A sore throat, a runny nose, even a repetetive sneeze will spray me south two stops on the NR and then two Avenues east, past the trendy people in the East Village, to that bastion of restorative medicine: The 2nd Ave. Deli, home of the city’s most mystically curative chicken soup.
I’ve lived here since August. In that time, I’ve gone to the 2nd Ave. Deli three times for three separate bowls of chicken noodle soup which means I’ve had three colds since I moved here. Maybe it’s the germs on the subway or all the people I make out with. In any case, The 2nd Ave. Deli always succeeds in making me feel better (although it costs a pretty penny). Today I decided to be economical and order soup and half a sandwich (as opposed to a whole sandwich).
Which brings us to the title of this post. This post isn’t about soup. It’s about my sandwich. What was on my sandwich? The Jewish foie gras: Chopped Liver.
When I told the waiter what I wanted on my sandwich he smiled. In that smile we communed for a moment. “Ah, chopped liver,” he projected, “You’re a real Jew, aren’t you? Who else would order that? I’m impressed. Shalom! Long live Israel!” (He was a long-winded projector.)
There are some Jewish foods I’ve seen my non-Jewish friends eat. Matzoh ball soup, for example. Bagels, of course. Lox even. Maybe a hamentaschen here and there. But never, never ever ever have I seen a non-Jewish friend eat Chopped Liver. I imagine that given the prospect most of them would go: “Blech!”
Are you going “blech” right now? Why are you grossed out? Is it because it’s liver? Is it because it’s chopped? ARE YOU AN ANTI-SEMITE?
Chopped liver was a simple standard of my childhood. It’d be mounded (as it is in the above picture) at family functions and Bar Mitzvahs and weddings, usually with chopped hard-boiled eggs and raw onions. We’d eat it when we’d go to the deli or the bagel store. That is until my grandmother interceded and told us: “DON’T ORDER CHOPPED LIVER. IT’S AN ORGAN MEAT!”
That’s one of the trigger responses chopped liver has for me now. You say “chopped liver,” I hear my grandmother say: “It’s an organ meat!” Meaning, it’s horrible for you. Don’t eat it.
And I haven’t really eaten it in the latter half of my life. It’s been a while. Until today. Today I ordered chopped liver with my soup. The waiter smiled. Jews nodded in approval.
Then it was brought and I bit in and—blech? Not quite. It just took some getting used to. The chopped liver I remember from my childhood had a sweetness to it, perhaps from carmelized onions that get chopped up with it. Maybe this was low on the onions? The texture here was also unpleasant: it was dense and sludgy. Perhaps it was sophisticated. Perhaps this is what real Jews ate when they came over from Russia or Hungary or wherever it is they came from when they brought chopped liver across the ocean. Shall we defer to Joan Nathan’s “Jewish Cooking in America”?
Joan Nathan offers little. She talks about chopped liver sculptures at Jewish weddings. Can you imagine being paid to sculpt chopped liver? There’s also a recipe for vegetarian chopped liver, which my grandmother buys religiously from Whole Foods in Boca, and which I made once for a Passover seder (it involves plenty of onions and then green beans and walnuts to act as “liver”). But as to the history of chopped liver, little is written.
Although it’s not that hard to figure out. When you are poor, what do you do? Use every part of the animal. So as not to waste precious chickens, I’m sure converting the liver into something edible and even enjoyable was a necessity. (Much like the pork uterus that we laugh at in my Chinatown video may have been first cooked out of necessity). Necessity is the mother of invention, no? Such is the way with food.
On the way out of the 2nd Ave. Deli, an old Jewish woman stopped me. “It’s a regular slip joint they’re running here,” she said.
I gave her a look that said: “Hmmm?”
“A rip-off,” she continued, “I go in there and ask for half a pound of turkey, some chopped liver, and pastrami and do you know what they want to charge me? $26!”
I shook my head.
“Look,” she said, “These are my people. I’m happy to shop here. But c’mon!”
I gave her a look that said: “What are you gonna do?”
She shrugged and said: “I’ll go to Katz’s.”
Tradition keeps Jews on roofs and compels us to pay exorbitant prices to eat foods our ancestors ate out of necessity. It’s a nurture thing. Cultural comfort food. Could we afford to eat chopped liver every day? Of course not. And besides…it’s an organ meat!