Kugel overload

Michael Wex returns to trace the history of schmaltz, schmear and shlishkes.

Noodle Kugel cake (illustrative) (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Noodle Kugel cake (illustrative)
(photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
I never thought I’d laugh out loud at an in-depth explanation of the laws of kashrut. But that was before I read Michael Wex’s Rhapsody in Schmaltz.
The writer, linguist and professor’s latest work deals with the history of Ashkenazi food, the forces and laws that formed it and the culture surrounding it that survives until this day (in some form or another).
Wex seamlessly weaves together talmudic quotes, historical tidbits on plague, famine and war, and colorful descriptions of feather-plucking and udder squeezing with his wry and distinctly Jewish humor.
“Most national cuisines owe their character to flora and fauna, crops and quarry, domesticated animals and international trade,” Wex writes in the opening chapter titled, fittingly, “Who Says It’s Supposed to Taste Good?” In contrast, he notes: “Jewish food starts off with a plague.”
Wex begins of course where it all began: the Bible.
“There are those who say that God gave us cardboard so that we could describe the taste of matza,” he notes, in a larger discussion of the intricacies and hard-fought battles of hand-baked vs machine-made, shmura vs not, square vs round. “But taste is what matza is not about.”
Following the exodus from Egypt, which birthed the original unleavened bread, the Jews began to eat manna, which, midrash has it, was not – ahem – evacuated in the traditional way.
“The first sentence of this midrash” – noting Jews’ concerns that the manna would swell inside them and kill them – writes Wex, “is the earliest recorded instance of the anxiety about bowel movements that has come to play so large a part in Ashkenazi culture.”
From there Wex moves on to the intricacies of the laws of kashrut – not just separating meat and milk but the prescribed hours of waiting between; the forbidden species, the forbidden parts of permitted species and the forbidden ways of killing the permitted species; who’s allowed to cook kosher food and the many ways of turning even the most kosher food treyf.
“Halachically speaking,” Wex writes, “glatt kosher meat cooked by a gentile in a pot in which nothing but glatt kosher meat has ever been cooked is as treyf as roast suckling pig with ice cream reduction served on the back of a lobster that walks into your mouth on Yom Kippur.”
Indeed, Wex had me chuckling through chapters on cholent, the quintessential Ashkenazi food; an ode to schmaltz, chicken fat that formed the backbone of much of what Jews ate for centuries; and Yiddish-speaking Jews’ devotion to the pungent onions and garlic.
Much space is devoted to yet another quintessential Jewish food: chicken soup – known far and wide as Jewish penicillin. The reason for this, Wex notes, is not what you may think.
“It’s medicine for people who can’t afford a prescription,” he writes. “To call chicken soup ‘Jewish penicillin’ is to point to its limitations, not its virtues,” Wex notes. “To Yiddish speakers, this sense of ‘Jewish’ connotes what ‘separate but equal’ does to African-Americans: the also-ran version, the version the others didn’t want, the bullshit version.”
It should come as no surprise that Wex, most famous for his 2005 Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All Its Moods, heavily peppers his writing in Rhapsody in Schmaltz with Yiddish words and phrases – and some of the best food-related idioms around.
In a discussion on lokshen, the classic homemade noodle, Wex notes that “a couple who are all over each other after the first look are said to tsukhapn zikh vi tsu heyse lokshen, ‘throw themselves at each other as if at hot lokshen,’ a uniquely Yiddish way of describing unbridled lust.
Rosl, a pickle or brine, features in “what is arguably the single greatest expression in all Yiddish: dreyen zikh vi a forts in rosl, “to blunder around like a fart in the brine.”
Indeed Yiddish, far from the holy language one would imagine, is downright filthy – especially when it comes to references to food.
“The general appearance of the hamantasch and its cousins in geometry, the knish and pierogi, has given all three a special place in colloquial Yiddish as slightly coy vulgarisms for the human vulva,” writes Wex.
And if you were looking for new ways to impart Jewish life lessons to your kids, try out “Iber an ongehoybener khale iz nisht gun ken hamoytse tsu makhn, ‘it’s not good making hamoytse over a halla that’s already been sliced.’ In other words, no man wants damaged goods.”
Whether your mind is in or out of the gutter, Wex has created a masterpiece: a funny, informative and engaging work on the narrative and culture of what is, for most, a lost world. Those who grew up steeped in Ashkenazi Jewish culture and those who had never heard of a kugel will both find much to love here.