Celebrate Jewish Food and Culture with a Distinctly Southern Twist at the Jewish Food Festival | Food Feature | Indy Week
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Celebrate Jewish Food and Culture with a Distinctly Southern Twist at the Jewish Food Festival 

click to enlarge Baking specialist Michelle Farmer-Gray braids dough for challah.

Photo by Caitlin Penna

Baking specialist Michelle Farmer-Gray braids dough for challah.

Being Jewish in the South is very different, especially in smaller Jewish communities. There are a lot of things that you take for granted, and one of the biggest things is food," says Jill Madsen, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill. "Most Jewish traditions and rituals center around food. Most of those things you cannot get in Durham."

Serving and celebrating Jewish cuisine is part of the inspiration behind the annual Jewish Food Festival, taking place Sunday, June 3 at the Levin Jewish Community Center. Proceeds from food sales support the Jewish Federation's initiatives to combat food insecurity, including stocking Jewish Family Services' food pantry. One hundred and fifty volunteers will not only run the event, but also make all the food in the weeks leading up to it.

"They're making what we call 'bubbe's finest.' They're using family recipes to prepare the different options served that day," says Madsen. "It's a really special day to have all of those favorites from your childhood, things you only have once a year because you only prepare them for special occasions, or because there isn't a deli or restaurant that has them."

Beyond bringing the Jewish community together over grandma's best dishes, Madsen says that the festival provides a pathway for people who aren't Jewish to experience Jewish culture.

It's the type of event that Marcie Cohen Ferris, author of Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South and a professor in the Department of American Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, says is a core, classic event in the life of a Southern Jewish congregation.

"It's always been a way for community engagement and to encourage knowledge about who the Jewish community is to the non-Jewish community," says Cohen Ferris, who grew up in a small Jewish congregation in Arkansas. "There's a strong sense of community building, of being good neighbors, and who we are as Jewish North Carolinians. It tells that story through their food and their hospitality."

Dishes that will be sold and served at the festival represent different facets of Jewish cuisine. Mediterranean specialties include Israeli salad, made with diced cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions; and bourekas, which are pastry parcels stuffed with savory fillings like feta and spinach. Eastern European dishes like blintzes—thin pancakes filled with cheese or fruit—and potato latkes, or crispy shredded potato pancakes, are particularly sought after, mostly, says Madsen, because they are patshke. In the context of a recipe, Madsen says that the Yiddish word loosely translates as "not easy to make." These are the labor-intensive dishes typically reserved for major holidays or special occasions, ones you'd easily be able to find ready-made in cities with larger Jewish communities. Chopped liver, representing New York Jewish deli traditions, is another example. Think of chopped liver as a Jewish pâté; it's typically made with the schmaltz, or rendered fat, of whatever animal protein you'd be serving at a celebratory dinner. The festival's chopped liver is made with chicken livers and schmaltz from brisket.

Jewish brisket differs from Southern brisket in that it is not rubbed and smoked, but slow-braised in an oven with root vegetables, red wine or stock, tomato sauce (often prepared ketchup and chili sauce), and ingredients such as coffee, Coca-Cola, or beer that deepen flavor and tenderize the meat, which is then sliced and served alongside the braised vegetables.

For the festival, volunteers are taking a cue from Southern barbecue, chopping Jewish-style brisket—which they've braised in a beef consommé with yellow onions, brown sugar, and a spice medley—then piling it onto slider-size challah buns and topping it with caramelized onions. The buns are made from the same recipe that produces the braided sweet bread loaves that are baked and sold every week at the Levin JCC alongside loaves of babka, a sweet bread swirled with chocolate or cinnamon, which will also be served at the festival.

Local businesses have rallied to show their support. Bagel Bar is donating bagels, Mediterranean Deli will bring falafel and pita, Whole Foods is offering pastrami for sandwiches, Weaver Street Market will help bake rye bread, and Trader Joe's placed a special bulk order of kosher chicken. The Forest at Duke, a nonprofit that helped underwrite the program, will also host one of the cooking demonstrations, showing attendees how to make traditional rugelach, a crescent-shaped flaky pastry rolled with chocolate or fruit fillings.

The festival is open to everyone and admission is free, though attendees are encouraged to bring nonperishable food items to donate to the food pantry (peanut butter and canned tuna are particularly in demand). Food tickets, used to pay for the dishes, can be purchased onsite.

"The event is a really great way to experience and enjoy traditional Jewish fare while also feeling like you're giving back to the community through supporting the food pantry," says Madsen.

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