"Rhapsody in Schmaltz,” by Michael Wex, St. Martin’s Press, 279 pp., $25.99
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Michael Wex, the Canadian author whose best-selling “Born to Kvetch” celebrated the Jewish penchant for complaining as a central motif of Yiddish expression, now seeks to do for lokshen (noodles) what he did for loshen (language) in “Rhapsody in Schmaltz,” his foray into the evolution — or devolution — of Jewish cuisine.
Wex is an accomplished cicerone who leads us deftly through a 1,000 years of European Jewish cookery, delving into the mysteries of matzoh balls, the ubiquity of the onion (tsibele) and garlic (knobl), the imperatives of brisket, the fate of the chicken and its concordant soup, the paradox of gefilte fish and the rise, fall and rise of the matzoh. Along the way we are treated to an etymology of Jewish cuisine from the honored kugel to the humble farfel.
The author reminds us that like Yiddish itself, which borrowed from the languages of the people among whom Jews dwelt, Jewish cuisine owes much to the lands where they were dispersed. This has led to a disputation over authenticity among Lithuanian, Polish and Galician Jewry (the boundaries, like the arguments, date back to the 16th century), with partisans of each group scorning the pretensions of their ethnic brethren. Wex takes an admirably even-handed approach to this internecine strife, giving each party its due.
One group that is not addressed, and a significant one, is the Sephardim. Wex is a Yiddishist and his focus is on the food of Ashkenazi Jewry from its arc starting in the German lands in the 11th century to the realms of Eastern Europe to its sojourn in North America. He begins at the beginning with matzoh and manna. But having dispensed with the preliminaries of the Exodus and the Wilderness, and providing the Scriptural and Talmudic base for kashrut, he gets to the heart of the matter: how the Jews internalized these rules under the harsh conditions of their exile, to create a cuisine that was both distinctive from, and derivative of, the realms wherein they dwelt.
Jewish cooking in those times was driven by three forces: the dietary laws of kashrut, the imperative of honoring the Sabbath with three festive meals, and the fact that most Jews went hungry for the rest of the week. In Wex’s words: “They were a nation of food critics without enough to eat.”
This meant that hard-pressed Jewish women had to scramble to put together a meal to grace the Sabbath eve table, while managing to keep the food warm for the following day without lighting the stove — a weekly miracle wrought by the ingenuity of the housewife. The solution: cholent, a stew of kasha, meat or poultry scraps, noodles, bone marrow and beans baked in a pot kept warm for 23 hours in a pre-heated oven ready to serve for the main Shabbes meal.
Hearty, filling and cheap, cholent was “the ground zero” from which many of the most characteristic Yiddish dishes emerged, delicacies such as the kugel (noodle or potato pudding) the kishka (stuffed derma) and the fruit or vegetable stew known as tsimmes. Speaking of which, a tsimmes – which also means "a big deal," deriving from the effort put into its preparation — was made over the propriety of cholent (which is second only in antiquity to matzoh). While the origins may go back to Temple times, the critical battle was played out in the late medieval contretemps between the Karaite dissidents (“put out all fires”) and their rabbinic adversaries (“keep the home-fires burning as long as they were previously lit’’).
Happily, the rabbis won out, saving the day for cholent — which is not a dish best tasted cold. Wex cautions that what was thrown into this stew might not bear close examination, citing the Jewish proverb that an arranged match, like the contents of cholent, shouldn’t be examined too closely. The after-effects of a cholent meal might weigh heavily on the consumer, but in the winters of Northern Europe, heartburn was preferable to hunger.
If cholent fueled Jewish energies, schmaltz was the grease that made the gears grind smoothly. In the chill climes where Ashkenazim dwelt, oil was scarce, lard was treyf and butter could not be served with meat. The solution: schmaltz, which Wex calls “the champagne of animal fat.” The two poultry sources for this elixir were the laudable goose and the lowly chicken, but although the former was preferable, the latter was more abundant, and cheaper. Over time, the chicken became “the Jewish national bird,” a repository of fat, food, soup stock and absolution — as in “shlogn kapores,” the penitential ritual wherein a chicken is waved around the head on Yom Kippur eve.
Forget the ram; the chicken, whose clucking brought eggs and plucking gave feathers, was a multi-purpose, readily available, user-friendly sacrifice of endless supply and guiltless dispatch. But its greatest contribution was as the source of schmaltz, the sine qua non of all Jewish cooking. The uses of schmaltz were limited only by the imagination of the Jewish housewife, who used it not only as grease in cooking, baking and frying but as anything from a condiment to a crackling — the fried onions bathed in schmaltz known as gribenes, the Jewish answer to pork rinds.
