My grandmother’s cookbook of Jewish traditional recipes is covered in chicken scratch — her scrawls in the margins suggesting additional ingredients, strikethroughs of instructions she believed to be errors, and other modifications she used to improve upon recipes that had been passed down generations. One of Fay Goldberg's most frequent suggestions? Add more chicken fat.
Chicken fat, also known as schmaltz, was a staple of my grandma’s home cooking. It drenches many Jewish recipes with savory, rich flavor that’s impossible to reproduce with a douse of Crisco, butter, or oil. It’s inexpensive (since you can make it yourself at home) and delicious — though probably not diet-friendly. That much was made clear by the chants that still haunt the memories of my mother’s physical education classes from childhood: “Let’s go, chicken fat, go away!” 1970s Long Island elementary schoolers would sing and giggle these lyrics while running laps and throwing dodgeballs.
But regardless of the amount of fat in chicken fat, Jewish parents did not skimp on this essential ingredient. To make traditional chopped liver, for example, seared liver is finely ground with caramelized onions and a heavy dose of schmaltz. Even today, Jews love to use this staple in recipes and as a spread. A Jewish restaurant in New York City, Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse, still serves a full jar of schmaltz on every table. Classic recipes for holiday foods such as kugel, matzo ball soup, and latkes rely on chicken fat for taste. Latkes are often fried in oil, but sometimes schmaltz is used instead. Other families use schmaltz as a shmear on latkes, as you might sour cream or applesauce. Trying to make a lower-fat version of a latke was never even considered by my grandmother. In fact, my grandmother often added chicken fat to recipes even when it was not explicitly called for — her mashed potatoes were mixed with heaps of the stuff, which turned the usually fluffy dish into a mess that my mother never enjoyed. “Butter is so much better,” she says.
So not all of Grandma's recipes were a success. My mother still shivers at memories of choking down chopped liver or salmon croquettes (though some party guests raved over them). Fay was always cooking for crowds: she had four children to feed, in addition to guests at her frequent dinner parties and holiday celebrations. Most kitchen disasters weren’t anything that a little schmaltz couldn’t fix. Want to master a Jewish recipe or two of your own? These dishes used to celebrate the Jewish new year are some of the best.