Schmalz: the First Issue

The first issue of Schmalz was the product of an increased interest in my Jewish identity, Ashkenazi food, and radical politics. Like a matzoh ball in boiling broth, the project expanded. Along with food writing and recipes, I wrote about Paul Cowan’s An Orphan in History, in which he explores assimilation; Rum, and the Sephardi Jews involved in the slave trade; Eddie Balchowsky, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and Chicago icon, whose memorial service was at the Busy Bee, a diner in Wicker Park that has become a Urban Belly by way of Penny’s Noodles.

The first issue of Schmalz is available at Quimby’s, 1854 W North Ave, Chicago, IL.

An excerpt:

“Consider the matzoh ball. Chicken fat, soda water and crumbs are shaped into spheres then boiled until tender. So many have smiled at the thought of slicing these precious lumps with a spoon. It is the namesake of a soup that is both savory and mythical. Matzoh Ball soup is lovingly called Jewish Penicillin. An undeniable icon in Jewish cuisine, the matzoh ball is satisfying, strange and like its creators, inexplicably defined by a history of misfortune and adversity. At a glance this creation may seem like the byproduct of Jews who were bored and hungry during the Passover celebration, but to understand the matzoh ball, we have to start from scratch. The matzoh ball is a dumpling.

Dumplings. In this slippery category in which virtually every culture has a contender, the Matzoh Ball is the Jewish people’s heavyweight. And it is an outsider, when so many of its peers are stuffed with meat, cheese, or vegetables. In this way the matzoh ball has no secrets, it is the same delicate texture inside and out.

The matzoh ball achieves a rich flavor from bones and scraps of fat alone. It is a way of tricking yourself that you are in fact eating meat. Chicken fat is fried with onions and strained into the precious and all important schmalz. It is cooled and mixed with matzoh meal, soda water, and a pinch of salt. The sandy mixture is then cautiously formed into balls and dropped into a pot of boiling chicken broth, where the lid must not be lifted for 25 minutes. The result is magical. Crumbs, fat and bone transform into a tender dumpling, so filling and fatty that a hungry stomach is settled and lean times are easily forgotten.

Matzoh ball soup is so satisfying that its necessity is hidden. It is one of the only (I can’t think of any other) foods made with matzoh that is eaten outside of Passover, when Jews are commanded to eat that tasteless bread, the bread of affliction. The matzoh ball never feels burdened by the symbolism of our ancestors bondage in Egypt nor a history of impoverishment. Even when it is a ‘sinker’ the matzoh ball is not weighed down by its past, which like our hunger, is easily forgotten by our almost delirious satisfaction.”

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