Schmaltz -- rendered chicken fat -- used to be on the tables in most Jewish restaurants in the early decades of the 20th century, and also on the dining room tables in many Jewish homes. We have a friend who served it as recently as 1962.
But the only place you're likely to find this high-cholesterol spread today is at Sammy's Roumanian Steakhouse, a non-kosher Jewish style eatery on Manhattan's Lower East Side.
In this week's Forward, Lenore Eskenazy offers what amounts to a Schmaltz 101 course, taking a nostalgic look at its history and reporting on schmaltz stalwarts who use it today as the secret ingredient in chopped liver, matzo balls, and even quesadillas.
In the olden days — the days before people were expected to read labels, blanch kale and use dumbbells for exercise instead of as a label for their sons-in-law — schmaltz was golden. (Well, it still is. But “golden” in a more metaphoric sense.)
“My mother used to make it,” recalled Marilyn Meltzer, a retired telephone company employee in Boston. “The house smelled wonderful when she made the gribenes” — little pieces of chicken skin and onions fried up in that savory fat. Meltzer’s mom, like most yidishe mames of an earlier era, rendered her own chicken fat and saved it, sometimes for months, in coffee cans.
Then the family used it like butter, scooping it onto bread for sandwiches, or frying in it, or even baking with it. But because it wasn’t made with milk, you could eat it with a meat meal and still be kosher. “My mother used to bake pies, and her apple pies were, I swear to God, so good, my sister and I fought over them. So she used to make one for each of us,” Meltzer said.