Save the schmaltz: cooking and family

by Liam Pieper , June 12, 20121 Comment

Babushka Babushka is my cooking blog, where I hang out with old people from around the world and write down what they do. It’s one part Jamie Oliver–style culinary piracy and one part reverse race baiting. My whole life I’ve made my living either from writing or cooking, so it was only a matter of time before I started writing about cooking.

My parents were shit cooks; they do okay now, but back then they were really, really terrible. They were of the generation stranded by the receding wave of white Australian nationalism, which rolled back and left them floundering in the silted counterculture. They raised me on a mixture of beatnik and hippy idealism, a confused gumbo of half-assed Buddhism, bastardised vegetarianism and psychedelic Leary-era offcuts cobbled together to sustain some kind of inner life in outer suburbia.

Our diet was an extension of this. Without the meat and two veg that modern Australia was built on, they tried to adapt vegetarian dishes they tasted in ashrams. So you’d get a dhal, but without spices. Or curry powder. Or onions. Just boiled lentils, drowned in tomato sauce to make them palatable. Oakleigh in 1988 wasn’t ready for ethical vegetarianism.

Neither was I. The only time I remember enjoying food as a child was in the care of the elderly who were roped in to babysitting me. Our Greek neighbours and their spanakopita; my Malaysian godparents, who taught me to love spice by bribing me with KFC and crumbling Original Recipe through Singapore noodles. And of course, my own grandma, who had the near-mystical Irish ability to tease a symphony out of a potato.

At some point, I started writing down her recipes, appalled at the thought that I would lose them when she was gone, and as she dictated them she would tell me the stories and the memories that went with them, feeding me the sentiment that had baked into the food over the years, as in some terrible magic realist novel. When I wrote them out, those memories went into the recipes, and the recipes went into my blog. I put them online, partially because I was desperately trying to convince the girl I was courting that I was actually very sweet under it all, but mostly because on the internet I figured they would be safe from kitchen mess and forgetfulness – I would always be able to find them, as would anyone else who was interested.

The flaw in the concept is pretty obvious. I ran out of grandmas sharpish – I only had one – and started casing out my friends’ grandmothers, hanging out at their houses as they entered their autumn years like a letch at the end of a disco, helping them knead dough and make stock, using the opportunity to wheedle little secrets out of them in broken Russian, Spanish, Korean.

When the language barriers were too high I started asking friends to write guest posts, filling my blog and kitchen with a miasma of shared life experience. I started to see the bridges in the food’s history, where German food melted into Hungarian into Ashkenazi, and started to understand better how food and history work together. You can take the food – and the people – out of the country, but you can’t take the people out of the food.

Take schmaltz. Schmaltz is Yiddish for the rendered fat that floats to the top of chicken soup. It’s flavoursome and kosher (frying meat in butter or lard is forbidden by Talmudic lore), and when food was scarce throughout history, Jewish households used to hoard schmaltz to flavour and use in everything.

Later, in America, after the exodus, the Yiddish-speaking diaspora didn’t need schmaltz anymore – they had plenty, they had olive oil, they had pizza by the slice – and when their parents lovingly collected the scum off soup it must have seemed ridiculous. Schmaltz became a byword for excessive sentimentality; anything floridly maudlin, sappy, cheesy or over the top was schmaltzy. The word passed from Yiddish to English, and to the world through the osmotic magic of New York intellectuals.

So that’s why I started the blog: to save the schmaltz, figurative and literal, and put it away for later. Because eventually, we all go to the cupboard seeking comfort, hoping there’s a little something in there, like a tune from a childhood we can no longer recall, unless our tastebuds dance it up for us.

@liampieper is a Melbourne writer whose self-esteem swings wildly on the popularity of his Twitter account; he writes fiction, journalism, criticism and schmaltz.

  • Annabel Smith

    I never knew the origin of the word schmaltz. Thank goodness someone is saving it!


Nathan Smith

Letting the Essays Do The Talking: Meghan Daum’s My Misspent Youth

In the introduction to her essay collection My Misspent Youth, Meghan Daum writes that as frank as her essays are, they ‘are not confessions’. The personal essay may have long defined Daum, but she is far from a ‘confessional writer’, a title she has long resisted. Read more »


Ilona Wallace

Between You & Me: The New Yorker’s Mary Norris on publishing, editing and insecurity

Mary Norris begins her chatty grammar guide and memoir, Between You & Me, by chronicling the odd jobs she held before she began working at the New Yorker in 1978. She delivered milk – awkwardly calling ‘Milkwoman!’ when she left bottles at each stop – and crashed the dairy truck. Read more »


Chad Parkhill

On judging the Most Underrated Book Award

The chair of the judging panel for the Most Underrated Book Award shares his observations on the award, what it means to be ‘underrated’, and the current landscape of Australian literary prizes. Read more »

ROSEANNE - On set in New York - 10/16/93 
Sara Gilbert (Darlene) on the ABC Television Network comedy "Roseanne". "Roseanne" is the story of a working class family struggling with life's essential problems.

