Moving often means having to let parts of your past go, especially when shifting into a new culture altogether as an immigrant. While things are lost over time — like language or writing — the one thing that often lingers the longest is a person’s memory of food. Cooking has always been a universal language, easily passed from one person to the next, which is why food remains a powerful indicator of our backgrounds.
This idea became apparent to members of Historic Columbia when they began work on a local history project with the Jewish community.
In 2014, Historic Columbia partnered with the College of Charleston’s Jewish Heritage Collection, the Jewish Community Center and Columbia Jewish Federation to establish the Columbia Jewish Heritage Initiative. The goal was to preserve local history by collecting stories from the community.
“A big piece of that was to identify elders in the community and do an oral history project,” says Robin Waites, executive director of Historic Columbia. “In the course of developing this and collecting stories, one of the themes that eventually bubbled to the top was the Jewish community around food.”
This theme particularly resonated for Columbia Jewish Heritage Initiative members Rachel Gorden Barnett and Lyssa Kligman Harvey. For Harvey in particular, Jewish food has always been an interest. Harvey was both the president of the Columbia Chapter of the Hadassah — a nationwide women’s Jewish organization — and part of the committee that helped put out The Stuffed Bagel during the ’90s, a cookbook dedicated to recipes by Jewish cooks in the South.
With the help of Historic Columbia, they launched Kugels and Collards in 2016, a blog dedicated to capturing the cooking memories of local Jewish community members.
“Stories around food have such a visceral kind of response,” Waites says. “It’s easy to evoke memory when you begin to talk about food or you are in the kitchen and you encounter a certain smell, or you walk past someone that has cooked a kugel. The memories that are evoked from that invite people to continue to share stories. Our [Historic Columbia] interest is to collect stories from the community, and this is a great vehicle to do that, essentially.”
Started in 2017, the blog touches on a variety of topics ranging from sweet and sour stuffed cabbage to latke kings around the Midlands. Recipes are available in almost every story, but really only play a secondary role. The blog spends more time tapping into local history and highlighting the impact that the Jewish community has had on the city.
There’s, for instance, a piece about the original “Groucho” of Groucho’s Deli, Harold Miller. Another story highlights a State Fair booth that served corned beef, brisket, matzo ball soup, and more which drew all of the carnival workers — then mostly Jewish — to the booth for years. A recent story took a historical turn, looking back at a story about a Jewish merchant who cultivated a sweet peach called “Honey Peach” right here in Columbia.
The blog spends the most time, however, in everyday kitchens around the city. One of the most interesting aspects of Kugels and Collards is the exploration of the intersection between Jewish and Southern food presented by different members of the Midlands Jewish community.
“I grew up in Summerton an hour away from here,” Barnett reminisces. “Where I grew up, back then everyone ate at home. A lot of Jewish holidays around the table. Our family always did big family holidays around the table.”
One of the first entries in the blog is by Barnett in which she looks back and remembers collards on her dinner table. Often with fried chicken, collards were also served with things like Jewish brisket or kugels — a classic Jewish term for a baked dish featuring potatoes or egg noodles.
“Where I grew up we had African-American influence on the dinner table,” Barnett says. “My grandmother is an eastern European Jewish immigrant, but like everyone here was influenced of African American cuisine. I could have a kugel and a pot of collards at the table at once.”
Nearly two years in, Barnett and Historic Columbia believe the blog is only a starting point.
“There are a lot more stories out there,” Barnett believes. “We only have begun to tap into that.”
The development and popularity of the blog led to the idea to keep expanding on the success. King Solomon’s Table with James Beard award-winning cookbook author Joan Nathan is the first major public event as part of the Kugels and Collards project. Through her nearly dozen cookbooks and countless articles and media, Nathan has spent her life studying and sharing Jewish cuisine. Her most recent book, King Solomon’s Table, is an in-depth exploration of how Jewish cooking has migrated and evolved as it spread around the world.
“Talking about intersection of Jewish and Southern foods, she does it so beautifully in all of her work, and talking about changes in different time periods and cultures,” Waites says.
At the event, Nathan will not only talk about this connection between Southern and Jewish culture but also create a few dishes inspired by the Historic Columbia blog — including, appropriately, a collard kugel.
What: King Solomon’s Table with Joan Nathan
When: Sunday, Feb. 3, 2-3:30 p.m.
Where: Beth Shalom Synagogue, 5827 N. Trenholm Road
Cost: $20 for general public, $15 for members