In Praise of Schmaltz

Bonding with a total stranger over the world’s most perfect food.

Photo: Melissa Hom
Photo: Melissa Hom
Photo: Melissa Hom

Alana Newhouse reached into her freezer and grabbed an icy hunk of frozen chicken fat and skin. She shaved off about two cups, letting it fall into a greased pan. She added a cup of water, set the pan over high heat, and then lowered it so everything could simmer for an hour. “It’s supposed to cook slow and low for a long time,” she explained. We were in Newhouse’s Brooklyn Heights apartment, watching the flesh and fat slowly — so slowly — transform into clear, golden schmaltz and gribenes, little crisp bits of leftover skin delicious enough to ruin your life. As Newhouse told me, “They’re basically chicken Fritos.”

Yes, this is a story about schmaltz, in both senses of the word. It is a story about rendered chicken fat — a golden dream, a masterpiece of umami — and it is also a story about two Jewish women who were complete strangers, but got together to render said chicken fat, then ended up crying about it. (In a good way.) It is a story about what happens when people hand each other frozen lumps of dismantled skin and fat and say, “Hold this while I open the wine.”

Newhouse is the editor in chief of Tablet magazine and the author of the new book, The 100 Most Jewish Foods: A Highly Debatable List. She has spent more time than most people thinking about schmaltz, to the point where she once held annual schmaltz-making parties known as schmixers.

I, on the other hand, have spent considerably less time appreciating schmaltz. Growing up as a young Jewess in the suburbs of Chicago, I would estimate that I ate chicken, conservatively speaking, 5,000 times per year. It was usually prepared one of two ways: dry and skinless, with a vague smattering of spices; or barbecued, with a light sheen of bottled sauce. Often, my family served the chicken on a holiday, before or after synagogue, and the combination of dry chicken plus two hours of dry Rabbinic wisdom created within me a perfect storm of resentment. I hated chicken so much that “hating chicken” became a central tenet of my adult personality. Eventually, my friends learned to never serve anything chicken-related when I came over; when I went home to visit my parents, I reminded them, as gently as possible, that if they made chicken, I would light myself on fire. To me, chicken was synonymous with dryness, dullness, and listening to somebody say “eloheinu” too many times.

That changed last fall, when I flew home to Chicago late one night, and scavenged my parents’ fridge for something to eat. I pulled out some leftover vegetables and devoured them. There was something different about these vegetables — something rich, something deep. I asked my parents why the vegetables were so delicious.

“I roasted them underneath a chicken,” my dad said. “The drippings from the chicken get all over them and make them much better.”

The earth shifted beneath me.

I hadn’t realized that, in my ongoing effort to passionately avoid chicken, I was also avoiding the fat that drips off the chicken, and all of the delicious things you can make with that fat. I hadn’t realized that the fat even had a name and a history that was, until recently, ignored by other Ashkenazi Jews, who for decades cooked with other, shittier oils because saturated fats were still considered “bad.” (Which explains my entire childhood.) When I got back to New York, I asked my boyfriend to make chicken (skin-on, slathered with anchovy-garlic butter, like our ancestors intended) with roasted vegetables. We ate this meal approximately 700 nights in a row, and I Googled “schmaltz” regularly to learn everything I could about it, so that even when I wasn’t eating it, I was still able to think about eating it, which was almost as fulfilling. I was making up for lost Schmaltz Time.

On one such occasion, I came across an article in the New York Times from 2014: “Schmaltz Finds a Newer, Younger Audience.” This was how I first learned about Newhouse, and her schmixers.

In a few sentences near the end of the piece, Newhouse explained that every guest at the schmixer took home her or his own jar of schmaltz, and added that “the newfound interest in schmaltz may parallel the resurgence of interest in tradition among Jews in their 20s and 30s, who, unlike their immigrant forebears, are not afraid that a display of Jewishness is a threat to their American identity.” I mostly forgot about the second part, and fixated on the take-home jar of schmaltz. I knew I had to have my own jar of perfect schmaltz, or I might never again experience true joy.

