Schmaltzy history: A nostalgic look at fats for frying latkes

NEW YORK (JTA) –  Fat may be a dirty word now, but we can chart the history of American Jews through the fats they’ve used to fry their Chanukah latkes. Early immigrants relied on goose fat, which was replaced by chicken fat, which was eclipsed by Crisco, which was replaced by olive and canola oils.

Latkes over time have been fried in all of these, says Jane Ziegelman, author of "97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement." 97 Orchard St., a five-story brick structure, is the home of the New York Tenement Museum.

The book is a pushcart of information about what immigrants ate during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Two of the families Ziegelman profiled were Jewish.

From 1900 to 1910, more than 1 million Jews immigrated to the United States, mostly from modern-day Ukraine, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova and Belarus. Many of them settled in the tenements on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, crowding into unventilated apartments that lacked adequate kitchens and running water.

Ashkenazi homemakers there often obtained cooking oil by rendering or frying goose skin, which liquefied globules, large and small. This created a yellow oil called schmaltz, a succulent delicacy that was strained to separate the crispy and delicious skin from the fragrant fat.

“In the Lower East Side tenement kitchen, the luxuriousness of goose fat elevated the most prosaic ingredients,” Ziegelman says in the book. “Potatoes, onions and fat — the Jewish cook explored every conceivable permutation of these three ingredients. The more fat, the fancier the dish. The most extravagant of all was latkes, potato pancakes, fried in sizzling pools of goose fat.”

The Jewish cook also used goose fat for braising, enriching, moistening, seasoning and baking. She sometimes mixed it into pie crust and rugelach dough, making it possible to serve the pastries with meat meals. She fried onions in this fat and spread the dripping slices on rye bread.

Warming, satiny and with a faintly nutty aftertaste, goose fat imbued foods with a pleasing heaviness that’s now considered a liability to dieters and the cholesterol conscious. But for our poor and calorie-deprived ancestors, goose fat was a virtue, enhancing kugels, cholent and tzimmes.

“Fat was considered a luxury to be cherished,” Ziegelman said. “It was believed to be nutritious. Frying was a demonstration of wealth and bounty.”

The height of decadence was frying latkes in goose fat, a cooking method that traveled here with Ashkenazim from the Old Country.

The 19th century Jewish homemaker brought her reliance on geese and its byproducts to the Lower East Side, where she continued her traditional role as a poultry farmer. She raised geese in tenement yards, basements, hallways and apartments, transplanting a rural industry to the heart of urban America — much to the chagrin of sanitary inspectors.

“At Chanukah, goose was the centerpiece,” Ziegelman said, explaining that goose farms were at their busiest at that time of the year.

Restaurants put up signs: Goose liver is here. This was a once-a-year gourmet treat on menus, something cherished by Ashkenazim.

But in the 20th century, as modern methods of chicken breeding improved, goose fat lost its place of prominence on the Jewish table. The smaller, more economical chicken, and its rendered fat, took the place of goose fat as the lard of choice among Jews.

Rendered chicken fat has the most incredibly delicious smell, unlike any other cooking aroma, Ziegelman said. Speaking with those over 60, she adds, they rave about the memory of the sizzling fat filling their childhood kitchens.

Latkes fried in rendered chicken fat made the Jews swoon, too. But poultry fat was diminished by the invention of scientifically engineered cooking fats derived from vegetables. The new hydrogenated fats had many brand names, such as Spry or Flake White.

But the most famous one was Crisco, a product introduced by Procter and Gamble in 1911. This non-Jewish company soon recognized the value of Crisco to kosher cooks. A pareve product, Crisco could be incorporated into both dairy and meat recipes. Many Jewish women began frying latkes in Crisco.

In 1933, Procter and Gamble published "Crisco Recipes for the Jewish Housewife," a promotional cookbook available in English and Yiddish.

“It represented the demise of poultry fat as a Jewish staple, bringing to a close a millennium of culinary tradition,” Ziegelman said.

Today’s makers of latkes often rely on olive oil, canola oil, corn oil, peanut oil or other healthier fats. The thought of rendering poultry fat is not appealing to many home cooks.

Ziegelman, however, raves about the flavor of chicken fat, claiming everyone should try it at least once before passing judgment. She is planning to start baking with this lush golden fat.

“Chicken fat isn’t one of the evil fats — not like beef fat or butter,” she said, explaining that it has about half the saturated fat as butter.

Registered dietitian Lisa Ellis agrees that chicken fat contains nearly half the amount of saturated fat when compared to butter. Surprisingly, chicken fat is also higher in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats — the healthier fats.

