I’m a historian, and a native Texan, and Jewish; I love food and especially food history. So when those interests intersect, I get excited.
That’s why I love writers like Marcie Cohen Ferris, who wrote such great works as Matzo Ball Gumbo and The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region. This week, I have a new little treasure bringing together my interests—this amazing food feature, which chronicles Jewish food and memories of Jewish life in Texas.
I am proud to hail from the Lone Star state. I think the following John Steinbeck quote rings true, “Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation, in every sense of the word. And there’s an opening convey of generalities. A Texan outside of Texas is a foreigner.” To be sure, Texas is unique, and everything IS really big there; but, this native Texan would like to contest it is still downright Southern. From the chicken fried steak to the homecoming mums worn by girls with hearts as big as their hair, the state is a bastion of both hospitality and more importantly, terrific food.
What was particularly striking to me about the article is that in addition to food, its focus is on growing up Jewish in Texarkana—my mother’s hometown! As a child, I visited Texarkana many times, but I never knew that the town boasted a rich Jewish history.
Reading this article, and re-visiting the Texarkana entries in the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities (a massive historic resource I am now tasked with growing and maintaining), it warmed my heart to know that the town of my mother’s birthplace was home to Jews like clothing merchant Sam Heilbron, bankers Joseph Marx and Leon Rosenberg, café owner Martin Levy, and Joseph Deutschmann, who helped the development of water and gas companies in Texarkana, owned a stake in the city’s first street-cars, and worked in real estate, developing housing in the growing town at the turn of the 19th century.
In Texarkana, Jews were actually present since shortly after the city’s founding in 1874 and were quite instrumental in its development and growth over the course of the twentieth century. The Texarkana synagogue, Mount Sinai, is still going strong. Be sure to stop there for services if you ever find yourself in the part of the country. In the meantime, you can read all about Texarkana right here.
My Texan grandmother never made Jewish delicacies such as matzo ball soup, borscht or stuffed cabbage, but she sure could make a mean raisin pie, and she made her living baking and decorating delicious cakes. I am sure if she had the recipe for kugel, she would have made it all the time for Sunday dinners, making sure that her version had twice the butter the recipe calls for, because why not add more butter?
If you have any fun Southern and Jewish recipes that are a part of your history, please share! As the saying goes, the next best thing to eating food—or being in Texas—is talking about it.
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.
As I get ready for my Southern family’s traditional Thanksgiving celebration, which this year will overlap our celebration of Hanukkah… well, there’s been all this talk of “Thanksgivukkah,” but right now it’s the annual menu that’s on my mind.
Thinking about all the foods we eat, and how this night too is “different from all other nights,” I realized this holiday needs its own four questions:
1) On all other nights, we eat only one carbohydrate. Why on this night do we have sweet potato casserole with a gooey marshmallow topping, mashed potatoes, bread, cornbread dressing, stuffing, and rolls (oh, those many, many delicious dinner rolls)?
2) On all other nights we eat raw, steamed or sautéed vegetables. Why on this night do we serve our green beans in a casserole that loses nutritional value with a can of cream soup and crunchy onion rings on top?
3) On all other nights, we don’t dip our chicken, turkey or meat in gravy. Why on this night do we generously smother everything in gravy?
4) On all other nights, we eat sitting upright. Why on this night do we eat and eat and eat, then eat some pie and recline in front of a football game?
Of course, this year, in addition to the regular old Four Questions of Thanksgiving, we have another one: On all other Thanksgivings, we don’t light a menorah. Why on this night…
Well – that one has a really clear answer, at least.
As for the others, well, the holiday in the United States began as a feast and giving thanks for a good harvest. Today, the holiday has become about families gathering around a table and giving thanks for being together – which isn’t an excuse for the overly-decadent food.
So there may not be a truly satisfying answer to each of the 4 Questions of Thanksgiving, but the overall answer is that we do it to celebrate with our families, enjoying what we have and hopefully also remembering those in need and sharing in the bounty.
And as for all the carbs and calories, well… it’s only once a year, right?