Episode 103: Kugels & Collards: The Southern Jewish Table

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Jen: Hi, it’s Jen Richler. Welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history, and Jewish culture meet. First, a word from our sponsor, the University of San Francisco’s Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice. JSSJ’s graduate-level certificate program in JEDI, Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, is more than an educational program. It’s a call to action to improve the future of every Jewish institution. Classes meet the moment with supportive learning that helps students navigate an evolving and challenging Jewish community landscape. Learn more and apply by January 12 for spring classes at usfca.edu/jedi.

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Jen: Now, on to the show. This time, a story about Jewish food.

Lyssa: I always like to say that I'm Southern and Jewish and food is my love language. And I probably think that's not too different for a lot of Southerners. We talk about food at baseball games and at football games. We serve food. We eat food before, you know, anything and after everything.

Jen: It's a Sunday evening in early October, and I'm in the kitchen with Lyssa Kligman Harvey. We're at her family's beach house on Sullivan's Island, just off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina. Her grandparents built it in the 1940s, and it's been added onto over the years to accommodate the ever-expanding family. It's a cozy house with a warm, welcoming feeling. I can imagine generations of family gathering to share meals together at the large dining room table. But tonight, I'm the dinner guest, and Lyssa is preparing a Southern Jewish feast.

Jen: So Lyssa, what are you making?

Lyssa: Tonight, I'm making okra gumbo. [To herself] Onions in the oil.

[Knife scrapes cutting board and oil sizzles]

Lyssa: I'm going to cook these until they're nice and brown—translucent, and brown, and caramelized, almost.

Lyssa: Then I am going to make the okra. Now, okra is not a very pleasant vegetable to work with. It's slimy, and it's a little prickly, also. Okra is—needs a sunny, kind of hot, moist environment. That would be South Carolina.

Jen: You might not think of okra as a key ingredient in Jewish cuisine. But here in South Carolina, it is, and that tells you something about the influences on Jewish foodways here. We’ll be talking about that a lot in this episode: how different cultures, especially African, and later, African American cultures shaped Jewish food and Jewish identity in South Carolina.

But first—a little more cooking. Joining Lyssa in the kitchen is her friend, Rachel Gordin Barnett.

Jen: So Rachel, what are you making?

Rachel: I'm making collard greens. Um, collards is, you know, it's a green that we grow in South Carolina, we grow in the South.

It's a winter vegetable. These are in a lovely bag, and they have already been chopped, and they're clean. They normally come in a big bunch, and they are a pain to clean when they're like that. They get sand and grit in between them, and you have to wash them a lot.

So collards are, you know, one of those nice healthy greens that we cook a lot in the South. Now, in Jewish kitchens, like the one I grew up in, we never use pork. Traditional vegetable dishes in the South have a lot of pork: fatback or whatever they want to put in to season it—never happened in our household.

So our collard greens are pretty simple. I start with a little olive oil, and, now, I add a little bit of onion. And what else? A little Italian seasoning and some chopped tomatoes. And, you know, a little salt and pepper. And it's pretty simple.

You actually add a pinch of sugar. Collard greens can be bitter. So the sugar helps, you know, neutralize some of that bitterness.

Jen: Also on the menu: fried chicken, and key lime pie for dessert.

As excited as I am for the meal we're about to eat, that's not the only reason I'm here. I've traveled to Charleston to hear the stories of Jews in South Carolina, told through the lens of food.

Jews have deep roots and a rich history here. That’s in large part, because, unlike a lot of places, Jews have always been welcome here. The colony of Carolina was founded to be religiously tolerant. In fact, the colony’s Fundamental Constitutions of 1669 granted freedom of worship to “Jews, Heathens, and other Dissenters from the purity of the Christian Religion.” This provision never became law, but Charleston was known as a place where anyone could practice their faith and conduct business (as long as they weren’t Catholic).

And so, Jews came. They first settled in Charleston in the 1690s. Most were Sephardic Jews, descendants of people who’d been expelled from Spain during the Inquisition and moved to places like Amsterdam, Hamburg, and London. In 1749, they founded Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim. It’s the second oldest synagogue in the US and the oldest in continuous use. By 1800, Charleston was the center of American Jewish culture. There were more Jews in Charleston than in New York—as several people on my visit proudly told me.

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In this episode of Can We Talk?, we’re exploring the history of Jews in South Carolina through food. We’ll hear from Dale Rosengarten, a scholar of Southern Jewish history, and Kim Cliett Long, a scholar whose rich family story weaves together Jewish and African American identities.

We’ll talk about food as a vehicle for telling complicated stories, connecting with people, and understanding our history—including the uncomfortable parts.

