My 96-year-old father, Stanley Goldman, grew up in Kansas City with two women who loved the kitchen—his mother, Lillian, and the family cook, Bettie Collier. Lillian’s greatest pleasure was to cook multiple courses for one meal—appetizers, at least two vegetables, potatoes, fish, poultry and beef, as well as dessert—and then to have friends and family over to enjoy it. They started the meal with pickled herring or chopped liver on Aunt Hattie’s homemade rye bread.
To prepare such feasts, Lillian and Bettie were a team. Bettie was from Louisiana, and while mastering Jewish cooking, she brought her own Southern, African-American influences. Bettie transformed the juices of my grandmother’s briskets and chickens into wonderfully delicious and savory gravies. Her lip-smacking helzel (chicken neck) was crispy on the outside and stuffed with a tender mix of fried onions, chopped meats and, of course, schmaltz. Knishes, potato latkes, chopped liver—all were part of Bettie’s repertoire. “Bettie’s famous bagels” were renowned in the neighborhood. My father loved all of it, not to mention the affection with which it was prepared and served.
What is soul food? Poor black slaves cooked what they could get using ingredients that were familiar to them from Africa. Today, many African Americans associate soul food with a time to get together with friends and family.
African-American and Ashkenazic cuisines have much in common. Both use inexpensive ingredients in resourceful ways. African Americans used pig fat and fried pork rinds while Eastern European Jews used chicken and duck fat for schmaltz and gribenes (cracklings). These fats were ubiquitous, adding delicious, rich flavor while costing practically nothing.
African Americans cooked beet and other greens that were not desired by richer folk, while Jews ate lots of cabbage and potatoes. Jews turned sweet potatoes into tzimmes, and blacks made sweet potato pie. Both cuisines have beloved recipes for organ meats and intestines. And both are largely considered old-time “comfort food, “ reminding us of our loving grandmothers and our cultural histories.
Once my parents were married, my mother says that my father adjusted remarkably well to the meals that she prepared. She explains, “In the early stage of our marriage, Dad was perfecting his martinis. After one of them, it really didn’t matter what I cooked.”
While martinis are indeed an appetite stimulant, it wasn’t necessary. My mother is also an excellent cook, although much more health conscious. Her style is lighter on the fats and heavier on the vegetables. She prepared one of my father’s childhood favorites, Bettie’s okra, with tomatoes.
It is very possible that our Jewish and African ancestors ate okra thousands of years ago, as it is believed to have been cultivated in ancient Egyptian times. Today, okra is underappreciated, probably because it looks funny, people don’t know how to cook it and, if they do, it can end up kind of slimy. However, I relish its finger-like shape, geometric pattern when sliced and slight firmness when not overcooked. There are several ways to avoid the sliminess. If stewing, include something acidic, like tomatoes, or dry roast in the oven.
So the next time you make a traditional brisket or chicken, serve some okra and tomatoes alongside it, and reflect on the partnership, love of cooking and heritage (and frugality!) shared by Jewish and African-American cooks.