Just Say 'Nu?': Food and Drink, Part 3

A Monthly Column on Making Your Daily Life More Yiddish

By Michael Wex

Published July 17, 2008, issue of July 25, 2008.
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Since we’ve already had a glimpse of the main categories of Yiddish food, today we’ll look at everything you need for a balanced meal: vegetable, grains, main courses, a few uniquely Yiddish side dishes and something to wash it all down with.

Vegetables

BOOrik
beet

KROYT
cabbage

MAIR
carrot

OOgerkeh
cucumber

KNOBL
garlic

KHRAIN
horseradish

shaLATN
lettuce

SHVAIML
mushroom

TSIbeleh
onion

PEtreshkeh
parsley

karTOFL
potato

toMAT/ pomiDOR
tomato

For reasons that remain obscure, Yiddish hasn’t seen fit to develop many idioms or turns of phrase involving fruit. With the exception of such clichés as

DER EPL FALT NISHT VEIT FIN BOYM
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,

which you might as well just say in English, fruit doesn’t come out of Yiddish-speaking mouths with anything approaching the frequency with which it goes in.

Vegetables, on the other hand, are well-represented idiomatically, and the ones named above figure in some highly useful phrases:

ZOLST VAKSN VEE A MAIR/TSIbeleh, MITN KOP IN DR’ERD
You should grow like a carrot/onion, with your head in the ground.

S’IZ NISHT VERT KA’ TSIbeleh
It isn’t worth an onion
[i.e., not worth a fig].

TSIbeleh TRERN
onion [i.e., crocodile] tears

PISHN MIT TSIbeleh TRERN
to piss onion tears; to put on a tremendous show of bogus sympathy

A BItereh TSIbeleh
A bitter onion; a wet blanket, a buzzkiller

A ZOYereh OOgerkeh
a sour pickle; a wet blanket, a buzzkiller

ROYT VEE A TSVIK
Red as a beet (tsvik = boorik)

HEFker Petreshkeh.
There’s nothing that you (or they) can’t get away with [lit., “ownerless parsley”]

As for the kroyt, or cabbage, it should never be forgotten that old country yokels used to cover their heads with cabbage leaves when there were no yarmulkes to hand.


Baked Goods and Their Toppings

BAIGL
bagel

BROYT
bread

PIter
butter

KEEKHN
cake

LAIkakh
honey cake (to some Yiddish-speakers)

LAIkakh
sponge cake (to other Yiddish-speakers)

KEEKHL
cookie

SHMEER-KAIZ
cream cheese

LAKS
lox

EINgeMAKHTS
preserves

BILkeh
roll

If someone offers you laikakh and presents you with honey cake, announce that you’d been expecting sponge; if sponge appears, it’s honey that you wanted. A sigh, a rueful shake of the head, and a single useful phrase suffice for either situation:

BEI MEER HAYST DOOS NISHT LAIkakh
As far as I’m concerned, this can’t be called laikakh.

Or you could say,

BEI MEER IZ DOOS NISH’ KA’ LAIkakh
As far as I’m concerned, this ain’t laikakh.

Just remember: Laikakh is always the one you don’t get.


Fish

BARZH
bass

KARP
carp

SHTOKfish
cod

SHELfish
haddock

HAliboot
halibut

HEring
herring

HEKHT
pike

YAM-TSING
sole

geFILteh fish
stuffed fish

STROONgeh
trout

TOONfish
tuna

VEISfish
whitefish

OY, IZ DOOS A HEKHT!
Oy, is he/she a sucker (or sap)!

In an effort to promote the maximum possible confusion between English and Yiddish, the haddock is known as a shelfish.


Meat

RINDFLAYSH
beef

geBROTN RINDFLAYSH
roast beef

ptshA
calves’ foot jelly

HEEN
chicken

geHAKteh LAIber
chopped liver

KATSHkeh
duck

FLANken
flank steak

GANDZ
goose

ROOSLFLAYSH
pot roast

KISHkeh
stuffed derma

INdik
turkey

SHMALTS
fat

ER BLOOZT ZAKH VEE AN INdik
He puffs himself up like a turkey.

