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MICHAEL WEX CHEWS ON JEWISH CULINARY CULTURE
By Naomi Rothberg
From the Summer 2016 issue of Jewish Currents
Discussed in this essay: Rhapsody in Schmaltz: Yiddish Food and Why We Can’t Stop Eating It, by Michael Wex. St. Martin’s Press, 2016, 320 pages.
THE WORD ‘RHAPSODY’ has several meanings. All of them apply to Michael Wex’s book. Let’s start by considering it as an epic. That works because, Wex tells us, “Jewish cuisine, especially its Yiddish branch, is as focused on fight as on flavor.” Demonstrating this point, Wex starts with the first Jewish meal, in Exodus: God commands the slaughter and roasting of a lamb or kid, to be eaten with unleavened bread and bitter herbs on the night that He intends to pass benignly over Israelite homes but slaughter all Egyptian first-born males. It was this very meal, Wex tells us, that turned Israelites into Jews. How so? The traditional Jewish understanding of Egyptian religion was that sheep were identified with two important deities, and that the Egyptians were greatly fond of their goats. The Passover meat is therefore “a giant fuck you to the whole pantheon of Egyptian deities.”
And those bitter herbs? We don’t need Egyptians to make a fight, Wex writes: Although the bitter herbs are “really just a side dish anyone can pull out of the ground,” they have engendered centuries of contention about which ones we should use, ending in nearly universal acceptance of horseradish, though, it “is neither bitter nor an herb.”
Meanwhile, the unleavened bread is “an anti-recipe,” yet it is also, Wex tells us, “the primal Jewish food” because matse is less about having something to eat than about worrying about what God really meant by unleavened, just how unleavened is “unleavened,” and how do you get that degree of unleavened? Two amazing chapters focus on the controversies and soul-clenching anxieties about matse-making — resolved, for the moment, by the box we pull open or the shmura wafers we lovingly unwrap for our seders.
Then there’s cholent: “Second only to matzoh in antiquity,” Wex writes, “cholent is the only other Jewish food that might have originated with the Jews themselves. Where matzoh balls, for example, owe their existence to the German and Slavic fondness for dumplings, cholent was inspired by a couple of seemingly contradictory divine commandments, and a healthy Jewish appetite for acting aftselokhis [spitefully], to piss the other guy off.” (Note that Jewish Currents uses standard YIVO transliteration for matse, shmalts, and other Yiddish words, but we’ve preserved Wex’s transliteration style in quotes from the book. —Editor)
The other guy, in this case, was the Sadducee. It was us Jewish Pharisees against them Jewish Sadducees, the religious and administrative elite of the Temple period. They read Exodus 35:3 to mean no fires in any Jewish settlement on the sabbath, so they ate cold food and sat in the dark. We sensible Pharisees interpreted 35:3 in light of another verse, which commanded us to call the Sabbath a delight, and interpreted that to mean we had to have a hot meal on Saturday even if we couldn’t light a fire. The Temple fell. The Sadducees disappeared. Our gang hit the road, taking with us the ever-expanding recipe for a stew that could be started before shabbat and finished by means of its own retained heat to give us Saturday Delight.
EVERYTHING that might be thrown into the cholent, which is pretty much anything kosher, gets its own extensive and funny discussion from Wex. As does tsimmes, a fruit-and-vegetable cousin of cholent. As does each ingredient that might be in a tsimmes. The rise to prominence of the carrot, for example, is its own epic, though with twists and turns more etymological than doctrinal. It would take too long to reprise the story that Wex tells, but trust me, you’ll love it.
In any event, all this fighting goes into the determination of what Jews may eat, what’s kosher. At the start of a chapter called “Getting to No,” Wex informs us that what are often seen as a series of prohibitions are actually principles that rest upon “an assumption of freedom.” That’s why it all starts with Exodus. Rejection of other people’s food is “a prerogative of freedom. . . .
Kosher . . . the food of people who can insist on choices.” Here he gets beyond that first Passover meal to the biblical injunctions that create most of the controversies and underlie Yiddish cuisine.
People raised in an even minimally observant Jewish household might know the Biblical basis for kashrut, but I was not and Wex’s discussion was an illumination to me. I learned, for example, that there are a couple of proscriptions set down for humanity at large (not eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and not eating flesh with the life still in it), but the others are just for us Jews.
And really, there aren’t all that many considering the size of the impact: don’t eat the sciatic nerve because Jacob’s was injured when he wrestled with the angel, and don’t eat the fat around the kidneys, loins and abdominal cavity, because that stuff belongs to the Lord (as distinct from the fat mixed in with the flesh, which we can eat). The consequence: Because it’s difficult to avoid the sciatic nerve and the forbidden fat if you eat the tasty rear end of a beast, we have generally made do with the drier, tougher front end, that is, the famous brisket. (Huh! I always assumed that brisket was the most desirable cut!)
The commandment not to cook a kid in its mother’s milk is the basis for all the exercises in keeping meat and dairy apart from each other on the table and in our stomachs. Then there’s the don’t-eat-blood law, “because I have assigned it to you for making expiation for your lives upon the altar; it is the blood, as life, that effects expiation.” Wex notes here the particular irony of the “blood libel,” according to which Jews needed the blood of Christians to make matse and for other ritual purposes. Last but not least, there’s the law that deprived generations of Jews of the joys of bacon: Don’t eat an animal unless it both chews its cud and has a cloven hoof.
