Shmaltzy is an adjective (from Yiddish, but it can be found in many English dictionaries) that means overly sentimental or gushingly sweet. As in, “Sometimes I’m in the mood for a good schmaltzy song so I turn my radio to the oldies station.” Shmaltzy usually refers to cultural things, art or music, not food.
But shmaltz the noun, is the Yiddish word for rendered chicken fat. It’s an essential ingredient in Jewish cooking; it adds the flavor to Old World dishes like chopped liver, gribenes (cracklings), and kasha varnishkes (buckwheat grains cooked with bowtie pasta).
In the days before cholesterol concerns and alternative products, most good Jewish cooks collected and saved their own goose or chicken fat to use as shortening in recipes and for frying food, because commercial lard was not kosher.
Thinking about schmaltz got us reminiscing about butter.
Growing up, butter was rare in our homes. Our moms preferred margarine – usually Fleischmann’s – because it was “healthier” for you. We thought margarine was invented in the 1950s, but it turns out it was created 1869 by a French chemist. Prolific cookbook author and cooking maven Sheilah Kaufman wrote in an article entitled “350 Years and Counting: America’s Evolving Jewish Cuisine,” that margarine gave Jewish cooks a way to use a butter-like substance in their meat dishes – and still be non-dairy.
Years later we learned that margarine contained those bad-for-you trans fats and it had the same calorie count as butter. So much for all those years of sacrifice – we could have been eating butter! http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20509217_2,00.html
We also recall seeing coffee-can like tubs of gooey white Crisco vegetable shortening in some pantries. Kaufman writes, “Procter and Gamble advertised it as ‘a product for which the Hebrew Race had been waiting 4,000 years.’ Crisco was introduced in 1911, and it was the first solid shortening product made entirely of vegetable oil. It was non-dairy and could replace butter or animal fat in recipes. Crisco is certified kosher, too. In l933, P&G published a bilingual booklet of Crisco recipes for the Jewish housewife in English and in Yiddish. The photo of the Yiddish Crisco cookbook is on page 8: http://www.crisco.com/About_Crisco/History.aspx
Joyce thought that Crisco was extinct, but Ellen divulged that she uses it for baking — mostly cookies and mandelbread. Today it comes in handy baking sticks that don’t have to be refrigerated and they even make a version just for baking that is “butter flavored” and is yellow, not the strange bright white of old.
To spread on toast, there’s a variety of modern choices. You can use Smart Balance, a “natural oil blend” that includes soybean, canola and olive oils, or Earth Balance, its competitor. Happy that margarine has been defamed, Joyce keeps butter in her fridge. She usually buys the Land of Lakes brand, not the slow-churned, European style Plugrá or the Kerrygold Pure Irish Butter with higher butterfat content. http://kerrygoldusa.com/products/butter/unsalted-butter/
She’s OK with eating butter but who needs extra cholesterol?
We also have PAM “specially formulated, non-stick” cooking sprays – olive oil, butter flavor, and the one with flour that works so well for baking. We no longer have to grease and flour our pan, tapping the extra flour into the sink, but it might be a trade-off with all the chemicals needed to propel that flour into a spray.
We’re nostalgic for the old days – the ones well before our time – when cooks only had a choice between shmaltz and shmaltz. We would have chosen shmaltz. You could always find it in the frozen kosher section of the supermarket, but these days it’s making a come-back. Chefs are taking notice of its great taste. It’s being served in fancy restaurants – like the new gourmet kosher Citron and Rose in Merion, PA Is it only a matter of time before local delis start putting those little jars of creamy, salty, artery-clogging schmaltzy goodness back out on each table?
We could mail order a half-pound of schmaltz (just $6.99) from our on-line friends at Schmaltz Deli in Naperville, Illinois. http://www.schmaltzonline.com/naperville/ We’re pals on Twitter because they like our style and we like their name. But if we ever get to visit them, we have a funny feeling we’d go for the rugelach first.