Tuesday, September 1, 2009
"Whudda ya think I am, chopped liver?"
This is an expression I grew up hearing, and have uttered on occasion, much to the puzzlement of most listeners. I suppose it's like asking someone if they think you're as stupid as a house plant. I dunno. I never thought about its meaning, only it's usage, and that it isn't an expression one hears in New England, and perhaps one doesn't hear it in New York these days either. Maybe it's been uttered in a Woody Allen movie. Probably has been.
I loved chopped liver when I was a kid. My grandmother made fantastic chopped liver. We ate it on Ritz crackers as an appetizer at most family get-togethers, especially Thanksgiving. The rest of the meal may have been the same as every other family in America, but there was no Thanksgiving without Grandma Nettie's chopped liver.
Sadly, I've forgotten the recipe, which I was the chosen recipient of. Not that it's a recipe exactly. . ."you put some onions in the pan. . .let them brown but not too much. . ." How many onions? Depends on how you're feeling at the moment. I believe there was uncooked minced celery in the chopped liver, but it's rather sad how I've forgotten. My grandmother may have acted as if she wasn't fond of me, but she thought I was a good cook, and showed me how to make this dish and use the meat grinder. Both things felt like a great honor.
I'm sure there's a debate about this, but to me a good chopped liver is chopped chicken liver, with absolutely no disgusting beef liver in it anywhere. It's rather odd even writing about this stuff, for I really can't imagine eating it nowadays. I haven't even touched a chicken liver when we cook chicken in the house, but when I was growing up that little liver was a big treat we'd fight over. Thank goodness we were a three person family. My mother would place the precious liver in a piece of tin foil with a bit of soy sauce instead of just using salt. The outside would become crisp and highly salty while the inside of the liver remained soft. Oy! It was good stuff. We also ate deep fried chicken livers from The Poultry Mart, a cholesterol nightmare that scared me a little even before we all become more health conscious.
Then I became a vegetarian and those delicious livers left my life. I haven't been a vegetarian now for about 16 years, but I still can't fathom eating the liver of any animal. I wonder if I'd still find it so fantastic. I remember stuffing myself silly on chopped chicken liver and Ritz crackers. There was something totally transporting about eating the stuff, but now it's all lost to memory. And I was good at making it; the last few years that both my mother and grandmother were alive, we played switcheroo with her stuff. She had lost either her sense of smell and taste (or both), no one knew, and the stuff just wasn't the same any more. One year it smelled like it had gone bad. Not to worry, however. We'd throw out Grandma's and substitute it with the stuff I had made. It was a big secret, one that I at first didn't mind going along with, but when my Grandmother and others started saying the liver tasted better then ever my teenage-self wanted some would squirm in her seat, just dying to take some well-deserved credit.
I knew my chopped chicken liver well, once upon a time.
The now-gone 2nd Avenue Deli in New York City made good chopped liver sandwiches and once in a while I'd go there for one. I loved that place. It was homey, and had wonderful matzoh ball soup. I preferred the pastrami and corned beef at Katz's but when I was living in NYC, I considered it too dangerous a neighborhood to venture into at night just for a bite to eat. Now, I still adore their deli meat, but I hate the tourists, even if I'm one of the them, and all that crush of people.
Wait a minute. Back to chopped liver.
One thing about the old New York delis is that the employees were crabby. That was the way they were, the way they were supposed to be, their thing, their schtick. Truth be told, I rather hated that tradition. I grew up surrounded by crabby people who kvetched all the time. So, I took great pleasure in finally giving one of these deli people a good gotcha! moment* without any kvetching or the raising of voices (I am a very soft spoken person).
It was over a chopped liver sandwich. I could taste it; it had beef in it, and there on the menu it said "Chopped Chicken Liver on Rye." I called the waiter over, something I am loathe to do (oh, I have many stories about times I haven't called the waiter over). I said, "there's beef in here." "Oh no. There can't be. It's chicken liver", said the waiter (probably in more colorful language). I stood firm and held my ground. I wanted to send it back but he wanted to charge me because the 2nd Avenue Deli never put beef in their chicken liver, not ever. We went back and forth for some time, almost to the point of saying "yes there is" - "no there isn't" like a bunch of little kids. Finally, he agreed to go into the kitchen and talk to the cook. They made their chopped chicken liver fresh every day.