I emailed Alana on a Saturday night, which is the creepiest time to email someone you have never met. “I know I’m a total and complete stranger, but I beseech you: please invite me to your next schmaltz party,” I wrote, among other demented things. “I would be forever in your debt,” I typed, before realizing that I might have more luck if I also offered something in return: “I will bring wine.”

She wrote back within hours, explaining that she hadn’t had a schmixer in years. “My suggestion, if you’re willing, is for you to join me one night at my house to learn the art. If your ardor still remains unquenched, we can then plan the next schmaltz party — but it will have to be in your honor, and with you helping me man the burners.”

This is how I ended up at Newhouse’s apartment on a cold Wednesday night, soaked to the bone from icy rain, holding a hunk of frozen chicken skin and fat that Newhouse had gotten from a kosher butcher (“Just tell them you want a couple pounds of chicken skin and fat”) and learning, immediately, that I had been making my schmaltz all wrong. “It should be clear,” Newhouse told me. “If the oil that comes out is brown, you’ve burnt it.” As it slowly renders, she explained “the fat and the skin separate, and you’re left with the schmaltz and gribenes.”

Newhouse decided we should make two separate schmaltzes: one with onions, and another with two ingredients of my choosing. (I’d chosen garlic and red chili peppers, because I genuinely love when comfort food also hurts my mouth.) “I grew up in an Orthodox home, but my mom was Sephardic, so we didn’t make any of this,” Newhouse said. “We made all my grandmother’s Spanish food. When I started covering Jewish life and started Tablet, I got into food as a transmitter of culture. I got super into schmaltz, and when I realized there was a food revolution about healthy fats, I started cooking with it all the time.” The schmaltz parties were born from this love of schmaltz, combined with a desire to impart cultural knowledge via food. The schmixers grew bigger and more complex over the years, and eventually, Newhouse stopped throwing them (until an unhinged stranger emailed her on a Saturday night).

At this point, I had touched my phone with raw-chicken hands at least 12 times. Newhouse added onions to the schmaltz, which simmered away gorgeously. She asked casually about my own religious background, and I told her I hadn’t been to synagogue, aside from weddings and funerals, since I was 15 years old, and that I felt pretty alienated from Judaism as a religion, but more connected to it as a culture — that old Jewish Millennial refrain. There was a part of me that felt ashamed to admit to someone like Newhouse that I had more or less swapped Actual Judaism for Extremely Lowkey Judaism, and that it mostly consisted of going to my aunt’s house for Passover.

But Newhouse surprised me. She told me she’d been studying modern Judaism for years, and that more than anything else, modern Jews felt alienated from one another, like their particular vision of Judaism was unique to them only, even if their peers felt the same way. “There are definitely swaths of Jews for whom their Jewish identity is either complicated or in some ways challenging for a variety of reasons,” Newhouse said. “For me, putting the book together was an effort to remind people of an inheritance that they have available to them — historical and spiritual and culinary inheritance — that they might not even realize is there.”

The onions-only schmaltz smelled so good at this point that I could barely think, but I did manage to ask: How can someone tap into that? “I have no idea,” Newhouse laughed. But she did have one idea: food. “It provides enormous meaning and joy, but it’s also a reminder of our own history of pain and oppression.” Food, for Newhouse, “is all of those things at once — and it has always been.” It struck me then that Newhouse and I were, indeed, two modern Jews bonding over old-timey Jewish food and that I did feel more Jewish than I had in awhile. (Please do not tell my grandma.)

A few glasses of wine in, and both of us were getting a little emotional. The schmaltz was nearly done, and things were taking a turn for the philosophical. “Food is a flashpoint for marking us as Jewish, which is pride- and fear-inducing,” Newhouse continued. “They lived inside restrictions for generations, some self-imposed, some by the outside world. The fact that they found all of these different ways to express their connection to themselves and Jewishness, and also to the broader universe — I think it’s inspiring. We’ve taken those boundaries and found ways to deepen and explode the possibilities for newness and pleasure and beauty.”

