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Reviewed by:
  • Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South
  • Dale Volberg Reed (bio)
Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South By Marcie Cohen FerrisUniversity of North Carolina Press, 2005327 pp. Cloth $29.95

Growing up in East Tennessee I hardly knew any Jews, or hardly knew I knew any. Lacking the usual stereotypes, I didn't know, for example, that the owner of the nicest men's clothing store had both a name and an occupation that were most likely Jewish. When we spent a year in Jerusalem in 1973–74, I learned a bit about kashrut, which didn't strike me as at all odd, since I had grown up with Methodist dietary restrictions. "Thou shalt not drink" is less biblical and less poetic than the Jewish rules, but equally strict—and equally often ignored.

That same year Melville scholar Hennig Cohen visited Jerusalem, and I heard him describe, in his melting South Carolina accent, his family's Seder tradition of having the cook come out to the dining room and recite her version of fdr's "Stab in the Back" speech. Almost immediately thereafter I read Eli Evans's The Provincials (1973), and I realized that southern Jews are one of our most fascinating ethnic groups. Like many other groups, southern Jews became more self-conscious in the 1970s: the moribund Southern Jewish Historical Society was revived in 1976 and has flourished ever since, as has the topic of southern Jewry in both scholarly and popular literature. The many examples that come to mind include Louis Rubin's My Father's People: A Family of Southern Jews, Melissa Fay Greene's The Temple Bombing, Alfred Uhry's Driving Miss Daisy, and the beautiful and scholarly A Portion of the People: Three Hundred Years of Southern Jewish Life, edited by Theodore and Dale Rosengarten to accompany their art exhibition of the same name. [End Page 101]

Recently, interest in foodways has gained academic respectability as a useful way to look at society and southern studies has continued to flourish, so it was almost inevitable that in 1999 the Southern Foodways Alliance was formed to combine the two. Take Jewish studies and southern studies, add study of southern foodways, throw in oral history, which everyone is doing these days, and you get Matzoh Ball Gumbo, the book Marcie Ferris was born to write.

Incidentally, I should state up front that I am a friend of Marcie Ferris's. I imagine that the editors of this journal couldn't find anyone interested in either southern Jews or southern food who is not a friend of Marcie's.

Marcie has been working on this project since she took her first bite of solid food, but I expect she began her first serious research when she realized Jews weren't supposed to eat at the Dixie Pig, in her hometown of Blytheville, Arkansas. Her background in museum work and public history, especially her time at the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, has given her the broad understanding of social history that is essential in any study of southern Jews. She has seen at first hand the effects of the social changes that have come with the South's urbanization: one of the museum's roles was to take care of the many Torahs belonging to defunct small-town southern congregations. (I have a cousin, the only adult Jew left in her town, who sees herself as personally responsible for the upkeep of the Jewish cemetery.)

Marcie's subtitle, "Culinary Tales of the Jewish South," reveals that this is a good southern book, based on stories rather than statistics. It's conversational, warm, and tasty. It may have begun life as a Ph.D. dissertation, but it almost never reveals its origin. It was probably the only charming dissertation her advisors had ever seen. I know, "charming dissertation" seems like an oxymoron, but I promise, it's not.

The book is divided into five main sections devoted to five distinct communities of southern Jews, in the lowcountry (Charleston and Savannah), Atlanta, New Orleans, the Mississippi Delta, and Memphis. Each section has history, anecdotes, interviews, and a few recipes, and...


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