Ruchira has directed my attention to a piece in Slate by Ron Rosenbaum, about a visit to the newly reopened Second Avenue Deli in New York City. The title is, "Where Is the Schmaltz of Yesteryear?" with the subheading, "Christmas Eve in a Jewish Deli." Schmaltz, of course, is a Yiddish word for the rendered fat, usually chicken or goose fat, traditionally used by observant Ashkenazim for preparing meat meals (Sephardim more often relied on olive oil for this purpose). In this usage, it's sister to the arresting (cardiac arresting, that is) gribenes, which I find most easy to explain to Los Angelinos as "Jewish chicharrones." In American English, schmaltz has also come to mean "sentimental or florid music or art." Since oil is the organizing theme of Hanukkah and "White Christmas," "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" and "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting Over An Open Fire)," among many Christmas songs penned by Jews, the unavoidable background music of shopping centers between Thanksgiving and December 25, 2007, I feel like we've been swimming-- not to say drowning-- in schmaltz around here this past month.
Rosenbaum's basic point, however, seems to be that it's hard to enjoy the food of the Second Avenue Deli when the yiddishkeit culture out of which it came-- the world of the Second Avenue Yiddish theater district-- no longer exists (you can get some sense of Yiddish theater from the wikipedia entry, these music samples, and these interviews). And Rosenbaum sees as a secondary symptom of that loss of cultural foundation that the food at the new Second Avenue Deli has fewer "rubbery textured chicken giblets":
In some ways things were the same. The matzo brei (a pancake of eggs, onions, and chopped matzo) I had for breakfast that morning was heartwarming, the chicken soup I had for lunch unchanged in its clarity, and the egg barley—an entirely underrated concoction of plumped barley grains, delicately sautéed onions, and assertive black mushrooms with a subtle touch of schmaltz—just superb.
At dinner the next day I did have some nitpicking complaints. The chicken fricassee that used to contain a stingy but welcome number of tasty, rubbery textured chicken giblets had none, as in not a single one.
In directing my attention to the article, Ruchira asked, "What does Ed Levine think?" Ed is the food maven uncle whom I wrote about in a previous post on AB. The short answer is that Ed's thoughts on the Second Avenue Deli are easy to find firsthand at his website, since he's posted at length on the subject, first here and more recently here.
I think the first article sets forth fundamental differences in approach to food that account for Ed's happiness and Rosenbaum's somewhat more morose take on the experience. For Ed, it's the food, and not just the nostalgia, that recommend the deli:
What Witchel and everyone else writing this story (which is a wonderful story to write, of course) hasn't mentioned is the reason the Second Avenue Deli was so great when Abe was alive was that Abe was not only one of New York's most generously spirited mensches, he was a food guy, a very good cook who knew what good and delicious were. Abe knew that dried porcini mushrooms were the key to the Second Avenue Deli's incomparable mushroom-barley soup. It was Abe who came up with the terrific cure that made the Second Avenue Deli's superb corned beef. It was Abe who refused to compromise the quality of his french fries when places like Katz's started serving mediocre frozen ones.
I hardly think that in the era of the Second Avenue Yiddish theater district, any deli was putting porcini mushrooms in the mushroom barley soup. But what Ed's post suggests, a sentiment with which I'd agree, is that porcini mushrooms aren't a reason for shirt tearing, but rather what we call "progress." You get a sense of this scientific and somewhat cheeky approach to aesthetics in Ed's post on our family Hanukkah, as well.
Without having had the chance to know my grandparents, I think it pretty safe to say that, though some of my relatives actually lived almost directly above the Second Ave Deli at East 11th Street in the early 1940s, my grandparents would also have found Rosenbaum's nostalgia for the ghetto and its culinary compromises misplaced. In the oft-repeated family lore, my great-grandparents met at a Bund meeting in Russia, and my grandparents at a Communist Party meeting in Brooklyn. Certainly my few relatives of that generation who are still alive would say that the ability to eat muscle meat rather than "stuffed cabbage and the stuffed derma...soused with heavy gravies," and the dispersion of Jews out of the inner city, are progress, and while my family strongly identifies as Jewish, it also identified, particularly in the older generation about which Rosenbaum waxes nostalgic, as "progressive," in every sense of that word.
