Kosher Soul Food

Sammy Davis Jr.'s recipe for kosher collard greens.

In addition to the recipe for Mock Strudel, submitted by Gene Wilder to Celebrity Kosher Cookbook: A Sentimental Journey with Food, Mothers, and Memories, I couldn’t help but be drawn to Sammy Davis Jr.’s recipe for kosher-friendly collard greens. In the book, Davis pronounced: “Eating kosher food comes close to soul food for me.”

Sammy Davis Jr. was born in Harlem in 1925. As a child, he toured the country with his father and uncle under the name the Will Mastin Trio. He sang and danced, played multiple instruments, and was a charming comedian. In 1947, the Trio opened for Frank Sinatra at the Capitol Theater in New York City. The performance launched Davis’ career as a wildly successful solo artist, and eventually led to this inclusion in the “Rat Pack” with Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop.

Davis converted to Judaism after a near-fatal car accident in 1954. He sustained serious injuries, including losing an eye. He spent years in physical therapy, and would wear a glass eye for the remainder of his life. As he recuperated in the hospital, Davis read Jewish history, influenced by his friends Eddie Cantor and Jerry Lewis. He felt moved by what he saw as a connection between the oppression of the Jews and the oppression of African Americans.  “After the accident I needed something desperately to hold onto,” he said later. “I found myself being more and more convinced that Judaism was it for me. I know there’s sort of a kinship between the plight of a Negro and the plight of a Jew: the oppression, the segregation, the constant trying to survive and trying to achieve dignity.” Davis converted in 1961 in a ceremony held in Las Vegas.

While Davis was known for a partying lifestyle, social justice and racial equity were also a central part of his life. He participated in the 1963 March on Washington with Martin Luther King Jr. He would not perform at racially segregated night clubs, and his firm stance is credited with helping integrate nightlife in Las Vegas and Miami Beach. He also married white actress May Britt, a marriage that was prohibited by miscegenation laws in 31 states.

By the time Davis submitted a recipe to the Celebrity Kosher Cookbook, he was on his third (and final) marriage to Altovise Davis. The recipe he offered for collard greens, perhaps something Altovise would make, is cooked with kosher-friendly “flanken,” beef short ribs, instead of pork.

Greens (Collard)

From the Celebrity Kosher Cookbook: A Sentimental Journey with Food, Mothers, and Memories, 1975.

This is an all-day recipe. Start in the morning if you want to eat it for dinner; but this dish does taste better the next day. 


I made a few changes to the recipe, to clarify some instructions, so here’s the original for reference:

1½-2 lbs. short ribs

Salt and pepper

1 tablespoon oil

1 green pepper, diced

1 onion, diced

Pinch sugar

Pinch baking soda

2 whole dry red peppers, any variety

Salt and pepper

  1. Rinse short ribs, pat dry, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a very large Dutch oven or stock pot over high heat; when oil is smoking, carefully add short ribs. Sear on two sides, about 8 minutes total. Turn heat to low and add eight cups of water. Cover with lid and cook 3½-4 hours until “meat falls off the bones.” Remove meat and set aside to cool.

  1. Put greens in another large stockpot with a generous amount of salt. Fill with cold water and let greens soak for 30 minutes. Swish greens around, then dump water. Fill the stock pot with clean water again. Pick greens out one at a time, swishing them around in the water to remove grit. Then tear out the thickest part of the stem, and tear the leaf into large pieces. Add to Dutch oven with broth from short ribs.

  1. Turn the burner to medium low and simmer greens with the lid on until they cook down, about 10 minutes.

  1. Turn heat to low. Add green pepper, onion, sugar, baking soda, and dried peppers. Cook, without boiling, for 45 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

  1. Shred short rib meat and add it to the greens, or serve whole alongside, with white horseradish and cornbread to crumble in the broth.


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