An hour into the schmalz’s cooking cycle, the kitchen smelled like what I imagine heroin feels like. As it bubbled, becoming ever-more translucent, Newhouse explained that part of the reason she stopped the schmixers is that the whole thing was just too labor-intensive; as she learned more about schmaltz-making, she learned she shouldn’t be able to prep for a schmixer in 20 minutes. It’s true: Jewish law states the only thing that should take 20 minutes is saying goodbye outside of a restaurant after you have already said goodbye inside.

When the schmaltz was finally ready, Newhouse handed me a few tiny fried pieces of skin. They were salty, and crunchy, like tiny Jewish French fries dipped in liquid gold. I dipped my finger into the onion schmaltz, which had reduced to a light yellow and was now cooling. Instantly, my brain exploded. It was perfect: hot, oily, rich, dense with deliciousness — 10,000 perfect flavors layered on top of each other. Newness, pleasure, and beauty. I could now divide my life into two defined eras: Before Homemade Schmaltz, and After Homemade Schmaltz.

Newhouse placed both schmaltzes into tiny Tupperwares for me to take home, writing “Classic Schmaltz” and “Hot Schmaltz” on their glittery labels. Our stated objective was now achieved, and it would have made sense for me to leave. Instead, I sat at Newhouse’s kitchen table, drinking wine and talking, until nearly midnight. Newhouse told me if I ever wanted to go to synagogue again, she’d give me some recommendations, but I told her I was only interested in going if Mandy Patinkin would be there. (Mandy: please get in touch.) I’d come around on chicken’s dryness, which felt like major progress; I was still unconvinced about Friday night services.

When I finally did head out for the night, Newhouse handed me something else: a gigantic hot-cold Russ and Daughters bag. Inside were two additional frozen chicken lumps, the two Tupperwares of schmaltz, and a Tupperware of extra onions. It was far too generous, and in accepting, I felt the classic ancestral guilt, but Newhouse looked at me with an expression of deep seriousness. “This is like me giving you a Birkin,” she said. “You don’t want to know what I had to do to get this bag.” I had no choice but to accept. I grabbed the gift with both hands. “I’ll cherish it forever,” I promised. We hugged, I put on my rain boots, and walked into the freezing night, holding my schmaltz bag like a soft, lumpy child.

(Adapted from the 100 Most Jewish Foods, by Alana Newhouse)

Makes: ⅔ cup (160 milliliters)

1 pound (455 grams) chicken fat and skin, collected from 3 to 4 pounds (1.4 to 1.8 kilograms) chicken thighs
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons (45 milliliters) cold water
1 large onion, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced (about 2 cups)

Wash the chicken fat and skin in cold water, drain well, and blot dry with a paper towel. Cut the fat and skin in ½-inch (1.5-centimenter) pieces. To make it easier to cut, freeze the chicken fat and skin for at least 2 hours before cutting.

Place the chicken fat and skin in a large skillet and season with ½ teaspoon of the salt. Add the water and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally and scraping the bottom of the pan to loosen any browned bits, until the water has evaporated, the fat starts to render, and the pieces of fat and skin start to brown, curl up, and shrink to about half their size, about 30 minutes.

Add the sliced onion and the remaining ½ teaspoon salt and cook until the onion softens and caramelizes, about 35 minutes. Lower the heat if needed to prevent the onion or chicken skin from overbrowning, which will affect the color of the schmaltz (it should be golden).

Strain the schmaltz through a fine-mesh strainer set over a large bowl; set the solids aside (see Note). Use the schmaltz immediately, or let cool to room temperature, then transfer to a jar with a lid and refrigerate. The schmaltz will keep in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days or in the freezer for up to 2 months.

NOTE: The solids in the strainer are the gribenes. Eat them as a snack, add them to chopped liver, or sprinkle them over salad. They will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days or in the freezer for up to 2 months.

In Praise of Schmaltz