Last year, the Canadian Jewish News published Michael Wolfe’s definitive list of the Best (and Worst) Contributions Jews have made to the Epicurean World.
While chopped liver was not worst (hello Pickled Herring in Sour Cream), it certainly wasn’t the best (Bagel with Lox and Cream Cheese.) Humble chopped liver came in half-way (almost) between gefilte fish and tzimmes. As Wolfe delicately put it, “I brought a sample to my office once, where a co-worker declared it ‘a pile of moist sh-t in a bowl.’” But then Wolfe gives it some respect. “And for most of my years,” he writes, “that’s what I thought of it. But something must happen to Jewish taste buds as they mature. I like this stuff now. It’s almost like a Hebrew foie gras.”
Today, a look at how a historic Jewish food turned into a Hollywood punchline.
Joan Nathan’s Chopped Liver
Food writer Joan Nathan has traced the dish to Alsace Lorraine which was known in the 11th century as Ashkenaz. “There, for the first time, Jews migrating north from the warmer climates of the olive oil-rich Mediterranean learned to use schmaltz—rendered fat from the geese in that part of France.”
Actually Jewish fascination with liver goes way back. In the scholarly article, Medical Origins Of Liver Divination, Elinor Lieber tells the story of sixth century B.C.E prophet Ezekiel. The prophet is told by God that Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, was intending to lay siege to Jerusalem and to Rabbah, the capital of neighbouring Ammon. Ezekiel reaches a crossroads and in order to determine which route to take, he gazes at the liver of a slaughtered animal. (Ezekiel 11:26)
(Thanks to this story, I learned a new word which may come in handy if I’m ever on a spelling bee: extispicy. That is the reading of omens of sacrificed animals, especially the livers of sacrificed sheep and poultry.)
Learn English: What am I, chopped liver?
Let’s jump ahead a couple of millennia and across an ocean or two. The line, “What am I, chopped liver“ certainly has the cadence of a Yiddish catchphrase. But does it really have its roots in the Mame-Loshn? Here’s the response from the Ohr Somayach rabbi: “As far as I know, the origins of the phrase are not Yiddish; I believe the phrase was originally coined in America. Being that chopped liver was always considered a side dish and not a main course, the phrase is used to express hurt and amazement when a person feels he has been overlooked and treated just like a ‘side dish.’”
Cold Chopped Liver – Cantor Henry Rosenblum
For the premier ode to this love-it-or-loathe-it food, we must credit Cantor Henry Rosenblum who delivers his tribute, “Cold Chopped Liver“ to the tune of “Ol’ Man River” (with apologies to Jerome Kern):
When I return to my Shabbos table
After I spend so much time in shul
I am so hungry that I am not able
To keep far away from the dish so cruel …
Cold chopped liver
That heartburn giver
I shouldn’t choose it
But I can’t refuse it
It keeps me groanin’
Just keeps me groanin’ oy vey!
George Jetson: “Hey, What Am I, Chopped Liver?”
Although Jerome Kern didn’t actually write about the delicacy, chopped liver has not ignored by Hollywood and the entertainment industry. The food has been mentioned in movies including The Mighty Ducks and The Last Boy Scout and on TV’s The Gilmore Girls and reassuringly in The Jetsons. Isn’t it good to know that in the animated space age future of Orbit City, chopped liver still gets no respect?
Obama: “What is this, chopped liver here?”
Despite all attempts to reform the reputation of this food, it’s a mighty challenge when it gets no respect from the Commander-in-Chief and leader of the free world! Back in August 2009, U.S. President Barak Obama paid a visit to Belgrade, Montana. But the crowd voiced a measure of disappointment that the First Lady wasn’t with him:
THE PRESIDENT (addressing the crowd): I am excited to be back in Montana. (Cheers) I want to —
QUESTION FROM THE CROWD: Where’s Michelle?
THE PRESIDENT: Where’s Michelle?
(Pointing to himself) Come on, what is this, chopped liver here? (Laughter)
Oh the ignominy of it all.
Next time, chopped liver gets some overdue respect and love.