Why the particular horror of pig — as opposed, say, to the equally forbidden hyrax or camel? Though Wex suggests that part of the reason is that the pig’s little cloven hoof is a “duplicity [that] rankles,” he suggests that “the pig’s real problem is its popularity.”
As virtually any historian of the Mediterranean region will tell you, pork accounted for most of the meat in a part of the world that can hardly be called ranch country. . . . sheep and goats were raised more for wool and milk than for flesh. To sacrifice a lamb or kid in the Temple was to deprive yourself of years’ worth of clothing, dairy products, and potential income . . . Pigs, on the other hand, were not really good for much except eating.
Is this the reason not to eat them? Yes, Wex says. While pigs had an association with leprosy, he dismisses health reasons as the basis for eschewing pork, and points out that even so admired a figure as Isaac Abarbanel, the 15th-century philosopher, biblical commentator, and treasurer to the King of Portugal, wrote that there was no sign that pig eaters were less healthy than Jews. No, Wex writes, you don’t eat pig because you are “holy,” and “holy” in the Torah means “separated, set apart, removed from the ordinary. . . . God’s people [should] remain separate . . . neither behave like others nor blend in with them.”
Uch and vey! Likewise — feh! — for the rules that were developed by generations of sages to perfect the separation of our milk and theirs, our cooking oil and theirs, our bread and theirs, lest we eat with them and, as a natural result, marry them. Is it not then, all of it, aftselokhis?
ENOUGH. The chapters on these and related ritual matters are entertaining as well as sociologically fascinating, but let’s leave epic and get to the other meanings of “rhapsody”: an ecstatic or exalted expression of feeling (here about edible animal fat, poultry in particular) — or, if the book were to be sung, a one-movement work (heavily emphasizing chicken fat) that is episodic yet integrated, featuring highly contrasted moods, color and tonality with an air of spontaneous inspiration.
Central and Eastern Europe, the places where Yiddish food developed, are, anthropologically speaking, Wex tells us, “butter cultures.” But Jews can’t eat butter with meat. Enter shmalts. Enter all that shmalts-laden chopped liver, kugel, kishke, cholent, kasha, those matse balls, chopped eggs with onion, mashed potatoes and potato latkes.
Shmalts can keep for months and months without refrigeration, Wex observes. “No mere shortening or lubricant, schmaltz — the WD-40 of the kosher kitchen — is also condiment, dip and spread: ketchup, butter, salsa, humus, and relish all rolled into one.” It might also be the centerpiece of a meal, with whatever else one had on hand to be dipped and dunked.
We are offered a standard recipe for the liquid gold along with the gribenes. Even I know gribenes, the crisp-fried crackling remains of the chicken skin, which went into a pan laden with semi-solid yellow fat. Gribenes are the “bacon bits” or “pork rind” of the traditional Jewish diet, which can be mixed into anything or “eaten as a snack on their own, preferably with a bit of whiskey on the side.”
Wex quotes Calvin Trillin’s quip that liquid chicken fat was kept on the table “to give vampires heartburn if they get through the garlic” — because inevitably, all this fabulous fatty matter was flavored with garlic. “The Mishna actually refers to Jews as ‘garlic eaters,’” Wex writes, “while the Gemore extols the virtues of garlic in order to explain why Ezra, who gets a book of the Bible all to himself, decreed that Jews have to eat it on Friday.” We are informed that Jews were famous and infamous throughout Europe for devotion to garlic, which was, for one thing, considered an aphrodisiac.
The equally ubiquitous onion then gets its own extensive discussion.
There follow pages of Yiddish phrases which derive from these foods, such as “araynfaln in shmalts-gribl,” to fall into a shmalts mine, meaning to have great luck. We also learn here how shmalts entered American English as a derogatory term for “easy-listening” jazz, and later for any artistic production overly sentimental and totally unsubtle.
Did you know that goose fat was for centuries far more desirable than chicken fat? Did you know that potatoes entered our collective lives only when Tsar Nicholas I introduced potatoes to Eastern Europe in the mid-19th century? Before that, latkes were made with a sort of cottage cheese — although, fried in shmalts and flavored with garlic and onion, they might not have tasted any different.
Did you know that Crisco, as soon as it was invented in Ohio in the early 20th century, was marketed intensively to Jews as a pareve (neither dairy nor meat) substitute for shmalts, and that Jewish acceptance was a huge boost to its success? Did you know about Crisco’s older, equally pareve competitor, Nyafat, and its successor product from Rokeach, Kea, which couldn’t make it as a Jewish food because its name means “vomit” in Hebrew?
Wex’s rhapsody is not just to shmalts. There are discussions of gefilte fish (“stuffed” fish, which arises, in part, from the “slightly taxidermic effect” that was popular in medieval and renaissance cooking of presenting an empty skin stuffed with its own flesh); the fabulous liver and less fabulous lung (offal was cheap in part because it was exempt from “the kosher-meat tax”); and, of course, chicken soup. Here, too, are the recipes you were looking for, as well as a rich sampling of the curses and put-downs and endearments that derive from all the food. You can’t get through this book in one sitting. And when you’re finished, you have to sleep it off.
Naomi Rothberg is a writer, painter and retired attorney.