baked beautiful chocolate layer cakes for my sister, Jamie, and me on our birthdays. At the home of my friend Denise Dias Broussard, whose family moved to Blytheville from Lafayette, Louisiana, I discovered thick gumbos and the Catholic tradition of midnight mass on Christmas Eve followed by hot chocolate, homemade fudge, and divinity.
Seventy-five miles south of Blytheville, Memphis food beckoned. Memphis was home to Joy Young's Chinese restaurant, with its exotic curtain-separated dining booths; Pappy 'n' Jimmy's, a classic seafood and steak house; and Grisanti's and Pete and Sam's, which served Old World Italian specialties. Old South fine dining was featured at Justine's and the Four Flames. The swing-era Skyway Room atop the Peabody Hotel offered a panoramic view of the Mississippi River. My Russian-born grandfather, Jimmy Cohen, recorded his voice on a table-side recording machine offered as a novelty to customers in the Skyway Room. We still have the scratchy recording of the slightly tipsy version of "God Bless America" and "Ochi Chernye" sung in his deep Russian accent.
There were occasional trips to New Orleans, where I discovered a food world unlike any other in the South. My parents introduced me to classic New Orleans restaurants such as Antoine's and Commander's Palace. We rode the trolley up and down St. Charles Avenue and ate at Corinne Dunbar's. I remember the waiters, the shrimp Creole, the mirrored walls of Arnaud's, and the café au lait at Café Du Monde in the French Market, where my first bite of a beignet covered me in a cloud of confectioners' sugar.
Especially important are Jewish food memories from my childhood set in the synagogue social hall and the kitchens of my mother and grandmothers. In Blytheville, Arkansas, my grandmother Luba Cohen fried delicate matzoh meal pancakes for my breakfast after sleepovers at her home. I adored her B'rer Rabbit molasses cookies, and I loved the chicken chow mein that she served for dinner. Luba made delicious matzoh ball soup and other Jewish dishes from recipes that she learned from her mother and grandmother in New York and Russia. After she moved south to live in Blytheville, Luba learned to make black-eyed peas and slow-cooked pole beans, both of which she flavored with fatback.
As a child, when we visited my mother's parents, Lena and Morris Horowitz, in New London, Connecticut, I discovered exotic Jewish foods never seen at our home in Arkansas-blintzes filled with cottage cheese and topped with sweet fruit sauces, chewy bagels, dark slices of pumpernickel bread, sweet butter, and fresh cottage cheese. There was fresh fish for supper caught by my grandfather in the Long Island Sound, Mama Lena's sponge cakes for dessert, and ice cream sandwiches bought from the driver of a bell-ringing ice cream truck at the beach. A highlight of each visit was a special dinner that featured my grandmother's stuffed veal, a rich concoction of braised meat, dried fruits, and vegetables. Having kept a kosher home for many years, Mama Lena introduced me to her version of the Jewish dietary laws. Lena kept a flowerpot filled with garden soil on her kitchen windowsill for errant silverware. If a milchig (dairy) spoon was used in a fleishig (meat) dish by mistake, Mama Lena put the delinquent spoon in the flowerpot to purify it overnight.
At Temple Israel in Blytheville we ate sisterhood-baked brownies, cupcakes, and chocolate cake at weekly Oneg Shabbats. There was also Jerry Barkovitz's barbecued brisket at Hanukkah suppers, Irene Bass's chopped liver at holidays, and Mary Weinberg's matzoh balls at Passover seder. At our home, weekly Sabbath meals featured my mother's honey chicken, a noodle kugel, and green peas with almonds and mushrooms. On some Friday evenings we ate Ritchie Lee King's fried chicken served with potato salad and fresh green beans. A talented baker, my mother often made pound cake or marble cake for Sabbath dessert.
I inherited both of my grandmothers' recipe boxes after their death. My head was already filled with recipes and stories they shared with me when I was a small girl. My mother, her friends from synagogue, and the many women I encountered during my research also shared stories of southern Jewish life with me. These stories inspired me to explore how food has shaped the South's distinctive Jewish life.
Food memories link me to the South and to my own family. During my study of the Jewish South, I discovered recipes pasted into albums and filed in boxes. As southern Jewish women prepared these recipes and invented new ones, they confronted their southern and Jewish identities. They merged past and present into rugelach and pecan pies.
Jews have lived in the South since the late seventeenth century, and each generation has balanced its southern and Jewish identities. Southern Jewish history reminds us of our nation's racial and religious diversity, and nowhere is this diversity better understood and tasted than at the dinner table. As we explore food traditions of Jewish southerners, we discover a unique chapter in American Judaism. Here religious observance and ethnic identity center on region, African Americans are embraced as "Jewish" cooks and caterers, "creative" interpretation of Jewish ritual and law is tolerated, synagogue affiliation and participation in Jewish organizations are extremely important, and nonreligious cultural activities are invested with religious meaning.
In this book I describe how southern and Jewish cultures have mixed at the dinner table for more than four centuries. My culinary journey through the Jewish South begins in Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, with Jewish communities in the colonial period. Foodways of these colonial Jews adhered to kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws) and distinguished them as Jews. From the colonial period to the present kashrut has been a point of debate that defines how low-country Jews express their identity at the kitchen table, in the synagogue social hall, and in beach cottages.
From South Carolina and Georgia, I continue my southern Jewish road trip to antebellum New Orleans and communities along the lower Mississippi. In these Deep South worlds the influence of creole cuisine and the presence of African American cooks in Jewish homes were daily facts of life. In a city known for its ease and religious tolerance, Jews quickly entered business and social worlds. The New Orleans Jewish experience was defined by cultural and social life rather than by synagogues. Through foods served in their homes, at fund-raising banquets, and in food businesses, Jews of New Orleans and along the lower Mississippi defined their relationship to the Gentile world that surrounded them. At mealtime they blended into society, successfully competed in one of the richest economies in the world, and asserted their southern loyalty.
