The Nitty-Grits-y: An Extremely Brief Crash-Course of Southern Jewish History

Posted on July 30th, 2015 by

“So the consensus is that Elizabeth just melted cheese into a box of cornmeal, right?” I addressed the table of laughing interns in the break room, making sure I was up to date with the debate over whether or not she actually prepared grits the night before, or some unknown mystery substance from a bulk package at the store– I’d missed some information after laughing too loudly. The giggles continued as Elizabeth tried to scowl at me, to which I retorted with “don’t worry, everyone makes mistakes!”

“NO, that’s not the final answer! We still haven’t gotten everyone’s opinion!” Elizabeth tries to hold onto her hope and her dignity as she passes the Tupperware container of chunky yellow quicksand to Tracie, our Projects Manager, and we beg for an expert opinion to settle the dispute.

Jewish Food? Coarse White Grits on Spoon

Jewish Food?

After almost an hour of the Great Grits Debacle of 2015, we interns were aware of our inability to differentiate grits from, apparently, everything else, which was as disappointing as it was inspiring. Intern Wrangler Rachel suggested we use this as a learning experience, to which I replied “challenge accepted” and began researching the intersection of two environments: that of grits, and that of Jews.

While the former seems to have a relatively specific point of origin: grits are a maize-based porridge, typically eaten at breakfast, and are of Native American origin.The word itself, “grits,” comes from the Old English “grytt,” meaning “coarse meal.” The latter, however, might not prove as easy to define. Honing such a skill for millennia, Jews have grown to be impressive shapeshifters, even assimilators, into whichever culture by which they find themselves surrounded. Especially in a country with such a variation of culture as America. As the early settlers started to expand down the Atlantic coast and further west, Jews began to do the same: in fact, two Jewish merchants from Virginia, Isaiah Isaacs and Jacob Cohen, were among the settlers commissioned by the government to explore areas of what is now Kentucky. But it wasn’t just Jews from more northern colonies and states wanderlusting over new places to live; when mass immigration from Europe commenced around the 19th century, waves of Jews from the Old Country claimed new Jewish-American beginnings in the South, accepting the challenge to thrive under the Confederacy, and they did. Personalities like Judah Benjamin, a lawyer and diplomat who, some argue, would come to be one of the most influential Jews in the Senate, began to pop up around the South, and Jews became such a part of the South that at 1800, Charleston had more Jews than any city in the States at that time, with a population of over a thousand Jews (it might not sound like much now, but it was a huge deal at the time!), and there is documentation of General Robert E. Lee, in responding to a rabbi in Virginia, turning down a request for Jewish soldiers to be able to honor the high holidays during the Civil War, citing that “neither you nor any other member of the Jewish congregation would wish to jeopardize a cause you have so much at heart by the withdrawal, even for a season, of a portion of its defenders.”
The Jewish presence in the South has fluctuated in terms of exact numbers, but what hasn’t changed is our response to a new culture, and how we make it our own. So, whatever it was in that Tupperware container that Elizabeth brought from home, it definitely belongs in the JMM breakroom refrigerator.

Interested in finding out more about Southern Jewish life and food? Check out:

From Free Republic: A Tribe Apart: Jews of the American South

From NPR: Souther Jews Put Their Spin On Soul Food – interview with Marcie Ferris Cohen, author of “Matzah Ball Gumbo”

From Tablet Magazine: A TASTE OF THE JEWISH SOUTH: Jewish food festivals across the South by Joan Nathan.

Also from Tablet Magazine: Kosher Soul Food Brings Together African-American and Jewish Cuisine by Michael Twitty.

Southern Jewish Life Magazine

IMG_1605A blog post by Museum Intern Rachel Sweren. To read more posts by interns click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Noshes, Pick-Me-Ups and Feasts at the JMM

Posted on July 29th, 2015 by

Probably anyone who knows me well would characterize me as a “foodie.” I find experimenting with new (and retakes on old) recipes a thrill, I’m always on the lookout for an unfamiliar and exotic restaurant to try (if you’re wondering, that Burmese restaurant in Silver Spring is a delight), and my Instagram is basically just a receptacle of photos of things I’ve eaten, and the far too many food magazines and bloggers I follow.

