One of Marcie Cohen Ferris’ strongest memories of growing up Jewish in the Arkansas Delta town of Blytheville is the regular trips her mother would make to Memphis to stock up on kosher foods. She even devoted a chapter to it in her 2005 book, Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South.
“I interviewed several Jewish women up and down the Mississippi River who talked about driving to Memphis to get Jewish holiday supplies,” Ferris said. “And always carrying a cooler back to Rolling Fork or Vicksburg or Greenwood or Cleveland to bring back the taste of Jewishness to their friends and family and their synagogue.”
On Saturday at 2 p.m., Ferris and her longtime friend Lesley Silver, owner of the Attic Gallery in Vicksburg, will host a conversation at Catfish Row Museum about how Southern and Jewish food cultures intertwined in the Mississippi Delta and how food is an expressive language of region, religion, personalities and families.
Ferris moved to Oxford in the 1990s with her husband, Vicksburg native William R. Ferris, where he was the founding director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. While in Mississippi, Marcie Ferris worked at the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience in Jackson. She met Silver, who had grown up in a Jewish community in Birmingham, Ala., soon after she arrived. Ferris’ parents were from the New York-Connecticut area, and her grandparents were from Ukraine and Belarus, while Silver has roots in Hungary—a country whose trademark spice was all over her grandmother’s cooking.
“My mom used paprika a lot,” Silver said. “She would boil potatoes and put salt and pepper and paprika, or if it was pot roast, it was paprika. It was part of what we ate; it was just mixed in with the other food.”
Ferris’ Ukrainian grandmother had Russian foodways, but she also became a Southern cook. Because of that crossover, she cooked fewer strictly kosher meals. She didn’t use pork and wouldn’t bake a ham, but they might eat sliced ham, she said. She made stuffed or rolled cabbage in the Eastern European tradition, with ground beef and a sweet tomato sauce and brown sugar. She made borscht and blini.
“She made blini, [these] little pancakes, they were tiny, and those were definitely Russian,” Ferris said. “But she made them with matzo meal, and matzo meal is just ground-up matzo that is ground into a really fine flour you can bake with. At Passover time when you’re not supposed to use any flour that will rise, and you’re not supposed to use any yeast or grain that will rise, we would have those little matzo-meal pancakes.”
Some regional delicacies are so good, they cannot be ignored. For Ferris’ family—and across the whole of northeastern Arkansas—barbecue is one of the most important food traditions. “That was a world we dipped our toes in, and certainly we didn’t keep kosher,” said Ferris. “But then there was a world that was deeply Jewish and deeply traditional in its food practices, and that was on Friday nights when we celebrated Shabbat in the synagogue.”
On those Friday nights, she and her family might sit down to fried chicken, a slow-cooked brisket or a noodle kugel casserole for Shabbat. A medley of regional ingredients and vegetables from the Arkansas Delta where she grew up, combined with influence from the African American cooks who worked for some Jewish families in the region, all helped shape the Southern Jewish foodways.
“My mother was from Connecticut, so she didn’t prepare a lot of classic Southern dishes like greens, but I had those in school; I had those when we ate at a Southern café,” Ferris said. “She cooked green beans and I’m sure added a little pork for flavoring, and I’m certain she would’ve learned that from an African American woman who worked for her.”
Before her trip from North Carolina, where the Ferrises currently reside, to Vicksburg and Catfish Row Museum, Ferris intends to pay tribute to her Ukrainian heritage and express solidarity with the nation as it defends itself against an offensive attack from Russia. Amid the main course of maple-tahini, meso, marinated salmon with asparagus and roasted potatoes, her guests on Shabbat will find a tribute to her embattled ancestral countrymen.
“In honor of the Ukrainian people,” she said, “I’m going to make a little poppy seed cake.”
Southern Jewish Food Cultures: A Conversation with Marcie Cohen Ferris and Lesley Silver is part of Food for Thought, a series of hands-on workshops, curatorial events and programs centered around local foodways. It’s made possible through a grant from the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area.
The programs are meant to engage with the public on issues relating to race, place, ethnicity, history, music, foodways and the arts, all themes the museum aims to explore through its development and forthcoming exhibits. Learn more about the foodways programs here.
Food for Thought Program Full Schedule:
All programs begin at 2 p.m. and will be at the Catfish Row Museum, 913 Washington St., in downtown Vicksburg. Learn more about our Food for Thought programs, workshops and lab hours.
Saturday, March 26: Southern Jewish Food Cultures: A Conversation with Marcie Cohen Ferris and Lesley Silver — Marcie Ferris, Professor Emeritus and Foodways author from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Lesley Silver, owner of the Attic Gallery
Saturday, April 2: Mississippi’s Black Farming Legacy — Ralph Eubanks, writer and essayist whose work focuses on race, identity, and the culture of the American South and Mississippi
Saturday, April 23: Home Town Recipes: Race, Myth, and Cookbooks in 20th Century Vicksburg — Dr. Andrew Haley, Moorman Distinguished Professor in the Humanities 2019-21 and Associate Professor of American Cultural History from the University of Southern Mississippi
Saturday, May 7: on documenting Delta Wok, a collaborative documentary project on Mississippi Delta Chinese — Talbot Easton Selby, associate dean in the Thomas W. and Robin W. Edwards College of Humanities and Fine Arts at Coastal Carolina University and professor of photography; Emily Jones, Delta State University archivist; and Gabriella Sang
Saturday, February 26: Margaret Walker: Food, Fellowship, and Forms of Activism — Robert Luckett, civil rights historian and director of a special collections archive with the Margaret Walker Center at Jackson State University
Storyteller and folklorist William “Bill” Ferris is a patchwork of a farm, the blues and memories of his family home in Warren County, Mississippi.