Keep It Kosher
But make it Southern, according to a new Memphis cookbook.
What's this: gefilte fish allowed to soak overnight in a bathtub? Celery and parsley wrapped in a scrap of nylon hose and added to a pot of simmering split pea soup?
How about a helping of cholent? Cholent: It's a stew, and the recipe calls for half a pound of kishke. Kishke? It's a sausage dear to Eastern European Jews. . . .
But back to cholent. Some believe the dish was brought to America by the Pilgrims, who may have learned of it after spending time with the Jews of Holland. The Pilgrims then brought it to New England, and you can bring it down south by adding half a cup of barbecue sauce. The result: a "Soul Food Stew." The recipe for it can be pulled from the pages of Simply Southern: With a Dash of Kosher Soul (Wimmer) — pages that also include the recipe for bathtub-soaked gefilte fish. (That's how Noreen Freiden's grandmother used to prepare it.) And you're out of cheesecloth? Nylon hose, according to Simply Southern, will do when you're wrapping celery and parsley for split pea soup.
But here's another question: What in the world is a Southern-based cookbook — which you'd expect to be home to some very unkosher recipes — doing calling itself "Southern"? Here's what: It's turning down-home recipes (like chicken fried steak and gravy) kosher (substitute margarine and soymilk), and it's introducing kosher classics (like noodle pudding) to the non-Jewish Southern table. It's also raising funds for Memphis' Margolin Hebrew Academy/Feinstone Yeshiva of the South.
If you're not familiar with Margolin, you either aren't Jewish and a Memphian or you don't travel White Station Road, because that's where Margolin's located and that's where the school's four divisions are educating 3-year-olds all the way up to high-schoolers. It's been educating Memphis kids since 1949.
That's something you learn too in the pages of Simply Southern, which also contains recollections of what it was like to grow up Jewish in Memphis (remember Rosen's Deli? Halpern's Deli?) and the Mid-South and what it's still like for Jews from across the country and from across the globe transplanted to the Bluff City. But what the editors in chief of Simply Southern — Tracy Rapp and Dena Wruble — want to emphasize is hospitality. It may be a Memphis thing, but it's a Jewish tradition.
As the introduction to the cookbook explains, that hospitality extends to seasonal holidays and holy days, such as Passover and Sukkot, Hannukah and Purim. It goes for special occasions (bris, bar, and bat mitzvahs, and weddings), and it's there for Friday-night dinners, Sabbath lunches, and Sunday brunches. The phrase for it is hachnasas orchim — a welcoming to any and all guests — and that practice of welcoming includes a full table based on a full range of recipes, from appetizers to desserts, brought to you by bubbies and meemaws, immas and mommas.
Simply Southern is brought to you after years of recipe collecting on the part of Margolin supporters locally and cookbook fanciers nationwide.
"We put the word out in an article in The Hebrew Watchman, and we got 1,500 recipes from across the country," Wruble says.
"Kosher and nonkosher. Jewish and non-Jewish. People just heard there was going to be a new Southern cookbook, and they responded," Rapp says. To which Wruble adds: "Just because the recipes are kosher doesn't mean they don't lend themselves to everyone."
The idea for the book certainly lent itself to the people at Wimmer, the Memphis-based cookbook publishing house known nationally for its work with community groups.
"When we contacted Wimmer, Dena and I had already chaired another fund-raiser for Margolin," Rapp says. "The owners of Corky's barbecue — the Pelts family, who have kids at Margolin — came to us and said, 'Before we start using our new smoker for Corky's, would ya'll like to use the smoker first for kosher meat?' We said, 'Okay. Great!' So we started an e-mail campaign announcing the kosher barbecue, and we got orders for kosher Corky's from all over the country. At the end of the day, we'd sold $140,000 worth of kosher Corky's!
"When we went to Wimmer about Simply Southern, they'd heard about this Jewish school that had done a mix-and-match of kosher and nonkosher. The people at Wimmer said, 'Ya'll are the people!'" — the people to combine traditional Southern cooking with, as the book's subtitle states, a dash not only of kosher salt but some soul.
According to Wruble, the whole cookbook process took, beginning to end, three-and-a-half years, years when Rapp, Wruble, and a whole crew of local cooks and tasters tested the recipes. Nine meatloaf recipes? Rapp says they'd have a meatloaf party to decide the winner. But, again according to Wruble, it's been a "labor of love."
It's also, within weeks of the cookbook's appearance, been a big hit: a kickoff party that attracted 300 people; 800 copies sold in the space of a single week; shipments to California, Illinois, and New York; two cases of books mailed to Israel.
"People are obviously interested," Wruble says. "And we're entertainers, hostesses. We're known for our hospitality. But we also wanted the book to have a 'voice.' We wanted readers to not only look for the recipes but to learn about our Memphis history too."
"That's why we needed to show a cross-section of voices in the book," Rapp says, referring to the personal profiles scattered throughout Simply Southern. "People who have been in Memphis for years. Transplants to Memphis. People who remember, from years ago, the little Jewish communities throughout the Mid-South. And people who have been here in Memphis since Margolin's inception."
"It's the only Orthodox Jewish day school in Memphis," Wruble says of Margolin. "It's the backbone of our community, across all synagogues — the Jewish community."
"And all proceeds from the sale of Simply Southern go directly to the school," Rapp adds.
To which I'll add: For more information on Simply Southern: With a Dash of Kosher Soul, go to simplysoutherncookbook.net. And moreover: If Ricki's Lemon Poppy Seed Cake (based on a recipe by Memphian Ricki Krupp) is as scrumptious as the cookies sold at Ricki's Cookie Corner in Eastgate Shopping Center, I say: Sold!
It's been available now for a few months, but while we're on the subject of restaurants in Memphis for this issue, let's not overlook the subject of dining in Nashville. Or, to put it more accurately: The Art of Dining in Nashville by author and illustrator Joy Bateman, who happens also to be senior account executive for Memphis magazine.
Bateman's already the author of similar books on dining in Memphis and in New Orleans. And when I say "similar," I'm referring to her colorful culinary artwork combined with a brief introduction to (and popular recipes from) the best in eating that Nashville offers. That's 39 restaurants in all — from "A" (for The Acorn) to "Z" (for Zola) — with an additional look at Bateman's own list of foodie fixes, among them: the "205 Burger" at Belle Cafe, the mini BLTs at Martha's, and the "Big Dreams" at Ivey Cake.
What next for Bateman and the art of dining? Maybe the Big Apple, with maybe an inside look at that city's Le Cirque. In that case, she's already got the entree. Bateman's son, Brown Burch, is a chef at that famous and fabled New York City restaurant.