Laying It On Thick
Michael Ruhlman is on a one-man crusade to bring back schmaltz.
Michael Ruhlman is on a one-man crusade to bring back schmaltz. A bit surprising for a self-described “goy,” but the award-winning author of more than a dozen cookbooks has long considered himself a “pro-fat proselytizer in a fat-phobic land.” His newest book, “The Book of Schmaltz: Love Song to a Forgotten Fat” (Little, Brown and Company), is a single-minded ode to an ingredient on the verge of extinction.
For those unfamiliar with schmaltz — as Ruhlman himself was for much of his life — the Yiddish word refers to rendered chicken fat, a staple among Eastern European Jews. And it’s also a staple in some Jewish kitchens this time of year, when cooks are pumping out traditional holiday meals. Schmaltz was used both for kashrut reasons — lard wasn’t kosher and butter can’t be used with meat — and for availability — it was a natural byproduct of cooking chicken and therefore an economical choice.
Ruhlman bemoans how schmaltz has become so maligned in recent years, and how it has even developed negative connotations in today’s language.
“We’ve somehow created a meaning for schmaltz — and it’s the only one in the dictionary, that means overly sentimental,” he said. “There’s also a general fear of fat in America; I think it’s just more pronounced in the Jewish psyche. Somehow they do feel guilty about it and are trained to feel guilty about it and I think that’s wrong. It’s perfectly fine to use a long as you don’t eat bowlfuls of schmaltz.”
Ruhlman became familiar with schmaltz from his neighbor Lois, a 78-year-old Cleveland native who has cooked with schmaltz her whole life — as did her mother before her. After hearing her wax poetic about the fat, he knew he had to try it.
“The flavor that schmaltz gave to food was completely new and a revelation and a wonder,” he said, averring that the best schmaltz is made at home, not bought from a butcher. “You can only have this exquisite flavor when you go to the effort.”
He says he has gotten mostly positive feedback on the book, particularly from Jewish food gurus like Joan Nathan and Arthur Schwartz, from whom he says he is “grateful to have their blessing and use their work extensively throughout the book.”
Though some are surprised to hear a non-Jew writing about schmaltz, Ruhlman was particularly amused when a reporter from the Cleveland Jewish News “showed up at my house for a ‘Jew of the Week’ column, and I had to tell him I wasn’t Jewish.”
Ruhlman divided his book into two sections: traditional recipes and contemporary ones. The traditional ones are familiar to most Jews: potato kugel, kreplach, chopped liver — all infused with the flavor-boosting schmaltz. He even provides detailed, illustrated instructions for making cholent — from the “cholent mise en place” to final plating suggestions.
But in the second half, Ruhlman takes schmaltz to a place few Yiddish grandmothers ever imagined: Paté de foie gras en terrine, chicken rillettes and yes, even schmaltz-enhanced oatmeal cookies.
“I did [the cookies] mainly to show how versatile the fat can be,” he said with a laugh. “Everyone was scratching their heads over it until they made it and tasted it.”
Above all, Ruhlman is trying to keep alive a tradition he fears is nearly extinct.
“I think we’re probably one generation away from losing it altogether,” he said. “We haven’t appreciated it, we have denigrated it and it is hard to make. Lois [might be] the last generation to cook with it.”