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Lyssa and Rachel are the perfect people to start with. They’re not just generous hosts and good cooks. They’ve also spent the last few years thinking and writing about the food of Jewish South Carolina. So, after stuffing ourselves, we sat down to talk.

Rachel: I'm Rachel Gordin Barnett. I have lived in South Carolina pretty much my whole life except for a few years away. And I am the co-author of Kugels & Collards.

Lyssa: I'm Lisa Kligman Harvey. I've lived in South Carolina my whole life. My father's family is from Columbia, and my mother's family is from Charleston, South Carolina. And I'm the co-author of Kugels & Collards.

Jen: Kugels & Collards. You could call it a cookbook; it has plenty of recipes. There are some you’d expect to find in any traditional American Jewish cookbook: Ashkenazi dishes like kugel, gefilte fish, and brisket. But it’s also a testament to the ways southern Jewish food, like most Southern cuisine, was influenced and shaped over centuries by enslaved people who brought staples like rice and okra from Africa. The book also includes many recipes that reflect these influences, like okra gumbo, fried chicken, and Hoppin’ John, a mixture of black eyed peas and rice.

Kugels & Collards is also a collective family history. Many of the recipes in the book have been handed down from generation to generation, and so have the family photos and stories that fill the book, contributed by 60 people.

Lyssa and Rachel are both self-described foodies and have been interested in the Jewish history of their home state for years.

At the turn of the twentieth century, another big wave of Jewish immigrants doubled the Jewish population of South Carolina. This time, the immigrants were mostly Ashkenazi Jews escaping persecution in Eastern Europe. Many settled in rural areas and became peddlers, and later, opened shops in small towns. Nearly every small town in South Carolina had a Jewish owned store, and some had many. These stores tended to be more modest than the older, established ones run by Gentiles, and many of their customers were Black.

A few decades later, Black women often worked as cooks and housekeepers in Jewish homes. 

Rachel: So, I grew up in a small town, Summerton, South Carolina, in the ’60s and early ’70s. My grandparents lived there—they were immigrants—and when they arrived there, they had a dry goods store.

They hired a woman, Ethel May Glover, to come work for the family—and to cook—because my grandmother worked in the store.

So, she kept a kosher kitchen, and she taught Ethel how to keep a kosher kitchen, as well. In return, Ethel brought her recipes of the wonderful vegetables and fried chicken and rice—all of those things my grandmother was not familiar with—into the kitchen. So, this is where you get that melding of the Southern Jewish table. That is what we write about.

And it's not a mash-up. We're not mashing together Southern and Jewish. What it is, is a brisket and fried chicken can sit right next to each other on a table, along with a bowl of collards or a kugel. Or, you know, whatever vegetable happens to be fresh and seasoned when you might have challah and biscuits in your bread basket.

Lyssa: So, I have another story similar to Rachel's: Annie Gilliard  and the Gilliards live next door to my grandparents, the Firetags, on St. Phillip Street.

Jen: [Interjects] This is in Charleston.

Lyssa: In Charleston, South Carolina. On this street, there were lots of Jewish families and lots of African American families.

Annie would come over next door. My grandmother, who wasn't—I cannot remember seeing my grandmother in the kitchen, but she knew how to keep a kosher kitchen. And she taught Annie how to keep a kosher kitchen. In fact, one time, I remember as a little girl, I picked the wrong spoon, and I ate the wrong thing with the wrong spoon. And Annie was the one that took it in the side yard and buried it.

Annie was a very good cook. She cooked sweet potato pies, and she cooked okra gumbo, which actually became one of our family favorites.

Rachel: One of the underlying themes of the book—what we realized was, the Southern Jewish table owes a lot to these African American women who brought their recipes into the homes, and they really did not get the acknowledgement at the time. So, we felt, you know, it's time to bring these women out, so that their contributions can be acknowledged. And that way we're telling a more complete story. It's just a small step.

We have a wonderful story in the book about Florida Boyd. Florida worked with this family, and she worked side by side with their mother and their father. He was the one who really, Max, taught Florida a lot of how to cook the Jewish recipes. Florida became known as the best Jewish chef in Columbia.

She ran the kitchen at the B'nai Brith tent that was at the South Carolina State Fair every year. She catered everything, brisses and bar mitzvahs. She was a force. She was an incredible woman.

Jen: Some of the stars of southern cuisine are not kosher, right? We've got a lot of shellfish and pork, right? And people handled this differently. You have a story about how your family approached what you could eat and where it could be eaten.

Lyssa: Right. So, I mean, both of our grandparents kept, ultimately, a kosher kitchen. That ended with my mother. My mother and father loved Southern food. They would eat barbecue, and they would eat seafood that was not kosher. But when I was little, I mean, we were not allowed to, um, have any kinds of shellfish here, and it didn't matter what, so long as my great grandmother was alive—Becky. She would never allow it. And so my grandparents honored that.

