Kosher Soul Food: Uncommonly Delicious!
Few cuisines would appear to be as incompatible -- nay, irreconcilable -- as kosher food and soul food. It's not that Jews don't have soul -- it's just that they're strongly discouraged (OK, forbidden) from eating pork, one of the foundations of good, traditional soul food.
Aimee Levitt Andria Simckes (right) and her mother, Evelyn Lard, might be the only two kosher soul-food cooks in St. Louis.
Unlike a lot of kosher-keeping Jews, Andria Simckes, who lives in Creve Coeur, knows from good soul food. She was raised Baptist outside of Cleveland by a mother who came from West Virginia and a father from Mississippi; her mother, Evelyn, taught her to cook when she was a girl. As a student at Brown University, she sang in a gospel choir, but she was always fascinated by Judaism, and after law school she decided to convert. (Her maiden name was Lard, which, she says, provoked the expected jokes.)
"It didn't take me long to pick up kosher cooking," Simckes says. "I started when I converted." Then she married the son of a rabbi. "I know how to make them comfortable and keep them comfortable," she says of her in-laws. "I'm not going to compete or prove I'm Jewish enough for other people. I'm Jewish enough for me. Rabbis eat in my home, so it's kosher enough for them." Her three children have never eaten non-kosher meat.
Still, she missed the food she grew up with: collard greens and fried chicken and chitlins and sweet potato pie. Over the years, she and her mother have been altering old family recipes to fit her new kosher family.
The rules for kosher cooking are fairly basic: no meat from animals with cloven hooves (e.g., no pork), no fish that don't have scales or fins (no shellfish or bottom feeders), no mixing milk and meat, ever. (That means no cheeseburgers and also that every kosher kitchen has a minimum of two sets of dishes and silverware, two dishwashers, two sinks and two ovens so meat and dairy never meet and contaminate each other.)
Aimee Levitt Every cabinet and drawer in the Simckes kitchen gets labeled "Meat", "Dairy" or "Pareve."
Eggs, fish, bread, vegetables and beans (including black-eyed peas) fall into a category called pareve, neither milk nor meat and therefore edible with everything, but a strict kosher cook will still read the lists of ingredients on packages of prepared food, to be absolutely sure there's no hidden meat or dairy.
(The basis of all kosher cooking comes from the long list of prohibitions in the book of Leviticus, such as the one that says a calf should not be cooked in its mother's milk.)
Several agencies, of which the Orthodox Union is the most well-known, send teams of rabbis to food-processing plants to inspect the facilities and production. If everything is up to kosher standard, the agency will allow its logo (known as a hechsher) to go on the packaging. It's the kosher equivalent of the Good Housekeeping seal of approval.
Aimee Levitt Kosher food!
"You can make substitutions to any recipe to make it pareve," Simckes says. "You use margarine instead of butter. Instead of milk, you use soy or rice milk." That said, only one brand of margarine and one commercial brand of bread are certified pareve (that would be Fleishmann's margarine and Arnold potato bread), and Simckes and Lard have invested a lot of time in trial and error to accommodate differences in texture and flavor. "We tweak until we get it right," Lard says. Simckes adds, "If it's bad, we throw it out."
They've worked out plenty of solutions over the years, but some foods still confound them. Lard doesn't believe it's possible to make a sweet potato pie without evaporated milk, and Simckes has come to accept that she will never eat chitlins again.
Aimee Levitt Evelyn Lard mixes up a batch of cornbread. "I never used soy milk before Andria converted," she says. "I prefer buttermilk, but I'm learning to accept it."