Meet Michael Wex, the author of Rhapsody in Schmaltz: Yiddish Food and Why We Can’t Stop Eating It. As his website says, “Bagels, deli sandwiches and kosher dills are only a few of the Jewish foods to have crossed into American culture and onto non-Jewish plates. From the Bible and Talmud to the delis of North America, Rhapsody in Shmaltz traces the history and impact of the cuisine that Yiddish-speaking Jews from Central Eastern Europe brought across the Atlantic and that their North American descendants have developed and refined.”
If the title and concept of the book haven’t already enticed you, then the boy on the cover eating matzah ball soup certainly will. And if you’re hungry for more after you’ve read it, he’s made The Kugel Story available for download from his website. Wex has written other books about Yiddishkeit and Judaism, including Born to Kvetch and Just Say Nu. He’s an accomplished Yiddish translator (into Yiddish, that is!) and worked on Mandy Patinkin’s Mamaloshen album, as well as songs by Bob Dylan and Irving Berlin. He’s a real mensch (or mentsh) with great sense of humor. Get to know him at his website, Facebook and Twitter.
Jewish Food Experience®: What inspired your interest in the culture of Jewish food?
Michael Wex: What really got me interested in the typically Ashkenazi food that I talk about in Rhapsody in Schmaltz was the reaction of non-Jewish friends to many of its signature dishes: gefilte fish, kugel, kishka (stuffed derma), etc. Food that made my mouth water left them cold, when they didn’t actually hate it. This got me wondering about why those of us who grew up with such food and who have gone on to sample many other, arguably “better,” cuisines remain so attached to it.
JFE®: What is a new trend you see in Jewish food at the present time?
MW: Updated, artisanal versions of classic dishes designed to appeal to the palates of relatively sophisticated North Americans who place a premium on both ingredients and technique, and tend not to be overly fond of very heavy food—people who, kashrus aside, would eat at McDonald’s or Taco Bell only in the direst emergency. You can see examples of the trend in The Gefilte Manifesto and in Leah Koenig’s Modern Jewish Cooking.
JFE®: What is a big difference you’ve noticed between Jewish food in Europe and Jewish food in North America?
MW: Can’t really answer this one, as I’ve eaten very little Jewish food in Europe.
JFE®: What has been a memorable Jewish food experience for you?
MW: In spite of my previous answer, it would have to be the time, about twenty years ago, that I ordered kugel at the first kosher restaurant in the former East Berlin. It took nearly half an hour for the dish to get to my table. The kugel was topped with three scoops of ice cream—chocolate, vanilla and strawberry—and there was a cocktail umbrella in the centre of the middle scoop. I’ve eaten much better Jewish food and possibly even some that was worse, but I don’t think I’ll ever encounter anything quite as memorable.
JFE®: What do you consider a perfect Jewish meal for the winter months?
MW: Barley soup, kugel (noodle or potato, according to taste), followed by a steaming plate of cholent.
JFE®: What is your favorite way to eat schmaltz?
MW: Spread across a piece of dark rye bread like butter.