But, now, my grandfather loved to catch crabs, and he would take us crabbing. And we, as kids—I mean, you know, we were little—and he, we would bring the crabs home, and he would get a big pot in the backyard, and he would boil the crabs ‘till they just turned that bright red.

And then—these are blue crabs, South Carolina Atlantic Ocean blue crabs. And we would pick those crabs on the back steps. He would never eat it, but he taught us how to do it. He knew how to do it. But we would never bring, um, crabs in the house. And to this day, we pick crabs on the porch. Shh.

Jen: It’s amazing how those things stick, right?

Lyssa: The ghost of kosher past.

Jen: Yeah, you feel it. [laughs]

Jen: Lyssa and Rachel had a history consultant for Kugels & Collards. She joined us for our Southern Jewish feast, and afterward, she and I sat on  Lyssa’s screened-in porch to talk.

Dale: My name is Dale Rosengarten. I've lived in McClellanville, South Carolina since 1976. I've been working at the College of Charleston since 1995 on the Jewish Heritage Collection. I was the founding curator.

Jen: Dale is a transplant from the Northeast, where she says many people still aren’t aware of the South’s rich Jewish history.

Dale: It's still, “Oh my goodness! There are Jews in the South? They've been there for 350 years? Really?” [laughter]

Jen: So, I know you were a consultant on Kugels & Collards. I mean, it's really, it's not accurate to call it, like, a cookbook or a recipe book. It's telling the story of South Carolina's Jewish history, through the lens of food. What do you hope that people take away from the essays and the recipes in the book?

Dale: I think that's a very accurate description of Kugels & Collards. And it's a great lens. Coming from a family with Holocaust history, you know, I'm so happy not to be thinking about persecution and death, but instead to be thinking of ways that people can get along, and, actually, cultures can come together and find common ground. And I think food ways is a really, really ripe subject for that perspective.

Kugels & Collards…you can tell by listening to Lyssa and Rachel, they're just warm and inclusive people. They love being in the kitchen. They love what they do and feeding people and nurturing people. And it's a very friendly environment to try to bring cultural cooperation together

…Which is not to say that there aren't power issues, because among that twentieth-century immigrant group, mostly Ashkenazim, slavery was dead in name only. People of African descent were still very much the underclass. And many of our oral histories describe the mama, the grandmother, hiring a cook, a housekeeper for the whole week, six days a week, for five dollars. You know, anybody could afford an African American servant. And those people really did keep kosher kitchens, you know, and became, in some sense, part of the family, but the economics of it and the power balance was very different.

But, you know, in general, it's hard for people to say this country that holds itself up as a beacon of freedom was based on a slave system. And in South Carolina, the majority of the people were enslaved. The majority of the people were held in slavery. I mean, you have to really just grapple with that as a fact, before you can move on. And if you're not willing to admit it, there's a whole lot you can't talk about.

Jen: Like how Southern Jews benefited from their whiteness.

Dale: Jews were accepted as white people, and that was the key, the absolute key fact. Jews were accepted as a portion of the white society, and offered the privileges and benefits of slave owning and economic prosperity, even plantation owning. And they embraced it.

Jen: Dale advised Rachel and Lyssa not to back away from these uncomfortable truths in their book.

Dale: Otherwise, you're just telling one half of the story. You're only telling the white half of the story. Um, just a very obvious example: We had one oral history that was recorded with a woman who worked in a household, a Jewish household. And she describes the preparations for Pesach as being just hell on wheels. What she had to do!

Jen: [Interjects] This was an African American woman?

Dale: An African American woman. What she had to do, with the work that was involved. And it reminds me actually of a—there's a Sephardic proverb that says something like, “Between Purim and Pesach, a woman's life isn't worth a damn.” But in this culture here, it's the African American in the kitchen whose life isn't worth a damn, because she's got so much work to do.

So, to tell the whole story, you need other people's voices. You need people who worked in the warehouses and who were not allowed to serve the white clientele at the counter, which was true for a long time. You also need the voices of people who were patrons of Jewish dry goods stores who were allowed to try on shoes and hats and things that they weren't necessarily allowed to do in Gentile- owned stores.

All of this is part of the picture. It's a complicated picture. And there's the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Jen: How do you think food can help us tell this complicated story?

Dale: Well, as I said, the table is a place you can meet—because we all eat—as common ground. But a great example, to go back to the Passover story: You know, there's liberation theology in the Passover story, and if we present it the way it should be presented, that's what this is all about.

I think there's a way—again, if you're telling the truth, and you recognize what the real experience was—of making liberation theology the basis of all of our celebration.

Jen: Of course, not all Southern Jews were white. An essay in Kugel & Collards that tells a different, more complicated story is called "Ezella's Kosher Collards." Later, back in Charleston, I talked with the author of that essay.

