I'm reading
An ode to schmaltz
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
An ode to schmaltz
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
An ode to schmaltz
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
17 September 2015

An ode to schmaltz

Schmaltz is the antidote to all that is wasteful in our society.

Written by Liam Pieper

This story originally ran in issue #44 of Dumbo Feather

“Don’t throw the schmaltz out,” Babushka scolded me. “The schmaltz is the best bit.”

Babushka was trying to teach me to make chicken soup in the Ashkenazi style. We had no complete language in common, getting by on an improvised tongue cobbled together from scraps of English, Russian and Yiddish. This was the night I learned the correct word for the rendered fat which floated to the top of a stock as it cooled, a word which blew my philosophy of cooking wide open.

I was a cook for a long time, and I’ve had many teachers who taught me something that changed the whole game: French Mauritians, Lebanese Christians, Indian Muslims, but nobody ever taught me as much as Babushka, the octogenarian Soviet Jew.

She’d survived the Holocaust, Stalin’s purges, religious persecution and Australian cold-war hostility to Russians, but the injustice that really made her lose faith in the world was that I discarded the schmaltz when I made chicken soup. Instead, she tenderly skimmed the top of the pot and used the fat as the secret ingredient in knishes, spreads, matzo balls, just about everything. Under Babushka’s tutelage, my cooking became an ode to schmaltz.

Schmaltz came to the world from the shtetls of Eastern Europe. When those communities immigrated to America, they brought their taste for schmaltz with them—rustic, economical, unhealthy, glorious. In America, the land of plenty and pizza by the slice, schmaltz quickly became unfashionable. By the 1930s, “schmaltz” became a byword for the more shamelessly overblown sentiments of popular entertainment. Broadway, Hollywood, the golden age of cheese—dictionaries define schmaltz as “overly sentimental or florid music or art.” They say that like it’s a bad thing. If art is a rich, heady broth, carefully seasoned with fashion and verve to sate a cynical palette, then schmaltz is the cream that rises to the top. Don’t get me wrong. I still like fine art. I just don’t like it as much as the schmaltzy stuff.

Every cultural epoch has its sublime and its excessive, and often, my sympathies lie with the latter: The Lion King is schmaltz, Boyz II Men is schmaltz. Actually, most of the ’90s is pure artisanal schmaltz. Paul Simon (Schmaltz King, Lord of the Schmaltz, President Schmaltz for life) once sang that “Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts,” and they do. They also throw a bunch of lesser-known heroes that appeal for a whole lot of reasons. For every Madonna there is a Cyndi Lauper, a Mad Men for every Mad Max. Where there’s a Norman Rockwell, there’s a Bansky.

Schmaltz is the antidote to all that is wasteful in our society. We are trained to discard things the moment they are no longer fashionable. Clothes, foods, people; when they grow old to us, we do not need them anymore. But there’s something to be said for the ancillary, the forgotten, the things that are too overpoweringly daggy for the masses. All Babushka asked of me back then was, in food, as in life, to give schmaltz a chance.

As I grow older and out of the crippling adolescent need to struggle after fashion, I’ve learned that the best things in life are schmaltzy. After all, how are you meant to enjoy any art, or life itself, unless, like a good old-fashioned, artery-clogging schmaltz-fried latke, you feel it right in the heart?

Liam Pieper

Liam Pieper is an author and journalist based in Melbourne. His first book, a memoir, is The Feel-good Hit of the Year.

liampieper.com

Feature image by Amandine Thomas

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