If you’ve never lived in the South, you might not be familiar with King Cakes. The brightly colored yellow-green-and-purple treats start popping up in the weeks before Mardi Gras. Though most prevalent in New Orleans, they are popular throughout the South. They’re delicious, they’re often shared at offices and parties– and yes, it’s Catholic in origin.
The name “King Cake” refers to the three kings, or three wise men. It emerged as a treat associated with pre-Lent celebrations, connected closely to Easter. Sometimes, there’s even a little plastic baby hidden somewhere in the cake – representing that same baby the wise men went to visit.
So it’s understandable that a friend recently asked me: “Um… is it weird for Jewish people to buy King Cakes?”
When asked this question, I resisted the urge to laugh it off and instead did a little reflecting (while munching on a delicious cinnamon-swirl piece of this tasty treat). Does the symbolism behind a food mean it’s proprietary to a certain group? Putting aside logistics that would obviously factor in for some observant folks, such as the laws of kashrut or halal – should foods be avoided simply because they’re associated with someone else’s tradition?
I recalled a few years ago, when a local bakery in Jackson, Mississippi, began promoting their all-new seasonal specialty: Purim baked goods. Yes! Fresh-baked, made-to-order sweet hamentaschen in multiple flavors — and savory bourekas, too. I was beyond excited that my favorite local bakery was offering Jewish treats, and so were my Jewish friends… and so were my non-Jewish friends. We all went out and bought those Purim treats in droves. (And thank goodness – if only the small Jewish community of Jackson had shown up to buy the baked goods, that wouldn’t have been very marketable.)
But one person did ask me: “Um, is it okay for a non-Jewish person to eat those triangle Purim-cookies?”
I assured them, without hesitation, that they were welcome to a cookie.
The question is not ludicrous. Eating is sometimes related to a statement of faith, whether it’s by following rules as to what we do and do not eat, or accepting a communion wafer at a Catholic mass.
But there is a difference between foods with ritual meaning and foods with cultural symbolism. Eating hamentaschen doesn’t make you Jewish, but it does give you an opportunity to learn a delicious tidbit about Purim and the story of Esther. Sharing a King Cake with co-workers is a delicious opportunity to enjoy Mardi Gras and share in a communal celebration. It’s a sharing of cuisine that has become a low-barrier sharing of culture.
In fact, I think the story of Esther itself makes the case for sharing in the culture around us. Esther was a nice Jewish girl who managed to save her entire Jewish community, not by avoiding the culture around her– but by fully immersing in it. She married the king, held on to her identity, and stopped Haman. Let’s remember she also did this over an extended dinner party, and now we recall Haman’s defeat by eating cookies shaped like his hat and named for his ears. (Creepy.)
Lots of special-foods have stories unique to one culture or another. Learning about them is fascinating, and feasting on them is even better.
In other words, let all of us eat (king) cake. And yes, I promise, in a few more weeks… I’ll share my triangle Purim-cookies.
It’s been a busy few months here in Jackson. We’ve welcomed Jewish visitors from all over the country, arranging experiences for them to discover this place I call home. This fall, I’m looking forward to a new type of tour experience that, through a partnership with The Yiddish Book Center, will bring the Southern Jewish Experience to a new group of explorers.
The TENT program is an incredible idea: a series of week-long seminars that immerse 21-30 year old Jews in full-impact experiences of culture, cuisine and community. The best thing about TENT? In addition to being fun and often profound, these programs are free to the participants.
The ISJL will host Tent: The South from October 19-26, 2014. This dynamic program will be a week-on-wheels, traveling from New Orleans to Memphis, and spending several days in Mississippi along the way. Tent: The South will explore the Jewish experience in one of this nation’s most distinctive, complicated, and fascinating regions, discovering the best that the South has to offer. Music, art, food, and visits to Jewish communities large and small will make this a week participants will never forget. (You may even start saying “Shalom, y’all.”)
It’s special for me to be involved with a project like this because as a Northern transplant to this region, I take my responsibility as a Southern advocate and promoter very seriously. (Just check out my particularly joyful expression in at :40 of this video. If that doesn’t make you want to come join me us on bus for week, I’m not sure what will.) Tent: The South is such a great opportunity to gather people here with adventurous spirits, who are curious to experience the South.
