Matzoh Ball Gumbo

Two iconic cultural culinary elements fused together!

Rabbi Julian Feibelman, New Orleans’ leading reform rabbi of the 1940’s, noted: “One cannot say that there is a distinct Jewish community in New Orleans. There is rather a distinct New Orleans culture of which the Jewish community is a part.” It’s a statement that could be said of many groups within Louisiana culture. Unlike the ethnic enclaves of New York City, where immigrants maintain their culinary heritage and influence local food, the distinct cuisine of New Orleans infiltrates even those whose diets are directed by religious faith. The result is a dish like Matzo Ball Gumbo, two iconic cultural culinary elements fused together.

 

You might be surprised to learn there is a Jewish community in Louisiana. But in the stacks of the American Jewish Historical Society, I found Marcie Cohen Ferris’ book, Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South. The author outlined the history of many Jewish groups across the American South and interviewed community elders. Ferris found that the earliest Jewish people came into Louisiana in the 1820s - 1840s. Some were Sephardic immigrants that migrated from New England, Charleston and Georgia. Others were Ashkenazic immigrants that came from the Alsace-Lorraine area of France and Germany. They came individually or as family groups, not as a larger community. Many of these immigrants came from rural areas in Europe and were accustomed to practicing their faith in their home, not in a centralized Synagogue. Despite the fact that the first Synagogue was founded in New Orleans in 1828, for many rural Jews remained “bonded by their Jewish heritage … [and] as in Europe, Jewishness was expressed in the day-to-day interactions with other Jewish merchants, family members, and customers.” As a result, even early on, the practice of keeping Kosher was widely varied from house to house. In the early 19th century, Kosher products were hard to come by, while traditional pork sausages and local shellfish – like oysters, shrimp, and crawfish – abounded.

 

Before the Civil War, many Jews – like many Louisianians – owned enslaved African-Americans. Some were plantation owners with over 100 enslaved workers, others were urban dwellers who had a handful of enslaved house servants. Slavery in Louisiana meant there was usually

 

a Black woman cooking in the kitchen. All across Louisiana, African Americans wielded tremendous influence over local cuisine, and Jewish kitchens were no exception. The enslaved – and later, free black cooks and caterers – learned how to “cook Jewish.” Even in a Kosher household, Black cooks applied the rules of kashrut to classic Louisiana dishes like gumbo.

 

The name “gumbo” comes from the African Bantu language word for okra: ki ngonombo or kigombo. Gumbo is thought to be based on West African soups, like sauce gumbo from Benin, a dish of okra stewed in tomatoes served over a starch, or soupe kandia, a Senegalese stew made with okra and palm oil and served over rice. Today, Gumbo is a soup that can contain a wide variety of meats and seafood and is usually thickened with a roux – fat and flour cooked together – teamed up with either okra or file’, a powder made from dried, ground sassafras leaves.

 

On Creole Matzo Balls, Ferris writes:  

“The creole matzo ball is made from matzoh crackers – a German tradition– rather than meal. After the crushed crackers are soaked and drained, they are mixed with eggs and chicken fat. The creole influence appears in the seasoning, which includes salt and pepper, green onions, and parsley. Some cooks add ginger and garlic as well. The matzoh balls are either cooked in an Alsatian-style beef-vegetable soup – a “red soup” – or they are sauteed in copious amounts of butters and served as a side dish.”

 

Ferris’ recipe for gumbo can be found here. It’s very Creole – New Orleans style – in its use of tomatoes, roux, and okra paired with chicken. I’ve done more of a Cajun take below and left out the roux – which wasn’t introduced to gumbos until the late 19th century – for a lighter soup thickened with homemade file’ powder. You can find kosher andouille online, or sub any spicy, smoked sausage. The recipe for matzoh balls is taken from Ferris’ book.

 

There are many more recipes included in Ferris’ book, from Memphis Sweet and Sour Passovers Meatballs to Temple Israel Brisket. Additionally, the AJHS collections has a copy of Mildred Lunbritz Covert’s The Kosher Cajun Cookbook, for even more Louisiana recipes.

 

Matzoh Ball Gumbo

3 tablespoons olive oil 

4 - 6 links smoked and spicy poultry sausage or spicy kosher beef sausage sliced 1/2-inch thick 

1 large onion, chopped 

1 green bell pepper, chopped 

1 stalk celery, chopped 

6 garlic cloves, minced 

1 1/2 teaspoons salt 

1 ½ teaspoons black pepper 

2 teaspoons thyme 

1 ½ teaspoons cayenne pepper 

3 quarts water, heated to boiling 

4 - 6 lbs chicken, on the bone, light and dark meat (or one whole chicken), rinsed and patted dry 

1 recipe Creole Matzoh Balls 

1 scant tablespoon filé

 

*Serves 8

1. Add oil to a very large stock pot over medium high heat. When hot, add the sausage and fry, stirring often, until starting to brown, about six minutes.

 

2. Add the onions, bell pepper, celery, garlic, salt, pepper, thyme, and cayenne. Stir occasionally until the onions are translucent, about 15 minutes, then add three quarts of water.

 

3. Slowly drop in the chicken and turn heat to medium. Cook, uncovered, for one-and-a-half hours, or until the chicken tender and comes off the bone easily.

 

4. While the chicken cooks, prep matzo balls (recipe below.)

 

5. Remove the chicken and set aside on a cutting board to cool.

 

6. Turn heat to high and bring to a boil. Form 12 matzoh balls from refrigerated dough. Drop matzoh balls into gumbo and immediately turn heat to low. Simmer for 10 minutes.

 

7. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, shred the meat and add it to the pot.

 

8. While stirring, add the file’. Simmer for one minute more. Remove from heat and serve. 

 

Creole Matzoh Balls

1. In a small nonstick skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, until tender, 2 to 3 minutes. 

2. Stir in the parsley and creole seasoning and cook, stirring for 30 seconds. Scrape the onion mixture into a medium bowl and let cool slightly. 

3. Add the eggs and remaining tablespoon oil. Mix with a fork until the eggs are well broken up. Add the matzoh ball mix and stir until blended. Cover and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes.

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Sarah Lohman is a culinary historian and author of Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine published by Simon & Schuster.  Her work has been featured in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, All Things Considered, CNN, Gimlet Media, and NHK Japan. She appeared in two seasons of The Cooking Channel's Food: Fact or Fiction and was a video producer for New York Magazine's food blog, Grub Street.  She performs across the country giving food history lectures and cooking classes with Masters of Social Gastronomy as well as independently. Her next book Endangered Eating: Exploring America's Vanishing Cusine is set to release Jan 2023. For more information visit SarahLohman.com.

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