New SC cookbook 'Kugels and Collards' seeks to preserve the southern Jewish table
Rachel Gordin Barnett and Lyssa Kligman Harvey share stories and recipes of the foods that make the South Carolina Jewish table in a new cookbook, "Kugels and Collards: Stories of Food, Family, and Tradition in Jewish South Carolina."
It was cacophony of noise inside Lyssa Kligman Harvey's Columbia home earlier this month as she prepared to host extended family for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.
Sharp knives glided through potatoes, steam burst as onions browned in oil.
Forks and dishes clanked. Children chattered in the background.
Rosh Hashanah is Harvey's favorite holiday, in part because it signals a change of season.
"Unless you’re in South Carolina, and where it’s like 89 and 90 degrees and 100% humidity," Harvey said. "But that’s being Jewish in the South.”
Being Jewish in the South also extends to the dishes on the table, from staples like matzoh ball soup, brisket and kugel, a baked noodle pudding, to fried chicken and at Rachel Gordin Barnett’s table, collards — cooked without pork.
"I grew up with kugel and fried chicken and collards and a brisket and chopped liver," Barnett said. "It never occurred to me this was something different, because this was what was the norm.”
It was and is the norm for many Jewish South Carolinians.
In 2016, Barnett and Harvey started a blog, Kugels and Collards, collecting recipes and Jewish family history from all regions of the state.
It reflected the Jewish southern mix, and after four years of work the blog expanded into a full-fledged cookbook, "Kugels and Collards: Stories of Food, Family and Tradition in Jewish South Carolina."
The book, published by University of South Carolina Press and out now, is a collection of unique stories and more than 80 recipes, shared through conversations that Harvey and Barnett said oftentimes turned emotional.
"It’s a very sensory experience, because food is taste, it’s smell, it’s what you see and then all those senses kind of trigger emotions, and those emotions are deep, and one memory leads to another," Harvey said.
A snapshot of Jewish SC history
The cookbook— the chapters touch on the stories of immigration, the Holocaust to the small-town South Carolina life — serves up all the Jewish classics.
There's chicken soup, potato latkes and a variety of challahs.
There's brisket and blintzes and twists on favorites, such as grits and lox casserole.
It's a snapshot of South Carolina’s rich Jewish history that dates back to the 1600s starting in Charleston, home to the second-oldest synagogue building in the United States and the oldest still in use.
"You’ve probably heard the reference of Charleston being the ‘Holy City.’ What that really comes from is this history of religious tolerance, and all these churches ... in early Charleston rose up in a city. This was like unheard of anywhere else," saidU.S. District Judge Richard Gergel, an author and historian.
"This was quite a thriving, religious and diverse place, and Jews found themselves attracted to it," Gergel said.
By the late 1600s, a small group of Jews were made citizens in South Carolina, helping to start the development of a robust Jewish community, Gergel said.
Into the 1800s, by then, Gergel said, "the largest concentration of Jews in North America is in South Carolina, and the largest of any city is in Charleston."
"They were merchants. They were traders," Gergel said. "They came to port cities because they wanted to be in business. Port cities created a lot of opportunity."
Jews eventually spread throughout South Carolina. Areas including Greenwood and Columbia were dotted with Jewish-owned businesses.
Jews were elected mayor and became members of the General Assembly.
"Columbia had two Jewish mayors before the Civil War, at a time when many countries Jews did not have the franchise — if there was democracy at all," Gergel said.
Though the Jewish population in the state has dwindled over the decades — Jews make up a small percentage of South Carolina's population — the southern Jewish table lives on.
So does the influence of the African American women who were employed by and cooked for Jewish families.
"The southern Jewish table wouldn't be what it is without the African American influence — the women who were employed in the Jewish households, (who) brought their foods into the kitchen," Barnett said.
Honoring the Black women who worked for Jewish families
Prosperity-born Florida Mae Boyd wasn't raised on Jewish food.
