Friday, February 10, 2012

Matzo Ball Gumbo in Action

Ms. French and young friend making homemade ice cream at the
Shawnee Neighborhood Fresh Stop Karamu Party
Matzo Ball Gumbo in Action
Excerpted from and inspired by the book of the same name
by Marcie Cohen Ferris
In honor of Black History Month and the
Shawnee Neighborhood Fresh Stop

[On February 9th, the Shawnee Neighborhood Fresh Stop held its first annual Black History Month Celebration or Karamu—Swahili for Pot Luck Celebration. We had two Kentucky African-American farmers speak, two beautiful songs and a poem shared, food memories and a new movie featuring the work of Fresh Stop and Youth Achievers Leaders. Lots of great food was eaten, old friends greeted, and new friends made. This celebration inspired me to collect some stories of the shared history of Jewish and African-American cooks in the latter part of the 20th Century in the southern part of the United States. Enjoy!]

Matzo Ball Gumbo in Action

During the colonial era a pivotal relationship emerged between Jewish and African American women in home and synagogue kitchens as they exchanged recipes for collard greens and matzo balls. They shared an unlikely alliance as outsiders—Jews because of their religion and blacks because of their race. The kitchen became “free zone” where African American and Jewish women bonded as they prepared meals for the family. Within this space, an important blend of southern and Jewish cuisine emerged.

Atlanta Brisket with a secret ingredient, Coca-Cola, lox and grits, sweet potato kugel, collard greens with cracklins” (made from chicken fat, or schmaltz, of course), Sabbath fried chicken, Rosh Hoshanah “hoppin’ john.”

More than food passed back and forth between Jewish and African American families as black cooks and caterers baked sweet potato pies and cornbread dressing for Jewish employers and went home after the holiday meals and bar mitzvahs with leftovers.

Chopped liver, blintzes, stuffed cabbage, sponge cake, potato pancakes, tzimmes, kreplach, kishke, and gefilte fish.

A fifth-generation Jewish New Orleanian, Catherine Kahn traces her family history to Paris, Alsace and Lorraine.

“I saw my first bagel at college,” says Catherine Kahn. My family pretended they didn’t know anything about Jewish food. To eat Jewish was to look Jewish. By avoiding traditional Jewish foods and instead embracing the cuisine of New Orleans uptown white society, we affirmed our allegiances. We did not deny our Jewish heritage. Rather, we were “quietly Jewish. In the 1930s and 1940s when fear of anti-Semitism was palpable to all Jews, we kept a low profile where being Jewish was concerned.”

Cold lemon stew fish, Sister Sadie’s Honey Cake, creole cream cheese with boiled potatoes and green onions, Kosher Mardi Gras king cakes, Matzo Ball Gumbo.

Shirley Bateman-Barra was a well-known figure in the uptown New Orleans Jewish world, an African-American caterer.

“I learned my trade from my grandmother Lucy Ater. Together we prepared food for Jewish holiday dinners, bar mitzvahs, weddings, temple banquets, and society functions for more than 60 years. Grandma Lucy was born in 1893 in Berwick, Louisiana and overcame poverty and limited education to become one of the leading caterers in the New Orleans Jewish community from the 1940s through the 1970s. One benefit of working for Jewish families and learning to cook Jewish was the assurance of future jobs within the community. The way it happened was that Grandma Lucy cooked for the Rittenbergs, one of New Orleans most prominent Jewish families for many years. At this death, Joseph Rittenberg left a bequest to Grandma that allowed her to open her own catering business. I learned from Jewish people how to handle food and what to do with food. Most of my cooking experience is from Jewish people. I think they loved me and I loved them. After studying to be a dietician at the State University of New Orleans, I took over Grandmother’s catering business. Jewish people, they like to eat! They like to eat more than they like to drink.”

Ponchatoula-grown chocolate-dipped strawberries, miniature cheesecakes, salmon and egg-filled appetizers.

Vinie Williams, an African American woman born in Ville Platte, Louisiana, began to work for the Jewish family, Myrtle and Bernard Zoller in the 1950s and stayed until their daughter Anne Zoller Kiefer married in 1967.

Says Anne Zoller Kiefer:

 “At holiday time, Mama and Vinie prepared Jewish dishes. They could cook for a crowd. My entire life of wonderful family eating experiences was solidly nurtured from my mother’s country Jewish recipes to those of Vinie Williams. Together they created the perfect mix of Jewish and spicy creole delicacies like Dirty Matzo dressing for Passover.”

“The Jewish grandmammas—they just died so fast. And the recipes went home with the maid, the bartender and the chauffeur.”

Caper sauce fish, matzo schalet, MawMaw Evelyn’s fig preserves, okra with tomato and corn, stuffed veal.

Mary Jordan, an African-American caterer, worked with Atlanta’s German Jewish community from the 1940s to the 1960s. Through contacts Mary made with Jewish families she began to cater Jewish functions and parties. Jordan’s son Windsor now runs the catering firm.

“I remember the downtown Jewish grocery store owners who lived near mama. Me and my brothers, Vernon and Warren, played with the eastern European children in the neighborhood.

“We first met Jewish people in their small neighborhood grocery stores. The storeowners would let us black customers buy on credit and pay them later. You could go in there and I don’t care what you went in there for, he always had it

“Mama knew the rabbis well. They advised me on the rules of keeping kosher. We developed a taste in our house for corned beef and knishes. The Jewish families always requested soul food-styled dishes because, in the South, they were going both ways because they were so influenced by southern cooking. And you know how bland Jewish cooking can get after a while. They wanted some soul. And it was “Jewish Soul cooking.” You added a little bit there to make it taste better. I mean, how many times can you eat matzo ball soup? Mama was the original black Jewish mother. Before she died, she told me, “When I go, I want God to come and cook.”

Scrap cake and candy from downtown Jewish bakeries to make “sad” cakes and bread puddings. Eggs, chicken feet and necks from Southern Egg Company, chicken necks stuffed with bread, onions, green peppers and spices.

Lamar White, food manager for Ahavath Achim Synagogue in Atlanta, began work there at age thirteen when he helped his grandfather. By incorporating African American flavors and cooking methods Lamar created a southern and kosher culinary style distinct to Atlanta.

“My food is so popular, the synagogue sells carry out trays of my brisket, meatloaf, barbequed chicken. People ask me so what makes this kosher food different from food eaten in an Orthodox synagogue in New York? Only way I can tell you the reason why it is southern is because there is nobody like me in those areas. I’m not in there cooking. I guess you can call me, Lamar White the secret ingredient. My knowing African American cooking traditions and combining that with the knowledge of kosher, created a uniquely southern Jewish culinary experience.”

Crispy baked chicken, cornmeal-fried fish fillets, Pesach fried green tomatoes, red soup, Lamb spare ribs, Brunswick Stew, Kosher pickles.

Lisa Cohen lives in suburban Atlanta, and shares her household responsibilities with Fannie Bailey, an African American cook and housekeeper who has worked for the Cohen family for more than thirty years.

“She makes the best chicken soup. It is so clear. It’s like the Gulf of Mexico. You can see straight through it right to the bottom of the pot.”

“It’s through food that you keep your culture alive—okra and yams—those were brought over from Africa in seed pods in Fannie’s ancestors braids. We both want our children and grandchildren to have some kind of cultural background. Food is really how you weave it in. People can take you out of your native land, but they can’t take away your food and your habits and your culture.”

1 comment:

  1. Amazing article. It's amazing how food can be incorporated to bring people closer together. Thank you so much for sharing your history.