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Three hours southeast of Atlanta sits Vidalia, a town of just over 10,000, best known for the sweet onions that grow there. Originally a railroad junction, it’s the type of southern town that’s small enough that everyone knows food TV host Skye Estroff’s family and the eponymous department store they ran in town for over half a century. They were “one of five large Jewish families in Georgia that assimilated to small towns across the state to open department stores when they arrived in America,” she explains.
In 1906, Skye's great-great-grandparents Simon and Annie fled pogroms in Russia just before their son Hyman was born. Settling in Savannah, Georgia, Simon worked as a peddler in the region, but always returned home for Shabbat and slaughtered his own meat to keep kosher, according to the Institute of Southern Jewish Life.
In 1929, Hyman opened Estroff’s, a store that sold fine clothing and other goods, in Vidalia. In time, his son Donald, Skye’s grandfather, took over. Being Jewish in Vidalia was a balancing act for the family. “They had to find those outlets of being Jewish and learning about Judaism,” Skye explains. They helped build a small local synagogue, but at the same time felt assimilating and becoming part of the town’s broader community was crucial. Her dad and his brothers all played football and joined teams within their school, while her grandmother Anita — known in the family as Nini — bridged the gap through cooking.
Today she likes to say to Skye: "When the people in Vidalia mention food, they think of me." She’s won the Vidalia Onion Cook Off, schooled Bobby Flay in the finer points of sweet potato casserole, and her friends rely on her help with holiday baking. She also inspired parts of Skye’s show “Foodie Road Trip.”
But, Nini wasn’t always known for cooking. “She always jokes that when she was first married, and 19 at the University of Georgia, she almost burned down the apartment by making matzo ball soup,” Skye shares. Nini learned a few recipes from her mother-in-law, and through trial and error, developed a love of cooking.
“She wanted to make sure she knew how to make the stuff people wanted to eat, and that was Southern food… and then she could gently introduce some of her traditional cooking,” says Skye. Pecans, a hallmark of the American South, have found their way into her mandel bread and Vidalia onions add a sweetness to her noodle kugel — a dish that’s Southern, Jewish, and distinctly part of the Estroff family.