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!”
Like many worthy dishes, Atlanta brisket spread beyond its geographical origins. In “Jewish Cooking in America,” author Joan Nathan wrote about longtime meat purveyor Sanford Herskovitz (aka “Mr. Brisket”) in Cleveland, Ohio. “Mr. Brisket’s favorite recipe includes brisket with chili sauce, an envelope of onion-soup mix, and a can of sugar-laden Coca Cola!” she wrote. “‘The sugar, caramel color, and the Coke make a sweet sauce,’ he tells his customers.” Atlanta brisket can also be found in the occasional non-Jewish cookbook, like Jean Anderson’s “From a Southern Oven: The Savories, The Sweets.”
First concocted as a medicinal tonic in 1886 by Atlanta biochemist John Pemberton, within two generations, Coca-Cola solidified its status as the “champagne of the South” and was well on its way to national prominence. Home cooks also started using it in their kitchens, prizing the drink as an economical source of sugar and for its carbonation, which added lift and airy texture to baked goods. As historian and author Toni Tipton-Martin noted, “cakes made with bubbly soft drinks are totems of Southern cooking.” Along with Coke, she wrote, Southern cooks baked with other regional soft drinks like Dr Pepper from Texas, Missouri’s 7UP, Nehi from Georgia, and Cheerwine from North Carolina.
Jewish Southerners shared their neighbors’ fondness for adding soda to cake. Professor Marcie Cohen Ferris’s book, “Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South,” includes a recipe for Sadie Gottlieb’s Rosh Hashana honey cake, which is sweetened with honey, granulated sugar, and Coke. In this case, Ferris noted, the soda “must be completely flat before adding it to the batter,” leading one to assume its addition is more about flavor than structure.
Coca-Cola also became a component of savory Southern dishes like barbecue sauces and ham with red-eye gravy. The dish traditionally simmers salty sliced ham in a pan sauce made from strong, often sweetened, brewed coffee. But as author Mimi Sheraton wrote in “1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die,” “a delectable riff on the gravy is a specialty of the Colonnade Restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia, in which the sugar and coffee are replaced by Coca-Cola…The result is an enticingly warm and malty, caramelized savor that adds extra dimensions of richness to be sopped up with biscuits and grits.”
Exactly when Coke first landed in brisket’s braising liquid is unclear, but that red-eye gravy may have something to do with it. Culinary anthropologist and native Atlantan Kelly Alexander said her Hungarian Jewish family did not eat brisket made with Coca-Cola. “It’s not something my grandmother would have gravitated towards,” she said. But she knew plenty of folks who did.
“My guess would be that a family’s housekeeper who made red-eye gravy was the first to try the same approach with brisket,” she said. “And people took inspiration from there.” The theory holds water — or, rather, soda. In the South, Cohen Ferris noted the culinary symbiosis that took place between Jewish homemakers and their families’ typically African American cooks.
“A pivotal relationship emerged between Jewish and African American women in home and synagogue kitchens as they exchanged recipes for collard greens and matzo balls,” she wrote. Despite the systemic racism and classism that defined the era, “within this space, an important blend of Southern and Jewish cuisine emerged”
Most likely, Southern Jews were drinking Coke — and possibly even making brisket with it — before it got a kosher stamp of approval. The drink was already so ubiquitous that by the 1930s, the highly regarded Atlanta rabbi Tobias Geffen began receiving inquiries from Orthodox clergy around the country about its kosher status. The answer held not just gustatory but also social importance. “For immigrant Jews eager to fit into American society, the pull was irresistible,” Sue Fishkoff wrote in “Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority.” For Southern Jews in particular, Cohen Ferris wrote, “to refuse to drink a Coke because it was not kosher shut Jews off from a Southern ritual as sacred as fried chicken and watermelon.”
With a bit of detective work into Coke’s secret formula, Geffen identified two trace ingredients — glycerin (made from non-kosher beef) and grain alcohol (which would render the drink unfit for Passover). He persuaded Coca-Cola executives to swap out those ingredients — “an amazing step for a major food manufacturer to take at the time,” Fishkoff wrote. In 1935, Coke got the official kosher stamp of approval — for brisket use and otherwise.
Today’s generation of American Jews, like a subset of Americans more broadly, has largely rejected the last century’s onslaught of processed ingredients. We favor piles of sauteed onions over onion soup mix, tomato paste over ketchup, and fresh garlic over the lifeless jarred version. In today’s culinary landscape, brisket might get its sweet-tangy profile from brown sugar and cider vinegar or dry red wine and honey rather than a bottle of cola. But to reject Atlanta brisket is to deny a defining chapter of American Jewish history — and to miss out on a truly alluring dish. At the end of the day, the company’s midcentury jingle rings true: Things go better with Coke. Especially a tough piece of meat.