Of all the appliances and gadgets used in our kitchens, the huckmesser or hand chopper has the most Yiddishe taam. Can you say that about the blender, mixmaster or food processor?
Chinese have the wok, Italians the pasta machine, Indians the tandoori and the French, well, vive le whisk. But what tool is as synonymous with the Ashkenazi Jewish cook as the huckmesser?
What trips the association? Perhaps memories of mothers and grandmothers wielding their huckmessers like iron chefs, chopping away at the traditional fare of Jewish cooking: fish (herring, gefilte fish), nuts (mandelbrot, strudel), onions and eggs (think liver or the green bean vegetarian version).
Or, is the huckmesser’s minimalist lightness of being a perfect foil for the high-tech kitchen a way to go back to the pleasures of slow-cooking?
One thing is certain: huckmessers owe their survival to the fact that they were one of the shtetl’s few household items to cross the ocean in bubbie’s suitcase.
“Imagine if you were told to pack just a few things – what would you take? It’s one of the few things they could slip in with their belongings,” says Norma Joseph of Montreal’s Concordia University, who teaches a course on food and religion.
She notes that the huckmesser was something immigrant women felt could help preserve a tradition and a way of life in the new world. And indeed, that’s what it feels like to use this sturdy, simple tool.
To be sure, we huckmesserites belong to a certain demographic – let’s just say we can all remember rotary phones. We also share a lingo when discussing what we chop in – “a shissel”; how we chop – “with a rocking motion”; and the just-so texture we’re after – “fine but not too fine.”
And here’s the kick: some of us are still using the original huckmesser bought when we first got married. Mine is circa ’76, the only surviving utensil from my newlywed kitchen, having outchopped and outlived several modern-day upstarts. (And for probably $1.99 at Honest Ed’s). Whacked and washed thousands of times, my hucker with its forged iron handle is still fit and without a speck of rust. I should be in such good shape.
Knowing how indispensable it is, I tried to locate a just-in-case replacement before moving back to Montreal several years ago. No luck. But not to worry – after talking to several women, I realized that my current one will probably outlast me.
For almost 57 years, Belle Ziniuk of Montreal has been using the red-handled one she bought the week after returning from her honeymoon.
While not pressed into service often, the huckmesser is her tool of choice in making Romanian honey strudel. What Ziniuk is after is that “perfect size and texture” for the nuts.
“First, on a board, you roll over the nuts like a Cadillac,” she explains, “then transfer them to a shissel” for the final coup de grace with the huckmesser.
For those unfamiliar with the term, a shissel is a bowl – but not just any bowl. Stainless steel will do, but the love match for a huckmesser is a wooden bowl that is wide and shallow.
Typical was the shissel used by an elderly neighbour in the apartment across the street from us when I was kid. With that flying saucer in her lap, she’d sit on her balcony Thursday mornings, summer’s heat just beginning to creep up on the day, chopping away at her fish for Shabbat without missing a beat.
Actually, one of the few references to huckmessers I’ve ever run across in a cookbook mentions a similar memory.
In the vegetarian Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant, (Simon and Schuster/Fireside), contributor Wynelle Stein recounts that moment of instant recognition when kitchen colleague David Hirsch once “began miming someone furiously chopping” with a huckmesser in a bowl. “He said, ‘Winnie, what am I doing?’ Immediately I remembered we had often seen our grandmothers doing this frantic chopping while preparing gefilte fish.”
While I find homemade gefilte fish irresistible to make, my huckmesser sits this one out; after all, I can take this shtetl thing only so far.
For me, the huckmesser is all about a certain texture. Here’s what I mean.
My friend Ellaine Feferman of St. Catharines, Ont., is onto something. She uses a huckmesser to finely shred canned tuna. Feferman says her mother still has the huckmesser made by her grandfather, a blacksmith, which was brought with the family from what was then White Russia.
Tolsa Greenberg of Toronto tells me that when her husband, who used to sell restaurant equipment, brought home a huckmesser years ago, she asked him what it was and what would she do with it. He assured her she’d find some use. And she did. “I pound down on meat and vegetables,” she says.
For eggplant pates, a huckmesser is indispensable, yielding a smooth and chunky appetizer I make almost every week. Here’s the drill: roast a good-sized, halved eggplant that’s been drizzled all over with good olive oil. Tuck a clove or two of garlic inside each half and roast skin side up until very soft throughout. When cool, scrape out the flesh and garlic, and chop with a huckmesser. Add lemon juice, salt, black pepper and ground cumin to taste. Serve cold with hearts of palm, olives, tomato and cucumber.
The huckmesser is also my tool of choice for vegetarian chopped liver, which relies on lots of slow-cooked chopped onions to add depth to hard-boiled eggs and sauteed green beans.
Ditto for veggie patties – the huckmesser gives the cashews and vegetables (lightly sauteed cauliflower, onions and brown mushrooms) a nice balance of finely chopped with some heft. Add a Yukon Gold mashed potato, some crushed crackers, and season with a pinch of dried thyme, a dash each of garlic and black pepper, a shake of paprika and a small squirt of tamari sauce. Chill slightly, shape into patties and bake till brown.