In the mid-20th century, Jewish American cuisine fell in love with convenience.
American food companies were churning out canned, boxed, and otherwise processed ingredients that simplified the drudgery of culinary preparation. American Judaism, meanwhile, was coming of age as the children of Eastern European immigrants did their best to assimilate into mainstream culture. In the kitchen, that meant incorporating previously unheard of ingredients — things like onion soup mix, ketchup, bottled chili sauce, canned cranberry jelly, and condensed tomato soup — into Old World recipes.
The crowning jewel of this American Jewish hybrid cuisine was Coca-Cola brisket. The dish, sometimes referred to as Atlanta brisket, relies on America’s most iconic soft drink to help tenderize the meat and add sweet-savory flavor to the Rosh Hashana and Passover dinner staple. Other ingredients vary from family to family but typically include some kind of oniony base and either ketchup or tomato sauce. The Ashkenazi Jewish palate has long favored dishes that fall along a sweet-and-sour flavor spectrum. And a dish like Atlanta brisket delivers in spades. Nevermind the calories, the resulting brisket is a knockout — sultry and soft with a generous, syrupy sheen.
Named Atlanta brisket in homage to Coke’s headquarters, the dish is revered by a generation of Southern Jews. In “The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South,” North Carolina native Eli Evans recounted how his mother would supply him with carnivorous care packages after he moved to New York City. “Mom would hand me a large, ice-cold package — an already-sliced brisket, each portion wrapped in tinfoil with the gravy frozen in,” he wrote. “Like magic I could produce Southern Jewish ‘home cookin’ in the Big Apple.”
Later, when trying to recreate the dish himself, he consulted with his family’s cooks, Ethel Benjamin, Zola Hargrave, and Roady Adams. The secret, they told him, “was not fine wine, not Heineken’s, not a special marinade handed down for generations from the old country,” he wrote. “The exotic elixir was…Coca-Cola!”