RHAPSODY IN SCHMALTZ: Yiddish Food and Why We Can't Stop Eating It
St. Martin's Press
2016, pp. 320, $26.99
Rhapsody in Schmaltz is not a book to devour in one sitting, nor should it be casually nibbled. Something of an oxymoron, this witty, entertaining volume overflows with food for thought and thoughts about food. It is stuffed with Talmudic arguments, biblical injunctions, slyly sexual linguistic tropes, and an exploration of the intimate relationship between Yiddish food and metaphor. Wex, a Canadian novelist, professor, linguist, Talmud scholar, cultural analyst and standup comedian, is best known for Born to Kvetch (2005), his hilarious yet profound analysis of Yiddish language and culture. This new volume is its more-than-worthy successor.
At first, the title seems odd. Why "rhapsody"? The word has at least two meanings for Wex: Its literary definition, as an effusive or ecstatic expression of feeling, might describe both this book and the complex and ever-changing dishes beloved by Ashkenazi Jews. The second is its association with George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, which has come to represent American music in much the same way that certain Jewish foods, such as bagels and lox, have become American standards.
And schmaltz? "It all comes down to schmaltz," Wex writes, describing how Jews transformed many familiar Central and Eastern European dishes into Jewish specialties by substituting goose and later chicken fat for the pork fat or lard used by their Christian neighbors. Thus, foods common to everyone in Poland and Germany, such as crepes, dumplings and puddings, were adopted by Jews and became blintzes, kneydlach and kugels, and were bestowed with unique tastes and textures by adding schmaltz made of flavored poultry fat. Mix matzah meal with schmaltz and you have that most iconic of Yiddish dishes: the matzah ball.
What sets Wex apart from other Jewish food writers are his remarkably irreverent and often surprising interpretations of historical facts. No one else could note that "most national cuisines owe their character to the [local] flora and fauna, crops and quarry, domesticated animals and international trade. Jewish food starts off with a plague." Wex also does not shy away from the less appetizing aspects of Jewish food culture. In considering matzah, for example, he makes the association between the "bread of affliction" and constipation and hemorrhoids almost painfully clear. And...