“Researching and writing this book has been one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life,” Michale Wex writes of his latest work, Rhapsody in Schmaltz: Yiddish Food and Why We Can’t Stop Eating It, a whiplash-inducing overview of Jewish culinary culture that establishes how its subject exemplifies a world language, peppered with strains and sources from across the world.
In the first few chapters, studded with references to rabbis who wrote about food and eating, the use of italics is staggering: sources from the Talmud, Mishnah, Plutarch, television shows, and borrowed vocabulary from Czech, Polish, Yiddish, and German make for interesting, sometimes tiring, reading. If a television shtick, stories from the Book of Genesis, and dietary laws can be presented in one sentence, Michael Wex writes it: “The brisket that Howard Wolowitz’s mother is always yelling about on The Big Bang Theory can trace its lineage back to Jacob’s fight with the angel.”
Once he labels the central European cuisine as Yiddish, Wex goes on to treyf, cholent and its variations, Sabbath meals in general, holiday and weekday foods, and finally, what makes all of this cooking and food distinctly Jewish. He reviews of the baking of matzoh, enumeration of other kosher animals not found at local meat counters, with some urban dictionary asides taken from contemporary drug addicts’ verbiage. That Wex is Canadian can be noted occasionally by the absence of more American place references. Michael Wex has written a curiously interesting book, best digested slowly.