Southern Black Eyed Peas and Pink Rice

Jewish Soul Food - the impact of Black cooking traditions on Jewish cuisine of the American South

Jewish and Southern cultures are both deeply connected to food. Though barbecue pork, fatback, crawfish, and other staples of Southern cooking aren't part of a traditional Kosher Jewish diet, Jews have lived in the Southern United States for hundreds of years and have developed a unique culinary identity. Matzoh Ball Gumbo by Marcie Cohen Ferris is a historical tour of Charleston, Savannah, Natchez, New Orleans, Atlanta, the Delta, and Memphis, preserving and analyzing the food of the Jewish South. 

 

The recipe I prepared for this post is Simmered Black-Eyed Peas with Tomatoes, adapted for Matzoh Ball Gumbo from The Sephardic Cooks, a synagogue cookbook by Congregation Or Ve Shalom Sisterhood in Atlanta, GA. It’s traditionally served with rice cooked in tomato sauce, colloquially called “Pink Rice.” On the subject of Pink Rice, Ferris quotes Miriam Cohen, a Sephardic woman from Montgomery, AL, who calls the dish “Jewish soul food.” 

 

The Jewish soul food found in many white Jewish households throughout American history and today can be credited to the labor of Black Americans and their influence on culinary culture, although they're rarely received credit. This can be traced back to the Colonial Era, when African men, women, and children were kidnapped, enslaved, and after the Civil War, when Black people were employed by prominent white Jewish families. Ferris found that though Black women have held a central role in synagogue and home kitchens since the antebellum era, their names don’t appear in synagogue cookbooks from the early 20th century into the present. There are Black Jews across the country whose Jewish soul food has a different history than the one told in Matzoh Ball Gumbo, but the notable omission of Blackness from the historical record of the Jewish South “reflects the racial attitudes of an era defined by Jim Crow practices,” says Ferris. 

 

Specific ways that Jewish people participated in the transatlantic slave trade varied regionally, and took place in both urban areas and on plantations. Enslaved people helped Jewish people maintain kashrut, a difficult task in a landscape often without populous Jewish communities. Enslaved people performed the physical labor of Passover cleaning, for example, and maintained kosher kitchens. Ferris notes that participation in racism and slavery was one way that Jewish Southerners could “prosper in the local economy and demonstrate their loyalty to the white South.” Food was central to assimilation into Southern whiteness, as Black cooks prepared dishes that reinforced Southern identity. The presence of enslaved people in Jewish kitchens is felt in Southern Jewish cuisine to this day. 

After emancipation, many Black people continued working in white households as domestic workers. Laborers in twentieth-century Jewish homes prepared ‘meat ‘n’ three’ meals, such as fried chicken with black-eyed peas, stewed tomatoes, and okra, as well as Jewish ‘old world’ family recipes. The Krawcheck family of Charleston, SC told Ferris about their family’s domestic worker, Agnes Jenkins, who expertly navigated both cuisines: “one day you’d get a typical Southern dinner of fried chicken and rice and okra gumbo and sivvy beans and corn…and the next day…pickled smoked salmon, and then a bowl of lentil soup, and then potato latkes or potato kugel or tzimmes.” Eventually, family recipes evolved. Ferris examined Good Cooks Never Lack Friends from Savannah’s Orthodox Agudath Achim Synagogue, and noted ‘Potato Grits Dumplings,’ ‘Okra and Tomatoes’, and ‘Fried Matzah Balls’ – that last one’s probably essentially a matzah hushpuppy, which sounds pretty delicious! Highlights from Charleston’s Conservative congregation Emanu-El’s Southern Kosher Cook Book include corn pudding, okra soup, pecan pie, ‘Plantation Pralines’, and ‘Hominy Surprise’. These recipes are published as Jewish family recipes, taken from uncredited Black traditions. 

 

The domestic work of Black women allowed Jewish women the time to participate in community organizations; Black labor directly contributed to the Jewish cultural community in and out of the home. Matzoh Ball Gumbo also includes stories of Black kitchen staff at Jewish summer camps and Black caterers who built decades-long careers cooking for Jewish weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, and other events. At Southern synagogues it’s still common for food to be prepared by Black cooks like Lamar White, the food manager at Conservative congregation Ahavath Achim in Atlanta at the time of Ferris’ writing. White’s kosher soul food became so popular that the synagogue began offering take-out trays of his brisket, meatloaf, barbecued chicken, kugel, prime rib, and vegetable sides. When asked what makes his food different from what might be served at an Orthodox shul on Long Island, White explained that he’s the secret ingredient: “...there’s nobody like me in [New York], I’m not there cooking.” 

 

Even if you don’t have skills like White’s, you should give this black-eyed peas recipe a try. Black-eyed peas, also known as “field peas” or “cowpeas” made their way from Africa to what is now the southern United States as early as the 17th century, where they were grown, prepared, and consumed by enslaved people. As black-eyed peas are considered lucky in many West African cultures, they’re especially popular around New Year’s. In Jubilee, Toni Tipton-Martin describes the Watch Night Service, which began on ‘Freedom’s Eve’, December 31, 1862, when enslaved people gathered to await news of the Emancipation Proclamation. Hoppin’ John, black-eyed peas cooked with rice, is often served on New Year’s Day to commemorate Watch Night. Many Black cooks shared this New Year tradition with Jewish families by preparing Hoppin’ John for Rosh Hashanah (omitting the pork for kosher families). The black-eyed peas with tomatoes from Matzoh Ball Gumbo are meatless, although if you don’t keep kosher you could add bacon! 

