When Hurricane Katrina roared into New Orleans, destroying much of the Big Easy, the flood waters also altered Jewish life in this sultry city. With so many homes in ruin, there’s now only a fraction of the original 9,500 people left to celebrate Passover in this fabled port, famous for strong coffee and decorative ironwork balconies. "When you drive from Mississippi toward New Orleans, as you approach the bayous, the radio stations change, the music changes, and you know you’re in a different place," says Marcie Cohen Ferris, an Arkansas native and author of "Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South" (University of North Carolina Press).
New Orleans is a gumbo of sorts, a piquant stew of French, Spanish, Indian, African and Jewish influences, seasoned with Creole and Cajun spices and punctuated by jazz.
A compelling storyteller, Ferris turns history into riveting reading. Her book describes early 19th-century Jews who traveled to New Orleans from Alsace, France. Attracted to the French culture and language, they appreciated the city’s emphasis on fine food. Soon German Jews arrived too.
Along with Christian businessmen, Jews followed the cotton trade to New Orleans, where their traditions relaxed into the balmy air.
In 1826, Jacob de Silva Solis, a Sephardic Jew and former ritual slaughterer, moved from the East Coast to New Orleans. Amid the heat, creole culture, and bubbling mixture of people, he encountered a Jewish community, which stunned him more than the cayenne pepper in food. There were no synagogues in town, and as Passover approached, no matzah to be found. He survived the holiday by grinding his own meal. But he was dumbfounded by the indifference to Judaism exhibited by these Ashkenazi Jews who mixed freely with the largely Catholic population. Undaunted by their apathy, in 1827 Solis helped them establish Congregation Shangarai Chased, or Gates of Mercy.
During the Civil War, another Sephardi Jew, 16-year-old Clara Soloman, kept a diary, detailing life in a Confederate slave-owning family. During the spring of 1862, she described the shortage and poor quality of matzah. "Our matzahs are so miserably sour that I don’t think I have eaten a whole one."
Soloman was devastated when a favorite slave escaped. Because Passover revolves around the bitterness experienced by the ancient Hebrews in bondage, it’s uncomfortable to contemplate Jewish slave owners celebrating Passover.
"It’s hard to imagine the historical mindset of another period, such as slavery days in the old South," says Ferris, the associate director of the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies and assistant professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina. "While few Jews were plantation owners, they acquiesced to this institution because slave owning was the way you demonstrated that you were a white Southerner, something that was important to Jews of the period."
By adopting local fare, which in some cases included shellfish and pork, Jews joined mainstream society to demonstrate loyalty to white Creole culture.
"At the heart of the Creole kitchen are African American women who called on their knowledge of tropical foods," Ferris says.
At first working as slaves but later employed as cooks, black women artfully combined French fare with African spices and local foods. "When this cuisine entered Jewish homes in the 19th and 20th centuries, a new cuisine that mixed Jewish and Creole traditions was born in Louisiana." The quintessential example of this fusion is matzah ball gumbo.
Over the decades, Jewish women in New Orleans have produced a spate of privately published cookbooks, culinary memoirs filled with family stories and favorite recipes. One of the best of the genre is Lee Geismar Stamler’s "From Gumbo to Matzoh Balls: A Cookbook Flavored with Memories of Growing Up in Cajun Louisiana."
"In these cookbooks, one sees how French cooking styles, African spices and seasonings, native produce and seafood, all of which are basic elements of Creole and Cajun cuisine, transformed even that most traditional of Jewish foods — the matzah ball," Ferris says.
Jewish women in New Orleans still prepare Passover dumplings as they were made during the antebellum period, she explains.
While matzah ball preparation is fairly standard, "the creole influence appears in the seasoning, which includes green onions and parsley." Some cooks add ginger and garlic as well. In New Orleans, matzah balls are either served in an Alsatian-style beef-vegetable broth, called red soup, or in chicken and sausage gumbo. Surprisingly, they are also sauteed in copious amounts of butter and presented as a side dish.
"Serving the matzah balls as a side dish, rather than floating them in soup, de-ethnicized them," says Ferris. "In the soup bowl, the matzah ball was Jewish, but served on a plate, it became an American side dish, as innocuous as rice or potatoes."
During the 1950s and 1960s, Cathy Samuel Wolf grew up in New Orleans exposed to few Jewish traditions. But she remembers her Aunt Maud’s matzah balls swimming in butter.
"By serving matzah balls, even in such a non-traditional fashion, the Samuel women made a statement, albeit discreet, about their family’s New Orleans Jewish ancestry," says Ferris. "In a family in which all vestiges of Judaism were absent, the matzah ball’s survival suggests the power of food and Jewish women’s ability to shape their family’s ethnic identity in the kitchen."
This identity was enhanced by the African influence.
"My entire life of wonderful family eating experiences was solidly nurtured from my mother’s ‘country Jewish’ recipes to those of our long-time housekeeper, Vinie Williams," said Anne Zoller Kiefer. "Together they created the perfect mix of Jewish and spicy creole delicacies like dirty matzah dressing for Passover," a muddy colored, but perfectly clean dish.
During better times, kosher cookbook author Mildred Lubritz Covert created Passover fried green tomatoes for the holiday. "How much more southern can a Jewish hostess get?" she asked. "L’Chaim and Bon Appetit."
During Hurricane Katrina, her house was destroyed. "We were totaled. There’s nothing left."
Sadly, Covert’s synagogue suffered the same fate. Since the disaster, many Jews have settled in other parts of the country, probably never to return.
"The unfortunate part is that New Orleans is not a town that attracts Jews," Covert says. "Since World War II, the population has hovered around 10,000. When one Jew dies, another is born." But currently only about half of the original population has returned to the city.
