Rhapsodizing about Yiddish cuisine with best-selling author, Michael Wex, is like having a conversation with Woody Allen with a history degree. The witty, Toronto-based Yiddish scholar, playwright and lecturer who assures me that he didn’t gain an ounce while researching his new book, is a featured author concluding the 2016 Vancouver Jewish Book Festival, at the Jewish Community Centre, Thursday, December 1st at 8:00 p.m.
“Our attachment to Yiddish food goes back generations and it’s got powerful associations if you grew up eating it” says Wex by Skype from his Toronto home. “And of course, our tradition about talking and complaining about it goes all the way back to the bible.”
Michael Wex, 62, who was born in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada and brought up in an Orthodox home, traces the history of the Jewish dietary laws beginning with the Children of Israel wandering in the desert (did you know that the manna that rained down on them tasted, according to many scholars, like whatever they craved at the time? Imagine eating chocolate mousse for 40 years!) But Wex wonders, except for quail, “why they never availed themselves of the flocks and herds that they had with them?” Think about all that when you sit down to watch The Ten Commandants at Passover!
Wex investigates the beginnings of Jewish dietary religious laws in Rhapsody in Schmaltz with a zeal I can only compare to Woodward and Bernstein; the traditions of Central European cooking in schmaltz (chicken or goose fat, the latter “the champagne of animal fat”); and the whys and wherefores of gefilte fish, kishka, cholent, kugel, knishes and other Ashkenazi delicacies.
Wex relates: “The breakfasts my father told me he ate in Poland in the 1920s consisted of a big radish dipped in schmaltz, an onion or garlic dipped in schmaltz and a piece of bread spread with schmaltz and this gave children the strength to sit and study the Torah for 10 hours.”
And I have vivid memories of the 1960s in Toronto, of my sister and I blackmailing our father for knishes and corn beef sandwiches at Shopsy’s in return for going to Hebrew school every Sunday morning, but I digress….
Then Wex and I engaged in a friendly debate about one of the controversial wonders of the world: Why do Jews LOVE Chinese food?
Michael Wex: Chinese food was embraced by the first generation of East European immigrants who stopped observing dietary laws at least when out of the house. Chinese food was relatively inexpensive and people didn’t want to know what was in it.
Laura Goldstein: Chinese restaurants are the only ones open on Christmas Day after Jews go to the movies. And, their dumplings remind us of kreplach and noodles like lokshn so we haven’t strayed that much…. and, after eating Yiddish cuisine we can’t eat for 3 days whereas we’re hungry in an hour after eating Chinese food and want to eat more.
A master of researching fascinating trivia, Wex explores the history of Manischewitz who were producing over 50,000 pounds of matzoh a day in 1900 and shipping it all over the world; how Procter & Gamble invented Crisco, targeting the vegetable shortening to the Jewish market but only after the original choice for its name, ‘Cryst’ was nixed.
What about all the unhealthy aspects of Yiddish cooking including deep frying in schmaltz and cholesterol overload, I ask Wex.
“We know that in hindsight, but keep in mind that Eastern European Jews at the time were mostly concerned about keeping warm and having enough food to eat- they didn’t care about being fat, in fact the latter was more a sign of prosperity,” Wex explains.