Southern & Jewish
Southern & Jewish celebrates the stories, people, and experiences – past and present – of Jewish life in the American South. Hosted by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, posts come from educators, students, rabbis, parents, artists, and many other “visitors-to and daily-livers-of” the Southern Jewish experience. From road trips to recipes to reflections, we’ll explore a little bit of everything – well, at least all things Southern and/or Jewish. Shalom, y’all!
Carrot soufflé is Jewish, right?
That’s what I always thought. I grew up knowing carrot soufflé, a dense carrot-based casserole, as a Jewish dish. How this became my family’s tradition, I don’t know, but it’s been passed down for generations. We eat carrot soufflé at every Rosh Hashanah dinner, at every Yom Kippur break-fast, and of course, we have a version with matza meal for Passover.
At some point, when we brought carrot souffle to a friend’s seder table and got bemused looks, I began realizing that not all Jews (Ashkenazi like me, or otherwise-identified) eat carrot souffle as a holiday treat. Only at my family’s table did it hold a position of honor next to kugel and brisket.
I thus determined that carrot souffle was a family thing, unique and only known to a special few, kind of like my great-grandfather’s emigration story from Russia.
For a while, that theory held up. Until I was 21, I never knew of anyone else making a carrot souffle. And then, I went to Christmas dinner at my boyfriend’s house.
There it was: carrot soufflé, but now sitting next to ham and mashed potatoes instead of kugel.
In that moment, even with the excitement and amusement of seeing a favorite food in such an odd place, I tasted betrayal. Don’t get me wrong, it was good (even if it didn’t measure up to my mother’s)— but carrot souffle was supposed to be my family’s Jewish holiday dish, not a Christmas staple.
How had both of our families wound up with this holiday tradition?
My boyfriend’s grandmother wondered aloud if it was a Texas thing. But my mom, a Memphis native, got the recipe from my Mimi who was raised in Birmingham, Alabama. According to Mimi, her mother (my namesake, Great-Grandma Sophie) first used the recipe for a Thanksgiving dinner sometime before 1970… but its true origins remain a mystery. How could I claim this dish as my own cultural staple if I don’t even know where it came from?
Even after consulting the internet, the best I can say is that the recipe likely originated in the South. One of its most famous iterations is sold at Piccadilly Cafeteria, a southern food chain restaurant, so there’s that.
As it turns out, my family is not the only one out there to eat carrot soufflé for High Holidays and Passover. The more I asked, the more doubt clouded my understanding of its place on my table, in Jewish cuisine, and in my Southern family’s past, besides being delicious, of course. If I didn’t know the real story behind it, and if it doubled as a Christmas dish… could I really call it one of my favorite Jewish holiday foods?
In the end, I decided… yes.
No one was trying to take carrot souffle away from me. My boyfriend, for one, would never object to my calling it a celebratory Jewish food, especially if that means he gets to have a slice when we eat break-fast together for Yom Kippur. His grandmother was happy to speculate about the origins of our shared tradition. It gave us some common – and tasty – ground.
I’m coming to know carrot soufflé for what it is: a Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur-Passover-Thanksgiving-Christmas specialty, a perfect accompaniment to your celebration. Whether you go for brisket, ham, apricot chicken, or tofurkey—it’s the perfect dish to share with family.
Maybe it isn’t so strange to claim carrot soufflé as my own, my family’s. It’s certainly Southern, and maybe, just maybe, carrot soufflé is also plenty Jewish after all.