But when she went to work for Columbia's Dickman family in 1956, she quickly became introduced to the cuisine and community that she became a part of for some 60 years.
"She did bar mitzvahs, bris (Jewish ceremony). Oh my Lord, all kinds of celebrations," said her daughter, Mary Irby. "Kugel was one of her specialties."
She soon became known around town as “the best Jewish chef in Columbia.”
“My mom was a one-of-a-kind person. Everywhere we went in Columbia, and there were white people or Jewish people there, they knew, 'Hey that’s Florida, that’s Florida, that’s Florida,'" Irby said. "It’s such a touching experience for me. ... My mom had a relationship with the Jewish community like I’ve never seen.”
Barnett and Harvey both said they wanted to honor women like Boyd.
The cookbook includes other women who made their mark in Jewish kitchens.
There's Ethel Glover's squash casserole and collards, Annie Gailliard’s okra gumbo and Mattie Culp’s fried chicken and biscuits.
“We felt it really important to make sure that those contributions, those culinary talents were recognized and honored," Barnett said. "Because, otherwise if we didn’t bring them out from the shadows, we wouldn’t be any better than the people that hid them.”
Irby said the food influence has been mutual.
"To this day, I will go to the bagel store, I'll be only Black face up in there getting me cream cheese, lox and bagels," Irby said.
“The legacy of the southern Jews on race is hardly perfect," Gergel said. "But it was generally recognized as far more progressive than their Christian neighbors.”
Preserving the southern Jewish table
The cookbook, both authors hope, continues to preserve families' meaningful memories and recipes, in some cases handed down on scraps of paper, passed through synagogue cookbooks and word of mouth.
And whether from South Carolina or outside the state, many of the stories will sound familiar, Harvey said.
"The stories are like kind of a collective unconscious of that Jewish southern table, so it's going to feel familiar. You read one story from maybe Eutawville, it's going to feel just as familiar if you were from Georgia, from North Carolina or maybe even the Midwest," Harvey said. "It's a Jewish table story, but with some real southern essence added."
Telling these stories and sharing these recipes helps ensure their survival, Barnett said.
"To phrase from 'Fiddler on the Roof,' it's tradition," Barnett said. "It's important to pass it down."
What's next for the authors, outside of an Oct. 6 book launch party?
"Keep gathering" stories and recipes, Barnett said.
1 (12-ounce) bag extra wide egg noodles
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 (15-ounce) bag frozen chopped
collards, defrosted (or fresh equivalent)
Salt and pepper to taste
6 eggs, beaten
16 ounces sour cream
15 ounces ricotta
1 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1⁄2 teaspoon red pepper
6 ounces feta cheese crumbles
Preheat oven to 350°F and butter a 9 × 13-inch glass baking dish.
Bring water to boil. Add salt to taste. Add the noodles and cook 10 minutes, or until al dente. Drain well and set aside.
Melt 1 tablespoon butter and olive oil in a frying pan. Add onions and garlic and cook until fragrant and soft. Add the collards. Add salt and pepper to taste. Mix well and cook for a few minutes until cooked through.
In a mixing bowl, combine the beaten eggs, sour cream, ricotta, and spices. Add the collard mixture to bowl and stir well.
Pour into a buttered baking dish. Dot the top with remaining butter. Cook for 30 minutes or until set. Before serving, add the feta cheese crumbles to the top of casserole and brown slightly.
Makes 10 to 12 servings
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, diced
8 ounces water or chicken broth
Large bunch or 27-ounce bag of collards (if in a bunch, clean and chop the collards)
2 tomatoes, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1⁄2 teaspoon dried oregano
1⁄2 teaspoon sugar
Add olive oil in a large pot and heat. Add the diced onions and cook until translucent and soft. Add the collards, tomatoes, and water or broth to cover (~8 ounces). Add the seasonings and cook until tender, about 20 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings before serving.
Makes 6 servings