Marcie Cohen Ferris: A Happy Southern Hanukkah

We welcome a guest post this Hanukkah from Marcie Cohen Ferris, author of Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South , which we’ve just released in paperback and which the Chicago Tribune called “fascinating reading mixed with delicious recipes.” In this post Ferris recalls her childhood as a religious minority in her Arkansas neighborhood. You can catch her on NPR’s Tell Me More tomorrow. (I’ll link to the podcast when it’s available.) Tonight, you can hit the kitchen to share in a new favorite Hanukkah food tradition she’s adopted since she made North Carolina her home: North Carolina Sweet Potato and Apple Latkes. See the recipe at the end of the post. And Happy Hanukkah!—ellen

December 1, 2010, Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Happy Hanukkah, everyone! Tonight is the first of the eight nights of the “Festival of Lights.”  If you are not acquainted with its history, here it is in its BRIEFEST outline:  165 C.E., Jerusalem.  The Maccabees (our guys) recaptured the Temple from the Syrian-Greek army (the bad guys—at least from a Jewish perspective at the time), who looted it, including contaminating the sacred olive oil for fueling the “eternal light.”  By lighting candles throughout the holiday of Hanukkah and eating foods fried or made with oil, we remember the re-dedication of the Second Temple, and the “miracle” that the tiny bit of sacred oil that remained lasted eight days instead of one.  An even shorter explanation of this holiday echoes the larger patterns of Jewish history: “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.” What could be a better Jewish holiday to celebrate in the American South than one that marks the victory of “Judah the Hammer” Maccabee, who sounds like a fullback for the Carolina Tar Heels, and foods traditionally prepared in a cast iron frying pan?

Hanukkah in Blytheville, Arkansas, in the 1960s and 1970s was magical.  I have no idea how my parents accomplished this—it was their personal version of a Hanukkah miracle.  I say miracle, because of the following scene. We lived on Rosemary Lane. Behind us was Mimosa Street, which became a “Christmas Spectacular” as each family decorated for the season with thousands of holiday lights, elaborate Santas and reindeers landing on rooftops, figures of Baby Jesus, the Wise Men, and gently grazing plastic sheep. It was an “attraction”—the street everybody in town slowly drove by each season to ooh and ahh.

The Cohen family

Each night I would turn off the lights in my bedroom, and press my nose up to the cold window, entranced by the glow of the multi-colored Christmas lights.  Imagine a version of kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws, that forbid Christmas lights.  That’s what we observed in our home.  I got my fill of Christmas lights staring out my window, considering that by some Divine quirk of fate, we didn’t live one block over, where our darkened home would have confirmed what everyone already knew—“That’s where the Cohens live.”  Denise Dias Broussard, one of my best friends and a Catholic, understood what it felt like to be a religious minority. There were as few Catholics as Jews in Blytheville.  I spent most Christmas Eves at Denise’s house, where I helped decorate the Christmas tree and ate as much fudge and Christmas cookies as I could.

Back at my home, it was Hanukkah, at least when the Jewish calendar allowed it to be as mercifully close to Christmas as possible.  My parents deserve a medal for making what is considered a “lesser” holiday in Judaism so special for my sister Jamie and me.  Surrounded by Christian culture as we were, and with Christmas-y Mimosa Street so close by, my parents figured they had to make Hanukkah special, and they did.  (My mother Huddy actually made every Jewish holiday incredibly special, in a way that I will never be able to create. Elegance, organization, preparation, and the key, as she told us each year, “Shower first, do your make-up and hair, put on your jewelry and stockings, and then you’re ready to go just before your guests arrive!”)

Bill & Marcie Cohen Ferris's menorah

The days leading up to Hanukkah were filled with anticipation.  We knew presents had been purchased and were hidden in an undisclosed closet.  My mother hung a slightly depressing “Happy Hanukkah” banner over the fireplace.  (Hanukkah decorations pale next to Christmas decorations.)

The day before the holiday, the house smelled of brisket and pound cake.  We helped my mother polish our grandmother’s brass menorah until it shone.  On the first night of Hanukkah, we ate brisket with green peas and fried potato pancakes, which often turned slightly green, but were delicious all the same.  My father Jerry placed big dollops of sour cream and applesauce on his pancakes. I liked mine plain.  As soon as they let us, Jamie and I roared away from the table for the living room, where Hanukkah presents awaited.  The best Hanukkahs were rare Arkansas December evenings when it was cold enough to build a fire in the fireplace.  We ran outside to see the smoke curling up from the chimney, and then ran back inside to open our presents.  Just before we tore into our presents, my mother told her annual story of “The Hanukkah Orange.” It went something like this: “As you know, Hanukkah is a MINOR holiday, and when I was growing up in New London, Connecticut, we barely celebrated it.  We were THRILLED to receive a fresh orange from Papa and Mama Lena as a special treat.” Jamie and I would stare blankly at my mother.  Thrilled? We didn’t want an orange.  We wanted all of the magic—the good smells, the menorah, the gifts, the Hanukkah gelt, our family dog barking and jumping with all the excitement.  To my dear parents, thank you for making Hanukkah feel so special in such a non-Hanukkah southern town.

Roper and his stuffed Hanukkah menorah

When I prepare Hanukkah dinner nowadays in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, we eat the same “Temple Israel Brisket” from my childhood, but I’ve added sweet potato latkes made from North Carolina sweet potatoes and apples, and a side of sautéed winter greens.  I hope for a cold evening, a warm fire, excited doggies, and my family gathered together.  Best wishes for a happy and peaceful holiday!

Marcie Cohen Ferris
Chapel Hill, North Carolina

North Carolina Sweet Potato and Apple Latkes

Recipe by Miriam Rubin

These are wonderful with applesauce, cranberry sauce, or all by themselves.

1 ½ pounds sweet potatoes (about 3 medium), peeled

1 large Granny Smith or Honey Crisp apple, unpeeled, cut into quarters and cored

3 scallions, thinly sliced

4 large eggs

¾ cup matzoh meal or all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon kosher salt

¾ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Canola oil for frying

Fit a food processor with the grating/shredding blade. Cut the sweet potatoes into pieces that will fit in the food processor’s feed tube. Using the food processor (or by hand, with the coarse side of a box grater), coarsely shred sweet potatoes and apple. Transfer to a large bowl. Add the scallions, eggs, matzoh meal, salt and pepper. Mix well with your hands, until mixture is cohesive.

Using a rough ¼-cup mixture for each, make 2 ½-to 3-inch patties, shaping them firmly yet gently, so they don’t compact too much, yet don’t fall apart. Place patties on a sheet of foil or baking sheet. Heat the oven to 200°F to keep latkes warm.

In a large, heavy skillet over medium heat, warm 3 tablespoons oil until hot. Add 4 to 5 latkes; don’t crowd the pan, and cook, turning once or twice, until nicely golden and crisp on both sides. (Watch carefully as these scorch easily.) Transfer cooked latkes to paper towel to drain, and then transfer to a platter to keep warm in the oven. Repeat frying latkes, adding more oil to pan as needed. Serve warm.

Makes 20 to 22 latkes