My Old Kentucky Homesite

Nice Food

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 11/20/2009

Today, I found a sandwich shop in Lexington that serves authentic chopped liver, very like the kind I used to wish my grandmother made when I was growing up in the Bronx. My friends’ grandmothers made terrific chopped liver, loaded with plenty of onions and chicken fat and even gribenes, which are kind of like fried pork rinds except without the pork.

But Nanny’s version of chopped liver was mostly Crisco. In fact, everything Nanny made was mostly Crisco. She just shaped it differently for matzo balls, for potato pancakes, for noodle kugel. When I crossed the street to visit her for lunch, I didn’t always know exactly what ingredients would be in the food she prepared. But I did know that whatever it was, I’d be belching it up for a week.

“Why aren’t you eating that? It’s nice food. Whatsa matter, you don’t like chopped liver all of a sudden? Who doesn’t like chopped liver? Are you crazy, or what?”

“It’s mostly Crisco.”

“Very funny. Remind me to laugh later, when I loosen my girdle so I don’t hurt my sides. Whattaya talking? There’s plenty of liver there. Show me where there’s not liver. And since when did you become a food critic at seven years old?”

“I just don’t like the way it tastes.”

“What’s to taste? It’s chopped liver. How do you think it’s supposed to taste, like a Hershey bar? It’s nice.”

I always wondered: How could food be nice? It could be delicious or disgusting; it could even be beautiful or bad-looking. But nice? Food has no personality.

“You always liked my cooking. Didn’t you always like my cooking? You always liked my cooking. And you know why? Because what I serve you is much nicer than a fancy restaurant. Maybe you don’t get a cloth napkin with other people’s shmutz all over it, but by my house, you eat good. So go criticize a cafeteria and write it up in the newspaper and I’ll buy a copy and frame it over the couch. In the meantime, eat!”

I’d push my food around the plate until I was able to fool myself into thinking that it looked as if I’d consumed most of it.

“What are you, a sculptor? Eat. You need some crackers? Here, put your liver on crackers. They’ll help the poison go down, and we can both die happy.”

“I don’t like those crackers. They’re too salty.”

“That’s why they call them Saltines. What should they be, peppery? Let me see if I have some Pepperines. Or maybe you want some Chocolatechips-ines? If they made those, I’d give them to you, believe me. But all they make is Saltines, because that’s what normal people like.”

For dessert, we’d always have Jell-O. Nanny kept bowls of it pre-made in her refrigerator, lying in ambush for me. She bought boxes and boxes of whatever kind was on sale, as long as it was in the berry group. Strawberry. Raspberry. Cherry. Black Cherry. Black Raspberry. We never had orange or lemon – they were abominations. Lime, in particular, was “way too goyish; Jews don’t care for it.” No explanation given. Maybe she’d read somewhere that Hitler liked it.

“I’ve got a surprise for dessert. Guess what it is. I bet you can’t. Should I tell you?”

“Jell-O, right? What flavor?”

“Red.”

“They’re all red. Can’t you tell me what flavor it is?”

“What’s the difference? It’s red. Strawberry, raspberry, something like that. You always love Jell-O, so whattaya hockin’ me with flavors? It’s nice.”

“Why don’t we ever have lime?”

“I don’t like lime. You like lime? You don’t like lime. Whoever heard of chopped liver and then lime Jell-O? Tell me: how does that go together? Lime is goyish.”

“How can a flavor be a religion?”

“Listen, smart guy. If you can’t figure it out, don’t ask. Believe me, lime is plenty goyish, and on top of that, it’s gassy. They should cook it with a Tum mixed in. So don’t noodj me about lime. You want the Jell-O, it’s in the Frigidaire. You don’t want the Jell-O, leave it. Who cares, goyish or not? I buy red. It wouldn’t kill you to have a little Jell-O, but do what you want. I’m only your grandmother, so what do I know?”

I always took a bowl of the stuff. Because even though I wouldn’t give Nanny the satisfaction of telling her, I secretly loved Jell-O. I still do. In fact, the next time I stop into Stanley J’s Deli for a nice sandwich, I’ll have to see if they carry my favorite flavor: red. It goes great with chopped liver.

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8 Responses to “Nice Food”

  1. srsny said

    I always wondered how to spell noodj. So I wonder, if noodj is the noun than would the verb be noodje or noodjuh?

    Now you’ve got me wondering how to spell some of the other common yiddish expressions I heard about my Old Bronx Home: Gay Cockin; Gay Clop zu Kup in Vontz; and my brother’s favorite expression: Cacamoon. I don’t know how that one the translates – but whenever my brother would say it, my sister used to get very upset. It’s an interjection – said when you might say in English, “the hell with him” or “screw that” or some other negative exptression. I suspect it comes from the same root as “Gay Cockin.” I tried to look it up in an online yiddish dictionary that seemed to have just about everything ( http://www.pass.to/glossary/Default.htm ) and they not only didn’t have that one, they didn’t have any of them.

