NEW YORK — When Hurricane Katrina roared into New Orleans, destroying much of the Big Easy, the floodwaters 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 Sephardic 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: