SINCE THE FIRST Sephardic dry-goods dealers settled in the bustling port of Charleston, S.C., in 1694, Jewish cooking there has taken a unique turn. Holiday desserts feature pecans instead of almonds. Sweet and sour shad replaces gefilte fish at Passover dinner. Seders may start with cold lemon stew fish.
Puzzling? Not if you consider the rich history of Charleston's Jews.
"Historically Cooking: 200 Years of Good Eating"--a cookbook sponsored by Charleston's sisterhood of Temple Beth Elohim--documents their rich story. In addition to the traditional Eastern European recipes--which are, for the most part, new to Charleston, coming with the wave of immigration from 1880 onward--are more unusual hand-me-down family recipes. Together they unveil the cultural and culinary history of this southern Jewish community, which by 1750--the year the now-reform synagogue was founded--was the largest in the Colonies.
Every Jewish cookbook has a chicken soup recipe, but the one in "Historically Cooking" is unique. In addition to the chicken--once butchered by the ritual slaughterer employed by the synagogue that was Orthodox for 100 years before the Civil War--the recipe includes parsnips, parsley root and a tomato.
Elza Alterman's "Soup Bunch" is equally unusual, easily dating from the 18th century. It starts with a shank bone with meat. The soup stock is then simmered, in the Charleston manner, with bunches of fresh collards, parsnips, rutabagas, turnips, red and white cabbage, thyme, carrots, onions, celery with greens and fresh tomatoes sold together in soup bunches at the marketplace. A clear, sieved broth is then served with matzo balls floating on top, but Alterman's matzo balls are seasoned in the German tradition with parsley, onion, nutmeg and ginger.
Like the ancestors of many of the contributors to the reform synagogue cookbook, Elza Meyers Alterman's family came to Charleston in the mid-19th century from Germany and Alsace-Lorraine. Fannie Florence Levy, daughter of a tobacco farmer in South Carolina and Alterman's grandmother on her mother's side, was the first woman rice broker in Charleston. Both Alterman and her mother followed this merchant tradition. Their two dress shops, Rosalie's and Elza's, were located five doors apart on King Street until her mother retired a year ago.
Sitting in her courtyard office, once the dependency (kitchen) of her Spanish ancestors' home behind her dress shop, Elza Alterman talked about her contributions to the synagogue cookbook. She explained that the body of the cookbook is Charlestonian, replete with lowland shrimp, crab, rice, shad, sweet potato and dessert recipes using pecans instead of almonds. Under the chapter for holidays are recipes for matzo balls, gefilte fish and tzimmes, lemon stew fish, and sweet and sour shad.
According to Alterman, the traditional Friday night and high holiday bread in Charleston is called egg bread, not challah. Cousins older than Alterman do not remember hearing the term "challah" until they were grown. Until 25 years ago, when a baker from Brooklyn opened the South Windemere Kosher Bakery in a shopping center on the outskirts of Charleston, unbraided loaf-shaped egg bread and fruit bread, filled with candied citron for the high holidays and Purim--more like a stollen--were made at the downtown Colony Bake Shop for its Jewish clientele. Blessings of thanks for the bread of the earth are made over this soft bread, easily broken into little pieces and distributed to all present.
Since dining in Charleston is a family matter, Alterman explained, some families still serve a traditional fish and chicken Friday night and others serve the egg bread along with ham and biscuits, as is the Charleston custom. Eating pork is not the only aberration; shrimp, which is forbidden to Jews who keep kosher, is another regional favorite, Alterman said ("We even eat shrimp with hominy for breakfast"). And other non-kosher practices are common, she said: "I was brought up on Judeo-Christian beliefs. My food at holidays is Jewish and the rest of the time it is Charlestonian."
But even on holidays Alterman's food reflects her Charleston heritage. Recipes brought to this country from Germany and Alsace-Lorraine by her great-grandparents have been adapted regionally. Friday night and Passover sweet and sour carp became sweet and sour shad, served for the first course as would be gefilte fish in the home of an Eastern European.
When shad is not running, Alterman serves cold lemon stew fish, with which she starts her seder. This is probably the oldest recipe in Charleston's Jewish community, coming from the Sephardic Jewish colonial settlers, whose 100 heads of family in 1800 constituted the largest Jewish community in America, larger than Newport, New York and Philadelphia. Fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, they came as early as 1694 from Europe and the West Indies. Cooks probably passed this cold lemon stew fish recipe--which Greeks would find reminiscent of their egg-lemon-sauced dishes--orally from generation to generation. A chicken variation of the same dish appears in "Historically Cooking" as "Grandmother Moise's Elegant White Chicken Stew," a boned chicken in an egg-lemon sauce that also can be served over fish.
(The Moises were one of the 100 Sephardic families living in Charleston in 1800; their most famous member was Penina Moise, a poet and lyricist. Another Sephardic favorite of that period was a dish Thomas Jefferson called "Fried Fish Jewish Style," similar to today's bread-crumbed fish and chips. Clearly, either here or in another city, Thomas Jefferson broke bread at a Jewish table.)
The main course at the seder is usually stuffed capon. For dessert Alterman serves a "Boccone Torte," a series of meringue layers filled with strawberries, melted chocolate and whipped cream. For Alterman, preparing a flourless, yeastless meal is sufficient during this feast of unleavened bread. The mixing of meat and milk is another regional adaptation.
And still the changes continue. Alterman has met newcomers to Charleston--newcomers in that society meaning people who immigrated sometime during this century--who now share her Passover table. To her cold lemon stew fish, soup bunch with matzo balls, stuffed capon and Boccone Dolce, they have added new recipes like gefilte fish and tzimmes--recipes that, within a generation or two, will become part of the Charleston tradition. SOUP BUNCH (Makes about 10 cups) 3 large shank bones with meat (about 3 pounds) 1 sliced white turnip 1/4 shredded white cabbage 1/4 shredded red cabbage 1/2 sliced rutabaga 4 large carrots, cut in chunks 2 large onions, quartered 28-ounce can tomatoes Handful collard greens 1 stalk celery, cut in chunks 2 teaspoon thyme Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Cover the shank bone with water and simmer, covered, about 2 hours or until tender. Add the remaining ingredients and simmer, covered, until vegetables are very tender, at least a half hour. Remove meat and put soup through a colander or chinoise. Adjust seasoning and serve hot. FLUFFY MATZO BALLS (Makes about 30) 2 cups boiling water 1 cup schmaltz (chicken fat) or melted pareve margarine 2 teaspoons plus 1 tablespoon salt 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg 1/2 teaspoon ginger 1 large grated onion 4 tablespoons chopped parsley 3 shakes paprika 2 cups matzo meal 6 large eggs, separated
Combine all the ingredients except the eggs and 1 tablespoon salt in a 3-quart saucepan and cook it, stirring constantly, until the mixture comes away from the sides of the pan. Remove from heat, cool slightly and stir in egg yolks 1 at a time with a wooden spoon until all 6 yolks are incorporated.
Beat the egg whites until stiff (do not underbeat). Fold whites into matzo meal mixture and refrigerate a few hours or overnight.
Bring an 8- to 10-quart pot of water to a boil. Add a tablespoon of salt and, wetting hands with warm water, form into balls the size of walnut. Drop into boiling water, cover and let simmer 20 minutes or until matzo balls are fluffy and float to the top. Remove with a slotted spoon to bowls of hot bunch soup.
To freeze matzo balls, drain and place on a cookie sheet in the freezer. When they are frozen place in a plastic bag. After defrosting give each one a slight squeeze to remove excess moisture that may have accumulated during freezing. Heat in broth. SWEET AND SOUR
SHAD OR SALMON (Serve 6 as a main course, or 12 as a first course) 3 pounds, about 6 thick shad fillets or salmon steaks 1 cup white vinegar 1 teaspoon salt 1 medium onion, sliced in rings 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 5 cloves in an herb bag 1/2 cup raisins 2 tablespoons butter 1 sliced lemon 1/2 cup brown sugar 4 mashed gingersnaps* Water to cover
Soak fish in vinegar and salt until ready to cook. This keeps the fish fresher. Remove. Bring vinegar to boil, adding onion, cinnamon, herb bag, raisins, butter, sliced lemon, sugar and mashed gingersnaps. Add fish and enough water to cover. Simmer, covered, 10 to 15 minutes or until fish is just cooked through, allowing 10 minutes per inch of fish. Do not overcook. Serve with sauce hot or cold.
*Omit gingersnaps during Passover. The difference will be a thinner sauce and lighter color. COLD LEMON STEW FISH (4 to 6 servings) 2 pounds shad, red snapper, rockfish or monkfish, cut into steaks Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 2 medium onions, sliced in rings 8 tablespoons butter 6 tablespoons chopped parsley Juice of 2 lemons 4 egg yolks
Season the fish with salt and pepper. Put in a quart of cold water or almost to cover. Saute' the onions in the butter and add the parsley. Add this with the lemon while poaching the fish, figuring about 10 minutes per inch of fish. Remove the fish from the liquid. Take a small amount of liquid, cool and beat with the eggs. Then pour into 2 cups of the poaching liquid. Heat slowly over a double boiler, stirring constantly, until thickened, but do not let it come near boiling. Pour over the fish and chill. FUDGE CAKE
This is a perfect birthday cake with the texture of a sacher torte. For the cake: 4 ounces unsweetened chocolate 1 3/4 sticks butter 1 1/2 cups sugar 1 teaspoon vanilla 4 whole eggs 2 cups chopped pecans 3/4 cup matzo cake meal (substitute 1 cup all-purpose flour) For the frosting: 1 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar 3 ounces cream cheese 1/2 cup cocoa (more for a darker frosting) 1 teaspoon vanilla 2 tablespoons sour cream (more for a thinner frosting)
Grease and line two 8-inch layer cake pans and line with parchment paper. Melt the chocolate and butter in the top of a double boiler. When cool add the sugar, vanilla and eggs, beat together with a spoon or a mixer. Dredge the pecans in 1/2 cup of the flour (or matzo meal) and remove from the flour. Add the flour that remains plus the other half cup, mixing well until blended. Add the pecans. Pour batter into pans, place them in a pan of water and bake in a 350-degree oven for 30 to 40 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted. Let the cake cool slightly before removing from the pan.
Combine the frosting ingredients, blending very well. Spread between layers and over the cooled cake. CHREMSEL MATZO FRUIT PANCAKES (Makes about 4) 1 matzo 1 large egg 1/2 apple, grated or chopped 1 tablespoon raisins 1 tablespoon chopped pecans 1/2 tablespoon matzo meal Rind of 1 lemon Salt and sugar to taste 2 tablespoons butter, or as needed
Pour boiling water over the broken matzo in a colander. Squeeze water out. Place matzo in bowl; add the egg, apple, raisins, pecans, matzo meal, lemon rind and salt and sugar to taste. Mix together. Heat butter in a frying pan. Spoon in the mixture and fry like pancakes.