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An Unforgettable Jewish Food

October 14, 2009

If you can believe it Deli Days are almost over.  Tomorrow is the Ted Merwin lecture in the University at Albany’s Science Library.  And it was news of this event that made me realize one of my favorite foods, Jewish deli, was somehow missing from the FLB.

At this point, I think I’ve more than compensated for its earlier omission.

There is just one last delicacy to cover.  And it is not the last one in that it’s the least important.  It’s the last one because I wanted to save it for the end to go out on a bang.  But it is important to make that distinction, because of all my cultural foodstuffs, this one is the most sensitive.

Chopped liver is so good.

Sure, some people don’t like it.  But some people don’t like sweetbreads or paté.  Somehow I always loved the stuff.

I remember as a child, whenever people would be around, my Nana S. would have a bowl of chopped liver out with some crackers on the side.  And I would gobble up that rich full-flavored delicious chopped mixture as quickly as she could replenish it.

Many years later, someone told me they had a good recipe for vegetarian chopped liver.  They swore the secret to the dish’s wonderfulness was not the liver at all, but the rich and sweet flavor of the fried onions.

They were wrong.

Nothing can substitute for the rich unctuous earthy taste of liver.  Mushrooms do not come close.  But this dish is another stellar example of how my people took the cheapest food that nobody wanted, and turned it into something remarkable.  Even today, people throw away chicken livers with reckless abandon.

Maybe they are not the healthiest thing that you could eat.  But nobody is saying you need to polish off bowls of the stuff, like I did as a child.

Years ago, I was in a deli in Philadelphia.  It was a very popular place called Koch’s.  It was a family business and when I was in school both Lou and Bob were running the deli.  There would be a line out the door, and as you waited in line for your sandwich, free meat snacks and jokes would be dispensed to the patient patrons.

It was a great place.

One time while paying for my sandwich Bob saw me eyeing the chopped liver.  I told him that I hadn’t had any in years.  And he proceeded to smear a bit on the heel of a rye bread, and gave it to me as a present.

I took a bite, and was immediately transported back to Nana S.’s house as a child.  It was remarkable.

As I have mentioned before, the food of my people isn’t exactly health food.  And this story has a sad postscript.  Bob & Lou Koch who surrounded themselves with such wonderful meats and cheeses, and who brought so much joy to so many people, both died young.  Lou died at 50 from a heart attack, and Bob passed some years later at 58 of heart failure.

They were not skinny men.  But I wouldn’t be either if I had their job.  It’s one of the reasons I don’t open up a cheese shop.

I hope to see you tomorrow.  All the details of the lecture are here.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Don permalink
    October 14, 2009 8:59 am

    Daniel,
    I’m a regular blood donor, and the worst part is when they prick your finger to check your iron before they take the pint from your arm. I keep telling the phlebotomists at the Red Cross ” You don’t have to do this. I’m a guy, so I don’t have an iron problem, and besides, I ate chopped liver the other day.”

    “Chopped liver?” they always say. “I’ve never had that. What is it?”

    This may very well be the origin of the morning blessing ברוך אתה ה’…. שעשני ישראל “Blessed are you, Eternal God, who has made me a Jew.” (or, in the Orthodox tradition “…who has not made me a gentile.”
    See you in the Standish Room.

  2. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    October 14, 2009 10:43 am

    Oh, I love chopped liver. My mother used to make it for entertaining. Even when I was quite small, I used to snag some before or after the event. A schmear on some party rye or pump, heaven!

  3. October 14, 2009 12:14 pm

    I am not Jewish, but my mother was born and lived as a child in Queens and was raised in Long Island. This is before she was transported to the blessed wilds of Upstate New York. Although my mother’s parents were off the boat city Irish, they assimilated a fair amount of the cultural foods of the city and long Island. My grandmother was a chopped liver fanatic, she would make a whole mound of it to be presented at family functions, and subsequently was the only one to touch it. Most of my family are stodgy meat and two veg types. I have found a new appreciation for livery stuff in my adult life, for me it is a textural thing. I just love the fatty creaminess.

    • Raf permalink
      October 14, 2009 2:56 pm

      The Irish stole our chopped liver too? I thought it was just the corned beef!

  4. NY Deli Man permalink
    October 14, 2009 4:47 pm

    The “Kosher” way to make liver is to broil it. My grandmothers did it this way with beef liver and I always thought their chopped liver was dry because of it.

    My non-kosher way is to saute chicken livers in my wife’s giant All-Clad fry pan with a generous coating of oil and some white wine. Cook up up lot’s of fried onions, garlic and some hard boiled eggs. Throw everything in the meat grinder with some kosher salt and pepper and you’ve got better chopped liver than either grandmother made.

    P.S. If you add raw chopped meat to this liver mess, you have a pretty good filling for “krepelach”….. Krepelach are Jewish wantons for any goyum reading this!

  5. October 15, 2009 3:13 pm

    I can’t usually get down with chopped liver, but I LOVE LOVE LOVE liverwurst. There is little better in life than a liverwurst and onion sandwich.

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