Creole Matzo Balls and Other Southern Treats

By Erika Dreifus

Published October 14, 2005, issue of October 14, 2005.
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Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South

By Marcie Cohen Ferris

The University of North Carolina Press, 344 pages, $29.95.

* * *

Like the gumbo of its title, Marcie Cohen Ferris’s new book offers a rich stew to savor. In this case, that’s an entirely satisfying mix of Jewish American history, personal and family experiences (her own and others’), and even a number of recipes to try.

Ferris knows her stuff: She grew up in a Jewish home in Blytheville, Ark., and is currently associate director of the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies and assistant professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She’s also vice president of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization headquartered at the University of Mississippi. The alliance’s mission, according to its Web site, is “to celebrate, preserve, promote, and nurture the traditional and developing diverse food cultures of the American South.”

Now, it’s entirely possible (especially if you’re reading this in, say, New York City) that normally you don’t think of “diverse food cultures of the American South” and “Jewish” in the same instant. Those of us who live in areas of the country that are more readily identified with Jewish culture are perhaps just as guilty as anyone else of being unaware of the history of Jews in the American South, and ignorant of the interplay between Jews and non-Jews in the South (and even within segments of Jewish communities) — particularly where cuisine is concerned (I, for one, must confess that before reading this book, I was unacquainted with such delicacies as salt herring fried and served with grits). But as Ferris shows, this is a long and fascinating history, and it’s one that is illuminated extremely well through the lens of food:

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.

Ferris’s culinary tales begin as a historical tour, with each chapter stopping in another Jewish South location: colonial Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga; antebellum New Orleans and areas along the lower Mississippi; early 20th-century Atlanta. Another chapter focuses on the Mississippi-Arkansas Delta and on the traditions of the rural South’s Jews. The final stop spotlights Memphis, Tenn., and its barbecue-centered cuisine.

“Each of these southern worlds,” Ferris explains, “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.” And each of these Southern worlds has produced its own culinary culture, represented by the several recipes that Ferris includes at the conclusion of each chapter.

Ferris doesn’t hide the more uneasy parts of this story. After outlining the culinary culture of antebellum New Orleans, for instance, she writes: “At the center of all these culinary worlds stood enslaved African Americans. By 1860 more than four million African American slaves were held in bondage on plantations and in the homes and businesses of middle and upper-class white southerners, including southern Jews.”

More to the book’s overall point, however, are the many ways in which the foods that Southern Jews have fed their families, friends and themselves reflect their dual loyalties to the South and to Judaism. Whether adapting Southern recipes to dietary laws (“If you keep kosher, make the gumbo with kosher smoked beef sausage or knockwurst,” Ferris advises before she details a recipe for Louisiana chicken gumbo) or consciously adopting “dishes preferred by Gentile Junior League members” in Atlanta, Southern Jews have located in the kitchen a bridge between two distinct cultures. Meticulously researched and documented, eminently readable, further enlivened with the voices of Ferris’s many interviewees, and illustrated with photographs, newspaper clippings, and more, “Matzoh Ball Gumbo” provides an utterly nourishing read.

Brooklyn-born freelance writer Erika Dreifus earned a doctorate in history from Harvard University and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte (North Carolina). Her book reviews appear frequently in the magazine The Writer and in other publications.

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