Syrian Cooking in the American South
In 1958, Mary Tahir contributed a recipe for what she called “cabbage tamales” to a community cookbook in Tchula, Mississippi. Community cookbooks, self-published collections of donated recipes used as fundraisers for civic, church, and women’s organizations, were commonplace in midcentury America. Yet scratch the surface of Mary’s simple recipe featuring cabbage, ground beef, rice, and the basic seasonings typical of Lebanese/Syrian immigrant cuisine—salt, pepper, lemon, and garlic—and it reveals the complex cultural negotiations of immigrants straddling the color line to find a place in the 20th-century American South.
I am a third-generation Arab American and a food historian, and since coming to Mississippi, I have been looking at how women exercised influence in their communities by creating and contributing to community cookbooks. Tahir’s “cabbage tamale” recipe demonstrates the sophisticated ways that immigrant women used their culinary expertise not only to preserve their ethnic culture at home (the subject of considerable scholarship) but also to secure a place in communities that were not always welcoming to immigrants.
Tchula, a wealthy town on the eastern boundary of the Mississippi Delta, was surrounded by some of the richest cotton-growing soil in the United States, and that soil produced a small but elite white upper class. The wives and daughters of privileged families belonged to Tchula’s Garden Club and, in 1958, the women of the Garden Club created a community cookbook to raise funds to build a cemetery. Like many of the white Southern women who published community cookbooks, Garden Club members submitted recipes for regional staples such as Brunswick stew, lye hominy casserole, and squirrel stew. But they also included a surprising number of recipes whose origins could be traced to America’s immigrant communities.
Generally, white women cribbed ethnic recipes from magazines and newspapers.
Generally, white women cribbed these ethnic recipes from magazines and newspapers, tested them at family suppers, and then shared them in community cookbooks with hopes of making dinner time a little more exotic. As another Mississippi community cookbook stated, “Actual travel isn’t always possible . . . and she is a wise woman who has learned how much variety and pleasure can be added to life for those at home simply by frequent excursions into the realm of good cooking.”
This openness to foreign and ethnic foods created an opportunity for immigrants to cautiously introduce themselves and their cultures to the communities in which they lived. Mary Tahir was the American-born daughter of a Syrian immigrant who sold Mexican American tamales from a pushcart in Greenwood, Mississippi. In 1929, she married a Syrian migrant who operated a small meat market and grocery store that catered primarily to Tchula’s Black sharecroppers and railyard workers. Tahir’s immigrant ancestry must have been known to the women of the elite Tchula Garden Club, although she was not a member nor even a close enough friend for anyone to know her married name—midcentury conventions held that women were identified in community cookbooks by their husband’s name, such as Mrs. Ned Parrish Jr., but Tahir was identified simply as Mrs. Mary Tahir. Nonetheless, in their apparent eagerness to include foreign recipes, the women of the Garden Club published her recipe for cabbage tamales.
The inclusion of Tahir’s recipe in the Garden Club cookbook represents her efforts to cross the color line and Tchula’s uneasy embrace of Arab immigrants’ claims to whiteness in the Mississippi Delta. Arabs in the United States legally established themselves as white in the early 20th century and thus not subject to segregation laws or the broad ban on Asian naturalization imposed by the Chinese Exclusion Acts. But Arab migrants’ dark skin and business dealings with the Black community mattered more than legal precedents to many of their white neighbors. In 1930, the federal census for Tchula described the newly married Tahirs as “negro.” If this view had been widely held two decades later, Mary’s recipe would not have found its way into the Garden Club cookbook. While many of the recipes in Southern community cookbooks were perfected by Black women employed by white households, these cookbooks were segregated spaces that excluded Black cooks, and the signature beneath every recipe was that of a white woman. Given this context, Tahir’s recipe for stuffed cabbage offers evidence of not only her desire to be included in the white society represented by the cookbook but also Tchula’s apparent acceptance of her racial claims.
Tchula’s ethnic residents—Arab, Greek, Russian Jewish, Italian, and Chinese families—were considered members of the white community.
