Mat­zoh Ball Gum­bo: Culi­nary Tales of the Jew­ish South

Mar­cie Cohen Ferris
  • Review
By – November 10, 2011

Jews faced seri­ous chal­lenges in the Amer­i­can South, where pork and shell­fish — the ulti­mate treyf foods — head every menu. In Mat­zoh Ball Gum­bo: Culi­nary Tales of the Jew­ish South Mar­cie Cohen Fer­ris, asso­ciate direc­tor of the Car­oli­na Cen­ter for Jew­ish Stud­ies and assis­tant pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na at Chapel Hill, explores the ways Jews nego­ti­at­ed with their iden­ti­ties, often through the din­ner table, in a region where reli­gious and class dis­tinc­tions run strong and Jews are few in number.

Respect­ed as peo­ple of the book,’ the ear­ly set­tlers, main­ly West Euro­peans, blend­ed in by adopt­ing an incon­spic­u­ous Judaism” along with the culi­nary and social habits of their Gen­tile neigh­bors. South­ern Jew­ish life changed some­what as obser­vant East­ern Euro­pean Jews arrived in the late 19th cen­tu­ry with their pick­les and briskets, a con­trast to the fried chick­en and bis­cuits of the upper mid­dle-class clas­sic Reform tem­ples. Today, kosher bar­be­cue con­tes­tants live side by side with Jews who enjoy stan­dard nonkosher South­ern fare, and many of the kosher cater­ers are African-Amer­i­cans, trained in kashrut by the house­holds and syn­a­gogues where their fam­i­lies have cooked for gen­er­a­tions. 

Fer­ris’ sur­vey of South­ern Jew­ish food­ways goes far beyond the kitchen as it doc­u­ments South­ern Jew­ish domes­tic, social, racial, reli­gious, and busi­ness life over three cen­turies. Rich in anec­dote and based on exten­sive inter­views, Mat­zoh Ball Gum­bo records an impor­tant aspect of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish expe­ri­ence. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, illus­tra­tions, index, notes, recipes.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions