Honeyed, And Lighter Than Air

On Language

By Philologos

Published April 07, 2009, issue of April 17, 2009.
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One of my fondest childhood memories of Passover is of my mother’s khremslakh, which were as easy to eat as they are difficult for the gutturally challenged to pronounce. (It’s done with the first and last consonants like the “ch” in Bach.) These matzo pancakes were different from the khremslakh — the singular is khremsl — that other mothers made, and they were, strictly speaking, not pancakes at all, because they were baked in an oven rather than fried. They were also thicker and more oval than round in shape. But they were eaten with honey, like khremslakh are everywhere, and I would give a great deal for a taste of one today.

Freedom Never Tasted So Sweet: Joan Nathan’s khremslakh with fruit compote for Cooking Light.
RANDY MAYOR, COOKING LIGHT, MARCH 2002
Freedom Never Tasted So Sweet: Joan Nathan’s khremslakh with fruit compote for Cooking Light.

Baked khremslakh, it turns out, were not my mother’s exclusive specialty and are not unknown in Jewish Passover cuisine, although the fried kind is more common. There are dozens of different recipes for it, some calling for a wide variety of additives, from cottage cheese to prunes and from chopped or ground almonds to peeled and diced apples, but in every case, these are added to the same thing: a simple batter made of eggs, water, a pinch of salt, and either matzo meal or whole matzot that have been soaked and shredded. (There is also a species of khremsl in which mashed boiled potatoes are used instead of matzo, but this would appear to be an ersatz version invented by the super-finicky Jews who do not eat on Passover what is known in Yiddish as gebrokts, matzo that has come in contact with water or other liquid.)

So much for the culinary aspects of the khremsl. But what about the linguistic aspects? Where does the word itself come from?

At first I was stumped. Khremsl’s final “l” seems like the common Yiddish diminutive, the plural of which is “lach”; but what about the “khrems”? I couldn’t find an explanation of it anywhere — nor, though it sounded Slavic to my ears, was there anything reminiscent of it in the Polish, Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian dictionaries that I consulted.

Moreover, as I began to gather what scraps of information I could, they pointed to the likelihood that khremslakh first originated with German-speaking Jews in Western Europe. Evelyn Rose, in her “New Complete International Jewish Cookbook,” mentions that they were known as gremshelish in Holland (the “g” in Dutch is pronounced like the “kh” in khremsl). Joan Nathan, author of “Jewish Cooking in America,” thinks they derive from Alsace, whence they traveled to Eastern Europe. Claudia Rodin, in her “Book of Jewish Food,” also mentions the Alsatian connection of khremslakh. And yet, linguistically, this once more led to a dead end, since I was no more able to find a Germanic etymology for “khremsl” than I had been able to find a Slavic one.

And then something occurred to me. Somewhere, I remembered, I had once come across a reference to Alsatian Jews eating a dish called fremsel soup. I Googled “fremsel” — and lo and behold, up came a recipe for it in a French-Jewish cookbook. This called for mixing eggs, flour, water and salt, kneading them into a dough, rolling out the dough

and cutting it into strips, letting them dry, and boiling them in a chicken or other soup. An accompanying illustration, apparently a 19th-century engraving, shows a bonneted mother slicing the dough into strips on a cutting board while her young daughter looks on. A braided challah lies on the table in front of her, and the word fremsel appears below, in Hebrew characters.

In short, fremsel soup was noodle or lokshn soup. And this time, the etymology seemed clear. Could there be any doubt that fremsel was related to the Italian word vermicelli, which also denotes a kind of noodle? To be sure, vermicelli, which were introduced into Italy from Sicily in the 15th or 16th century, are thin and short — the Italian word means “little worms” — while fremsel were wide and long, but such details shouldn’t faze us. As words change their form, so do the things to which they refer. And phonetically, fremsel can easily turn into khremsl. Try saying it, and you’ll find that the “ch” lies right on the path from an “f” to a uvular Alsatian “r.”

You will ask: But what, apart from consisting of eggs, flour (or matzo meal), water and salt, is the connection between noodles and matzo pancakes? Eggs, flour, water and salt, I would say, are the connection. Let us assume that fremsel, among Alsatian Jews, gradually came to denote not just noodles, but also any food made of these ingredients, and therefore matzo meal pancakes as well; that its pronunciation changed to khremsl; that the latter word eventually came to denote matzo meal pancakes only, and that it then spread throughout Ashkenazic Europe — that is, to Holland, Poland, Russia and other countries. It may be a bit iffy, but it’s certainly possible, no? I, at any rate, can’t think of a better account. If you can, drop me an e-mail. Just finish your khremslakh first.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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