Jews in the South used to be pretty thin on the ground, but they have had an impact on local culture that goes back well before today’s popularization of that famously Jewish food, the bagel.
Many regional department store chains got their start as Jewish-owned dry-goods businesses. Go to any medium-sized Southern city and you will find that there remain clothing stores with distinctively Hebraic-sounding names. Not all of these survive – in many cases, all that is left is some faded paint on the side of a downtown building, memorializing a family livelihood long gone.
When I first moved away from the Northeast back in (gasp!) 1974, I had to adjust to a whole new paradigm of Jewish life. In Houston, there was a thriving Jewish community, but it was a mere drop in an ocean of Texas gentiles. And the familiar accents were replaced by something...different.
“Y’all come on over – we’re havin’ a barbecue this Shabbes. The gantzer mushpucker will be there...except for Cousin Sidney. He’s a smuck.”
Yeah, hearing that Texas accent was a little freaky...as was, a few years later, hearing Yiddish phrases spoken by people from Memphis in what was by then a familiar Southern drawl. It became clear to me that the South had had an impact on its Jews just as its Jews had had an impact on it.
I thought of that peculiar Southern Jewish cultural amalgam as I was making breakfast yesterday.
There’s an old Romanian dish that still serves as classic Comfort Food to Eastern European Jews: Mamaligeh. The spelling varies, but the concept is the same. Cornmeal mush, AKA polenta, served up in traditional fashion with cottage cheese and sour cream. Here’s a typical recipe:
4 cups water
1 tsp salt
1 cup yellow or white cornmeal
½ cup milk
2 tsp butter
Combine water and salt in a large, heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Add cornmeal in a thin stream (like falling rain), stirring constantly. Reduce heat and cook over low heat for 20 minutes, stirring constantly with a long-handled spoon. Mixture will become a thick mass and pull away from the sides of the pan. To avoid lumps, don't stop stirring until done.
Add the milk and butter; stir to mix.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings.
Once you’ve cooked up a mess o’ mush, serve it with lashings of cottage cheese and sour cream. Delicious!
Well, yesterday morning, She Who Must Be Obeyed decided to breakfast upon Cheese Grits – a Southern favorite, and no chewing required! And that’s when the little Lightbulb o’ Inspiration lit up above my noggin.
Grits are corn. Cornmeal is corn. So why not have Southern-style mamaligeh?
I simply substituted grits for the cornmeal in the “standard” mamaligeh recipe, lobbed in some cottage cheese and sour cream, and Bingo! A breakfast dish – also great on a Sunday evening, by the way – with roots in the Deep South and in Eastern Europe...and packed with Vitamin Y.
[*The word “yiddishkeit” translates as “Jewishness.” It refers to both the religious aspect of Judaism as well as its cultural accoutrements. On the Yiddishkeit index, Fiddler on the Roof is a ten; Miracle on 34th Street is about zero.]