This story was written in 1994. In 1996, I sent it around to publishers (people still did that back then) with no success. A few days ago, I found the text with the pitch letters on a Mac. When I tried to open the file, the system told me that it could no longer open documents created on PowerPCs. I dropped the file on a USB, brought it over to Windows, and opened it with Notepad. It was ugly, but all the ASCII text was there.
The style I was trying to emulate was that of Isaac Babel, one of the great short-story writers of all time and my favorite by a good stretch. Babel’s tome is narrow. Much of his work has been lost. I have noted, half in jest, that Babel was the only person who actually deserved to die in the Soviet Gulag. This is because he had an affair with the wife of the head of the NKVD, the precursor organization to the KGB. Although a leading light in the Soviet literary establishment, in 1934 during the first Congress of the Soviet Writers Union, Babel said he was becoming the “master of a new literary genre, the genre of silence.” He refused to participate in the epidemic corruption rising all around him. For this, I love him most of all.
Why, you might ask, did I resurrect a story that had been so roundly rejected 20 years ago? Well, it seems that while I was shopping it, I printed out a copy and gave it to my mother-in-law, at the time wife of an American Baptist minister, since deceased. She’s now 90, in assisted living, but pretty active. Recently, she was cleaning out her belongings, as she often does these days, winnowing out things she doesn’t need anymore, and she came across the story. She read it, chuckling the whole way through.
She then took it to her friends, many of whom are Jewish grannies, just like my grannies — the ones in the story — were. And they chuckled all the way through. It seems that was my problem: audience targeting.
Really, then, this piece is meant for grannies in general and Jewish grannies in particular. But, whether or not you are one, you may enjoy it, too.
Forthwith, the text:
The two essential ingredients in a good Jewish nosh are fat and salt. Potato chips make an ideal dish by Jewish criteria, but I believe they were invented by someone else. Be that as it may, I grew up thinking that happy food was greasy food. Greasy and savory. While other kids craved chocolate and sugary desserts, I was in perfect harmony seated before a dollop of chopped liver.
My brother liked chopped herring, go figure. It had the requisite amount of salt, but, one, it wasn’t fatty enough and, two, it had that horrible fishy taste, from the herring, naturally, and on top of that, a weird pickle flavor. My grandmother Ceil once said, “Who wouldn’t eat a pickle?” A purist from the old school, perhaps, but I positively hated chopped herring. It’s only the chopped part that’s the same.
Chopped liver is a completely different dish. This delicate but vicious concoction is the grandmother of all Jewish noshes. In my family, both grannies claimed a venerable ancestry for their chopped liver recipes. My mother’s mother, Elizabeth, came from an old family outside Vilnius in Lithuania. Her people had come to Augusta, Maine, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she had been born almost a century ago, and set up shop in the dry goods business, in the grand old days, as First Richmond’s Department Store, and later, a more modest ladies’ wear boutique, First Richmond’s Apparel Shop. The single thing that remains of that life is a glass jar, which formerly held penny candy for the children, and which now contains my fantastic collection of matchbooks from around the world.
Despite the fact that her father managed to change his name twice over a period of years, as he fled from — or adapted to — hostile occupiers, each time bleaching more of the ethnic heritage out of himself, he had inherited a highly respectable surname, Naftali, which went all the way back to the days when Israel was living through its first period as a political nation.
Elizabeth considered chopped liver to be an integral part of a chicken dinner. Many times, she had placed the same meal in front of my mother, and later me: a chicken with every part used. You think the Chinese or Native Americans have a corner on consuming the whole animal, but we Jews have enjoyed the full pleasures of the flesh as long as they have. I have visions of some raggedy farmer, running around his yard trying to corner his squawking dinner, all three courses trying to escape in a flutter of feathers.
Granny Beth would start by boiling the neck, gizzard, and other less desirable parts with an onion and a carrot (A single onion! One carrot!). This made soup, the first course. Out it came, steaming hot in a shallow bowl, a delicate heirloom from a set lovingly protected these many years from jackboots and confiscation. Amoebas of clear fat floated on the broth’s yellow surface, undergoing mitosis and resynthesis as the liquid cooled and settled down after its trip from the kitchen. In the bottom would be the neck meat, which granny Beth had picked from the bones with her fingers, along with sliced up pieces of the now-soft gizzard. The carrot and onion gave the color of straw and deep flavor, and she had added, of course, the requisite amount of salt.
