Jane Civins of Cranston, R.I., sent me a copy of The Baker’s Catalogue, a mail-order business run out of White River Junction, Vt. The company’s many products include “Spreadable N.Y. Chocolate Blackout Schmear” ($6.95 for a 16 oz. can). This catalog also has a recipe for chocolate blackout cake — made, naturally, with the aforementioned shmear.
Ms. Civins was presumably amused by the Yiddish-derived “shmear” turning up in goyisher Vermont. But the word “shmear” (or “schmear,” “schmeer,” “shmier” or “shmeer”), in the sense of a spread, has by now, yes, spread to just about every nook and cranny of the United States. You can find it in Port Angeles, Wash. — where the Olympic Bagel Company offers you its “gourmet bagels,” including “honey and oats,” “jalapeño cheddar” and “apple crunch,” with a wide variety of “OB’s shmears,” such as “plain,” “very berry,” “garden veggie” and “garlic parma” — to Clemson, S.C., where Einstein Bros. Bagels offers you “a wide variety of bagels and shmears.” In comparison to some of these places, Vermont is as Jewish as the Pale of Settlement
The definition of just what a shmear is in America has broadened progressively over the years, too. Once upon a time, the meaning of the word was fairly narrowly confined to cream cheese or to butter. When I was a boy in New York, the lunch counter call of “Shmear one!” was an order, if I remember correctly, for buttered toast. (This was a variant on the far older “Draw one!” that referred to a cup of coffee.) Today, too, there are purists who stick to this sense: The 1999 Encarta World English Dictionary, for example, defines a “schmear” as “something such as cream cheese spread on a roll or bagel,” while the Internet’s Urban Dictionary alliteratively explains it as “a large spreaded [sic!] schlop of cream cheese usually schlepped all over a bagel.”
But these are old-hat definitions. Today a shmear can be anything that is soft and gooey enough to be transferable from the flat end of a knife to an edible surface without dripping on your pants, ranging from The Baker’s Catalogue’s Chocolate Blackout Schmear to the California Avocado Commission’s “Yankee Bagel Shmear.” The latter is prepared with one “ripe, medium California avocado,” two tablespoons of lemon juice, one green onion and one tablespoon of chopped fresh chili. In my day, this was known as guacamole. In New England, where the true Yankees live — and where until recently avocados were as frequently eaten as boiled monkey’s paws — it’s probably called “California green-mush.”
Nor is it entirely clear that Yiddish can claim sole provenance in this matter. It’s true that Yiddish shmirn can mean “to spread food on something,” just as it also can mean to smear, to grease, to bribe (like the English expression “to grease someone’s palm”), and to write or scribble more than one should. But German schmieren has all the same meanings, and Yiddish shmirkez for “cream cheese” is simply an academic translation of German Schmierkaese, and one that few, if any, Yiddish speakers probably ever used. (In Eastern Europe there was no cream cheese, while American Jews said krimchiz.) Indeed, in Pennsylvania Dutch country, as well as in parts of the Appalachians and eastern United States, “smearcase” is a common word for cream cheese — and “smearcase cake,” for which recipes can be found in a variety of American cookbooks, is quite simply cream cheese cake. It may be, then, that German can take some credit for the spread of “shmear” in its earlier, butter-and-cream-cheese phase, too.
One common meaning of the word “shmear” that is indigenous to neither Yiddish nor German, and that is an entirely American development, is that which is given by my Encarta (it actually lists it first) as “an entire set or group of related things.” This of course comes from the expression “the whole shmear,” meaning “everything” or “the works.” To what exactly “the whole shmear” originally referred has not been researched extensively, but it’s highly likely that it comes from the Sunday bagel breakfast so beloved of American Jews (who were eating bagels long before anyone else had even heard of them). As any traditional bagel breakfaster knows, there are three old-fashioned ways to eat one: just with cream cheese; with cream cheese and lox, and with cream cheese, lox and a big slice of raw onion. If your host asked you whether you wanted “the whole shmear,” you probably were being asked whether (who doesn’t want lox when someone else has paid for it?) you wanted the raw onion, too.
Since then, as we have said, the whole shmear of “shmear” has gone national and escaped the confines of American Jewry. Yet if you wish to shmear in a traditional Jewish environment, there are still opportunities to do so — in fact, this very month. On Sunday February 19, Congregation Shaarei Tefillah of Newton, Mass., will be sponsoring a “Shiur n’Shmear” breakfast at 8:45 a.m. And just in case you can’t make it, Beth Tikvah Synagogue of Westborough, Mass., has scheduled a “Shmear and Shmooze” for Saturday night, the 25th. Bring an extra pair of pants.