If my life didn’t already entirely revolve around food before my internship at the JMM, my condensed work schedule here has made matters even worse (or better—I’m going to go with better). Because I commute from DC, my supervisors have kindly allowed me to get in my weekly 30 hours in three days instead of five. This is fantastic, but requires a little bit more organization on my part. Actually, it really doesn’t—it just means that all of my Monday-Wednesday meals, snacks, coffee breaks and ‘I-can’t-stare-at-a-computer-anymore-without-chocolate’s take place on the premises or in the surrounding neighborhood. Fortunately for me, everyone at the JMM seems to share in my culinary enthusiasm (though, perhaps with not such intense dedication).

So as my time here comes to a close, I thought it might be nice to document the ins-and-outs of noshing here at the JMM.

#1 in everyone’s heart: the candy basket.

#1 in everyone’s heart: the candy basket.

Interns Carmen and Rachel search for the best candy choices.

Searching for the best choices.

Home to assorted chocolates, starbursts, peppermint patties, and a brief but highly unfortunate period of smarties, the candy basket sits in the main work room and provides solace to interns and full-time staff alike. It’s best to make the rounds early—Special Dark chocolates seem to disappear quickly. Just speculating here, but this may be due to the fact that certain interns horde them in their cubicles… you know who you are.

#2 Bowl of Desperation

#2 Bowl of Desperation

When the candy basket is empty (and there were QUITE a few days in June when this was the case)—there is always, for those that dare, the nondescript plastic container that sits directly next to the candy basket.

I actually think it has held the exact same number of generic sugar candies since the day I started– minus one. There was that one day when I was tempted, and then instantly regretted it.

#3 The Kitchen Table

#3 The Kitchen Table

Where all of our more substantial meals take place. Most of us generally bring our lunch and eat together (for those of you who regularly follow the JMM blog, you may remember my confuddling grits debacle).

The table is empty right now, but once in a while leftovers from events will appear here (or even delectable homemade rugelach from library volunteer Judy—you rock Judy!) There were also a couple of days where bland, and probably week-old, popcorn was deposited on the table. Not sure what that was about, but not to worry, we took it off your hands.

#4 The Fridge

#4 The Fridge

I’ve seen a few cluttered office refrigerators in my day—but the JMM fridge definitely takes the cake (pun is SO intended—sometimes there actually is cake). On any given day here, there are at least 6 of us interns, a handful of volunteers and board members, and all of the full-time staff. I’ve actually never had a problem locating my leftovers of whatever Ottolenghi recipe I’ve made the night before, but things do, inevitably, get a little crowded. Sometimes though, when you mention to (read: whine to) Intern Wrangler Rachel about how hungry you are around 5pm, she’ll inform you that there are snacks in fridge in the form of awesome homemade chicken taco fixins and mango-jalapeño salsa. You’re my hero, Rachel.

Finally, with our prime location right on Corn Beef Row and just a short trot away from Little Italy, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to our favorite local eateries.

#1 on our list: Pâtisserie Poupon

#1 on our list: Pâtisserie Poupon

Sampling delicious macarons

Sampling delicious macarons

Some of our favorites here include: the macarons, chocolate croissants and chocolate soufflés, a delightful chocolate mousse cake that we don’t know the name of, chocolate chip cookies, any of the fruit tarts and, the quiche. We come here a lot. With an excellent array of coffee drinks and a lovely staff, how could you not?

#2: Attman’s Deli

#2: Attman’s Deli

I don’t think I need to explain this to anyone who lives in Baltimore– or who doesn’t, but is seeing these photos.

A familiar sandwich site...

A familiar sandwich site…

Finally, today we had one last hurrah in Little Italy with all of the interns (minus Sophia—we missed you!) and decided that our restaurant list warranted one final shout-out:

#3: Amiccis

#3: Amiccis

Look at the size of that bowl!

Look at the size of that bowl!

They might characterize themselves as a “very casual eatery” but they mean business with the food. These are the lunch portions. I think intern Rachel could actually fit inside her bowl quite comfortably.

Between our office kitchen lunches and various culinary field trips, we’ve shared some really great meals together, and a lot of laughs. Thanks for everything, JMM. It’s been a real treat.

IMG_0999A blog post by Exhibitions Intern Elizabeth Livesey. To read more posts by interns click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Hamantaschen Bake Off….

Posted on March 24th, 2014 by

It all started with a lunch time conversation between Esther, Jobi, Sylvia (one of our volunteers), and myself. It was two or three weeks before Purim, and we were discussing all the different types of hamantaschen and debating their merits. Should one use cake dough or cookie dough? Is chocolate an acceptable filling? (the consensus on that last one was “no.”) And most importantly, of our own individual recipes for hamantaschen, whose was the best?

Then Sylvia said the fateful words: “You know there is only way to decide this, right? You have to have a hamantaschen bake off!”

We immediately knew that she was right. Esther, Jobi, and I quickly drew up some rules and guidelines for the contest and sent out an email to the staff, encouraging them and their volunteers to participate. The date was set for the Thursday following Purim to allow ample time for preparation.

Over the weekend of Purim, I camped out at my parents’ house so my mother could help me recreate her mother’s recipe. All Friday and Saturday, we bent over circles upon circles of dough, spooning lekvar or apricot jam into them and folding them into little triangles. (Funny story: having only ever heard my Bubby, who had a very strong Newark accent, say the word “lekvar,” I could never tell—until just now—if the word was supposed to be pronounced “lekvah” or “lekvar.” Fortunately, that’s what Google is for.) The process was a bittersweet one for us this year.  My Bubby died a year last Sunday, and for the last ten or more years of her life, she’d always come down to Baltimore to stay with us over Purim, and we’d make hamantaschen together. It felt very appropriate to commemorate the anniversary by making hamantaschen together.

The author making hamantaschen

The author making hamantaschen

Last Thursday, the day of the contest, four very different plates of hamantaschen made by two staff members and two volunteers entered the doors of the JMM. We had decided to make everything anonymous: nobody except for the competitors knew who had made the hamantaschen, and judging was open to anyone who wanted to participate. We were surprised by just how different each batch was: besides my very traditional lekvar (prune and raisin) and apricot hamantaschen, there were blueberry hamantaschen with dough that had a texture similar to scones, a batch that had a prune and mun (poppy seed) filling that tasted a bit like fig, and a very experimental batch with crispy chocolate dough filled with cream cheese and chocolate chips! All were delicious in their own way.

taste testing1

The tasting begins!

taste testing2

taste testing

taste testing3

The votes are cast!

 

At first, it seemed that the chocolate/cream cheese hamantaschen were in the lead because we couldn’t stop talking about them. But when the judging had finished, and we tallied the votes, the dark horse blueberry hamantaschen came in first! The chocolate ones came in as a close second, and the prune/mun and the lekvar/apricot ones tied for third.

At this point, we revealed the bakers:

The  winning blueberry hamantaschen were made by none other than docent Robyn Hughes!

The winning blueberry hamantaschen were made by none other than docent Robyn Hughes!

The chocolate and cream cheese hamantaschen were made by our Marketing and Development Manager, Rachel Kassman.

The chocolate and cream cheese hamantaschen were made by our Marketing and Development Manager, Rachel Kassman.

The prune and mun hamantaschen were made by archives volunteer Dana Willan.

The prune and mun hamantaschen were made by archives volunteer Dana Willan.

And, of course, the lekvar and apricot hamantaschen were made by me.

And, of course, the lekvar and apricot hamantaschen were made by me.

Congratulations and Mazel Tov to Robyn Hughes, who gets the glory and bragging rights for making the best hamantaschen…until next year!

Thank you to everyone who participated, both has bakers and judges!

abby krolikA blog post by Visitor Services Coordinator Abby Krolik. To read more posts by Abby, click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




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