The curious title Tahir gave her recipe for rolled cabbage, however, demonstrates how cautiously Mary asserted her Syrian identity. Earlier Arab migrants to Mississippi embraced their ethnicity and believed that assimilation was impossible even if they were recognized as white—see Mrs. Antoon’s Arabic titled recipe for “cabbage MESHNEY” in the Earnest Worker’s Cook Book from Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1921. Yet Tahir claimed a place in the white community the cookbook created without making an explicit declaration of her ethnic heritage. In naming her dish “cabbage tamales,” Tahir provided Tchula’s residents with a reassuring, albeit subtle, metaphor for assimilation. In the first two decades of the 20th century, tamales were popularized by street vendors and Mexican restaurants throughout the United States; in the 1920s, African American entrepreneurs adapted the Mexican dish to Mississippi tastes. By the time that the Tchula Garden Club Cook Book was published, recipes for tamales or tamale pie were commonplace in such collections. Tahir’s decision to call her stuffed cabbage a “tamale” served little culinary purpose, but it reminded readers that they had grown to love other immigrant foods and, perhaps, represented her hope that if her cuisine could be assimilated, she too might find a place in the community. As if to further demonstrate that her ethnicity should not be a barrier to acceptance, she also submitted a recipe for “Never-Fail Jelly Rolls.”
Tahir submitted her stuffed cabbage recipe to a number of other Mississippi community cookbooks, but it was not until she had lived in Tchula for more than 30 years that she explicitly identified the dish as Middle Eastern. In the late 1960s, America’s racial boundaries were rapidly shifting. Locally, Tchula’s campaign of “massive resistance” to public school desegregation had starkly redrawn the racial divide between the town’s Black and white residents, and in this remapping, Tchula’s ethnic residents—Arab, Greek, Russian Jewish, Italian, and Chinese families—were considered members of the white community. Meanwhile, the recasting of the nation’s founding narratives to embrace a “nation of immigrants” created cultural space for Tahir and other Mississippi Delta Arabs to celebrate their roots. In 1970, when the Greenwood Commonwealth solicited ethnic dishes for a community cookbook that included “foreign” recipes, Tahir offered her now familiar recipe with a new name: “Lebanese Dish: Cabbage Rolls.”
Mary Tahir’s simple recipe for “cabbage tamales” embodied her aspirations and staked a cautious claim to belonging in Tchula and in the United States. Today, cookbooks remain a place for historically marginalized communities to craft narratives of belonging, but the messages are no longer hidden. Visit any bookstore and there are stacks of cookbooks dedicated to various culinary traditions in which recipes are interwoven with stories that challenge the reader to acknowledge the contributions of immigrants and the difficulties of migration. In an earlier time, Mary found a way to tell her story. In doing so, she not only helped to pave the way for other immigrants to find a voice in their hometowns but also contributed to making culinary writing a cherished form of autobiography.
1 medium size cabbage
1/2 cup rice
1 lb. ground beef
salt and pepper to taste
3/4 stick butter
Juice of 2 or 3 lemons
3 cloves of garlic
1 large can tomatoes
Put meat in sauce pan and cook until all water is steamed off. Add washed rice, (use long grain rice), salt, pepper and butter and cook about 10 minutes, stirring constantly. Let cool.
Steam cabbage in boiling water till each leaf is separated. Trim out stem of each leaf. Place small amount of meat mixture on one end of leaf and roll. Line bottom of pot with cabbage stems that have been cut from each leaf. Then add cabbage rolls. Sprinkle with salt and pour over 1 can tomatoes and about 2 cups hot water. Cook with top on for about 30 minutes. After rolls are done mash garlic in skillet and brown in 3 or 4 T. spoons butter and juice of lemons, pour over cabbage rolls.
MRS. MARY TAHIR, Tchula, Miss.
Andrew Haley is an associate professor of American cultural history at the University of Southern Mississippi and the author of Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the American Middle Class, 1880–1920. He tweets @historycult.
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