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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

Joan Nathan
April 25, 2012

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.”

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.

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.”

The Recipe

Crumbled Corn Flake Kugel

Crumbled Corn Flake Kugel

Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.