Going Cold Turkey

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2013-12-26 – It’s the morning after. I still can barely move. The scale is up four pounds. It doesn’t even make sense based on the number of calories I ate—and I shoveled snow twice yesterday—but that’s where it stands. The verdict is clear. I have to go cold turkey!

Fortunately, there’s a good supply of cold turkey in the refrigerator.

And cold turkey isn’t going to pack the pounds on. As these things go, turkey is pretty low in calories. You could eat a cup of it for not much more than 200 calories.

My son Nat, who is a chef, gave me a book called The Book of Schmaltz: Love Song to a Forgotten Fat by Michael Ruhlman for Christmas. (Isn’t that a great title?) For those of you who have forgotten, Schmaltz is rendered chicken fat, a kind of kosher lard. My dad used to put schmaltz on bread the way Greeks or Italians might do with olive oil. As I grew up, we always had a jar of schmaltz in the refrigerator, often store-bought at the kosher market, but often made by my bobbe (grandmother), and sometimes made by my mother.

A cup of schmaltz is just over 2,000 calories, ten times the calorie density of cold turkey—not that you’d sit down to eat a cup of schmaltz—this is just for comparison.

So what was an alter kocker like me doing at a Christmas dinner? Eating, of course. That’s the thing about religion: once you get past the sponsorship, it’s all pretty much the same. So there I was eating, just like I would do at a Hanukkah feast or a Passover Seder. In Yiddish, there are two words for eating: essen and fressen (the same as in German). Essen is refined. Fressen is enthusiastic. I was fressing. As was the whole family.

My niece Valarie made a ham and a rib roast. Both were delicious. The ham reminded me of the ham her mother Tess (may her memory be for a blessing) once served me. Tess, a congenital iconoclast, loved the idea that serving me ham was breaking a taboo—no matter that I had broken the kosher taboo against eating pork a few years before.

My first foray into essential treyf occurred at a Chinese restaurant called Pekin House on Devon Avenue in Chicago (now closed). I broke both the taboo against pork and the taboo against shellfish in one dish called Singapore Noodles, which was delicious. The truth is, though, that I was never a big fan of cured meats. Yes, I was a Jew who didn’t much like corned beef. So as I added new treyf delicacies to my tasting palette, I had no ambition to get into ham. Tess’ ham changed my mind. And now Valarie has duplicated the feat.

And now I’m suffering. From ham and rib, not to mention all the sides and cheesecake and kolatchkes and mud pie.

And I’m reading the book of schmaltz.

Some years ago, health consciousness swept the worlds of traditional cooking. Jewish cooking was hit hard. Schmaltz went out the door. Chopped liver began to be made with mayo instead of schmaltz. But liver is high in cholesterol, so all the healthy chopped liver went uneaten—by those who cared. Instead we began eating fast-food fried chicken, which contained the same chicken fat found in schmaltz plus trans fats to boot.

I’m just trying to find some balance. A healthy way of eating.

So I’ve been looking at traditional recipes, which is why Nat gave me this book. It’s not the schmaltz, which can be eaten in moderation. It’s the flavors. Can those of us who lack the religious conviction to live a kosher life still derive value from the kosher discipline and practices?

So I’m looking for recipes. In Nat’s last gift to me (a cookbook called Jerusalem by Ottolenghi and Tamimi), I found some good traditional recipes that incorporate grains and beans. In this gift, I’m looking at a stew called cholent, which is traditionally made for the Sabbath. As a kid, I didn’t like cholent, because it involved different types of foods touching one another (ew gross!). But today, this sounds like a great idea. There are a lot of different ways you can go with this dish, some healthy and some not so much.

Today, so far, is a fasting day. I’ve been pretty good with my diet for several months, except for holidays. The trick for me is to get back to my routine quickly—cold turkey. So that’s what I expect to have as a light lunch.

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