Chicken fricassee was one of my favorite holiday dishes growing up, but one that I never stopped to think much about. During Passover, we ate it with matzah farfel sprinkled on top. My mother served it over rice as an appetizer for our erev Rosh Hashanah dinner. The leftovers became a traditional snack on the evening of the first day, a supposedly lighter meal as we’d been eating bagels and smoked fish all afternoon with family friends.
It was so normal to me that I never stopped to consider its name or origins, or how unusual others might find the components. My grandmother’s chicken fricassee featured parts of the chicken many do not eat today: necks and gizzards (part of the bird’s stomach, or pupiks in Yiddish) salvaged from the cavity of every whole chicken we cooked. My mother added some chicken wings and a little flanken (top rib, which is similar to short rib, just cut through the bones instead of alongside).
A few years ago, I began wondering about the unlikely name of this dish. This fricassee bears hardly any resemblance to the creamy French dish of the same name. According to The Food Lover’s Companion, fricassee (frihk-uh-SEE) is a dish of meat (usually chicken) that has been sautéed in butter before being stewed with vegetables. Chicken? Check. But that is the end of the similarity. Certainly there is no butter, as this evolved out of a kosher house. Nor has a vegetable ever entered this dish, as far as I’m aware.
Further research showed that while there are other Ashkenazi families that make a dish called chicken fricassee, my family’s is not like these either. Mimi Sheraton and Sara Moulton describe what seems to be the most common: a kosher paprikash featuring chicken parts, onion, some liquid and paprika.
Joan Nathan’s version from Jewish Cooking in America lacks the paprika, but includes tomato sauce. At some point, one of my maternal forebears conflated this style with a sweet and sour dish, creating a delicious amalgam of the two.
I love the Jewish-immigrant use of a fancy-sounding French name for a simple dish that evolved from chicken bits and a can of tomato sauce. A while back, Jeffrey Goldberg and Alana Newhouse coined the term “gallivanting spatula” for such usages among American Jews. This is my family’s epic gallivanting spatula.
I’m the one making our fricassee these days. At first, when my mother’s health seriously declined, she sat at my kitchen counter, companionably cleaning and cutting the gizzards or just kibbitzing. She taught me her recipe, but in keeping with my husband and children’s tastes, over the years I left the necks and then the wings out, substituting skinless drumsticks. They are still not crazy about the gizzards, but I love those chewy little orbs, and without them, the dish doesn’t feel the same.
When I make fricassee now, there is little of the Yiddishe cucina povera (peasant cooking) about it. Sometimes I even make a really rich and meaty version with no chicken parts at all, composed of both boneless and bone-in flanken. In that version, my ancestors’ budget stew evolves into a pricey pot of sweet-and-sour short rib.
I still make fricassee each year for Rosh Hashanah. It’s not a dish totally in line with my day-to-day diet, but it’s one I love and that brings me back to my childhood holiday celebrations. My brother and sister-in-law now carry on the tradition of the bagel-and-smoked-fish lunch after services the first day of Rosh Hashanah. I honor our tradition in another way: I always bring my brother a container of pupik-filled fricassee for later that night.