It has neither the quiet sophistication of a samovar nor the humble rumble of a rolling pin. But is there a cooking utensil with a more Yiddishe soul than the hakmeser, the indispensable hand-held chopping knife whose seamless crossing from shtetl to New World is still in evidence today?
Of all the gizmos in my kitchen, it’s the cheap, low-tech hakmeser I often reach for to make quick, fuss-less work of eggplant, vegetarian pâtés and whatever else smashes well against the side of a stainless steel bowl under the power of a human hand.
Clearly, what worked for my grandmother works for me.
Of course, women of her generation had a sentimental, if not symbiotic, attachment to their hakmesers, one of the few wares that easily slipped into a suitcase and out of the shtetl. Plenty of hakmesers crossed the ocean with them from Russia or Eastern Europe to become a workhorse in their North American kitchens, still years away from containing blenders and to-the-moon food processors.
Gefilte fish would get its start under the blade of a hakmeser, and when modern appliances eventually eclipsed it, our postwar mothers persisted in wielding their hakmesers for traditional favorites like chopped liver, herring salad and gehakte green beans and eggs.
While recipes varied, the tool of their trade looked remarkably similar: a wide, semi-circular steel blade with handle attached at the top, like a briefcase; gripping the handle, one proceeded to hak (chop) with the meser (knife) in rapid up-and-down motion.
But it’s rare to find reference to the implement in Jewish cookbooks. An exception, though, is a wonderful “miming of bubbe chopping” anecdote recounted by Wynelle Stein in “Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant” (Simon and Schuster/Fireside, 1990).
Yet mention the device to women of a certain age, and the recollection is instant and noisy; we don’t see as much as hear the memory, a steady click of steel striking wood. That’s because every hakmeser had a soul mate — a wide, shallow shisl (mixing bowl), often made of wood.
By the 1960s, women had (largely) dispensed with hand-chopped gefilte fish. But once in a while, a hearty Yiddene pounding away would rouse a neighborhood from its summer stupor. Sitting outside on a Friday morning, a shisl the size of a flying saucer in her lap, she’d keep up a nice, steady beat (think Ringo) or make manic like Keith Moon. Either way, the job got done, judging from the scent of simmering gefilte fish thereafter.
While we may have lost that homing signal to a Jewish neighborhood, the hakmeser managed to not only survive but find a comfy niche in post-modern Jewish kitchens.
Petite and wafer-thin, with a sturdy, forged-iron handle, my $2 hakmeser gives new meaning to “less is more”: It has outlived several electric choppers, stayed rust-free and is the only culinary tool remaining from when I first set up house 34 years ago. With minimal need for space and rinse-under-the-tap maintenance, is there a better foil for cooking’s high-tech divas?
No wonder this Flintstone-like implement appeals to cooks like me, who regard the food processor as too much of a production. It’s not just simplicity but control over the finished product we appreciate. With a hakmeser you get a nice texture, a third dimension between smooth and chunky (great for roasted eggplant), which even a few extra smacks won’t turn into baby food.
Belle Ziniuk of Montreal can attest to that control factor. When she needs to chop nuts for her special Romanian honey strudel, Ziniuk invariably turns to the red-handled hakmeser she bought as a young bride almost 60 years ago.
“I’m after that perfect size and texture,” she said, explaining that the nuts go into a shisl for a final grind under the hakmeser after first “rolling over them like a Cadillac” on a cutting board.
While strudel-making is beyond me, this much I do know: Should there be only one choice of kitchen utensil to save in event of fire, it would be, hands down, my hakmeser.
Dorothy Lipovenko is a writer living in Montreal.