Kim: My name is Kim Cliett Long, and I am the Executive Director of the Lowcountry Rice Culture Project, as well as the founder and researcher for African American Maritime History.

Both of those entities research history in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, specifically the Gullah Geechee culture, and bring out the various disciplines that West Africans brought to the Lowcountry when they were enslaved here.

Jen: Kim's essay starts with her great-great-grandmother Peggy, who was born into slavery in South Carolina in the 1800s.

Kim: She died in childbirth, having my great grandmother, Ezella. And so, Ezella was adopted by Jewel Jacobs, a spinster Jewish woman in Aiken, South Carolina.

And they lived in Aiken until Jewel met a merchant, Saul Goldstein. And so, Saul lived in Sumter County, Georgia. So, they all moved to Sumter County, Georgia. And that's how my maternal side of the family ended up in Georgia.

Jen: What do you know about Ezella's adult life?

Kim: What I know about her adult life is she married my great-grandfather, Ruben, and he was very successful for his day and time. He and his brother, Luke, together, bought over 300 acres in Sumter County, Georgia, and they farmed, and they each had a number of children, and Ezella was the mother that attended to the children. She was a seamstress, so she made all their clothes and she cooked. So, she was a homemaker.

Then, he died when she was very young and the children were young, because he was so much older. And she did not have literacy and numeracy skills, so she really didn't know how to manage the money, or anything. So, she ended up falling into poverty. And they ended up, through the depression, having really hard times. But they survived it and moved to Macon, Georgia to have better opportunity. 

Jen: And what impact did growing up in a Jewish household have on Ezella and especially on the way that she cooked?

Kim: She followed the dietary restrictions, laws. She called her kitchen a kosher kitchen, but it really wasn't a kosher kitchen as I know it now. But it was kosher in that…no shellfish, no pork.

So as a result, the entire family—we eat that way. I don't eat shellfish now, and I don't eat pork.

Jen: What about how Ezella's background shaped the kind of food that might've been eaten in the Goldstein house?

Kim: Oh, it shaped the meals completely. She did a lot of the cooking. She cooked things like the collard greens, the yams, the Southern food. So I know that they were influenced by that.

Jen: What do you think it is about food that makes it such a powerful connection to our family stories?

Kim: I know that food is a connector. I know that when we sit down with people, we can bridge our differences. It's such a unifying process.

Because of the background with my great grandmother, I've always had an affinity for the Jewish religion. I lived in Miami, Florida for many years, and I had many Jewish friends.

So I celebrated and I attended the synagogues for different reasons. And, uh, when I finally moved to Naples, Florida, is when I decided I wanted to formally study the Jewish religion and culture. And I did, with a rabbi there. And so I went through the conversion process. And I did that to satisfy that longing, I guess, in my soul, about my great-grandmother and to connect with what her experiences could have been. I wanted to know, essentially, what she had experienced growing up Black and in a Jewish home. And so, because of that, I've always floated between the worlds of both sides of me.

Rachel: Whether you're Jewish or not Jewish, what's important about this is talking about this with your own family, getting your own food memories and recipes and stories down. It should be a great opening as we approach Thanksgiving and the other holidays. That is a good time, when families are together.

A lot of these recipes were not written down. We had to go in the kitchen and trial and error to do some of these, because, you know, a lot of these oldt-ime cooks, they just cook by taste. So, if there's a recipe in a family that you know, get in the kitchen with your grandmother. Get your mom to help. You know, write it down—talk about those family stories—and write them down. We hope that, you know, this is just a snapshot. These are not all the stories, by any stretch of the imagination. It's just a really great snapshot of Jewish South Carolina stories. So, um, hopefully people will take it, and do their own thing with it!

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That was Rachel Gordin Barrnett, co-author of Kugels & Collards with Lyssa Kligman Harvey.

Jen: If you want to add a Southern Jewish twist to your Thanksgiving table this year, try “Ezella’s Kosher Collards,” Kim Cliett Long’s recipe. It’s on our website at jwa.org/canwetalk. Special thanks to Rachel and Lyssa for their generosity and Southern hospitality. Thanks also to Rhetta Mendehlson and Anita Moise Rosefield Rosenberg for their tours of Jewish Charleston.

Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk? the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Our team includes Nahanni Rous and Judith Rosenbaum. Our theme music is by Girls In Trouble. Find us at jwa.org/canwetalk or on your favorite podcast app.

I’m Jen Richler. Wishing you many opportunities to share food and stories with loved ones, at Thanksgiving or any other time of year.

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 103: Kugels & Collards: The Southern Jewish Table." (Viewed on May 29, 2024) <http://jwa.org/episode-103-kugels-collards-southern-jewish-table>.