I’ve put together itineraries for many groups, but this trip is especially fun because it’s built to engage my own demographic! We will get to stop (and eat!) in some of my favorite places. Po Boys in New Orleans before visiting historic congregations. Fried chicken in Natchez before touring Antebellum mansions. Sweet tea while stopping between Civil Rights sites in Jackson. Local beers on the porch of the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale. We’ll also be experiencing Southern arts culture. Listening to the blues while traveling between small towns like Indianola, Clarksdale, and Greenwood in the Mississippi Delta and touring the homes of William Faulkner and Eudora Welty.
For those interested in social justice work, the South is a place with a great legacy of Jewish activism. I’ve had the fortune of inviting the best scholars and experts to lead sessions– our presenters will be from amazing organizations like the William Winter Institute of Racial Reconciliation at Ole Miss in Oxford, the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University in Cleveland, and the Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis. There will be learning. There will be eating.
And dancing. There will certainly be dancing.
Sold? Great! Participants must apply to Tent: The South by August 1st, 2014. Only twenty applicants will be selected for each session. Again, Tent is offered free to accepted applicants– that means program costs, lodging, most meals, tickets, and more! Participants are responsible only for the cost of transportation, from wherever they live to New Orleans and back home again from Memphis. Space is limited, so apply now!
If you are interested and have any questions, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 601-362-2357.
(Not eligible yourself, but know someone who is? Forward this post, share the website, spread the word!)
See you in The South!
I smile. The man stares back at me and I look away, embarrassed. I feel my ears growing hot and I know my face is turning red, too. I am from here. I should know better.
DO NOT SMILE AT PEOPLE ON THE SUBWAY!
Before I moved to Jackson, I lived in New York City for four years of college. I was a pro at navigating the subway, walking quickly, avoiding obstacles on the sidewalk, and crossing the street irrespective of the traffic signal. I did not let people cut me in line and was very capable of intercepting those who tried. I mastered the art of hailing a cab and absolutely did not tolerate people who tried to steal my taxi by standing up-street from me.
In short, I was an excellent New Yorker.
When I moved to Jackson a year ago, I immediately started worrying that I was accidentally rude to people. I just was not used to making small talk with strangers, and oftentimes I didn’t realize strangers to speaking to me because, well, who talks to strangers? I had to learn to call people “sir” and “ma’am.” Where I come from (Massachusetts, then New York), women especially are very offended when you call them “ma’am.” It makes them feel old, and seems rude. But in the South, it is a much appreciated sign of respect. I quickly learned to love these habits. I think it is adorable when the students I work with call me “Miss Allison” and it is so sweet to see people holding doors open for one another.
I recently returned to NYC to visit my college friends. I landed at La Guardia airport, hopped over to the Upper West Side to visit campus, and then caught a train to Tribeca to meet up with my friends after work. That’s when things started to go wrong. I accidentally bumped into someone in the rush to get on the express train, so I said excuse me and let him go through the door first. He just looked at me and sort of smirked. How rude!
I was fortunate enough to find a seat and, like a true New Yorker, plugged in my headphones. Looking around at the other passengers, I smiled each time I made eye contact with someone. Once again, I must reiterate, this is the WRONG THING TO DO on the New York subway. People stared back or looked away or rolled their eyes. I could almost hear them thinking “where the heck is she from?”
This is not to say that New Yorkers are mean, or that Southerners are all quaint, sweet people. Most New Yorkers often offer subway seats to people who need them, and some Southerners drive like inconsiderate maniacs. Individually, I think we are more alike than we realize. Dan Ring discussed various theories of the difference between North and South, City and Small Town, in his blog post a few weeks ago, so I will direct your attention to that post for more details. What I will say here is that I think my ideal world is a combination of the two.
Without offending anyone, I would like to say that in my experience, people in the South are definitely overtly friendlier, but perhaps also a little less hurried—which can be a wonderful quality, or a frustrating one. Meanwhile, Northerners (specifically, New Yorkers!) might not be as gregarious to strangers, but are also a little more hurried—which can be a wonderful quality, or a frustrating one.
And what’s funny is, I always identified with the pace and attitude of New Yorkers… but after only a year in the South, when I went back up to the big city, I felt like a country mouse. I had begun displaying some outward signs of Southernness… and I’m okay with that. I love New York, I love the South, and having lived in both places I am now hoping to embody the best of both worlds.
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