Seder in American South: A Gefilte Gumbo

Pecans and a shot of Jack Daniels stirred into haroset. Smothered greens with schmaltz and griebenes. Creole matzoh balls simmered in the gumbo.

Sounds like the inventive Seder menu of a hipster chef on Orchard Street or some bistro in Bushwick, Brooklyn? But dishes like these—many co-created with African-American cooks and caterers--have been savored at Jewish Passovers in the American South for generations.

Yes, many of the more traditional Jews who settled south of the Mason-Dixon Line, especially in larger urban communities, avoided the cuisine of their Christian neighbors and continued to eat much as they had in Smolensk or Salonika. But others, repeating a story as old as the Diaspora, embraced and adapted the new foods they found there, an area celebrated for a mouth-watering cuisine of buttermilk biscuits and barbecue, fried chicken and fresh peach ice cream.

And vegetables galore. With the mild climate, fertile soil, and numerous kitchen gardens of the South, Jews now had a wealth and variety of both new and familiar vegetables available nearly year-round: mustard, turnip, and collard greens; red and green tomatoes and peppers, eggplant, okra, and sweet potatoes, to name just a few.

When freshwater fish weren’t available, Jews made use of local grouper, whiting, redfish, pompano, snapper and even shad to make gefilte fish, sweet-and-sour fish, and traditional Sephardi lemon fish dishes.

Jewish peddlers and merchants learned about new foods from their customers, and Jewish women exchanged recipes with their neighbors. But it was African-Americans—in some integrated areas, as neighbors, but most often as domestic cooks working in Jewish homes and as caterers at synagogues and Jewish events—who perhaps had the profoundest influence on the development of Jewish cuisine in the South. They introduced Jewish women to Southern ingredients, seasonings, cooking techniques, and recipes. They learned about kashrut from Jewish mothers and grandmothers, and rabbis, and came up with creative ways of kosherizing the most blatantly treyf dishes. Their Jewish gumbo might begin with a roux of flour browned in schmaltz, not butter, and swap in corned beef or salami for pork. On Passover, they fried green tomatoes in a spicy matzoh meal crust and seasoned matzoh balls with scallions, garlic, and cayenne. Tutored in traditional Southern cuisine by Pearl Jones, her family’s talented African-American cook, the Jewish food writer Mildred Covert opened the world of Southern cooking to the observant Jewish community in New Orleans with kosher creations, substituting salmon for shrimp in étoufée and trading Polish beef sausages and chicken for pork andouille and shrimp in her gumbo. She riffed on the quintessentially New Orleans Oysters Rockefeller with Oysters Mock-a-Feller: a green herby sauce topping gefilte fish balls instead of the oysters, and then broiled.

And often African-American cooks came up with unique meldings of Jewish and Southern cuisines, like salty herring or lox served as a perfect counterpoint to creamy, bland grits.

 Atlanta cooks even developed a distinctive African-American-Jewish catering style: kosher infused with plenty of soul. To prepare Southern-fried chicken for a Seder, they substituted non-dairy citrus brines for the traditional buttermilk marinade, and coated the chicken with matzoh meal flavored with a heavy dose of black pepper plus cayenne.

Eating an iconic dish like matzoh balls at a Seder in the South, we taste what it means to be Jewish there, a tiny minority in the predominantly Protestant Bible Belt; to be Southern, with a deeply-rooted sense of place, a strong attachment to the region—and Jewish at the same time. In the once-thriving Jewish community in Natchez, a port city on the Mississippi where her roots went back more than 160 years, Elaine Ullmann Lehmann ate matzoh ball soup made from her family’s heirloom Alsatian-German recipe; in the same city, “Miss Naomi” (also surnamed Lehmann) was famous for her nearly deracinated version—matzoh balls napped with rich turkey gravy—served at her Seders for 60 years. In Texas, you can find barbecued matzoh balls; in New Orleans, matzoh balls sauteed in butter served as a side dish.

The first Jews in the South arrived in Charleston and Savannah near the end of the 17th century, And by 1800, the Jewish community in Charleston was larger and wealthier than in any other US city—north or south. Charleston, in fact, elected the first Jew to hold public office in North America: Francis Salvador, an English Sephardi.

Many of the early Jews who immigrated to the antebellum South were Ashkenazim from Germany and France, especially Alsace and Lorraine, some of whom were less traditionally observant. Others were Sephardim who came from England, the Caribbean, and other colonies where they had taken refuge after the Inquisition.

During the Civil War, some Jews fled north, but most remained loyal to the South, and many fought for the Confederacy. Families divided between North and South faced off against each other. But when it was impossible to get matzoh for Passover in the South during the war, Northern Jews set aside their differences, and congregations in New York and Philadelphia sent 5000 pounds of unleavened bread to Savannah’s Jews. Not all Seder stories were so pretty. Some Southern Jews celebrated their own freedom from Egyptian bondage at Seders cooked and served by enslaved people. Painful to admit, we can’t gloss over the fact that there were Jewish slaveholders in the South (as well as some in the North, I might add).

Starting with Reconstruction, Jews came to the South in increasing numbers. They came from Eastern Europe and Ottoman lands, from the North and Midwestern US. Merchants, traders, bankers, and more, they proved vital in rebuilding the South. Even today, the names of many Southern towns bear eloquent testimony to their legacy. There’s Kaplan, Louisiana, known as the most Cajun place on earth. It’s named after Abrom Kaplan, a poor Polish immigrant who became a rice baron and pillar of the community. Levy, Arkansas, after dry goods merchant, Morris Levy. And Marks, Mississippi, after Leopold Marks, an immigrant trader.

A complicated Jewish identity continued to evolve in the twentieth century New South. There were rare, but defining and nightmarish moments of Southern Jewish history, like Leo Frank’s lynching in 1915 by an anti-Semitic mob. And there was anti-Semitic violence during the civil rights era, including the 1958 Temple bombing in Atlanta, retaliation for the rabbi’s pro-integration stand. On the other hand, there were bizarre moments when Jews were treated as insiders in the moonlight and magnolias mythology of the Old South--including ads in Yiddish urging them to buy Aunt Jemima’s “latkes with the beloved Old Plantation flavor,” replete with a kerchief-wrapped African-American Mammy stereotype serving a stack of hot cakes.

But today’s South fits no stereotype, rapidly becoming more urbanized and with the influx of more minorities, more ethnically diverse too. While Jews make up roughly 1% of the South—nationally, they comprise about 2 %--those numbers are growing. Small Jewish communities in the rural South may be disappearing, but the Jewish populations in metropolitan areas keeps increasing. They’re drawing newcomers from the North and other areas of the country, as well as from Israel and Europe. Atlanta, with more than 120,000 Jews, is one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in the country. And changing demographics are bringing a renaissance of Jewish life to many parts of the South, sometimes ushering in a return to more traditional practices and foodways.

Their kitchens are diverse too: from the Low Country kitchens of the Atlantic coast, to the world-famous cuisine of the Big Easy and Memphis barbecue. Jews have been celebrating their food at festivals in the South since the end of the Civil War, and they are food lovers all. And here, y’all, are two recipes from the Southern repertoire for your Seder:

Sephardic or Askhenazi