A rabbi in New Jersey must have read my recent HuffPost about growing up in the Thirties in a Jewish home in Brooklyn's Flatbush neighborhood... and sent me an amusing email about the Jewish food we all had when young. He made reference to what he amusedly called The Atkins Schmaltz Diet. For those of you who are not of the faith (and today I am a Zen Juddhist), he describes schmaltz as rendered chicken fat. For years, it has been the prime ingredient in almost every ethnic Jewish dish. I am reading a new book, 97 Orchard, An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement by Jane Ziegelman, and schmaltz plays a vital role in many of the dishes she describes. In the mid-30s, when I was nine and my mother died, my father moved my brother and me in with our grandparents in Beacon, New York, close to where the stunning Dia Art Foundation exists now. I have this vivid memory of my grandmother standing at the kitchen sink and mixing globs of chicken fat into the chicken livers she had cooked and pureed with salt, pepper and onions. Spread thickly on warm rye bread, it was ambrosia for the soul. My rabbi friend jokes that he is thinking of distributing schmaltz in green glass Gucci bottles with a label clearly saying, "Low fat, no cholesterol, Newman's Choice extra virgin SCHMALTZ." Yes, Rabbi, it would sell!
I am devoted to the best gefilte fish sold anywhere in Los Angeles according to the Los Angeles Times (indeed, anywhere in the world, from my view) from a fabulous Russian deli called Royal Gourmet at Santa Monica Blvd. and Crescent Heights in West Hollywood. I defy anyone to go there and leave without an armful of delectable dishes and ingredients, from black rye bread to paddlefish caviar, from stuffed chicken's necks to fresh herring in sour cream sauce. Everything, salads and fish, chicken and beef, all prepared daily and quickly consumed by the knowledgeable. The rabbi reminisced about a dish called pe'tcha, jellied calves' feet. It's calves' feet chopped up with a hockmesser (hand chopper), adding onions, lots of garlic, schmaltz again, salt and pepper, then cooked for five hours and left to sit overnight in the fridge. When I arrived in L.A, I shared a huge house overlooking Lake Hollywood with an old Brooklyn friend named Jerry Mann, the most literate Neanderthal man I knew, and he once expressed a longing for the pe'tcha of his youth... which I found at Canter's Deli, which made it one night a week for some years
Appetizer Counter at the Royal Gourmet
Memories: Think of boiled whitefish in yoyech (soup), which settles into a jelly, or one of my favorites, gefilteh miltz or stuffed spleen... grandma always removed the veins before frying it in, you guessed it, schmaltz, with bread crumbs, eggs, onions, salt and pepper. Another favorite (am I grossing you out yet?), stewed lingen (lungs), kind of chewy, or Billy Wilder's favorite, gehenen, brains... fried with scrambled eggs at Kate Mantilini, which they served until he died.
My rabbi friend reminded me about the Jewish bacon of my youth, gribenes, pieces of chicken skin deep fried in schmaltz, onions and salt until crispy brown. Oh, yes, when I was a good boy my grandfather would give me a pipeck, like a chicken's belly button; while my aunt made chicken fricassee, a stew with the heart, gorgle (neck), fleegle (wing) and -- the great delicacy, ayelech, little premature eggs found in the female chicken, with other unknown chicken parts cooked in a broth of schmaltz, paprika, water and spices.
Chopped liver from the Royal Gourmet
And then there was the summer visits to Yonna Schimmel's Knish place in Brighton Beach (with the original on the lower East Side), where the biggest problem was deciding between the beef, potato, or liver hockey pucks of fried food. My ex reminded me about kishkeh and its poor cousin helzel, chicken or goose neck. Kishkeh, to be frank, is the guts of a cow turned inside out and scalded and scraped until it's pristine clean, then one end is sewn up and a mixture of flour, schmaltz, onions, eggs, salt and pepper, etc. is spooned into the open end and squished down until it is full. The other end is then sewn and it is boiled until done. God, it was/is delicious.
While was producing a movie called Chu Chu and The Philly Flash in San Francisco with Carol Burnett and Alan Arkin, I invited them to join some of us at a Chinese restaurant where, as the first dish, I had ordered their special chicken soup... served in a huge bowl with the chicken's feet sticking out of the top of the soup. Alan Arkin took one look, got up and said, "I won't eat in a restaurant where I have to look at chicken feet," and took a cab back to our hotel. (I got even the next day, on his birthday, when gave him a box of chocolate candies, with a bite taken out of each piece.)
What brought that to mind was the memory of my grandfather sitting at the kitchen table and knawing on boiled chicken feet. Then came a bowl of chicken soup, with yellow-white chicken skin floating on top of the greasy sea of lokshen (noodles), farfel (broken bits of matzoh), arbiss (chickpeas), lima beans, pietrishkeh, tzibbeles (onions), mondlech (soup nuts), kneidlach (matzoh balls and dumplings), kasha (groats), kliskelech and marech (marrow bones). The main course on Friday nights was brisket, flanken, or a rib steak served either well done, burned or cremated. For years I wouldn't eat liver, with the memory of that burned, hardened, dry creation. (The best piece of liver I have ever eaten was recently cooked by Exec Chef Lee Hefter of Wolfgang Puck's restaurants, when he cut a thick slice of fresh centercut calves' liver for me and my friend, floured and seared it gently for a few minutes in a hot pan (pink inside, crispy outside, just incredibly succulent). Drinks consisted of seltzer in those blue spritz bottles, ending with a glezel tay (glass of tea) served in a yahrtzeit (memorial) glass, while I watched my zehday (grandpa) suck his tea through a sugar cube held between his incisors.
And every Sunday night, we ordered in Chinese... my favorite food of all. Memories.