Wex, Michael. “Rhapsody in Schmaltz: Yiddish Food and Why We Can’t Stop Eating It”, St. Martin’s Press, 2016.
This is NOT a Cookbook
While this may sound like the perfect title for a cookbook, it is far from it. Rather this is a look at the impact, both socially and historically, of the cuisine that Yiddish speaking Jews from Central and Eastern Europe brought to America and that was refined by later generations. We read here where and how these foods came into being and how they differed from one region to another, the importance and role they have played in Jewish culture in “the old country” and the role they play in American culture.
A few years ago when I was living in Arkansas (yes, there are Jews in Arkansas), I attended a lecture by Jean Nathan, the maven of Jewish cooking who told us that these is no such thing as Jewish food. She explained by saying that there is Russian Jewish food and German Jewish food and so on. Reading this I see just how correct she was.
Michael Wex takes us on a journey that begins with food from the Bible and the Talmud and then we are off to Eastern Europe and North America and as we journey, Writer Wex describes mouth-watering dishes that make you want to get to the closest deli. He writes with wit and humor as well as with detail as he examines the impact that this food has had on American culture (be that religiously, in the world of entertainment—stage, film and television or just daily life). We see just how much Jewish food has become part of the larger American society and what Wex gives us is the story of the Jewish people through the foods they eat going all the way back to biblical times. What I especially love about this book is that the research that Wex did is amazing and he has written this book so that a scholar or a layman can understand all that is here. I do not think that many of us have ever stopped to wonder what people ate in biblical times unless it had some connection to what we eat today but there is a lot to learn just about that. The catchy title might let you b believe that this is a “cute” little book about food but it is so much more than that. You will get answers to some serious questions (such as exactly what is schmaltz. You will be surprised to see that it more than just chicken fat).
Wex provides details about the religious rules that surround what we eat and even provides a few recipes. The few sentences around “gribenes” will hold you spellbound. I have never been able to even consider tasting them but my friend Marvin Kabacoff absolutely loves them (but then he also loves borscht which I cannot think about trying).
I found myself being transported back to the days of my youth in New Orleans where most of the dishes mentioned here were cooked at home. Even with a somewhat large Jewish population there was only one kosher deli and back then there were no kosher restaurants. I remember my mother’s wonderful latkes with knuckle blood for seasoning, the fish in the bathtub that I always named Wilbur and who would show up in a different form on the Seder table. (It is not easy to read this book without something to nosh on nearby). I was brought back to memories of Bill Long’s Bakery nestled in the middle of our Jewish neighborhood where it was my job to stop on the way from school on Friday to pick up three “Chollies”, two unsliced for Shabbat and one sliced with raisins for Saturday night French toast. And there was corn beef, pastrami, cream cheese, Lox, White fish, Herring in sour cream, pickles in the barrel and so many different and wonderful breads and cakes. I never realized how much of this I missed and now looking back at my years that I lived in Israel, this food was unique to American Jews. I did not much of any of these in Israel.
So much has changed and I wonder if there will come a time when very few people will remember all these wonderful foods. I also remember how we waited for the holidays because of the foods associated with them but we did cheat and have matzoh brie when it wasn’t Passover.
Perhaps I have not emphasized the seriousness of this book. The food that is discussed here is the food of Yiddish speaking Jews and while other communities have taken some of them and tried to make them part of their culture, they still remain different. A Sephardic cholent is nothing like what is described here and I think that most will realize that food is a major part of who we are and certainly is representative of from where we came. Wex brings together the disciplines of history, sociology, and linguistics and religious concepts and then adds a little humor. Before you know it, you really have learned a great deal.
This is a very serious study and I think that is the reason that there are not many recipes here. Every dish has its variations so to give a standard recipe is like asking everyone to sing the traditional melody of “L’cha Dodi” on Erev Shabbat. Yes we have traditions but traditions vary. I believe it is safe to say that this is both an explanation and a appreciation of our heritage via food. Wex shares fascinating information about biblical dietary restrictions placed on the food in a practicing Jewish household and for those who do not know, he explains that there is a difference between a fish with scales and one without, that there are bugs and grasshoppers that are kosher and a cloven hoof is very important as to whether or not we can eat something. It is the author’s wisdom and sense of humor along with what I suspect is a great appetite that makes this book as wonderful as it is. Don’t miss a chance to remember what we ate when life seemed to be much simpler.