On Chickens, Cottonseed, and the Curious Case of Ashkenazi Ailments

Jewish grandmothers. Those benevolent despots with the power to guilt-trip a scorpion into submission. Their cooking? Weaponized love in the form of brisket and blintzes, all bound together with liberal lashings of glistening schmaltz. Schmaltz, the rendered essence of a chicken’s corpulence, is the liquid gold of Ashkenazi cuisine. But schmaltz was a compromise forced on the Ashkenazi. There were no olive trees in northern Europe. Butter, that unctuous nectar of the Gentiles, was strictly off-limits to anyone trying to keep kosher. Lard – well, that’s a hard no, folks. Then there’s rendered beef fat. Good luck finding a reliable supply of that in the shtetls of 12th century Poland.  So chicken fat it was.

But schmaltz, like any precious resource, is subject to the laws of supply and demand. And for the Jews who fled pogroms and poverty in Eastern Europe to the tenements of turn-of-the-century New York, those laws were positively draconian. Picture, if you will, a pious Yiddishe mama attempting to raise a brood of chickens in a cramped Brooklyn apartment. Imagine the clucking, the feathers, the stench of kosher poultry mingling with tenement squalor… It’s a scene out of Kafka on acid.

No chickens meant no schmaltz, and that meant a culinary crisis for the Ashkenazi. This culinary pickle is where the good folks at Procter & Gamble, purveyors of fine soaps and industrial lubricants, seized their moment. Those corporate Einsteins realised that their newly concocted Crisco– a greasy, white brick of cotten-seed oil – could play the part of ersatz schmaltz. It was odourless, shelf-stable, and more importantly, pareve (i.e., neither meat nor dairy, and thus kosher-friendly).

Crisco became the manna of the masses. Rabbis were recruited to bless it, Yiddish cookbooks sang its praises, and before you could say “Oy vey!”, Jewish households were frying, basting, and baking with industrial zeal. Crisco was the culinary equivalent of Esperanto – a neutral zone where tradition met convenience, where Old World tastebuds could assimilate into the American melting pot.

But fate, that fickle mistress, had other plans. While Ashkenazi Jews were deep-frying their latkes in Ohio, a seismic shift was taking place. Israel was born, and with it, a wave of Sephardic Jews from the Mediterranean and North Africa crashed onto its shores. These sun-kissed Semites didn’t know schmaltz from schmutz. Their culinary tradition revolved around olives and their blessed oil, a world away from the pale ghettos of Europe.

And – bless their healthy hearts! – It seems that their seed oil free diet might hold the key to a rather puzzling paradox: why is testicular cancer so staggeringly common among Ashkenazi Jews, yet virtually unheard of among their Sephardic brethren? Scientists mumble about genetics and other such nonsense, but could the answer be staring us in the face? Could it be as simple as ersatz schmaltz vs. olive oil?

The irony, of course, is delicious. Just as Crisco solved one culinary dilemma for the Ashkenazi, it may have unwittingly created another far darker problem. It’s a lesson in unintended consequences, and a sobering reminder that even the most seemingly innocuous of dietary choices can have echoes down the generations.

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