KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

Comment

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.




  • http://annabelsmith.tumblr.com/ Annabel Smith

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

9781926428239

Abigail Ulman

Cold Feet and Hot Little Hands: Abigail Ulman on writing – and not writing – her first book

Post-book deal, every time I sat down to try to write something, I felt paralysed by some kind of literary stage fright. I had shown my work to other people before – for writing workshops, and submissions to literary journals and competitions – but I had never before written a story while thinking This story is going to be published in a book. Or, more accurately, This story idea is nowhere near good enough to be published in a book. Read more »

9781926428239

Sian Campbell

Girlhood and The Woman-Child in Abigail Ulman’s Hot Little Hands

Each of the stories in Hot Little Hands navigates girlhood in some way, from the lives of high school-age teenagers to those of young twentysomething women. ‘Girl things’ such as horse camp, gymnastics, feminised bodies, clothing, periods, crushes, yoga and gossip weave through the fabric of the text. Though the subject matter is often adult – the girls of Hot Little Hands navigate abortion, sex trafficking, young motherhood, drugs, and deportation – the girls themselves are not… even when they technically are. Read more »

Dont-Try-This-at-Home-_-cover_-FINAL1-300x460

James Tierney

Subscriber Stories: Angela Readman’s Don’t Try This At Home

As a subscriber to publisher And Other Stories’ distribution model, I am in the unusual position of reviewing a book – Angela Readman’s short story collection Don’t Try This At Home – that thanks me by name for making its existence possible. Read more »

amy-schumer

Rebecca Shaw

Amy Schumer and the equal right to be funny

I don’t think men should be banned from making jokes about contentious subjects. I am of the belief that anything can and should be laughed about, and if done right, it can be beneficial. But more often, women are doing it right, and women are doing it better. Read more »

womens-home-companion

Kate Iselin

Trivial Pursuits: The media and ‘women’s interests’

Women, especially in public life, exist as a part of men’s worlds – a big part, sure – but still a part. Even as women become more vocal in demanding accurate and respectful representation, we are kept at arms length by a mainstream media which struggles to catch up. Read more »

SGbTsPQ

Rebecca Shaw

Command and Control: Trophy daughters and overprotective dads

There is no doubt that an overprotective parent is better than a parent who couldn’t care less what their child gets up to. And there is no doubt that most overprotective mums and dads are well-meaning. But paternal ‘protectiveness’ shticks often boil down to fathers not wanting their daughters to have sex, and by extension, get pregnant. Read more »

kstew

Joanna di Mattia

Kristen Stewart Through the Looking-Glass

Kristen Stewart is an actress who has been criticised, maligned even, for an acting style that transmits from set to screen as sullen, adolescent, wooden, blank, fidgety and inelegant. But perhaps she’s an actress concerned with authenticity, and the defining feature of her style is to show us herself by appearing like she’s not acting at all. Read more »

it-follows-4

Anwen Crawford

Behind You: The subtler horror of It Follows

I don’t watch many horror films. Lifelong victim of an overactive and slightly morbid imagination, I regularly envisage disasters, natural or otherwise, that might befall me, without requiring the added stimulus of cinema. Read more »

anne-dorval-and-antoine-olivier-pilon-in-xavier-dolans-mommy

Joanna Di Mattia

All About His Mother: Xavier Dolan’s fierce women

Xavier Dolan has created an exuberant body of cinema that privileges women (and others on the margins) as complex, chaotic beings. Dolan’s fierce mothers are cleaved from the pedestal that so much of cinema places them on, so that they may dig around in the dirt that is life. Read more »

Struggle+Street+KEY+IMAGE

Anwen Crawford

Shame and Stigma on Struggle Street

Struggle Street framed poverty as a combination of genetic inheritance and natural disaster – a barrier to be overcome only through ceaseless positive effort. Those who sabotage themselves through bad choices are therefore fair targets for our scorn, while those who gain employment or remain sober deserve praise for overcoming the odds. The deserving and undeserving poor, in other words. What an old story. Read more »

TheSlap_Show

Genevieve Wood

The Slap: What’s lost when a cricket bat becomes a baseball bat?

‘A cricket bat wouldn’t make sense in an American context’, says Tony Ayres, executive producer of the US adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap. He’s right, of course – it wouldn’t. But when, in US playwright Jon Robin Baitz’s version, the eponymous slap occurs as the result of a swinging baseball bat, something’s not quite right. Read more »

empire-tv-review-fox

Anwen Crawford

Rise of an Empire

Watching Empire, I wondered why there haven’t been more television shows about record labels, the music industry being the cesspit of venality that it is. Forget TV dramas about police departments and hospital wards – a show about a record label comes with all that conflict, plus outfits, plus songs. 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 »

DUKMRUTRHLU31425064919799

Katie Williams

The Currency of Games: The real world cost of in-game purchases

A new item introduced in World of Warcraft lets players purchase a month of playing time for the real-life price of $20, which they can then sell to other players in-game in exchange for virtual currency. It’s an exchange of real money for a virtual currency that has in-game value but none in the physical, ‘real’ world – and it makes me incredibly uneasy. Read more »

16741557134_5206bec0cd_k

Jane Howard

Dark Side of the Rainbow: Belvoir St Theatre’s The Wizard of Oz

This production of The Wizard of Oz is ‘after L Frank Baum’: after his book, after the 1939 film, and after our collective memories of both. Fragmented, non-narrative, and largely wordless, it relies on our existing knowledge of the text to build a work of images and emotion, and in doing so demands an extreme generosity from the audience. Read more »

Arts House_Image_10c_Oedipus Schmoedipus (post)_Credit – Ellis Parrinder copy

Jane Howard

A Case for Diversity in Theatre

Attracting different audiences to the theatre is about many things. It’s about accessibility for people without high disposable incomes, but it’s also about marketing and publicity; about creating venues which are physically accessible for people with disabilities; and about ensuring the performers on stage are as diverse as we want their audiences to be. Read more »

2909252617_1f456d0c81_b

Jane Howard

A Working-Class Mythology: Ironing boards at the theatre

In theatre, there is perhaps no prop piece more mythologised than the ironing board, which came to signify the birth of contemporary British theatre. Read more »