Where Challah Meets Okra

To try matzoh-breaded pralines, click here for a recipe.

"Home cookin'" is what I've been told Southern food is all about. Simple, just like mom used to make. In my quest to find some authentic Southern food, that's been a bit of a problem--my mom never made okra or fried chicken so much as potato kugel and matzoh ball soup. It struck me while I was in the swamps of Skidaway Park near Savannah, Georgia, drinking mint juleps out of an empty gefilte fish jar, that maybe I was going about this all wrong.

As it turned out, my kind of home cookin' was easier to find than I thought it would be. In the historic district of Savannah, across the square from Mercer house (the setting of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), sits the building for the second oldest religious institution in the state of Georgia: a synagogue.

"Shalom Y'all!" proclaims Congregation Mickve Israel's website. Founded in 1733, Mickve is as much a part of the American South as the Methodist church next door. On July 3rd, "Erev Independence Day," Rabbi Arnold Belzer stood at the pulpit wearing a tallis, a yarmulke, and white linen pants. The congregation sang "My Country 'Tis of Thee" with organ accompaniment before serving hot dogs and potato salad in Mordecai Sheftall Hall.

When the invention of Crisco finally made the deep-fry kosher in 1933, Proctor and Gamble called it "a product the Hebrew race has been waiting for for 4,000 years."

Every year on the anniversary of the founding of Congregation Mickve Israel, descendants of the forty original settlers return to honor their heritage. Some are still Jews, and some have been Christians for 250 years. They eat challah at kiddush just the same. They share what's called a Pintele Yid, a spark that lives in Jewish people regardless of whether or not they practice Judaism.

The identity of the Mickve Jews has always been fluid. The synagogue was founded by Spanish Jews forced to practice Catholicism for as much as ten years before they set sail for Georgia, just five months after Edward James Oglethorpe had established the colony. The settlers had intended to bar Jews along with the Catholics, but then their only gentile doctor died.


Photo by Dave Their

According to Marcie Cohen Ferris' Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South, the first American Jews faced difficulties eating in a place with no Kosher butchers or rabbis, but they were figuring out how to be Americans along with everyone else. Some went whole hog (pun intended) with pulled pork, shrimp, and crab. Many picked and chose how they would observe dietary laws--either by keeping kosher at home but eating ham with friends or by making their old family recipes with new ingredients like sweet potatoes and okra. The results included pecan kugels, barbecued briskets, and cornmeal fish in Sephardic vinegar sauces. When the invention of Crisco finally made the deep-fry kosher in 1933, Proctor and Gamble called it "a product the Hebrew race has been waiting for for 4,000 years."

Judaism is a religion, a culture, and a bloodline. Technically, you're Jewish if your mother is, and mine was. My family was never particularly observant: We ate bacon after unwrapping our Christmas presents. But while my mother was never bat-mitzvahed, she served as president of our congregation. Just as important as going to temple for her was making the food she remembered her great-grandmother making--I don't know the specifics of her theological beliefs, but I know she believed in potato kugel.

If Mickve seems like a curiously comfortable fit in Savannah, maybe it's because Southern culture, like Jewish culture, is focused around family, food, and history. Home cooking occupies a cultural place in between secular and sacred. And if marrying kashrut to a cuisine of pork and shrimp seems impossible, it shouldn't seem that different from a bunch of English settlers wondering what on earth they were going to do with corn. Adaptation doesn't destroy tradition, it keeps it alive. The Bible tells us that Manna could be whatever you wanted it to be. Matzoh ball gumbo is as Jewish as bagels.