Rebecca Shaw

Out of the Imaginary Closet: Fictional characters who should have been gay

When you are part of a group that isn’t portrayed in the same way (or only negatively, or not at all) you become desperate for that glimmer of recognition. Here are several characters that I loved as a young person, who became stand-ins for the openly lesbian characters I wanted to see so much. Read more »



Isn’t It Obvious: Queer representation in children’s television

For a non-binary gendered person, characters with diverse sexualities and genders are validating and rewarding. As a child, they could have offered integral touchstones for understanding my own gender, and provided context and validation for the ways in which I could exist in the world. Read more »


Rebecca Varcoe

In defence of professional cheerleading

My name is Rebecca and I’m a 26-year-old woman with a shameful secret, for which I refuse to be ashamed any longer. Today I want to confess my obsession and one true love, the subject of many rants and late-night tweeting frenzies: Cheerleading. American, All-Star Cheerleading. Read more »


James Tierney

Bodily Limits: An interview with Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Dario Argento’s 1977 horror film Suspiria suffered from a critical eclipse and a variety of censored prints, and was largely cherished in its original form by aficionados of the field. A reassessment has been building, something sure to be aided by the forthcoming publication of Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ perceptive and elegantly written monograph. Read more »

je tu il elle 2

Eloise Ross

Existence as Minimalism: Remembering Chantal Akerman

Images of a young woman, emptying her small flat of furniture, blocking the window and sitting in the dark, still. Sitting on a mattress in a bare room, furiously writing letters with a pencil and watching the snow through the window. Meeting with a past lover and reuniting on-screen. I think about Chantal Akerman’s films more often than I can say. Read more »


Anwen Crawford

Throne Of Blood: Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth

For more than four centuries, we have found versions of ourselves in Shakespeare’s plays precisely because his characters are so human in their flaws and follies. At the same time, the arc of these characters’ stories unfolds somewhere above and beyond us, in the realm of grand tragedy or grand comedy, or both. Read more »


Matilda Dixon-Smith

Family Matters: Please Like Me and the Aussie TV family

In a recent episode of Josh Thomas’s Please Like Me, the bouncy titles run over three little scenarios: Josh cooks dinner for his mate Tom and his boyfriend Arnold; his Mum cooks for her new housemate Hannah; and his Dad cooks for his wife, Mae. The three of them stir, sip wine and dance daggily around their kitchens in a neat metaphor for this season’s fantastic, cohesive new trajectory. Read more »



Isn’t It Obvious: Queer representation in children’s television

For a non-binary gendered person, characters with diverse sexualities and genders are validating and rewarding. As a child, they could have offered integral touchstones for understanding my own gender, and provided context and validation for the ways in which I could exist in the world. Read more »


Alexis Drevikovsky

Have You Ever Felt Like This: Going Round the Twist again

Working from home one day, I took my lunchbreak away from my laptop and flicked idly through the TV channels, hoping for a midday movie with Reese Witherspoon or, even better, an old episode of Cheers. What I found was beyond my wildest dreams. I excitedly texted my mate Alison: Round the Twist is on ABC3! Read more »


Katie Williams

The More Things Change: Choice and consequence in Life is Strange

You can either be a benevolent hero or a monster, but few games deal with the multitudes contained by actual people. And what does it matter, anyway? There’s no such thing as regret when it comes to in-game decision-making – not when you can so easily restart the game to see what outcome will result from choosing Option B instead. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

Tom Conroy and Colin Friels in Mortido. Photo credit: Shane Reid

Jane Howard

A Shining Nightmare: Mortido‘s Sydney

Sydney is a city of shine and reflective surfaces. The glint of the harbour follows through to city high-rises clad in polished glass, bouncing off the wide windows of the mansions hugging the undulating land before it gives way to the impossibly deep and wide water. But this beauty that can betray the darkness of the city and its people. Read more »


Angela Meyer

Outrageous Fortune: Seeing Hamlet as a Cumberbitch

Jazz swells, hushing the audience, and the solid black gate of the theatre curtain opens. It reveals the lounging figure of Hamlet, playing a record, sniffing his father’s old jumper. But what I see first is not Hamlet: it is Benedict Cumberbatch. Read more »

kiss copy

Jane Howard

Great Aspirations: In the shadow of Patrick White

The text of The Aspirations of Daise Morrow is lifted directly from Patrick White’s short story ‘Down at the Dump’. It’s a wonderful thing to hear White’s judicious use of language; to understand the eyes through which he saw Australia; and to see an entire world of his creation brought to life in the theatre. Read more »