    Well, they DID have noodj = although they spelled it nudje.

  2. Srsny:

    Transliterating Yiddish words is a big problem because English vowels are so imprecise, and we also lack symbols for certain consonantal phonemes. “Noodj” has been spelled in a variety of ways, all of which make its pronunciation unclear for a person unfamiliar with the word. Using “u” for the vowel (“nudge” or “nudzh” or “nudj”) gives no indication that the word does not rhyme with “budge” and “sludge.” I think the “oo” is better, although there’s no definitive way to indicate that the vowel is like the one in “hood,” rather than the one in “blood” or — worse — the one in “mood.”

    The final consonant is perhaps most accurately written as “dzh,” but how does that help anyone who doesn’t have a clue about how to pronounce it? I think “nooj” is OK, but I like the extra “d” for two reasons: (1) it helps point to the correct sound of the vowel, since most people would probably hear the “nood” part to rhyme with the everyday word “good,” and (2) it indicates a kind of extra push before the final “j” sound.

    Basically, I think you can spell Yiddish words any way you want in English, because none of the so-called experts have solved these kinds of problems. I’d use “eh” for the shwa in “noodjeh,” rather than “uh” because the former vowel sound is more in keeping with the Yiddish accent I heard spoken when I was a child by the oldest members of my family.

    To make matters more confusing, even Yiddish speakers of my boyhood used different vowels depending upon where they originally came from. My father’s family said “gay cocken oyfen yahm” (literally “go take a shit on your head,” although my genteel mother translated it as “go bang your head against the wall.”) My mother’s side pronounced the same phrase: “gay cocken ahfen yuhm.”

    I’ve never heard “Cacamoon,” but it must have the same derivation as “gay cocken….”

    Now, aren’t you sorry you asked?

    Just as a clarifying sidenote: Nanny was American-born, and did not speak with a Yiddish accent. Her understanding of that language was probably only slightly better than mine. My guess is that she couldn’t carry on a conversation in any sharp tongue other than English, although she enjoyed sprinkling some of the more colorful Yiddish words into her speech — just as all New Yawk comedians, of any ethnic background, used to do.

  3. srsny said

    My family favorite – Gay Clop zu Kup in Vontz – is go bang your head against the wall. So maybe your mother was mixing meta-language.

  4. Srsny:

    When I was growing up, all the old people in my neighborhood spoke Yiddish fluently, and their English was colored by their Eastern European accent. So I always thought I’d magically start speaking Yiddish when I turned 50. I’d wake up one day and suddenly understand all the nasty stuff my parents had been saying about me.

    But it didn’t happen. Why? Vehr vayst? (Who knows?)

    So now you’ve sent me all over Google, looking for Yiddish translations. Thanks for helping me waste a few hours — as if I needed your help to do that.

    Anyway, gay clop zu kup in vontz may be a Yiddish pun. The word for “wall” in Yiddish can be transliterated as “vant” or “vont.” However, it’s usually spelled “want,” because it comes from the German “wand.” But notice that it lacks the final sibilant.

    On the other hand, “vontz” (often transliterated as “wantz”) means “bedbug.”

    So your parents might have been saying: “Go hit your head on a bedbug.” In other words: “Go back to bed, you pain in the ass!”

  5. srsny said

    I don’t think my parents thinking was that multilayered.
    By the way, do you know how it would sound in yiddish say: You should own a house with a hundred rooms and drop dead in every one of them. I’m not sure if supposed yiddish curse is real or apocrypharblundgit.

  6. Srsny:

    Hindert hayzer zol er hobn, in yeder hoyz a hindert tsimern, in yeder tsimer tsvonsik betn un kadukhes zol im varfn fin eyn bet in der tsveyter.
    Translation: A hundred houses shall he have, in every house a hundred rooms, in every room twenty beds, and a delirious fever should drive him from one bed to another.

    But my new favorite Yiddish curse is:

    A meshugener zol men oyshraybn, un im araynshraybn.
    They should free a madman, and lock him up.

    (I found those here.)

  7. Evie said

    Yooz guys are making me wish that I knew what my uncles used to say say about us kids way back when. I’ll bet they knew some pretty good Sicilian put-downs, and now my generation is bereft of that fund of vital knowledge.

  8. Evie:

    Porca Madonna!

    Yeah, it’s the most colorful expressions that we miss the most. So here are some Italian swear words for you.

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