There's something to the longing for a lost Yiddish world. Certainly it saddens me that there's nowhere outside of America that I could visit that would give me insight into that heritage, and that a language notable for its worldly complaints and colorful profanities is now almost exclusively used by a handful of small Orthodox religious communities. But then, a third generation Chinese American whose great-grandfather was a Confucian scholar and royal bureaucrat would no longer find that world represented in a visit to any of the Los Angeles/San Francisco/New York Chinatowns, nor would he or she get much insight into it from a visit to modern Beijing. Ditto an African-American who searched for his or her roots in Africa, or a South Asian American whose family had lived for generations in Uganda. Time marches on, and ethnic identities are fluid. I'd have more sympathy for Rosenbaum if he had a direct connection to the lost Yiddish culture; instead, he's clinging to something he never directly knew. The equivalent would be if one of the people in the pictures he admires longed for shtetl life back in Russia. Some, no doubt, did, but most knew better.
A related point that Rosenbaum doesn't seem to acknowledge is that even Ashkenazic culture and food were never monolithic. German Jews use only pike and whitefish in their gefilte fish while those of us from farther East add carp, giving it a more fishy flavor; Litvaks like their food (including gefilte fish and stuffed cabbage) sour while the Galicianers from the beet growing regions to the South add sugar (and often raisins or fruit) to savory dishes. There are few Jews left in those geographic regions, and the Jewish community in the United States has not, for the most part, preserved the cultural distinctions and prejudices that went along with them (thank goodness), but differing preferences have been preserved, even when people don't necessarily know their origin. To my Levine tastes, my father-in-law, following the Rosenblum tradition, uses too little onion and egg and shreds potatoes too fine when making latkes; but others use mashed potatoes and I've seen recipes that don't even call for onion. If and when Andrew and I have children, I'm sure they'll think the "right" latkes are the ones I make, not only because I am right, of course, but because I cook most of the food in our home.
Schmaltz is fabulous stuff.
A couple of weeks ago, Andrew and I threw a "Hebernian Holiday Party" for about 14 people, celebrating our shared Irish (Hibernian) and Jewish (Hebrew) traditions of winter merriment, grease, and potatoes (another example of the fluidity of ethnic tradition: potatoes are "traditional" to both cultures, but their widespread use dates only to the 18th century). I roasted a goose, using an Alsatian Hanukkah recipe served with apples caramelized in sugar, Calvados, and goose schmaltz, but a dish which is also traditional for Christmas in Ireland, as featured in Joyce's The Dead; cooked a glazed corned beef (Ashkenazi and Irish-American, in fact, adopted by the Irish in America from their Jewish neighbors); and fried up a passel of latkes (some with parsnips added for sweetness, some with sweet potatoes and paprika, and some according to the traditional Levine recipe, which is basically a 1:2:3 onion to egg to potato ratio, with a little matzoh meal to bind it). An off-menu item that I shared with Andrew and with the girlfriend who helped me cook for the party, before guests arrived, was a goose pate I made from the neck meat and offal (liver, heart, gizzards, etc.) with garlic and onion, a little Riesling wine and, yes, more schmaltz. Mm-mm.
In any event, since my 13 pound goose rendered about 2 pounds of fat, I have two wonderful jars of snowy white schmaltz, which I've fittingly stored in emptied glass jars of "Bubbie's" brand sauerkraut.
I've used it to roast potatoes, fry eggs, to cook cabbage and apples, and to make some caramelized onion jam that I ate with a baked potato and some Greek yogurt (good thing I don't keep kosher). It has a very high burning point, which gives it excellent "crisping" qualities, and is apparently lower in saturated fat, and higher in good cholesterol, than butter, though not so healthy as olive oil, my usual fat.
Schmaltz lives. Viva la schmaltz.