I didn't expect any honesty, to be honest. But, back came the waiter, looking sheepish. "You were right", he said. Evidentally, they didn't have enough chicken livers that day, so the cook threw some beef into the mix figuring no one would notice. I sure did. One thing I've always hated is beef liver. Liver and onions? I'd rather keel over with hunger than eat the stuff.
So, I had a bowl of matzoh soup and got my money back. The waiter came over and said something about me being a really nice young Jewish girl who knew her liver, and every time I came in after that, I was treated like a special guest.
In those old delis, you had to prove you were a good patron. That was another thing I used to dislike, but now I have some nostalgia for those days. Still, in all, I can't imagine eating a chicken liver, but I'm tempted.
Photo note: A picture of chopped liver would be unpleasant. It's not a pretty food. Instead, here's a bowl of matzoh ball soup, with a big matzoh ball (obviously). A post about this soup will surely follow. . .
Addendum: When I married, I brought a bowl of chopped liver and a box of Ritz crackers to my new parents in-law's home. Appetizers at their place were called "cocktails." My mother-in-law looked at in with suspicion. "What shall I do with it?" she asked. Hey, she was from Utah, and it is an ugly dish of food.
*To illustrate the importance of the "gotcha moment" with a delicatessen waiter, I offer the following joke, which needs a voice, pacing, hand gestures, and a Yiddish accent to deliver properly. Still, it isn't actually a funny joke, but it is a telling one, of one way a customer "got" a waiter. I've embellished it some for print:
Every day this man comes into the delicatessen for a bowl of matzoh ball soup. The soup is heavenly. He can think of nothing else he'd rather have and no one remembers him ever ordering anything else. He doesn't even bother ordering any more. Every waiter in the place knows what he's having: matzoh ball soup. That's it.
So, the guy comes in precisely at 6:15, just like he always does, and sits down at the same little table halfway between the front door and the deli counter. He always faces the street. A waiter brings him his soup, doesn't bother saying anything, and walks away. Customers come in and go and the man has not touched his soup. Finally, he speaks up. "Waiter, come taste my soup", he says. The waiter scurries over, annoyed. This guy's never complained about anything. Feh! "Why should I taste the soup? It's the same as ever" he says. "No" says the man, "Just taste the soup."
There's a pause. The waiter straightens his back and begins to explain how there couldn't possibly be anything wrong with the soup and how it's been made the same way every day for forty years. If anyone should know it, it's this guy. "I said, taste the soup" says the guy. "Buddy, I'm telling you. There's nothing wrong with the soup" says the waiter. He's getting disgusted and there's other people waiting to order.
"Okay. Listen to me. I'm going to say this one last time and you're going to do it. Taste the soup!" The nebbishy fellow has really raised his voice, which is a big surprise, and the other customers are looking his way. The waiter figures, what the heck, he'll taste it, no big deal. "Okay", he says, "I'll taste it."
He leans over. The broth is fragrant. He knows the soup is good. He reaches for the spoon. Where's the spoon? Is the man holding it? What's the deal here? And so, he says, "Buddy, where's the spoon?"
The man turns his tired eyes up towards to waiter and looks him square in the face. He raises his hand, which has no spoon in it. He points a finger at the waiter, and then pokes him in the chest, and says, "Gotcha!"
That's it, folks. The old no-spoon joke. Never was funny, but fun to tell. The punch line is a let down, but it's the story that counts. For those who's ever been in an old Jewish sit-down deli, it makes perfect sense.
Addendum and Correction: The 2nd Avenue Deli reopened in another location. You shouldn't trust this ex-New Yorker with her information! It's at 162 East 33rd Street (near 3rd Avenue).