Matzah Ball Gumbo, Gasper Goo Gefilte Fish, and Big Momma's Kreplach: Exploring Southern Jewish Foodways

By Ferris, Marcie Cohen | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Matzah Ball Gumbo, Gasper Goo Gefilte Fish, and Big Momma's Kreplach: Exploring Southern Jewish Foodways


Ferris, Marcie Cohen, Phi Kappa Phi Forum


At the heart of every conversation about southern Jewish foodways is the "bread problem." The conversation focuses on the lack of good "Jewish" bagels, chewy rye breads, and cake-like challahs in the South. The problem is less serious today because European-style, crusty breads are baked in cities like Atlanta and Memphis. But in smaller southern cities and towns, Jews find only white bread, iced cookies, cupcakes, frosted layer cakes, and pies. How do southern Jews cope with this situation? What does this bread problem tell us about the Jewish South?

The acceptance of biscuits instead of bagels reveals how southern Jews blend regional foodways with Jewish foodways. Just as generations of Jews in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and central Europe adapted to the foodways of those worlds, southern Jews adapted to the food traditions of their region. While the lack of traditional Jewish breads in the South implies assimilation, it does not reflect a loss of ethnic identity. Southern Jews blend their regional identity both as Jews and as southerners through the foods they eat, the holidays they celebrate, and the products they buy.

Orthodox Jews in the South order bread, kosher meats, and other food products required to follow kashrut, the traditional Jewish dietary laws, and they have done so since the early 1900s. Less observant Jews also use the local bus routes to order Passover supplies, as well as other "Jewish" foods that are unavailable in the rural South. Carolyn Goodman Gold grew up in Elberton, a small town outside of Atlanta, and remembers the weekly arrival of a huge loaf of pumpernickel -- her father Isadore Goodman's favorite -- at the local Greyhound Bus Station. The bread was sent to her family from Gold's Delicatessen in Atlanta.

There were even less traditional deliveries of "Jewish" food to Jewish southerners. Paul Greenberg of Little Rock, Arkansas, recalls that "Every now and then in the boxes of shoes that my grandfather and my uncle would send to us in Shreveport to fix and sell, they would include a rye bread." For the majority of southern Jews, however, crusty, dark breads that were once a staple food for their ancestors have faded from memory, and biscuits, rolls, and corn bread are now their breads of choice.

To understand this southern phenomenon, we should consider Mimi Sheraton's study of the bialy, an onion-filled bagel once popular among Jews in Poland. Sheraton observes that just as the numbers of Jews declined drastically in Poland after the Holocaust, so too did Jewish bread traditions. No Jews meant no bialys. Unlike Poland, however, the southern Jewish population has endured. While bagel shops, Jewish bakeries, and delicatessens are rare in the region, southern Jews maintain a strong ethnic identity through food traditions in their homes and their synagogues. While the region lacks Jewish bakeries, a large Jewish population, and Jewish support organizations -- in what Gary Zola describes as a "Jewishly disadvantaged" region -- southern Jewish life continues to exist, and in many places it thrives (7).

Zola's characterization of the Jewish South as "disadvantaged" raises the question of what is an authentic Jewish life? Are Jews less Jewish when they live in the South? Is the South a "Sahara" of Jewish culture, to borrow a phrase from H. L. Mencken's description of the region as a cultural and intellectual desert? I believe that southern Jews, like Jews in many other regions of the United States, developed religious identities that enrich our understanding of the American Jewish experience. Most southern Jews do not view themselves as "disadvantaged." They cherish the regional patterns of their ethnic and religious traditions, and southern Jewish foodways help us understand their identity.

Food choices connect us to our ancestors and their tastes. How do food preferences evolve? Why do we prefer particular textures and flavors? Let us consider these questions as they relate to two southern families' foodways, one Jewish, one Protestant. …

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