Southern Jews Put Their Spin On Soul Food

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The eight-day Jewish holiday of Hannukah began earlier this week and with it comes culinary traditions of the season. A new book describes how Jews in the American south have blended traditional Jewish fare enjoyed around the holidays with southern cuisine. Host Michel Martin speaks with Marci Cohen Ferris, author of “Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South”.


Next, to Faith Matters where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Jews around the world are observing Hanukkah this week. Wednesday night marked the first night. Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the second temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century, BCE. The holiday marks a miracle. There was only enough consecrated oil to burn for one day. Miraculously it lasted for eight.

And as I mentioned, it is a holiday, so naturally that got us thinking about our favorite subject: food. Now, in the Jewish faith, food needs to be Kosher, and that means, among other things, that certain foods like shellfish and pork are forbidden. So you might think that might make it difficult to be an observant Jew in, say, New Orleans, where seafood and pork are staples. But somehow, Jewish communities manage to not only thrive in the South, but to find ways to put their own spin on traditional Southern dishes.

Joining us now to tell us more about that is Marci Cohen Ferris. She is the author of "Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South." She's also an associate professor of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And she joins us from the studios there now. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us, and Happy Hanukkah to you.

Professor MARCI COHEN FERRIS (American Studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill): Happy Hanukah, y'all.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for that. What gave you this idea? I know you grew up in the South. You're born in Arkansas.

Prof. FERRIS: I did. I grew up in a small town in northeastern Arkansas and food has just always been a way that I thought about place and family. And it led me to eventually looking into this place and this Jewish family and this interesting mix of Jewish and southern that I encountered throughout my childhood.

MARTIN: You know, I think a lot of people might be surprised to hear that for well over 40 years after American independence there were more Jews in Charleston, South Carolina than in any other city in America.

Prof. FERRIS: I know. It's a great trivia fact, isn't it? Terrific to use at any Hanukkah party.

MARTIN: Well, tell us a little bit more about who these people were and how they came to be in these particular places.

Prof. FERRIS: Well, that really speaks to the powerful story of Jews arriving in America in the colonial period. And, actually, the first known record of a Jew to arrive was in 1585. But move a little bit forward from that and in the early 18th century, the first Jewish settlers were arriving as other European settlers were in Savannah and in Charleston.

You know, talk a little bit then, if you would, about food. You know, food is always such a tricky and powerful issue, particularly people who are living an immigrant experience. I mean on the one hand, you know, food is a way of assimilating. On the other hand, food can be a way of setting yourself apart or of maintaining, you know, traditions that mark your culture as your own.

Prof. FERRIS: Right. That's a great point. And it's interesting to think about. There's, you know, Kashrut is certainly - keeping Kosher, the Jewish dietary laws, it's not the entirety of the Jewish eating experience. There are Jews that have been observant Jews, Orthodox Jews that follow those traditions, those dietary laws. And then there's been a whole range of experience to complete non-observants at the other end.

MARTIN: What were some of the ways that Jewish people adapted their culinary traditions to the Southern environment? I mean there were some people who just kind of went all in and just ate what everybody else ate. But were there other things that people did? Did they, like, create adaptations?

Prof. FERRIS: They do. And it happens from the get-go. Want me to just give you some ideas of some mixed things over time?

MARTIN: Yes, I do. Please.

Prof. FERRIS: OK. I'll give you my list of kind of my favorites: barbecue brisket, eating lox and grits for breakfast with a bagel, eating collard greens. Everybody eats collard greens, or at least all the folks I know eat them as a side.

MARTIN: But they don't cook them with pork.

Prof. FERRIS: Yeah. And just leave out... with a bagel, eating collard greens. Everybody eats collard greens, or at least all the folks I know eat them as a side.

MARTIN: But they don't cook them with the pork.

Prof. FERRIS: Yeah. And just leave out the pork. You know, so there's many ways to Southernize Jewish foods and also to make more Jewish, or to even make as Kosher as one would want it to be, Southern dishes. That's possible.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk about Hanukah, since it's Hanukah. And I think many people may know, you know, this is a festival of lights and that, also, oil is closely associated with the holiday. Is there a way that many people might Southernize the latkes?