The next stop on our gastronomic tour is Atlanta, Georgia, "Capital of the New South." At the beginning of the twentieth century, the eating habits of a diverse Jewish community anticipated how its members would cope with the murder of Leo Frank, "one of their own," and later with anti-Semitic violence during the civil rights era. Through food the city's many Jewish communities-Germans, eastern Europeans, and Greeks-affirmed their identity as southerners, as Georgians, as Atlantans, and as Jews. Atlanta Jews embraced New South boosterism and its symbols from Mammy-endorsed flour to the South's national anthem, "Dixie." They began as merchants in black neighborhoods where local cuisine influenced both the foods they sold and those they ate at home. African American cooks and caterers later introduced seasonings and cooking methods in homes, social clubs, and synagogues. Each of Atlanta's Jewish communities embraced the New South through both the foods they ate and those they avoided.
From the urban worlds of Jewish Atlanta, we move to the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta, where Jews settled after the Civil War. Here a small number of Jewish families live in a world dominated by the Mississippi River, cotton, churches, and the blues. Their foodways reveal a culture shaped by a deep sense of place, isolation, kinship ties, agricultural occupations, and the influence of white and black cultures. Delta Jews gather regularly at the synagogue, dinner table, youth activities, and even golf tournaments to affirm their community. They travel to Memphis, Jackson, and New Orleans to find foods associated with their heritage. And they craft a personal Judaism as a way to remain Jewish while living in places far removed from larger Jewish communities.
The last stop in our culinary journey is Memphis, Tennessee. There we encounter a thriving Jewish community in a city known for Protestant fundamentalism, blues, rock and roll, pork barbecue, and its black and white working-class cultures. In two of the nation's largest and most vital Orthodox and Reform communities, Memphis Jews respond both to the larger Gentile community and to Jewish concerns about assimilation, social acceptance, and adherence to Jewish law. Memphis Jews are bonded by southern culture, and this is best understood in their complex relationship to barbecue through kosher barbecue contests, Hanukkah barbecue feasts, and closely guarded home recipes for "Que."
Each of these southern worlds reflects the constantly changing relationship between rural and urban worlds in the Jewish South; the diversity of Jewish populations who came to the South from central and eastern Europe, Greece, and Turkey; and the Reform, Orthodox, and Conservative movements in the region. Jews adapted their culinary traditions in predominantly Christian southern worlds, where they were deeply shaped by the region's rules of race, class, and gender.
Southern Jews were tempted by regional foods that are among the most delectable dishes in the world but also the most forbidden by Jewish standards. Kashrut specifies which foods are prohibited to Jews, how certain foods should be prepared, and the manner in which animals should be slaughtered. The challenge of "keeping kosher" in the South, where foods forbidden by kashrut-pork, shrimp, oysters, and crab-are popular, has confronted Jewish southerners for more than four centuries.
During my travels in the Jewish South, I found that food traditions-those kosher and nonkosher, those deeply southern and deeply Jewish-endure and are reinterpreted by each generation of Jewish cooks as they mix regional flavors and methods with Old World ingredients and techniques. The older generation of Jewish grandmothers and mothers rarely change their recipes, choosing to preserve flavors that remind them of family, ancestral places, and historic memories. At their dining tables, Jewish southerners-young and old, rural and urban-created a distinctive religious expression that reflects the evolution of southern Jewish life.
My study of southern Jewish foodways raises basic questions about Jewish life in the American South. Who are southern Jews? Are they Jews first and southerners second, or does their strong sense of place reverse these loyalties? Can southern Jews be truly Jewish in a region where they constitute just under half of 1 percent of the South's total population? How do Jewish women shape the religious lives of family members through their influence in their kitchens and in synagogues? How do African Americans shape the lives of Jewish southerners? What does it mean to be a "city Jew" in cities like Savannah and Atlanta-with their historic synagogues and lively Jewish community centers-versus being a "country Jew" in rural Arkansas and Mississippi, where religious schools, kosher butcher shops, and bakeries do not exist?
Southern Jews have strong views about these questions. As I traveled throughout the South, I realized that place matters to southern Jews and is especially important at mealtime. Although they acknowledge that their Jewish heritage is influenced by country of origin and religious observance, southern Jews also emphasize the importance of place, of regional foods, and of Jewish and African American women who bring southern and Jewish foods to their dining tables.
Food is key to understanding southern Jews. For more than four centuries, they have both eaten and rejected the foods indigenous to the places in which they live. The degree to which southern Jews either embraced local cuisine or preserved Jewish foodways defined their identity in the South. Food became a barometer, a measuring device that determined how southern Jews acculturated while also retaining their own heritage. Introducing new food, recipes, and cooking methods quickly set boundaries between older residents and newcomers.
Southern Jews adjusted eating habits to match those of their neighbors, a pattern familiar to Jews since biblical times. They also created a new cuisine that revealed both their merging of the many cultures they encountered in the New World and the boundaries they created to separate themselves from these worlds. They faced a timeless predicament. How could Jews be Jewish in a place where catfish is easier to find than kishke?
Eating is a simple act. We prepare food, and we eat it. But why do people have such strong feelings about food? Why does food cause people to experience a range of emotions from comfort to anger? Simply put, eating is not solely about nourishment. Eating is a complicated activity that reveals who we are and where we come from, an activity that defines our race, gender, class, and religion.
Excerpted from Matzoh Ball Gumbo by Marcie Cohen Ferris Copyright © 2005 by University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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