MEMPHIS (JTA) — Southern food, a deep fried country cuisine eponymous with bacon fat and crawfish, is hardly something one would expect to find on a kosher plate. But a Jewish day school here is hoping to change this perception with "Simply Southern: With a Dash of Kosher Soul," a new cookbook chronicling the history and recipes of Southern kosher cooking.
Four-and-a-half years ago, the Margolin Hebrew Academy initiated a project that aimed to collect kosher recipes unique to the southern United States. Originally intended to be a modest fund-raiser, the venture far exceeded the school’s expectations by eliciting more than 1,500 responses from Jewish families in the South.
The book’s editors, Dena Wruble and Tracy Rapp, said the project started with an ad requesting recipes and personal stories placed in The Hebrew Watchman, the Jewish newspaper for the Memphis community.
A team of volunteers recruited by Wruble and Rapp prepared about 500 individual recipes before settling on a mix of 300 dishes ranging from time-honored Southern meals, including fried chicken and macaroni and cheese, to traditional Jewish fare with a distinctly Southern twist, such as latkes with parsnips and chives.
The chosen recipes belong to Jews of varying ages and backgrounds, symbolizing the vibrancy of Jewish cuisine below the Mason-Dixon Line.
Wruble and Rapp said their inspiration for the new book was multifold.
“Our community has been known for our Southern hospitality and great food,” Rapp said. “But there really isn’t a comprehensive Southern kosher cookbook out there.”
She said the Margolin Hebrew Academy’s new cookbook will fill that void.
Rapp said interest in a kosher cookbook for Southern cuisine was fueled particularly by the community’s reaction to a one-time offer presented by Corky’s BBQ, a venerated Memphis barbecue establishment.
Upon acquiring a new smoker, Corky’s prepared several pounds of kosher barbecue before using it to smoke the restaurant’s usual pork-laden fare. Corky’s owner, Don Pelts, is a member of the Memphis Jewish community and organized the event as a fund-raiser to benefit the Margolin academy.
The event raked in a staggering $147,000 in orders, which Wruble and Rapp felt illustrated a dire need within the Jewish community for more opportunities to enjoy Southern cuisine.
"We don’t have kosher restaurants here,” Rapp said. “Everyone cooks.”
Now, she said, the new cookbook will give the chefs in kosher homes the chance to enjoy Southern classics and still adhere to kashrut.
Accompanying the recipes in "Simply Southern" is a series of stories and anecdotes about Jewish life in the South. Wruble says the cookbook “tells a story within the pages,” examining the culture of kosher food through the experiences of Southern Jews.
Rapp said the histories were drawn from the experiences of several Southern Jews who contributed to the project, including grandparents of many Margolin students.
“They all had stories about keeping kosher,” a feat that often was difficult in communities with few Jews, she said.
Above all else, Wruble stressed, the cookbook’s most appealing feature is its implicit reverence for Southern generosity and great food, plain and simple.
“I think that always appeals to people,” she said. “It appeals to us!”
The Margolin academy — formerly the Memphis Hebrew Academy — was founded in 1949. In its early days the school could afford to hold classes for only a handful of students in kindergarten and first grade.
Despite the odds, the school prospered and merged with the Yeshiva of the South in 1987. Today it offers classes from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.
Here is a recipe from the book:
POTATO PARSNIP LATKES
1 large baking potato, peeled and shredded
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 parsnips, peeled and shredded or julienne cut
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 large eggs, slightly beaten
3 teaspoons finely chopped chives
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
3/4 cup vegetable oil
Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Combine potato and lemon juice, tossing to coat. Place potato on a towel and squeeze all liquid from potato. Mix together potato, parsnip, flour, eggs, chives, salt, and pepper. Heat oil in a skillet over medium high heat. Spoon heaping tablespoonfuls of mixture into skillet and press flat. Cook 2-3 minutes on each side until golden browned. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate. Keep warm in oven. Yield: 4 servings.
"Simply Southern" will be available for purchase on Dec. 10 through the book’s Web site or by phone at (866) 715-7667.