Oh, sure, this is a great holiday for Jewish Southerners because it celebrates oil, perfect, 'cause we use a lot of it. You know, there's a strong tradition of frying here. And anything with a cast iron pan you got to love, if you're a Southerner. But I'll tell you what we have, and this is actually a traditional menu that my mother always made. Very traditional to have brisket for Hanukah. It's a winter meal. And not everybody barbecued their brisket and served it in kind of that style, but that's how we made ours.

We have usually a side of greens with that. And then for potato pancakes we have sweet potato pancakes. That's a full meal. And then for dessert, you still, you know, wanting to emphasize the oil, the symbolic story of that miracle of the olive oil lasting, you know, for eight days instead of one, so I'd make beignets. You know what a beignet is, don't you?

MARTIN: Please. Don't hurt me like that.

Prof. FERRIS: The French doughnut.

MARTIN: Doughnuts.

Prof. FERRIS: Oh, the best. Then why not make a little beignet?

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Marci Cohen Ferris. She's the author of "Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South." She's also an associate professor of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Marci, you've got to talk to me about this matzo ball gumbo. Is it

Prof. FERRIS: Sound terrible?

MARTIN: Well, not great. I got to tell you, not great. Because you think about the gumbo traditionally as having - it has the chicken, but it's also got the sausage and I can see where you could come up with a substitute on that. And if you've already got the okra in there, which is your thickener, where do your matzo balls come in?

Prof. FERRIS: Well, OK, let's put the matzo balls aside.

MARTIN: Help me out with that.

Prof. FERRIS: There are many types of gumbo in New Orleans and in southwestern Louisiana, as you know. So you could have a chicken based, you can have a smoked turkey based, or you could have a seafood gumbo. So you make your gumbo whatever style and flavor you want. And then the matzo balls you do on the side. It's good.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for taking the time, especially the busy time of year, which is holiday time. Before we let you go, what would you like people to draw from this work?

Prof. FERRIS: I want people to understand that the story of Southern Jewish life is a deep, rich, interesting, involved story. It's a complicated story. And the histories of the South make a huge difference. It really does separate the Southern Jewish experience from other parts of the country. And there's an important way and maybe a delicious way to understand the depth of that history and I think that's through the food ways.

MARTIN: Marci Cohen Ferris is the author of "Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South." She's also an associate professor of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She was kind enough to join us from the studios there. Thank you so much for speaking with us. Happy Hanukah to you.

Prof. FERRIS: Happy Hanukah to you.

MARTIN: For an extended version of this conversation, please go to our Web site. Just go to, then go to the Program menu to find TELL ME MORE. There you will also find a recipe for sweet potato latkes, but be careful, they're addicting. Don't say we didn't warn you.

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North Carolina Sweet Potato and Apple Latkes

These are wonderful with applesauce, cranberry sauce, or all by themselves.

1 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes (about 3 medium), peeled

1 large Granny Smith or Honey Crisp apple, unpeeled, cut into quarters and cored

3 scallions, thinly sliced

4 large eggs

¾ cup matzoh meal or all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon kosher salt

3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Canola oil for frying

Fit a food processor with the grating/shredding blade. Cut the sweet potatoes into pieces that will fit in the food processor's feed tube. Using the food processor (or by hand, with the coarse side of a box grater), coarsely shred sweet potatoes and apple. Transfer to a large bowl. Add the scallions, eggs, matzoh meal, salt and pepper. Mix well with your hands, until mixture is cohesive.

Using a rough ¼-cup mixture for each, make 2 1/2-to 3-inch patties, shaping them firmly yet gently, so they don't compact too much, yet don't fall apart. Place patties on a sheet of foil or baking sheet. Heat the oven to 200°F to keep latkes warm.

In a large, heavy skillet over medium heat, warm 3 tablespoons oil until hot. Add 4 to 5 latkes; don't crowd the pan, and cook, turning once or twice, until nicely golden and crisp on both sides. (Watch carefully as these scorch easily.) Transfer cooked latkes to paper towel to drain, and then transfer to a platter to keep warm in the oven. Repeat frying latkes, adding more oil to pan as needed. Serve warm.

Makes 20 to 22 latkes



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