Southerners Up North: When ‘Shalom Y’all’ Meets ‘New Yawk City’

Published April 25, 2003, issue of April 25, 2003.
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the seventh generation,” she said. “And it really struck me. It made me realize how connected I still am. Writing about it is one way that I maintain that connection. Sometimes it feels like I am there even when I’m not.” And even though she doesn’t want to move back, she said she can’t imagine anyplace else ever truly feeling like home.

The abundance of Jewish cultural and religious options in New York City is one reason that Southern Jews do come to feel so at home in the Big Apple, said a doctoral candidate at New York University, Marc Caplan, who was raised as a Reform Jew in the small central Louisiana town of Alexandria, where his great-grandfather settled more than a century ago. Caplan moved to New York during the late 1980s right after graduating from Yale (“I wasn’t allowed to apply to Columbia,” he said) and became steadily more observant. Today he’s Orthodox, and at home, he and his wife, Brukhe, speak only Yiddish.

“I came to New York because New York was literature, cosmopolitanism, high culture, the kinds of things that really for me signified the opposite of where I come from,” he said. “It was only after the fact that I realized that what I was specifically attracted to about liberal, cosmopolitan New York was Jewish New York….. I wanted to be here because here’s where the Jews were.”

Still, at least once a year, usually on his birthday, he invites his friends over to his apartment and cooks up some Southern fried chicken. “I know it’s bad for you,” he concedes, but his recipe is perhaps a little more virtuous because it’s kosher. How can it be when a key ingredient in Southern fried chicken is buttermilk? “I’ve got the secret,” he said, grinning. “Marinate it in soy milk!”

Indeed, said Evans, whose kosher grits recipe once won a competition held at Tavern on the Green, Southern Jews in New York remain bound by their common background. He jokes that he runs a Southern Jewish embassy out of his midtown Manhattan office. It’s not much of a stretch to say he seems to know most of the city’s Southern Jews. “Every time I speak it’s almost like a family reunion up here. It’s not a group of strangers at all.”

But it’s not just Evans. At the facetious suggestion that all the Southern Jews in New York City know each other, Jennifer Koppel, who was born and raised in Baton Rouge, La., and now lives with her husband, Nathan (a native Texan), in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, exclaimed, “Oh absolutely! I don’t think that is at all an exaggeration…. If they were a Reform Jew in the South, literally, in the five-state area, there’s no question, if they were around my age, that I know them or know their name.” After hearing about Caplan’s fried chicken recipe, Koppel said, “If that’s Marc Caplan from Alexandria, La., I know him.”

It’s not a coincidence that so many Southern Jews in New York seem to know each other. While the city offers a “delicious anonymity,” as Evans puts it, there is also an ongoing search for community and tradition.

New York “is fundamentally, characteristically so much of a Jewish city. It’s almost as if there’s a soul force here that welcomes Jews from the South,” said Evans. And at the same time, “the South has such a powerful hold on your psyche and on your heart that you don’t need to live there to be there.”

* * *

The following is Marc Caplan’s kosher Southern fried chicken recipe, as told to the Forward:

Start with kosher chicken, already cut up in pieces. If you’ve bought legs, cut the drumstick off the thigh.Marinate everything in soy milk or rice milk. Make sure the “milk” you buy is pareve and not “dairy equipment.”Make sure, as well, that the milk you buy is unflavored; nobody wants to eat vanilla-flavored fried chicken! Put whatever seasonings you want into the milk; I also season the flour. I usually use salt, pepper, white pepper, cayenne pepper and a few dried herbs. If you want to use “11 herbs and spices,” you can, but it won’t taste like KFC in any event….The chicken should marinate in the refrigerator for at least an hour.Take the chicken out of the milk and dip it in [seasoned] flour. If you want to make “extra-crispy” chicken, dip the chicken back in the milk, then in the flour again.Fry the chicken in an electric skillet or a deep fryer at 350 degrees; either way, be patient — frying chicken takes time, and nobody wants it underdone!You should leave each piece in until it turns golden-brown; cut the first few pieces to make sure they’re not pink in the middle — you’ll get the hang of it. I usually fry in peanut oil or canola oil.

Alicia Zuckerman is a writer living in New York City.

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