A Jewish centenarian living in New Orleans recalls her family's adaptation of local flavors, creating a hybrid kosher-Creole cuisine.
Photo via Flickr user Southern Foodways Alliance
Eighty-seven-year-old Mildred Covert is swallowed up by her chair in the assisted living community's lobby. She can't be taller than 4'10" and is overshadowed by a backrest that practically leers over her diminutive frame. Her movements are slow and deliberate from advanced osteoporosis, not to mention the bulky, ornate jewelry on her neck, fingers, and ears.
"I'm the only Jewish person that I know of here,"she says.
"Mrs. K—she's Jewish," adds Mildred's son, Martin.
"I don't know if she knows where she is, so it doesn't matter," she tells him, waving away the comment with a bejeweled flick of the wrist. From hearing of her grandparents' flight from the European pogroms, to the mass influx of gentrifying, post-Katrina young professionals, she's observed Jews settle and adapt into the Crescent City for the better part of a century.
"My family was a perfect textbook case. My grandparents' last three children were born right here in New Orleans. So we were really Southern Jews. That's just the way it was; I don't know how they managed."
Mildred's grandfather was a cobbler, living and working in the same cramped space alongside his wife and eight children. Mildred's grandmother, brought over by her husband straight from Poland, only knew Eastern European cooking when she first arrived in the city. Mildred tells a story of her grandmother not understanding what a banana was the first time she saw it in a dock market.
"The biggest thing was adapting. You had to adapt to wherever you were. She didn't know what red beans and rice was, but she saw someone cooking it, and, well, she had to cook something."
"So your grandmother had to cook those things before your mother and Pearl?" her son asks, trying to steer the conversation along.
"Well, she had to feed eight children, Martin!"
Martin smiles, puts his hands up, letting her carry along on her own. Pearl, the woman he's referring to, was the family's African American housekeeper for over 45 years. "Pearl came to us from Mississippi, one of those little country towns. I don't think she could have been more than 18 years old. She certainly didn't know how to read or write much, but she knew how to cook."
Mildred speaks of Pearl almost reverentially. It's clear she's as amazed by her struggle as she is by that of her own grandparents, but it's also indicative of a broader historical relationship between Southern Jews and African Americans. In recent years, collective memory has recalled Jewish leaders walking arm-in-arm with the civil rights pioneers of the 1960s, but reality, of course, didn't always resemble a feel-good, black-and-white snapshot. In 1861, Jefferson Davis swore in Judah P. Benjamin as the Attorney General of the Confederacy—the first Jew to hold an executive office position in America. His historic Bourbon Street home is now occupied by a strip club.
There were Jews who owned slaves and Jews who opposed desegregation, just as there were Jewish abolitionists and Freedom Marchers. In the time between, successful Jewish families often hired African American maids and housecleaners, just like other well-to-do families in the South. It was through these interactions that kosher and African American cooking began to blend together.
"To me, there is no such thing as Jewish cooking. And the reason I say that is because that Jewish people did not settle in one place long enough to say, 'This is Jewish cooking.' Now, I'm not talking about kosher, but whatever that was there, that's what you cooked with," Mildred says.
New Orleans cooking is arguably the most traif in America—a cuisine based almost entirely on shellfish, pork, and a host of other un-kosher monstrosities. Seafood gumbo, hog's head cheese, alligator po' boys—these are the dishes that turned observant Jews pallid from digestive horror for generations.
"Pearl was bringing in, you didn't call it this in those days, but soul food. Real Southern farm stuff," she continues. "She was always bringing in things my grandmother had never heard of in Europe, [such as] fried chicken. Where would the oil have come from for Jews in the shtetl?"
With Pearl's help, Mildred's family began augmenting traditional Creole and Southern fare into something palatable for kosher-keeping Jews. "My grandmother taught Pearl to take a piece of corned beef and adapt red beans and rice that way."
By the time Mildred was an adult, she had codified a whole new diet for her family—a mix of Afro-Creole and Eastern European cooking, all of which adhered to Talmudic laws of kashrut. Brisket gumbo. Jambalaya with chicken andouille sausage. Sweet potato latkes. A close friend of hers, the late Sylvia Gerson, helped collaborate on gathering together their family recipes.
"We thought we were so smart," she says. "We just thought we were the greatest authors in the world, and we would go and begin talking about 'Creosher' cooking. And our eventual publisher, he had never heard of kosher and never really knew what it was."
After the concept was more thoroughly explained to him, the publisher understood the significance of the idea and released the Kosher Creole Cookbook—an editorial rebranding of their "Creosher." "You have to have something that will catch," Mildred remembers her publisher saying.
The sales were a modest but surprising success, and led to numerous other titles in later years.
"The most amazing thing, and I'm not saying this with any ego—the first printing was in 1982. It is still on the market, it is still available. Now, I'm not saying that I'm getting any kind of royalty that's more than two dollars, but it's still there," Mildred says, smiling.
Looking at the history of New Orleans Jews, it's easy to understand why Mildred takes pride in this fact. Like just about every other location in the known world, New Orleans didn't exactly welcome Jews with open arms. In 1757, colonial governor Don Alejandro O'Reilly ordered the expulsion of New Orleans's most prominent Jewish merchants "on account of their businesses and of the religion they profess,"vand while they were eventually allowed to return, it set the tone for the coming generations. Jews could almost—but not quite—assimilate, and this back-and-forth between economic acceptance and cultural distrust continues pretty much up until now. Because of a lack of "nice Jewish girls" in New Orleans during the 18th and 19th centuries, a large portion of Jewish males married into the overwhelmingly Catholic culture, keeping some of their traditions while largely letting go of theology. Lewis Solomon, the city's first Mardi Gras king, was Jewish, but members of the tribe are still not allowed in many prominent krewes to this day.
All these factors meant that, while economically prosperous, Jews floundered in New Orleans high society, instead influencing Crescent City life by donating much of their time and wealth to philanthropic and social causes. Their names may be on prominent buildings in the city—Touro Hospital, Isidore Newman School—but the stories about how they got there are largely ignored or undervalued.
"If I did nothing else, I think I made this city realize that there were Jewish people here. That, to me, means a lot," Mildred says. Adaptation has always been a major part of the history of any culture, but especially Jews. In one way or another, the need to reconcile Judaism with the surrounding predominant culture affects all of us, and Mildred Covert is no exception.
"Now, I'm going to tell you, there's no way to keep kosher here," she says, referring to the assisted living community. "But these people are very, very accommodating to me. I'm doing the best I can here, and I don't make any excuses for it."