 

Rice is another crop with roots in enslavement and African American cuisine. Southern gentiles know rice cooked in tomato sauce as a historically African-American dish called Savannah Red Rice, Gullah Rice, or ‘Mulatto’ Rice. In Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, it’s served as a homecoming meal. Though Matzoh Ball Gumbo doesn’t include a Pink Rice recipe to go with the black-eyed peas as recommended, I found several Pink Rice recipes from Sephardic and Mizrahi traditions, which actually look just like the Red Rice recipe in Jubilee. Because rice pilau, a classic in Lowcountry Black communities, is influenced by Arab rice pilaf, I’d bet these dishes have a shared origin story that predates the transatlantic slave trade. That adds a necessary layer of complexity, suggesting that these food cultures have other historical points of contact outside the United States.

 

This dish, like many others in Matzoh Ball Gumbo, might be called “Jewish soul food,” a result of generations of interaction between Jewish and Black communities. This is a Jewish dish and a Black dish. Because of generations of work by Black people to maintain Jewish culture in the South, Jewish culture now carries with it elements of Black history and Black culture. Preservation of American Jewish history, especially in the South, also requires preservation of American Black history.

 

Simmered Black Eyed Peas with Tomatoes and Pink Rice 

Black-Eyed Peas recipe from The Sephardic Cooks by Congregation Or VeShalom Sisterhood of Atlanta Georgia, adapted by Marcie Cohen Ferris in Matzoh Ball Gumbo 

Pink Rice recipe from It's Sooo Good! By Mordehai Zadik, adapted by Aurora Clare. 

 

Ingredients: 

  

For Black-Eyed Peas:  

2 tbsp olive oil 

1 large onion, chopped 

2 garlic cloves, minced 

1 medium tomato, chopped 

½ tsp dried thyme 

1 tsp kosher salt 

½ tsp freshly ground black pepper  

20 oz black-eyed peas ** see note **  

Water ** see note **  

More salt and pepper, to taste 

 

For Rice:  

1 cup white rice  

2 tbsp tomato paste  

½ onion  

1 tbsp olive oil  

1 tsp salt  

½ tsp freshly ground black pepper  

More salt, pepper and other spices to taste 

 

To make the Black Eyed Peas: 

In a large, heavy saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring often, until tender, about 4 minutes. Add the tomato, thyme, salt and pepper and cook, stirring often, until the tomato softens, about 2 minutes.  

 

Stir in the black-eyed peas and water; bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer until the peas are tender, about 30 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning, if necessary. Serve peas hot or warm with pink rice.

 

To make the Pink Rice:

 

Mix rice in a large bowl with cold water, mixing it around and dumping/refilling the water 2 or 3 times, until water rinses clear. 

 

In a medium-sized pot over medium heat, heat olive oil and saute onion for 2-3 minutes, until softened and turning translucent. Add the uncooked rice, and stir quickly for 30 seconds to coat with oil and mix with the onions. Add water and increase heat to high. 

 

Mix a small amount of the hot water from the pot with the tomato paste to thin it out a bit, then add to the pot along with salt, pepper, and any other spices you wish to add (like ground harissa, smoked paprika, chili flakes, whatever you have on hand and prefer). Stir to combine. 

 

When the mixture comes to a boil, cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid and reduce the heat to low. Allow to simmer without touching the lid for 20 minutes, then turn off heat. Without lifting the lid, allow the pot to sit, covered, for 10 minutes before removing the lid and fluffing the rice with a fork. Taste and adjust salt and pepper as needed. Enjoy! 

 

** Cooking Note:  

 

The availability of black-eyed peas will vary depending on your location. Depending on what form you’re able to find them in, you’ll need to adjust the water in this recipe. 

 

The original recipe calls for frozen black-eyed peas, which I was unable to find in stores near me. With 2 10-oz boxes of frozen black eyed peas, use 1 ¼ cups water. 

 

For dry peas, check the peas for small stones and then soak them in water for at least 6 hours or overnight - do not soak for longer than 12 hours, and cook just after draining. Use 2 cups of water, or enough to cover the peas. About 8 oz of dry peas will weigh 20 oz soaked - you can weigh them out on a food scale, but as long as you work proportionally with water and seasonings, it will work out - don’t stress! 

 

For canned peas, use 2 14.5 oz cans and 1 cup water. Since you’ll use more peas, increase your seasonings proportionally. 

 

For 20 oz of fresh peas, use 2 cups water. 

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Images from Matzoh Ball Gumbo listed in order of appearance: 

1. The kitchen of the Jewish Educational Alliance Summer Camp in Savannah, GA in 1947. The Black people in this photo are unidentified and only Jewish staff member Louise Rudofsky Zacks is named. (Savannah Jewish Archives Savannah GA)

2. Carolee Rosen's first birthday party, in Asheville, NY in 1931 (the collection of Carolee Rosen Fox, Special Collections, College of Charleston Library, Charleston SC.) 

3. Lamar White, food director of Congregation Ahavath Achim in Atlanta, GA in 2001 (photo by Marcie Cohen Ferris.) 

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*Aurora Clare is a historian and educator based in New York City. She completed a Master’s Degree in History from New York University in 2016, with a thesis on domestic space and public housing in twentieth-century New York. Aurora has worked with institutions including the Tenement Museum and New-York Historical Society. Her food history project, History Bakes, is cataloged on Instagram at @historybakes. More information about her work can be found at www.auroraclare.com! 

 

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