Review of “The Rhapsody of Schmaltz” by Michael Wex

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 ….)

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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?

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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).

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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.

Published by St. Martin’s Press, a division of Macmillan Publishers, 2016

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5 Responses to Review of “The Rhapsody of Schmaltz” by Michael Wex

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    Sounds fascinating! I’m sure my mom would love this book.

  2. stacybuckeye says:

    I’m not a big fan of books about food, but would like to know more of the history of Jewish food so I’ll have to look for this one at the library. Cleveland is the 7th most Jewish city in the country and the eastern suburbs where I am? One city is over 90%!

  3. Beth F says:

    I know my comment went to spam (the folder not the food!) — I remember my grandmothers made schmaltz. They would shake their heads in disbelief that we youngsters didn’t know how to make it (and didn’t really want to learn). This books sounds terrific.

  4. Jackie says:

    I have to check this out! I grew up in Montreal in a large Jewish area with many delis so am familiar with this food. My first job was in a Jewish bakery.

  5. Claudia says:

    Sounds like a fascinating book. My husband especially would enjoy it, being Jewish, though not raised with any knowledge of it.

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