Growing Up Black and Jewish in America

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the coffee table of Tsan Merritt-Poree's small Westwood apartment, just a few minutes from her office at UCLA, is a stack of family photos. She picks up a small black-and-white print of an elegant black woman sitting erect in a slim lace dress, her white hair neatly pinned up. "That's my grandmother, Dolly Johnston-Ternoir," Merritt-Poree says. "She was so glamorous. Married seven times and loved to talk about it. She was a model, and sometimes she'd have these gold snake bracelets going up her arm like Medusa."

"And this," says Merritt-Poree as she picks up another sepia-toned portrait, "is my great-grandmother Elizabeth Cohen-Johnston. She came from a German beer-brewing family, and even though you can't tell from the picture, she had blond hair and blue eyes."

Elizabeth Cohen is Merritt-Poree's link to her Jewish heritage. Merritt-Poree, who is black, keeps kosher in her own home, and as a restaurant chef, has developed a series of what she calls progressive kosher recipes. She's studied baking in Germany, apprenticed at a French restaurant in Hanover, N.H., and for a time simultaneously held three restaurant jobs--as a breakfast caterer, as a lunch-time waitress and as a counter person on the late shift at a Boston greasy spoon diner.

In 1987, at the age of 25, she was hired as managing chef at Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel. Soon after, she was hired away by famed Harvard Law School professors Alan Dershowitz and Arthur Miller for the opening of their strictly kosher deli, Maven's Kosher Court on Harvard Square. In 1989, Merritt-Poree, who grew up in Berkeley, moved back to California to become the director of UCLA Extension's Culinary Arts Department.

"When people find out I'm Jewish they always ask me if I'm an Ethiopian Jew. Then they ask, 'Why did you convert?' Not if I converted, but why . No one ever thinks I could be an American, and they certainly don't think that I could be from Ashkenazi stock. But I am."

Still, it wasn't until Merritt-Poree was in college at Dartmouth that she became a practicing Jew. "I always knew I was Jewish growing up," she says. "But I wasn't raised Jewish. If a friend of mine was going to shul during Hanukkah or Rosh Hashana my mother would encourage me to go along. But most of my upbringing was pretty nonreligious. My mother took a passive role, partly I think because there was so much turmoil about Jews marrying blacks."

Merritt-Poree's great-grandmother was a Jew who married a black man, and half of her family disowned her because of it. "Think about it," Merritt-Poree says. "She married him in the mid-1800s. Even today people in half the states in America would ostracize you."

Her great-grandparents, Elizabeth Cohen and James Johnston, were married in Ohio, in a county where interracial marriages were permitted. That doesn't mean it was a wholly liberal-minded co1970173049"religious free zone."

When Elizabeth Cohen married James Johnston, her parents gave her the huge sum of $10,000 as a payoff to leave the family. With this money, Cohen put Johnston, who was an aspiring concert violinist, through Juilliard. He then supported the family as a musician. "I'm told he got a dollar a minute to play," Merritt-Poree says.

It was Merritt-Poree's rediscovery of her Jewish roots that got her digging into the family history. "One of my roommates at Dartmouth was Jewish," says Merritt-Poree, who was a religion major. "And when she found out I was Jewish too, she felt it was important to introduce me to the things I missed growing up. I really enjoyed the ritual. And I really liked the idea of Shabbat; it was a time to relax and try to reflect and celebrate family and just being alive."

Here in Los Angeles, Merritt-Poree attends Shabbat services less often."I'd like to go to services every Shabbat, but I don't. Part of it is laziness, and part of it is feeling that I just don't want to be stared at for being different." For being a black Jew.

"It's strange, I've always found that the Orthodox community is much more receptive than the Reform community to 'different people.' I once asked a rabbi about why that was, and he said that as you move away from the core of a religion, you have to justify your reason for subscribing to that religion and then for not being more devout. It becomes more exclusive; you feel that you're part of a special little club.

"But the more religious you are, the less you need justification; it becomes a way of life. In the Orthodox community, which comes closest to practicing what is written in the Talmud, the feeling is that as long as you are Jewish and as long as you daven with us, we don't have anything to hide. We aren't scared off by someone who may look a little different."

Because she no longer regularly attends Shabbat services, keeping kosher has become more important to her. "When I keep kosher, I'm reminded every day, every time I go out to a restaurant or to someone's house for dinner that special things govern my behavior--that I am Jewish. I'm not going to rationalize it by talking about health or diet. I feel it keeps me in touch with my Jewish roots, period."

Merritt-Poree is just as insistent about the quality of the kosher food she cooks and eats. When she started cooking at Harvard Hillel, for instance, she was appalled at the food the place was serving.

"Kosher food doesn't have to be boring ," she says emphatically. At Harvard Hillel, Merritt-Poree tried to wean the students off the Eastern European standards they were used to. "The idea was to introduce them to things like miso soup, Mexican food, Italian food--anything we could make kosher," she says. "We made everything from tofu chocolate cheesecake to tandoori chicken. On Friday nights, though, we almost always had chicken soup--that was one thing I couldn't mess with."

At Maven's Kosher Court, Merritt-Poree did a complete turnaround in her cooking. "I went from really progressive kosher food," she says, "back to the roots of kosher cooking."