“While chicken fat is a better choice than butter, it still is an artery-clogging fat,” said Ellis, who in her kosher home cooks primarily with olive and canola oils.

Ziegelman would agree that chicken fat is not in the same class as olive oil.

“But on a sliding scale, it’s on the good side,” she said. “This is the moment to bring back schmaltz.”

CHICKEN SCHMALTZ
(Meat)
Recipe developed by Linda Morel

Ingredients:
5- to 6-pound chicken (For a larger yield, ask your butcher for additional chicken skin and fat, which he is likely to have on hand, as many people now purchase skinless chicken.)
Yield: 1 cup of chicken skin and fat (from a 5- to 6-pound chicken), reduces to about 1/2 cup of schmaltz.

Preparation:
Cut off the chicken’s wings and reserve. Slide a sharp knife under the skin on the breast and lift it. With your fingers, pull the skin from the meat. Tear off as much skin as  possible in sheets. Place skin on a cutting board. Using the knife, cut  away any remaining skin from crevices. Cut off clumps of yellow fat that stick to the meat and place it on the cutting board. (Use the skinned chicken and wings for other purposes, such as chicken soup.)

Cut sheets of skin and fat into 2-inch squares.

Place skin and fat in large deep  pot, preferably non-stick. Heat on a medium-low flame, stirring often. Oil will begin oozing from the skin almost immediately. Reduce flame to low  and fry for about an hour, until the fat globules melt entirely and  there’s nothing left of the skin except cracklings (called gribenes), which are incredibly delicious. Cool chicken fat to room temperature.

Set a fine sieve over a bowl. Pour schmaltz through the sieve. Use immediately or refrigerate for up to 2 days.

LATKES THE OLD-FASHIONED WAY
(Meat or Pareve)

Recipe developed by Linda Morel
Yield: About 16 latkes

Equipment:
A box grater

Ingredients:
1 small onion
6 large baking potatoes
1 egg, beaten
2 tablespoons flour, more if needed
Kosher salt to taste
6 tablespoons schmaltz or olive oil (more if needed)

Preparation:

Finely chop onion and place in a large bowl.

Scrape skin from potatoes and rinse them under cold water. Pat dry on paper towels. Over a platter, grate potatoes on the coarse side (not the slicing side) of the box grater. To avoid cutting fingers or ruining your manicure, grate only one-half to two-thirds of each potato. Save the remainders for other purposes, such as soup or potato salad.

Place the grated potato in the bowl with the onion. Add the egg and mix contents together with a fork. Sprinkle in flour and mix again. Add a little more flour, if the batter is way too wet to stick together. (However, it will be a moist batter.)

Heat the schmaltz or olive oil in a large skillet on a medium flame. With your hands, form potato batter into pancakes 2 1/2 inches in diameter. Using your palms, flatten the pancakes and squeeze out any excess water that may have drained from the potatoes.

Place latkes in oil and fry until  the bottom side browns. Flatten latkes with a spatula as they sizzle. Flip latkes and fry until the second side browns. Add more oil, if needed. Turn  a couple more times, until the center is cooked through and the outside becomes dark brown and crunchy. Drain on paper towels and serve immediately.

FRIED ONION ON RYE BREAD
(Meat)

Recipe from "97 Orchard Street: An Edible History Of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement," by Jane Ziegelman
Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients:
1 yellow onion
4 tablespoons goose or chicken fat
2 slices of rye bread
Crushed black pepper, optional
1 hard-boiled egg, optional

Preparation:
Lightly saute 1 yellow onion, thinly sliced, in 4 tablespoons goose or chicken fat. Spread cooked onion on good rye bread. Season generously with crushed black pepper. For a more substantial snack, top with sliced hard-boiled egg.

FRIED CHICKEN LIVERS
(Meat)

Recipe adapted from "97 Orchard Street"
Yield: 4 servings as an hors d’oeuvres

Ingredients:
1 pound chicken livers
1 cup seasoned bread crumbs
4 tablespoons schmaltz or vegetable oil (more if needed)

Preparation:

Rinse livers under cold water. Place on paper towels to drain. Cut off fat globules and discard. Slice large livers in half. Place bread crumbs on a plate a  little at a time, as needed. Roll livers in bread crumbs.

Heat schmaltz or oil in a large skillet on a medium-low flame. Fry livers in oil until the bottom side turns golden brown. Should oil splatter, reduce flame.

Turn livers and fry the second side until livers turn golden brown. Do not overcook or livers dry out. Serve immediately.
 

NEXT STORY