Next came the liver. Now, this course takes a lot of skill. It is not simply a matter of frying up some liver and chopping it. Much preparation is required. First, chicken fat has to be rendered. In the abstract, to render means to realize. Why this term came to be associated with chicken fat is lost in the history of the East European plain, but what is realized with this rendering is a clear yellow liquid guaranteed to stop your heart after 30 years cold. To make real this chicken fat, you must cut all the visible fat away from the raw bird and place it in a pan with a slice of onion. As it cooks over a low heat, the onion slowly turns from white to yellow to brown to black. When it is totally black, you remove it. Besides the pool of rendered fat, remaining at the bottom of the pan are these crisps of some protein structure that the fat clings to when it’s on the chicken. The fat melts out of these structures, and by the time the onion is black, they have curled into a form that looks suspiciously like a kind of Jewish Dorito. I have, in fact, eaten these things right out of the rendering pan, and they taste every bit as good as anything in aisle 4. Okay, so you remove the crisps one way or another and what’s left is rendered chicken fat, the gold of Jewish cuisine.
To make the chopped liver, then, you start with this gold, as much as you think you need. Now, liver is by nature kind of dry, so what the fat is doing is creating a kind of Zen balance against the dry of the liver. Into the fat, you put sliced onions. The quantity varies, naturally, with the amount of liver you have and which side of the family you are talking about. In grandma Beth’s case, cleaving to the old shtetl recipe, there is only one liver, that of the chicken you managed to run down in the back yard. Thus, she used only one onion, and a modest size one at that. When this onion is yellow (not to be confused with the blackening of the rendering process), you add the liver.
At this point, technique again diverges along family and generational lines. The issue is whether to cover the pan or not. Some of the younger members, my mother having been one, believe that the old world recipe is just too unhealthy, and rather than leave the pan uncovered (which causes the liver to dry out and requires subsequent adding back of more chicken fat to achieve the quintessential balance), they place an airtight lid over the concoction to hold moisture in. I have done it both ways, sometimes as sentimentalist and sometimes as sensible New Ager. I can tell you that the traditional formula tastes better. It has been rumored that someone once added mayonnaise at the end. What sacrilege! Grandma Beth was a purist, so the liver went uncovered.
At the same moment that the liver goes in, you drop an egg into the water that you had boiling handily on the next burner. At the end of the ten minutes it takes the egg to hardboil, the liver will be done. The formula is roughly one egg for every liver. (In the old village, the success of this step would have involved finding where the unlucky victim had hidden her egg that day.) Testing this formula in the extreme, I have bought half a pound of chicken liver in the supermarket only to discover that I’m supposed to put a dozen eggs in with it, a circumstance that might give even the heartiest of cholesterol intakers a pause. I backed it off to a half dozen, just to be on the safe side.
When everything is done, you plop it all into a wooden bowl and chop. Some people use a formal chopper, designed for the purpose, but I find two sharp knives drawn across each other seem to do the job just about right. Now it’s time to add the pepper and, of course, salt. To taste, to be sure, but in any event lots of it. Fat seems to have a way of absorbing salt infinitely. The final texture must never be pureed or too chunky. The visual impact should be about like fine granite, although I expect that brown, white, clear, and yellow granite is quite rare.
Grandma Beth would serve this second course as a small scoop on a little china plate with a few crackers alongside. She threw the heart in with the liver, as the texture and flavor of the two are close enough, it bulks it up a little, and where else would you put the heart?
Finally, the main course, the actual chicken, which she roasted plain with salt and pepper and sectioned just before serving. In this way, she used up the whole bird, like her ancestors before her, and I, before she died, had a chance to sample a meal that, while unhealthy by today’s stringent standards, fed my soul in a way it has never been since.
The question all the grannies at assisted living had for me — passed on via my mother-in-law — was, “What did she do with the feet?”