Terry Barr and Family, Greenville
During the holidays in Terry Barr’s home, cheese latkes sizzle to a soundtrack of Derek & the Dominos while the family mills around the house, waiting for a taste. Terry’s wife Nilly makes tea while Max the dog blocks Terry’s access to the oven. The home is warm and the music is loud. “You know what the key ingredient to good cooking is?” asks Terry of no one in particular, over the sound of popping oil. “Having the right music!”
As a boy in Alabama, Terry knew Christmas was coming when he found his grandmother in the kitchen grating coconut. She would grate for days on end before baking coconut cakes she delivered as gifts. Soon after, his mother would begin preparations for an “enormous” Christmas feast. Cooking was Terry’s signal that the holidays had officially arrived.
Today, that hasn’t changed. What has changed, though, is the holiday itself: Terry celebrates both Christmas and Hanukkah with his wife and two daughters. Even though he grew up with a Jewish father and a Christian mother, he was a teenager before he knew what Hanukkah was. As an adult, especially after team-teaching a course on the Holocaust at Presbyterian College, he resolved to better understand his Jewish heritage. His own daughters consider themselves lucky, since the extended holiday celebration means eight days of presents followed by a Christmas gift exchange.
From the looks of his kitchen, you’d never know Terry was a late Hanukkah bloomer. Not only do cheese latkes fry in a pan, but noodle kugel and mandel bread bake in the oven. And the melded traditions don’t end there: Terry’s wife Nilly is Persian, so alongside the traditional Jewish foods simmers authentic Persian stew that has been cooking since yesterday. The family is willing to cook and eat anything; their only stipulation is that “it has to be good and it has to be clean.”
All at once, the food is ready. As if on cue, Nilly’s mom, sister and brother-in-law pour into the kitchen. Terry’s daughter Layla flips the latkes, Nilly dumps the rice, and Terry slices the mandel bread. With this one task he will accept no help: “It’s part of my ritual.” Mandel bread was the first Jewish dish he ever attempted, and the recipe passed on to him from his father’s coworker is preserved on a twenty-year-old piece of paper. “Southern Jews pass on recipes,” he explains.
The blended meal is rich with story and tradition and, most importantly, unique in its combination to this one family in this one home. It’s easy to see why food means holiday for Terry, as he carries on a long tradition of putting meaningful cuisine at the center of family celebrations. Every year on Christmas, young Terry called his best buddy Jimbo. Their first question for one another, asked amongst a million children around America, was always “What did you get?”
But Terry and Jimbo had mothers who could cook. Their second, more important, question inevitably followed soon after: “What did you eat?!”