As Passover approaches, Covert is living in her fifth rental home, awaiting her condominium’s completion. At 70-something she’d find it too hard to abandon the Big Easy where she was born.
"The post-Hurricane Katrina population may be smaller but it will become stronger," Ferris says. "Tragedy has a way of invigorating Jewish communities."
She’s confident that the spice of Jewish life, along with Creole matzah balls, will endure in New Orleans.
Recipes from "Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South" by Marcie Cohen Ferris:
RED SOUP contributed by Florence Weiland Schornstein
2 cups coarsely chopped green cabbage
1 large Yukon Gold potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
1 large turnip, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1 cup sliced leek, well-rinsed of grit
2 medium carrots, sliced 1/2 inch thick
1 stalk celery, sliced
8 cups water
1 6-oz can tomato paste
2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
1 2-lb piece well-trimmed boneless beef brisket
1/2 cup shelled fresh or frozen peas (optional)
Favorite matzah ball recipe (optional), such as Creole matzah balls (below)
In a soup pot, place the cabbage, potato, onion, turnip, leek, carrots, celery, water, tomato paste, salt and pepper. Stir to mix well. There should be enough water to barely cover the vegetables; if not, add more — but don’t make the soup too thin.
Add the brisket; stir again, and bring to a boil over high heat. Skim off the foam that rises to the surface. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer until the brisket is tender when pierced with a fork, about 21/2 to 3 hours. Remove from heat. Remove the brisket from the soup.
For the best flavor, cover the soup, wrap the brisket, and refrigerate both overnight.
To serve, skim any fat from the soup. Cut the brisket into 1-inch pieces and return to the soup. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt and pepper, if necessary. If desired, add the peas and cook an additional 2 minutes. Serve hot with matzah balls, if you wish.
Yield: 6 generous servings; more if you add matzah balls
CREOLE MATZOH BALLS contributed by Anne Zoller Kiefer
2 tbsp canola oil
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 to 2 1/2 tsp any brand of Creole Seasoning — Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Kosher for Passover "Magic Seasoning" can be ordered through Kosher Cajun, www.koshercajun.com.
2 large eggs
1 packet (from a 5-oz package) matzah ball mix
In a small nonstick skillet, heat 1 tbsp of the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, until tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the parsley and Creole seasoning and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds.
Scrape the onion mixture into a medium bowl and let cool slightly. Add the eggs and remaining 1 tbsp oil. Mix with a fork until the eggs are well broken up. Add the matzah ball mix and stir until blended. Cover and refrigerate for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, fill a large saucepan with water. Cover and bring to a boil. Moisten your hands and form the matzah ball mixture into 12 balls, using a heaping tbsp mixture for each one.
Add a big pinch of salt to the boiling water and drop the matzah balls in. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 15 minutes or until cooked through. Serve soon or, with a slotted spoon, transfer to a container. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. Reheat matzah balls in soup.
Yield: 12 matzah balls
"DIRTY MATZAH" DRESSING contributed by Anne Zoller Kiefer
1 tbsp olive oil (omit if using giblets)
1 cup chicken livers (about 6 oz), trimmed and halved, or finely chopped, cooked giblets. (For a vegetarian version, use 2 cups sauteed mushrooms instead)
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
9 unsalted matzahs, broken up
1 stick unsalted butter or margarine
1 large onion, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped fine
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
3 to 4 tbsp creole seasoning, Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Kosher for Passover "Magic Seasoning" can be ordered through Kosher Cajun, www.koshercajun.com.
1/2 cup chicken broth (or vegetable broth for vegetarian version)
1 large egg
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously grease a 9 X 9 inch glass baking dish or casserole.
If using the livers, heat the oil in a heavy medium skillet over medium heat. Carefully add the livers and sprinkle each with 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt and pepper. Cook, turning often and scraping the bottom of the pan, until livers are browned but still pink in the center, about 4 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl (but don’t wash the skillet). Let livers cool slightly and then chop.
Meanwhile, place the matzahs in a large bowl and cover with cold water. Let stand, pressing them down into the water, until softened, about 10 minutes. Drain in a fine-mesh strainer, pressing out the water and breaking up the matzahs with your hands. Dry the bowl; return the matzahs to the bowl.
In the same skillet, over medium heat, melt all but 1 tbsp of the margarine. Add the onion, celery, and garlic, and cook, stirring often, until tender, 8 minutes. Stir in the parsley, Creole seasoning, 3/4 tsp kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Cook, stirring 1 minute. Scrape the mixture into the matzahs.
Add the livers or giblets (or mushrooms), broth, and egg. Mix well. Transfer to the prepared baking dish and dot with the remaining 1 tablespoon margarine.
Cover with foil and bake for 45 minutes. Uncover and bake until the surface is browned and crisp, 15 to 20 minutes longer. Serve hot.
Yield: 8 to 10 servings, 7 cups
PESACH FRIED GREEN TOMATOES contributed by Mildred Lubritz Covert
1/2 cup matzah meal
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/8 tsp granulated sugar
2 large eggs
4 to 5 large green tomatoes (about 2 lb), cored and sliced 1/2 inch thick, ends discarded. (If you can’t find green tomatoes, use hard, unripe red tomatoes)
1/2 cup or more vegetable oil for frying
In a pie plate, mix the matzah meal, salt, cayenne pepper, and sugar.
In another pie plate, with a fork, beat the eggs. One at a time, dip the tomato slices into the beaten eggs, letting the excess drip off. Then coat with the matzah meal, pressing it into the surface. Place the crumbed tomatoes on waxed-paper-lined baking sheets.
In a large heavy skillet, heat half the oil over medium heat. Add a layer of tomatoes and fry, turning once, until browned and crisp, 6 to 8 minutes. Drain on paper towels.
Repeat with the remaining tomato slices, adding additional oil as needed. Serve hot.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.