We’re more aware than ever of how Jews around the world have brought the best of every local cuisine within the laws of kashrut.
Which is why it should be no surprise that this is still an ongoing process. Manhattan-based food writer, Jayne Cohen, explains that the communities of America’s Deep South are a perfect example.
“It’s a fascinating story, as some of the best food in the US comes from the south — fried chicken, gumbos (meat or fish-based stews flavoured with Creole spices), fresh peach ice cream and peach shortcakes, to name a few.And this cuisine has had a wonderful influence on Jewish food.” Cohen explains that many of the Jews in the south — who number around 455,000 (about one per cent of the population), rising to just over a million if you include Floridians — incorporated local ingredients into their cooking, finding unique ways to kosherise these dishes.
“African Americans had a very large influence, either as neighbours in some communities or, in others, as cooks working in Jewish homes.
“These cooks may later have become caterers in some communities, putting their stamp on traditional dishes like grits [a polenta-like coarsely ground corn], which they may have served with lox or salty herring. Grits were a wonderful foil for saltier foods.”
Cohen says even matzah balls have had their own southern spin. “They may have been served with chives and hot pepper sauce, or made with Creole seasoning and served in soup or in gumbo.”
She explains that the way Jews settled in the south was different to how their brethren had settled in the northern states. In the north, they tended to stay in cities, but the southern communities were smaller and more isolated. “Sometimes the original Jewish settlers were peddlers, who established themselves in places where people had never seen a Jew before. They would sometimes set up general stores, which became known as ‘Jew stores’. Women in those communities would exchange recipes with locals — white or African-American, which was very different than the situation in the north, where Jewish immigrants tended to stick with the cuisine they had brought with them.”
The southern settlers didn’t say goodbye to all their traditional foods. “Many of the original Jewish settlers in the south came from Alsace Lorraine in France, so you see an abundance of French Alsatian desserts. Some of the women who had a cook to do their everyday cooking,had time to really go to town on the desserts like rich nut tortes and lebkuchen.”
Arriving in a region where pork and seafood were so much part of the local diet, some took more from the local fare than others. The less Orthodox communities “may have continued to worship at synagogue each week but would go home to eat their challah with pork. They didn’t necessarily identify as Jews via their food but retained a strong Jewish affiliation.”
Local Jewish recipe writers have evolved recipes combining the two cuisines. In New Orleans — where Jews have lived since the 18th century and which has a thriving Jewish food scene — the late Mildred Covert wrote a food column for the Times-Pecayune for many years. Covert blends kosher and Cajun dishes and has produced four cookery books of these recipes. Her recipes included macaroons with brown sugar and pecans (a very Southern combination); red beef soup with matzah balls and a matzah-based dressing (or stuffing) which borrowed from the Creole recipe for dirty rice, using gizzards and local spices. “She would use filé — a Creole seasoning and thickener— and sassafras, to make gumbo.”
Today, African-American Jewish convert Michael Twitty blends the best of both worlds with inventions such as the mac and cheese noodle kugel. Twitty was one of a panel of food experts who joined Cohen to discuss gefilte gumbo — the Jewish-southern fusion — at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage.
There’s clearly far more to American Jewish food than lox and bagels.
Cohen will be speaking at Gefiltefest on June 25. Tickets and information from www.gefiltefest.org