BLOOZN FIN ZAKH
to puff yourself up, put on airs

KIMTS aREIN, KATSHkes IN GENDZ
Time to eat, Come and get it, [lit., “Ducks and geese, come on in”].

Warner Brothers’ Daffy, incidentally, is not a katshkeh; he’s a KOOtsher. When used of individual members of the species, katshkeh denotes a female.

A kishkeh is an intestine or gut, and the kishkehs are as fine a place as any to land a blow or stow a meal.

IKH’L DEER GAIBM A ZETS IN DEE KISHkehs aREIN
I’ll give you a whack in the guts;

ER SHTUPT OON DEE KISHkeh
He stuffs his guts.

People who laugh their heads or behinds off in English, laugh themselves out of their kishkehs in Yiddish:

ZEE IZ geBLIBM OON KISHkehs LAKHNdik
She laughed her guts out [lit., “was left without kishkehs (from) laughing”].


Dairy

KAIZ
cheese

SHMANT
cream

LYOdehs
ice cream

MILekh
milk

SMEteneh
sour cream

DEE SAmeh SMEteneh
the cream of the crop, the very best; very high class people

Yiddish Dishes That Have the Same Name in English

TSHOOLNT
TSImes
KIGL
Matseh-BREI

You don’t need to know what they are, just be sure to demand them — unless you’re in a kosher restaurant, where your bluff might well be called. You want everybody to know that your equivalent of Proust’s madeleine is a bean-based stew rounded out with leftover meat and left to simmer from Thursday night to Saturday afternoon (tshoolnt) or a fruit or vegetable stew, the most popular version of which is made with carrots and canned pineapple (tsimes).

The kigl can also cause your life to flash before your eyes, as can a nice plate of matseh-brei. Kigl, usually called kugel in English, is a “pudding” — whatever pudding means when it isn’t rice, tapioca or Jell-O — made from either noodles (lokshn kigl) or potatoes (kartofl kigl), but never from both at once. It’s so definitively Yiddish a food that preferences for noodle kugels of varying degrees of sweetness are used by ethnographers to determine the internal boundaries of East European Jewish culture.

Matseh-brei, though equally subject to regional variations, is as close as Yiddish cuisine is likely to come to bacon and eggs. Soak some matzoh in water until it’s soft — not soggy, soft — scramble it up with some eggs (anywhere between one egg to every two sheets of matzoh to one egg per sheet, depending on taste) and enjoy…. A memory that one or the other of these can’t summon is a memory that I don’t have.


A Mendel of Eggs

In the old country, eggs were sold fifteen at a time, rather than by the dozen. In the area around Lodz in Poland, where my paternal grandfather came from, a package of fifteen eggs was known as a mendl, just like the male personal name:

GETS MEER A MENDL EIer
Give me fifteen [i.e., a carton of] eggs

Mendel is a very common name, but a mendl of eggs doesn’t translate into English as a “marty.” In other parts of the Yiddish-speaking world, a mendl was called a mandl, which can also mean “almond” or “tonsil.” mendl itself can also mean “sheaf,” and might well be responsible for the Salvation Army’s failure to make much headway in the Yiddish-speaking world. I can’t imagine anyone being converted by a hymn that speaks of “bringing in the mendls, we shall come rejoicing, bringing in the mendls.” It sounds more like a threat than a prophecy.


Beverages

KAveh
coffee

TAI
tea

ZAFT
juice

Zaft, of course, gives us the fabulous zaftik (sometimes spelled zoftig in English), which is supposed to mean “juicy” rather than “hefty.” A zaftik veib is a “juicy woman”— round and firm and fully-packed, she makes a man want to give a squeeze. The widespread English use of zaftik as a euphemism for “fat” owes more to Yiddish irony than to shifting notions of feminine beauty; it’s like calling a heavy woman “well filled-out” in English. Zaftik in Yiddish is closer to “built.”


Next month: Alcohol.

Adapted from “Just Say Nu,” by Michael Wex. Copyright (c) 2007 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.


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