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!


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