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A Taste of the Jewish South

Jewish food festivals across the South offer a regional twist on traditional recipes—and the best place to find corned beef in barbecue country

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Frying latkes at last year’s Jewish Food Festival in Little Rock, Ark. (Doris Krain)
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The rented freezers at Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Ark., are stuffed with over 1,800 latkes, 700 schnecken, 700 cabbage rolls, and 400 kosher beef kebabs—all in preparation for the city’s sixth annual Jewish Food Festival on May 6.

“It brings the Jewish community together,” said Scott Levine, who co-chairs the event with his wife, Jane. “And it is an opportunity to introduce our culture and our foods to non-Jews.”

“Lots of people have tasted falafel, but you wouldn’t believe how many have not had a bite of kugel,” explained Leah Selig Elenzweig, who, along with her husband, Neal, was one of the early movers behind the event, which is sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Arkansas. For those who don’t want to try something unfamiliar, the festival also offers more standard Jewish fare, she added: “everything from kosher hot dogs to deli sandwiches.”

Jewish food fairs are springing up all across the South. There’s HardLox, the Jewish Food and Heritage Festival in Asheville, N.C.; the Jewish Food Fest in Corpus Christi, Texas; the Jewish Food Festival in Montgomery, Ala.; and the granddaddy of them all, Shalom Y’all, the Jewish food festival marking its 24th year in Savannah, Ga. And like next month’s event in Little Rock, all these festivals offer a chance for Jews to reconnect with their culinary heritage, and for non-Jews to get a taste of Jewish cooking—including a particularly Southern brand of Jewish cuisine.

“I think they are very popular because people like ethnic food,” said Lauri Taylor, chairman of Shalom Y’all. This fall’s event will feature a wide range of Jewish food, from sizzling Sephardic lamb to homemade chopped liver, apple strudel to egg creams—in addition to klezmer music and other entertainment.

“Food is a big part of Jewish culture in general,” said Macy Hart, president of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life—and Jews in the South have developed some of their own recipes. “When we came to the South, Jewish dishes were not available to us. [So] we assimilated our foods within the fabric of Southern life.”

In most of the South, Hart explained, “we don’t have delis on every corner.” So, if you want to sample a bit of this Southern Jewish cuisine—schnecken with pecans, kugel with corn flakes—or if you just want a good corned beef sandwich in the land of barbecue, the food festivals are the place to be. “The importance of the contribution of the Jews, even in communities with diminishing numbers, is shown here.”

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Jewish food fairs in the South date back to just after the Civil War. At that time, the festivals were often fundraising events, benefiting synagogues or local hospitals, and the menus had specific themes, like strawberries, or oysters.

Yes, oysters. This tradition can be attributed to Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of the Reform movement, who loved oysters. In an editorial in his influential American Israelite newspaper on April 4, 1895, he wrote: “There can be no doubt that the oyster shell is the same to all intents and purposes as the scales are to the clean fish, protecting against certain gases in the water. In fact, the oyster shell is a close connection of scales. It is the scales only which the Talmud acknowledges as the sign of cleanliness. … Oysters grown in ponds outside of the sea are certainly kosher, also according to Maimonides.”

Aunt Babette’s Cook Book, published in Chicago in 1889, included an entire oyster chapter, as did many of the Council of Jewish Women’s fundraising cookbooks from Boston to Portland, Ore. It is not surprising then, that by the end of the century, a Reform temple in Alabama held an oyster dinner fundraiser.

Times have changed in the South, and even the Reform synagogues that tend to hold these festivals provide some kosher food at the events.

Today, the fundraisers have morphed into food fairs where the communities boast of serving authentic New York deli food as well as “start from scratch” Jewish kugels, blintzes, and schnecken. “You don’t have to know how to pronounce rugelach or challah to know how delicious these baked goods are,” boasts the Montgomery fair’s promotional material. “Other menu items include brisket (slow-cooked beef), potato latkes (pancakes) and stuffed cabbage—not to mention Carnegie Deli cheesecake, straight from the Big Apple!”

The foods served at these events tell as much about the history of the South as they do about today.

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jcarpenter says:

Bubba, meet bubbe . . . . and vice-versa.

Great comment jcarpenter!

1943RFVDVDW says:

The comment about schnecken particularly caught my attention: “Elenzweig’s grandmother’s recipe for her muffin-like schnecken rolled with pecans and real brown sugar, rather than the more German walnuts and white sugar.”  I grew up in the 1950′s in Greenville, Mississippi. 150 miles southeast of Little Rock. My mother Thelma Davidow made the same type of schnecken, “muffin-life rolled with pecan and real brown sugar.”  As a remembrance of my mother I make her schnecken just before Yom Kippur and eat them to break my fast.  The use of pecans instead of walnuts was common in other Jewish foods.  Pecans are indigenous to the South and the most likely nut to be used in charoset is the pecan.
Rabbi Fred Davidow (transplanted to metro-Philadelphia)

Also see: http://www.kosherchilicookoff.us/ in Dallas, TX.

HeleneHoffman says:

 I lived 6 miserable years in Starkville, Mississippi. food is one thing; so is life in Little Rock, etc., but the truth re: some OTHER parts of the South?? The Evangelicals NEVER left me alone. The local Shul? HA! A joke.  It was SO bad, that they ‘forgot’ to serve Latkes at their annual Chanukah party. They were the coldest Jews I ever met & plenty of others agreed. Nostalgia re: the South is one thing; but for many of us, the current lives Jews lead there can be nothing short of awful. I moved to California & have never been happier.

And then there’s taking Southern icons and putting a Jewish spin on them, and vice versa… like the annual Temple Beth-El/Piggly Wiggly “When Pigs Fly” Kosher BBQ contest in Birmingham, on May 20. Or my wife’s potlikker matzah balls and fried pickle latkes… 

bayley e says:

Great article. Thank you.
P.s. Neil Elenzweig’s name is spelled Neil not Neal by the way!

I always love reading about Jewish life in the South.  My mother’s family first came to Belzoni, Mississippi in the 19th century.  As a child growing up in New York, I always thought that everyone in the South was Jewish because everyone I knew from there was. I also assumed that “Bubba” was a Yiddish nickname, since the only Bubba I knew was Jewish.  

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A Taste of the Jewish South

Jewish food festivals across the South offer a regional twist on traditional recipes—and the best place to find corned beef in barbecue country