Ashkenazim were experts in adapting a kosher counterpart for most treyf temptations so they could observe the dietary laws without feeling deprived, although “full-blown attempts to counterfeit the forbidden” awaited the Jewish landfall in America. But Wex stresses that, for the faithful, the dietary laws were a source of liberation: the freedom to choose what, and what not, to eat.
Digressing on borscht
The choices could sometimes be challenging. Take turkey, which, for a while, proved a kashrut conundrum. The problem was that while Scripture tells us what birds are forbidden, it fails to specify those we can eat. The pious must then rely on masorah, or – as Tevye sings in “Fiddler” – tradition. But since the turkey was a New World bird lacking reliable witnesses to establish its masoratic bona fides, things were left up in the air. However, once its feeding habits were observed over time, popular opinion swung in favor of the turkey, thereby creating a new tradition.
It is with morsels such as this that Wex provides us with the pungent flavor of Jewish cuisine. Whether dwelling on the meaning of challah (the portion of dough set aside for the priests), digressing on the delights of kreplach (Jewish ravioli) or offering a learned dissertation on the prominence of brisket (the Jews chose what’s up front – devil take the hindquarters), the provenance of kugel or the beatitudes of borscht, Wex is a companionable guide, who provides an affectionate running commentary as he takes us along the byways of Jewish cuisine, stopping here to detour on matzoh balls, there to digress on borscht and chicken soup (aka Jewish penicillin), and further along to declaim on the savory uses of khreyn, or horseradish. Others have tread these paths before, as Wex indicates in his extensive bibliography, but his book puts an accent on culinary Yiddishkeit and does so with equal measures of wit and learning.
Wex carries his erudition softly, making the message much lighter than the food he’s writing about. He is a master of off-beat discourse, such as how Nicholas I’s introduction of the potato to Russia in the 19th century altered Jewish cuisine (we can thank the czar for potato kugel) or his disquisition on the etymology of gefilte fish. Whether carp or pike, the accent is not on the fish but the gefilte, which in Yiddish means “stuffed.”
The housewife would spend hours skinning and re-stuffing the meat of the fish into its shell, a time-consuming labor that was eventually dispensed with, but not the clump of fish itself, so the skin went but the name remained. It should be noted that the sheer amount of toil, care and exhausting labor that went into preparing these exacting dishes without modern conveniences give a whole new meaning to the Sabbath-eve praise that honors the Jewish wife as "a woman of valor."
Tradition is pretty much discarded once we get to America. Wex reminds us that most of the food we consider to be “Jewish” in the Golden Land would not be recognizable to our Ashkenazic forbears. The pastrami (Romania) and corned beef (Germany) we order at “kosher-style” delis were street food popularized here by single men living in rooming houses who had little access to Jewish home cooking. Ditto, the rye bread that made for the sandwich (itself a fast-food, New World innovation) held no resemblance to the brooding dark rye of Europe. The restaurants and lunchrooms that catered to this newly arrived clientele served cheap filling food that had an ersatz Jewish quality.
Inevitably, home-style Jewish cooking bowed to the exigencies of modernity. By the late 19th century, the Manischewitz factory in Cincinnati was producing thousands of pounds of matzohs, cut into square strips and sold year-round, a far cry from the home-baked matzohs of yore. The “guarded” shmurah matzoh favored by the Orthodox, has found a limited resurgence but is still a minority choice for Passover. Bagels are no longer boiled but frozen and sent packaged to millions of users, Jew or gentile, being the first great cross-over Jewish food. And schmaltz gave way to Crisco, more than a century ago, which itself has acceded to the plethora of imported oils that inform Jewish culinary tastes, which are now more diet-conscious than dietary.
Ultimately, there is something elegiac about Wex’s book, which might more accurately have been called “Requiem for Schmaltz” although this might not have helped sales. People who would be most conversant with such foods as cholent, as the author acknowledges, would be limited to Orthodox or Modern Orthodox Jews, together with a few others old enough to be remember the radio jingle beginning: “They’re cookin’ with Crisco / From Maine to San Francisco.” What we have then is a charming evocation of the ghosts of Shabbes past, a work of anthropology that is also a celebration of Jewish life, performed with flair, humor and grace.
Jack Schwartz was formerly book editor of Newsday and is the author of “The Fine Print: My Life as a Deskman.”