Submitted by Sarah Simmons
My first latke not only opened my eyes to a new world of fried potatoes, but introduced me to the miracle of real, full-fat sour cream and, more importantly, religious pluralism. There were few Jewish families in Fayetteville, North Carolina – the small town where I spent the majority of my childhood. But all of the Jewish kids my age, including my oldest friend Elliott, happened to be in my first grade class.
As Hanukkah approached, their moms came in to cook up these little bundles of brilliance to teach all of the Gentiles about Judaism. My new found love for latkes kicked off a religious curiosity I’ve continued to feed well into adulthood.
I’ve always been fascinated by the ironclad strength of the Jewish community and their steadfast dedication to traditions dating back to the beginning of time, enthralled by their explanation of God and goodness, and overwhelmed with despair for the persecution and atrocities that have historically tortured and currently haunt their communities.
It’s my Jewish friends’ optimistic perseverance, the commitment to being good despite evil, the sense of hope while crying hopeless tears - more than the latkes, the brisket, or the babka - that’s drawn me in as close as a Presbyterian can come.
I love their grit more than the babka. And I really love the babka. I’d lived 27 years of my life without knowing such a thing existed. Shortly after moving to New York City, I discovered Bread’s Bakery, their magical Chocolate Babka, and the countless “Appys” specializing in everything from gravlax to rugelach.
My first few years in the city seemed to be filled with a cornucopia of culinary discoveries, if one can “discover” something others have been enjoying for decades. When I began developing my own series of dinners for CITY GRIT, the culinary salon I founded as a creative space to host out-of-town chefs, I dared to cook these discoveries using ingredients familiar to the southern table with spices representative of my travels.
My final Shabbat dinner started with kibbeh with hummus soup poured tableside followed by fattoush salad, chicory & Creole rubbed brisket, kugel with curry, apricots, and golden raisins, served with pickled collard stems and challah. We ended the night with latkes and dark chocolate mousse – a throwback to Elliott’s mama’s latkes and memories from my childhood of dipping French fries into Wendy’s frosties.
That was the last meal I cooked at CITY GRIT before the building was sold and we lost our lease. The CITY GRIT dining room is now the kitchen of a luxury condo. If those walls can talk, I hope they’ll tell the story of “Manhattan’s Most Jewish Gentile” and her quest to serve a brisket that would make a Bubby proud.
When I opened my first concept in Columbia, the town where my family moved in the late eighties, I added NY-style bagels and shmears, challah and babka to the menu for myself not realizing how much the members of our local Jewish community craved artisan takes on these dishes.
Over the past two years, I’ve had the pleasure of connecting with some of the city’s more active members of the Jewish community. It wasn’t long after I learned about Historic Columbia’s Jewish Heritage Initiative and Kugels & Collards, a blog exploring Columbia’s Jewish history through food, that I began cooking up the idea for a guest chef dinner featuring cuisine along the same theme.
As part of our FEED the CITY weekend of culinary events, our team hosted the inaugural Kugels & Collards dinner at the historic alley at City Market next to smallSUGAR, one of our restaurants. We invited some of my favorite Jewish chefs from NYC down to Columbia to cook alongside our team and local chef, Kristian Niemi. It was a magical night under the lights and an event I’m excited to grow over the next few years. In the meantime, I plan to share the stories behind the chefs, along with their food and recipes, with the Kugels & Collards community.
1 cup diced pimiento peppers, drained
1 cup hummus (preferably Sabra Classic Hummus)
2 cups vegetable stock
1 cup cooked Anson Mills Carolina Gold Rice
Fresh Herbs (Parsley, Dill, Chives)
Olive oil, for serving
Harissa, for serving
In a blender or a food processor, combine the pimento with the hummus and stock and puree until smooth.
Transfer the soup to a medium saucepan. Add the rice, season with salt and pepper and bring to a boil.
Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with the herbs, olive oil and harissa.