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!

9781863957434

Kill Your Darlings

What We’re Reading: Readings staff share their June picks

Looking for a book recommendation? Staff from Readings bookshop share what they’ve been reading this month. Read more »

lisa-gorton_the-life-of-houses

James Tierney

A Novel of Longer Exhalations: Lisa Gorton’s The Life of Houses

It’s sometimes said that each book teaches you how to read it. That each way of telling a story needs to not only beguile anew but needs to tutor the reader in the ways to best attend its pages. Read more »

9781743316337

Danielle Binks

Finding Books for Young Readers: The Reading Children’s Book Prize

James Patterson once said, ‘There’s no such thing as a kid who hates reading. There are kids who love reading and kids who are reading the wrong books.’ So how do we get the right books into the hands of budding bibliophiles? Well, the Readings Children’s Book Prize Shortlist is a great place to start. Read more »

clouds-of-sila-maria-1

Rebecca Shaw

The curse of the ‘gal pals’

As a well-known humourless, angry, hairy arm-pitted, feminist lesbian, I encounter daily issues that I can place on a scale from things that mildly irritate me all the way to things that completely offend me. Read more »

2691149967_01b38304f3_b

Rebecca Shaw

Fuck Yeah: Swearing like a lady

I had been trying to pinpoint exactly why the HBO television show Veep brings me such joy. Yes, it is a very funny, very well-written show with a great cast, but that didn’t quite go far enough in explaining the immense enjoyment it gives me. The eureuka moment finally struck when I stumbled over a compilation video of the best insults from the show. Read more »

AnneEdmonds-300dpi-sml-860x450_c

Alexandra Neill

Curse of the Comedienne: When comedy comes before gender

At this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, I saw only shows by women. I did this for several reasons: to support great comedians, to force myself to see more shows I knew nothing about, and because I really like comedy by ladies. I also did it because I was curious. I love comedy, but increasingly have been bothered by the obvious gender disparity. Read more »

Zombies

Michelle Roger

It’s All Just Preparation for the Zombie Apocalypse

‘She’s just another Walking Dead hanger-on,’ I hear you say. Well, yes, I am partial to a bit of walker action. And yes, I may have entertained the odd erotic daydream about a crossbow carrying, scraggy-bearded redneck – but this is not where my zombie obsession began. Come gather around people. Hear my obsessive zombie-loving origin story. Read more »

tom-cruise-jack-reacher-premiere-postponed

Chris Somerville

A lit match in a box of wet dynamite: Tom Cruise is Jack Reacher

I first watched Jack Reacher a few years ago, in a spate of insomnia. The plot is a confused mess, both needlessly intricate and incredibly simple. I’m not going to go into it, mainly because I don’t actually know why the people in this movie do anything. Read more »

Partisan

Joanna Di Mattia

To experience the world with blinkers on: Ariel Kleiman’s Partisan

Partisan beautifully evokes that complex space between childhood and adulthood, when we start to question the worldview we have inherited – when we begin to see the world through our own eyes. It is both a coming-of-age story, and an innocence-coming-undone story. Read more »

Zombies

Michelle Roger

It’s All Just Preparation for the Zombie Apocalypse

‘She’s just another Walking Dead hanger-on,’ I hear you say. Well, yes, I am partial to a bit of walker action. And yes, I may have entertained the odd erotic daydream about a crossbow carrying, scraggy-bearded redneck – but this is not where my zombie obsession began. Come gather around people. Hear my obsessive zombie-loving origin story. Read more »

OITNB2

Anwen Crawford

Still in Prison: The limitations of Orange is the New Black

No, I haven’t binge-watched the entire new season of Orange Is The New Black in one sleepless, bleary-eyed frenzy. This season, the show’s third, doesn’t lend itself to that kind of viewing. The pace is slower, the cliff-hangers missing. Read more »

kim-kardashian-selfish-cover-main

Brodie Lancaster

We Are All Kardashians

For the past five years, I have loved and been obsessed with the Kardashians. Specifically, the E! reality series that made them famous. I often feel the need to intellectualise why I like these series and the people on them – you know, because I’m not a moron, and these are shows about morons, for morons. Read more »

ss_8df8236403f5aad45eeedd33d2bd545e45435b39.1920x1080

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 »

CrawlMeBlood_20150607_261_LoRes copy

Jane Howard

Adhocracy: Lifting the curtain on the creative process

Every June long weekend I wrap myself up in several extra layers and make my way to the Waterside Worker’s Hall in Port Adelaide for Adhocracy, Vitalstatistix’s annual hothouse that brings together artists from around the country for a weekend of creative development. Read more »

Orlando #2 - THE RABBLE

Jane Howard

This Is a Story of Artistic Excellence

This is a story of the first four plays I saw at Malthouse Theatre. It’s a story that can only continue as long as support for independent artists continues; it’s a story that can only keep growing as long as support for independent artists grows. It’s a story of where artistic excellence comes from, and how we get to see it on our main stages. Read more »

AnneEdmonds-300dpi-sml-860x450_c

Alexandra Neill

Curse of the Comedienne: When comedy comes before gender

At this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, I saw only shows by women. I did this for several reasons: to support great comedians, to force myself to see more shows I knew nothing about, and because I really like comedy by ladies. I also did it because I was curious. I love comedy, but increasingly have been bothered by the obvious gender disparity. Read more »