The Jewish Eye
Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South
Reviewed by Simone Bonim - May 4, 2009
Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South is a unique history book that comes complete with recipes! Written by Marcie Cohen Ferris, this book takes readers on a culinary tour of the Jewish South, and in the process offers readers a glimpse into Jewish culture and history as related to the American South. Ferris also examines how the melding of cuisines - in this case Southern and Jewish cooking - is a window through which historians, anthropologist, and general readers can examine the interrelationships between Jews and the various cultural groups who call the American South home. It is also an ideal way of examining how Jewish immigrants to the South adapted to this new milieu, while still managing to maintain their Jewish identity and culture. In the process, these Jewish immigrants, who began migrating to the south in the 1700's, and who came from almost every region in the world, created an entirely new culinary tradition - Southern Jewish Cooking.
While a general overview of Jewish history in the South is incorporated into the text, the bulk of the book focuses on more modern times. In this book Ferris examines not only the intermingling of culinary traditions and what this meant for Jewish and Gentile interrelations, but also the role that food played in race relations, community cohesiveness, and in persevering Jewish identity. In writing this unique history, Ferris has incorporated information garnered not only from traditional historical archives and academic texts, but also from a variety of other sources. These additional sources included oral histories, her own personal memories of growing up in the South, anecdotes related to her by friends and family, hundreds of interviews she conducted with Jewish Southerners, and of course, she also consulted numerous cookbooks.
Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South is simply a fascinating book to read, and it will enthrall just about everyone from social historians to anyone interested in food. This book is well illustrated, and includes numerous posters and advertisements that are both informative and simply fun to look at and read! Also included are more than thirty mouth-watering recipes that will tantalize cooks of all skill levels, from novice to professional. These recipes run the gamut from Barbecued Black Pepper Beef Ribs and Cornmeal-Fried Fish Fillets with Sephardic Vinagre Sauce to Sister Sadie's Honey Cake and Creole Matzoh Balls.
For those interested in pursuing this topic in greater detail, you will find that Ferris has included an extensive list of primary and secondary sources that she consulted in writing this book. Combined with her detailed endnotes, you will have no trouble finding abundant resources with which to satiate your mental appetite. While this is technically an academic level history book, general readers will delight to find that Ferris's writing style is engaging and anything but pedantic. Most important, you'll be fascinated by her account of Jewish life and foodways in the South and the integral role that food has played both in maintaining Jewish identity and in Jewish interaction with their gentile neighbors. I highly recommend this book for anyone with an interest in Jewish studies, American history, or culinary history and cooking.
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