With a chemist, she developed a spice rub for the pastrami, worked closely with a rabbi on recipe development and spent two and half months in Israel eating and studying the Jewish food there. "We were adamant about making everything old-fashioned," she says.

"Even with all that, it was still heavy, traditional food," Merritt-Poree says. "I mean, a knish is a knish. But ours were made a little better than most."

Each year during Passover, Merritt-Poree challenges herself to come up with even more innovative food.

"I like to treat myself during Passover," she says. Her Passover repertoire runs the gamut from California cuisine (grilled tuna with mango-cilantro chutney or a salmon souffle) to Middle Eastern food ( baba ghannouj and moussaka made without milk) to matzo lasagna. When she makes latkes, she might top them with smoked chicken and slices of grapefruit, or she might make sweet potato latkes topped with sugared pecans. For dessert she likes flourless chocolate cake.

"Last year I made linguine with potato flour. It was OK, but it tasted a little too much like potatoes. But this year," she says as her eyes grow big, "I'm going to make lasagna with just slices of potato as the noodle."

MATZO LASAGNA

6 cups spinach leaves

1/4 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

4 1/2 matzo crackers

4 cups Basic Bolognese Sauce

3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

1/2 cup matzo meal

Wash and pat-dry spinach leaves. Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in skillet over medium heat. Saute garlic and spinach about 4 minutes.

Spread bottom of 8-inch square pan with 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil. Line pan with 1 layer matzo crackers (about 1 1/2 crackers). Top with 1/3 of sauteed spinach, then 1/3 of sauce and 1 tablespoon basil. Repeat layers twice, or until ingredients are completely used, ending with layer of sauce.

Sprinkle matzo meal over sauce. Bake at 375 degrees 35 minutes, or until top is bubbly. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Basic Bolognese Sauce

1/4 cup parve margarine

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 carrot, finely chopped

1 stalk celery, finely chopped

1 1/2 pounds ground beef or veal

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

1 cup dry white wine (preferably kosher l'pesach)

1 (28-ounce) can Italian-style tomatoes, crushed

Melt margarine with olive oil in large saucepan. Add onion, carrot and celery. Saute over medium heat until lightly browned. Add meat. Cook and stir until meat is no longer pink. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Increase heat and stir in wine. Cook until wine has evaporated.

Press tomatoes through food mill or sieve to remove seeds. Stir tomato pulp into meat mixture. Cover and reduce heat. Simmer 1 to 1 1/2 hours or until sauce reaches medium-thick consistency. Stir occasionally during cooking. Makes 4 cups.

POTATO LATKES WITH SMOKED CHICKEN

4 medium potatoes

1/2 tablespoon salt

2 cloves garlic, minced

Black pepper

1/4 cup minced onion

1/4 cup chopped green onions

2 eggs, lightly beaten

2 tablespoons potato flour, optional

Oil

1 large pink grapefruit, peeled and chopped

1/2 pound smoked chicken, sliced thin

Partially cook unpeeled potatoes in boiling salted water. Cool in refrigerator to firm. Shred potatoes into bowl. Add garlic, 1 tablespoon pepper or to taste, onion, green onions and eggs. If mixture is too soft mix in flour.

Heat 2 to 3 tablespoons oil in skillet. Drop batter by heaping tablespoons onto hot skillet. Using back of oiled spoon, press batter flat into 2-inch round patties, about 1/4 inch in height. (Or shape patties by hand before dropping into skillet.) Cook latkes until golden brown, then transfer to paper towels to drain. Add oil as needed to skillet.

Mix grapefruit and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Place 2 latkes on plate and top each with 2 pieces smoked chicken. Garnish with grapefruit pieces and serve warm. Makes 4 large appetizers or 6 smaller appetizers.

Note: Dish is very peppery. Black pepper amount may be cut in half or adjusted to taste. Also, keep pan oiled when cooking latkes. Oil helps latkes stay together. Use kosher l'pesach smoked chicken if available; if it cannot be found, grilled chicken is good substitute.

SWEET POTATO LATKES

2 medium sweet potatoes

1 egg

1 tablespoon vanilla

1/3 cup brown sugar, packed

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 to 2 tablespoons potato flour

Oil

Sour cream

Sugared Pecans

Parboil unpeeled sweet potatoes in boiling water until slightly tender but still firm. Refrigerate potatoes until cold. Remove skin and shred into bowl. Add egg, vanilla, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and potato flour. Mix until well blended.

Coat bottom of 10-inch non-stick skillet with 2 tablespoons oil. Shape latkes into 2 1/2-inch patties. Cook until brown on both sides and transfer to paper towels to drain briefly. Add oil as needed to cook remaining batches.

Pipe dollop of sour cream with pastry bag on top of each latke. Top with Sugared Pecans. Makes about 16 latkes.

Sugared Pecans

1 cup whole pecans

1 egg white

1/3 cup sugar

Spread pecans on baking sheet and brush with egg white. Sprinkle sugar on top and bake at 400 degrees 9 to 12 minutes. Cool. Makes 1 cup.

Food styling by Minnie Bernardino and Donna Deane

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