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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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Arkansas’ Jewish population currently includes roughly 2,000 families. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, 14 towns, such as Levy and Altheimer, were founded by Jews or named after early Jewish residents.

In Little Rock, Jews first peddled goods brought by river boats to the outlying community of farmers. Little by little, they became merchants (or, as one Mississippi lady told me, “mercantiles”) in stores along the riverbanks, when the river was king, before the advent of the railroad and later the automobile. Then their children became lawyers and doctors, abandoning the small towns for bigger cities.

Elenzweig strolled with me recently down from the Clinton Library to the site of the Little Rock festival, the River Market Pavilion, perched up high, like the Acropolis, on the banks of the Arkansas River, near stores started by the first Jewish settlers. Coming mostly from Germany, they brought dishes like the potato charlotte (which they now call potato dressing, in Southern fashion), stuffed veal, and 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.

Elenzweig’s ancestors came first to nearby Pine Bluff in the mid-19th century from Germany, probably lured there as others were by word of mouth or newspaper advertisements in the German press promising them land. In Pine Bluff, we visited the Jewish cemetery, as big as a football field. Few, if any, Jews live there anymore, having moved to Little Rock and elsewhere.

Many of the old recipes have been lost with modern times and intermarriage. But, at the food fairs you can see some remembrance of the past.

Elenzweig’s Grandma Tessie’s delicious recipe for schnecken, copied from an old scribbled recipe, are baked by the hundreds. Elenzweig’s husband, Neal, the cook in the family, shared his Brooklyn mother’s cranberry stuffed cabbage, now used each year for the festival. The kugel, adapted from Rita Fagan, who is in charge of gathering the food for the festival, is especially popular, a very American recipe with corn flake crumbs on top and noodles that don’t need to be boiled in advance.

Millie Baron’s Queens-born father came to Hot Springs (where Bill Clinton grew up) with the Army during World War II, met her mother, and stayed; Baron will be delivering some macaroons to the festival this year. At her Ambrosia Bakery, Baron makes many Jewish recipes, and her Jewish treats often find an audience among Arkansas’ non-Jews: Her grandmother’s rugelach are a popular Christmas treat, for instance. Challah, which she calls braided bread, is sold every day of the year, with churches often ordering them for the Sabbath. “Two men, one with a Wall Street Journal and another the New York Times, order them every day with a cup of coffee,” she said. And when I was visiting just before Purim, Baron was delivering 600 hamentashen to a church in Little Rock that wanted to know more about their Jewish roots. Recipes for her challah and bagels come from George Greenstein’s Secrets of a Jewish Baker: Recipes for 125 Breads From Around the World.

The Little Rock food festival involves Jews living across the entire state and brings people together in ways that only cooking can. For months the (mostly) women gather at the synagogue or in their homes, baking and freezing. Then, Sunday morning, they thaw the foods and cover them in plastic wrap. The festival attracted over 12,000 people last year; this year they are hoping for 15,000.

For Elenzweig, the best part of the festival is meeting unaffiliated Jews who somehow just appear. “Except for the food festival, I never would have known about their Jewishness,” she said. “Maybe food brings back memory for them and they just want to come.”

But plenty of people who come aren’t Jewish at all. “We have a big rush of folks coming in after church,” she noted. “At first I thought it was all about us, but it isn’t. It is also about the outreach to the greater community.”

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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

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