After weeks on end of ponderous, dreary, self-flagellating daily bangs, I guess that you could use a break, and I certainly could. So, let me wax philosophical about my favorite subject: food!
My forever expanding-and-contracting waistline attests to my plain, simple, unbridled love of food. How I wish I could attribute it to a congenital glandular foul-up or even some unresolved seated. The truth is that I am crazy about food, period. Cajun. Chinese. Japanese. Vietnamese. Viennese. Mediterranean. Teutonic. Slavonic. Soul. Korean. And do not forget about Thai.
Moreover, why should I deny that good, heavy, Eastern European Jewish cuisine, redolent of mother-love, is closest to my heart? If you wish to invite me for dinner and make a faithful friend for life, just bring out the chopped liver, the golden soup, the shimmering brisket and well-marbled flanken, and the corps of K-rations: kishke, kugel, knishes, kasha, knobbelwurst and knaidlach. A shot of generic schnapps, a sip or two of syrupy Mogen David, tea from a glass, Tagamet, a cushy chair with matching ottoman, and a moratorium on all meaningful conversation until the coma has had time to abate.
Yes, Virginia, in case you were wondering, there are, amid the passion and the glory, a few Jewish foods so nasty that even I will not touch them. Should you really care about me, you will absolutely eschew the following:
Pitscha – If ever there were onomatopoeia, pitscha richly deserves its name. Garlic Jell-O. The gelatinous remains of boiled calf's foot, enhanced with shreds of meat and copious fresh garlic. Brown. Granular. Quivery. Creepy. I have spent seven years in analysis because my doting Aunt Leah tried to force-feed me pitscha at the tender age of two. Serve me pitscha and you may as well be administering a spoonful of Ipecac. Pitscha is also known in our family as "fuss-noga," a German-Russian conglomerate-name that translates “foot-foot.” Good luck.
Fisselach – AKA coq-au-pitscha. Fisselach are the viscous remnants of chicken feet that have been boiled to a fare-thee-well to fortify the chicken soup. My earliest childhood recollections involve the sight of my mother and Aunt Minnie, may they rest in peace, hunched over the kitchen sink sucking the last morsels out of a batch of fisselach. Even then, you will note, they were beneath the status of table food. Now that we buy kosher chickens pre-processed and frozen, the Jewish homemaker no longer has ready access to fisselach. My mother lamented their departure the way that old cronies decry the demise of the nickel cigar.
Retach-mit-Schmaltz – Who but the children of Israel would think of making an appetizer of grated black radish bound with rendered chicken fat? Sometimes a bit of sweet carrot is grated in, as if to atone for the noxious vapors of the radish. Spread that on a Ritz, huh? Retach-mit-schmaltz is a thoroughly sinister dish: taste, aroma, texture, concept, heartburn, ick. Once upon a time, I was served retach-mit-schmaltz at the Sabbath table of a Chassidic Rebbe. My faith shaken, I contemplated entering a monastery for an entire month thereafter.
Lung-und-Lebber – My Uncle Joe, may he rest in peace, was the world's most lovable rascal. Time and again he would stray from the family fold. And time and again, my bubbeh would reel him in with a steaming bowl of lung-und-lebber. It is, I regret to inform you, just what it sounds like – a stew of beef lung and liver. Uncle Joe would bathe in the tureen, but even as a toddler, I instinctively refused even to enter the dining room. Five decades have passed, but my disposition has not changed. At my bubbeh’s urging, Joe would also devour plates full of another disreputable organ called “miltz.” Pancreas? Tripe? Thymus glands? It was spongy and disgusting, so let a pathologist make a positive identification. I can only imagine that in heaven above my bubbeh is still dishing up lung-und-lebber and miltz to her beloved Yossele. As for me, I would rather stoke the fires of Hades.
So there. I have now bared my soul and palate entirely to you – what turns me on and what turns me off. You did not ask, but just in case a dinner party were in the offing, you ought at least know the difference between the good, the bad, and the ugly. And lest I be indicted for this being an exercise in Jewish self-hate, let me remind you that I also grit my teeth at the thought of escargot, calamari, tomato aspic, and sweetbreads. I have never been forced to a showdown between pitscha and livermush or scrapple, but somehow I think I would still give my Aunt Leah the benefit of the doubt.
So, scuttle the reservations at the Four Seasons. Whisper sweet words of brisket and potato kugel in my ear, and I will show you an ecstasy that approaches nirvana. A foretaste, as the Good Book says, of the World-to-Come. Trust me.