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Rhapsody in Schmaltz: Yiddish Food and Why…
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Rhapsody in Schmaltz: Yiddish Food and Why We Can't Stop Eating It

by Michael Wex

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Rhapsody in Schmaltz traces the history and social impact of the cuisine that Yiddish-speaking Jews from Central and Eastern Europe brought to the U.S. Bagels, matzo balls, deli sandwiches, and gefilte fish are only a few of the “Jewish” foods that have become part of the American culture. The book looks at how and where these dishes came to be and how they varied from region to region. The first few chapters are studded with references to rabbis who wrote about food and eating. Wex uses sources from the Talmud, Mishnah, and Plutarch. The language of food is borrowed from the vocabulary of Czech, Polish, German, and Yiddish speakers. Some of the more interesting reading comes from examples of Jewish food found in movies and TV shows. He looks at Diane Keaton’s pastrami sandwich in Annie Hall and Larry David’s Passover Seder on Curb Your Enthusiasm. The brisket that Howard Wolowitz’s mother is always yelling about on The Big Bang Theory can trace its lineage back to Jacob’s fight with the angel. In general, Wex finally describes what makes all of this food and cooking distinctly Jewish. Although this is a witty and interesting book, it is best digested slowly.
  HandelmanLibraryTINR | Sep 27, 2017 |
“Rhapsody in Schmaltz” is a wonderful love letter to Yiddish food – and anytime anything ethnically Yiddish is involved, it’s always a fun look at the language, too.

Wex recounts all the tasty Yiddish food out there – and all the rest, too. From chicken soup to matzoh to bagels and everything else, we get the story of all the food, from its creation to its current manifestation.

The story of Yiddish food is also the story of the Jewish people around the world. Most of it is from the Ashenazi Jews of Eastern Europe, but the other Jewish ethnicities and their foods are brought in.

A lot of the food isn’t so much Jewish as Eastern European – German and Russian, mostly.

And it is all covered in schmaltz – chicken fat, which is the most Yiddish food of all.

This is a fun look at food, history and language. Worth it.

I received this book for review.

For more of my reviews, visit Ralphsbooks. ( )
  ralphz | Oct 17, 2016 |
Like tzimmes, the quintessential Jewish dish of endless variety, surprise, and subtle unexpected flavors, this book is a mishmosh of history, jokes, folklore, religious instruction, and recipes related to the food of Ashkenazi Jews, i.e., Jews of Central and East European descent. This book is quite entertaining, never mind that I wouldn’t get within ten feet of most of the food described in this book (e.g., calf’s foot jelly, sheep brains, kishka - a.k.a. stuffed intestines ….)

The author, who also wrote Born to Kvetch, is impressively well-versed in religious documents, including not only the Torah but the Talmud and Mishna, in the Yiddish language, and in other subject areas now considered esoterica. This allowed him to derive fascinating insights into his subject matter, since, as he explains, “Most of what we know about Central and East European Jewish eating before the mid-nineteenth century comes from rabbinic writing about the dietary laws rather than cookbooks or guides to home economy.”

Furthermore, most of the food discussed in the book has to do with food eaten on the religiously important occasions of the Sabbath and holidays (the food for which, he writes, “is merely Sabbath food that’s been moved to the middle of the week.”)

He answers a bunch of questions you wouldn’t have even thought to formulate: Why did brisket become a Jewish food? What does “kosher” actually entail? What is the role of “schmaltz” in Jewish life, and why is goose fat “the Jayne Mansfield of kosher cooking, as compared with the Audrey Hepburn that is chicken schmaltz”? Why is Passover wine grape-colored? Is a flavored bagel still a bagel? Why are frozen bagels considered “bagel-manqués” or “Potemkin bagels”? What is the provenance of the pastrami sandwich? Where does Crisco enter into the picture?

The section on pork is quite interesting. The author avers that although there are a number of theories about why pork was forbidden to Jews, no one really knows the definitive answer. However, the repercussions of the taboo are quite clear:

“The Jewish refusal to eat it was seen by many in the pork-eating world as a senseless and ultimately hostile gesture of contempt for established norms….”

Then there is the role of garlic in Jewish cuisine. Wex maintains that the Talmud identified eating garlic as a guard against impotence and erectile dysfunction. (And in fact, any number of health food sites claim that “Garlic is Nature’s Viagra!” Even the BBC reports that there could be something to this theory.)

Other interesting sections of the book cover the history of matzoh production; how food analogies are used in literature, language, and humor; Jewish cookbooks; and the tradition of “plucking bees” (i.e., "bees" for plucking geese).

You will learn all about cholent, kugel, gefilte fish, tsimmes, brisket, chicken soup, kreplach, cheesecake, and how cream cheese and lox became associated with bagels. Indeed, it will be a struggle not to seek out a deli as you read.

Evaluation: I loved learning all that I did in this book, and in spite of its unexpectedly erudite content, it is presented in a very readable way. ( )
  nbmars | Jun 29, 2016 |
I had thought that this was a book with a lot of recipes; I was wrong. I thought it would be boring; I found it funnier than a Mel Brooks movie! Oh, sure, there is a ton of Eastern European history, centering on the Jewish population, and lots of explaining why things are done in a specific way, but it is so much more!
My people came from Poland and Germany, I was raised in a non-Roman church and married a man from a dedicated German Lutheran family, I am reasonably familiar with the early books of the Old Testament of the Christian Bible (which is the Torah to the Jew), and I live in a suburb of Milwaukee. So I found an awful lot to identify with in this book.
Consider this a history of the development of many Yiddish foods, the adaptations which came about in Eastern Europe, and the further developments once the Yiddish peoples came to America as told by a protege of Jack Benny, Mel Brooks, and other fun folks. It also explains the food restrictions and rituals as set down in the Torah, and how some have been modified, more as relating to technological advances than Americanization (especially since the author lives in Toronto, Canada).
I found this book a nice education and more fun than I can tell you!
This ARC was provided by the author, narrator, or publisher at no cost in exchange for an unbiased review courtesy of Goodreads Giveaways. ( )
1 vote jetangen4571 | Mar 26, 2016 |
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"Bagels, deli sandwiches and gefilte fish are only a few of the Jewish foods to have crossed into American culture and onto American plates. Rhapsody in Schmaltz traces the history and social impact of the cuisine that Yiddish-speaking Jews from Central and Eastern Europe brought to the U.S. and that their American descendants developed and refined. The book looks at how and where these dishes came to be, how they varied from region to region, the role they played in Jewish culture in Europe, and the role that they play in Jewish and more general American culture and foodways today. Rhapsody in Schmaltz traces the pathways of Jewish food from the Bible and Talmud, to Eastern Europe, to its popular landing pads in North America today. With an eye for detail and a healthy dose of humor, Michael Wex also examines how these impact modern culture, from temple to television. He looks at Diane Keaton's pastrami sandwich in Annie Hall, Andy Kaufman's stint as Latke on Taxi and Larry David's Passover seder on Curb Your Enthusiasm, shedding light on how Jewish food permeates our modern imaginations. Rhapsody in Schmaltz is a journey into the sociology, humor, history, and traditions of food and Judaism"--… (more)

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