Ratatouille, as you most likely know, is a Pixar film about a French rat who longs to cook fine food. The climax arrives when the most famous, influential, and reputedly cold food critic in Paris samples the rat’s cooking. Rather than serve an ornate dish of the kind the critic is accustomed to disparaging, the rat elects to serve ratatouille, the humble vegetable stew.
The critic’s first bite transports him back to childhood and the memory of his mother serving him a fresh bowl of ratatouille. He is overcome by both the warmth of childhood happiness and what drove him to love food in the first place. His review the next day glowingly declares the rat to be the greatest chef in all of France; the critic then risks his career to follow the rat to the small restaurant he opens.
Recently I had a not completely dissimilar experience, only with fried chicken skins filling the role of ratatouille.
Gribenes, Yiddish for crisp chicken cracklings, appears in the cookbook of the 2nd Avenue Deli (the best deli in New York, hence the world) only as a side effect of the creation of shmaltz, and only then in the roman numerals section of the book. While used sparingly today, shmaltz was used commonly for centuries by Ashkenazi Jews as a substitute for butter, whose use in meat dishes is forbidden by kashrut. One way of producing shmaltz is to sauté chicken skins down into crispy bits, leaving a hot liquid fat that is easy to collect and store. The leftover skins remained as a treat to pair perhaps with a slice of bread and salt, to mix in with a matzo ball, or to devour on the spot.
The 2nd Avenue Deli, a place I escaped to as often as I could during the years I lived in New York, was where I was first introduced to gribenes. I enjoyed perusing the menu, trying out odd-sounding foods I had never heard of (like gribenes), and hoping for them to be delicious.
As you may be able to imagine if you are not familiar, gribenes do not disappoint. Served by the 2nd Avenue Deli at room temperature, they were a khaki-colored crispy mound draped in onions blackened by what appeared to be days on a skillet. I enjoyed them as a substitute for soup nuts in the split pea soup, or challenging myself to use them in exchange for french fries.
Earlier this week, my shul in Charleston, South Carolina, held a fundraiser called “Not Your Bubbe’s Shakshuka,” which was billed as an Ashkenazi Vs. Sephardic cooking competition. I decided to cook gribenes, both because they are delicious and, though I had never made them before, was most likely easy to make.
On the day of the competition, I dropped 20 lbs. of chicken skins into a giant tilting skillet in the industrial-style kitchen at my shul. A bit of oil. A pile of chopped onions. Some salt and pepper applied liberally. A couple of hours spent pushing the mash around in an effort to keep it from burning while avoiding getting burned myself by the popping oil.
I expected the dish to be a hard sell—few people hear the words “fried chicken skins” and want to dive right in—but I assumed that those who tried it would like it. As I served the food, there was a clear demarcation in the willingness of the clientele to try the gribenes that fell around the age of 50. Most people younger shook their heads at it and passed. But time and again the eyes of people older lit up when they saw the food. “I haven’t had this in 40 years,” one after another told me, each recalling that they had been served it last by their mother when they were a child.
“Do you want some?” I would ask them, my serving spoon hovering over the pan of cracklings, black onions layered on top.
“Do I want some?” they would sarcastically reply, eagerly putting their plate in front of me.
Most could not wait to move down the line or to their seat to try, and I watched Jew after Jew bite into the crisp mess and close their eyes to savor both the flavor and a memory from long before. The delicious and special treat that came only on occasion from their own mother when they were a child, and that they had not tasted since.
After the event, Gerry Katz, a member of my shul, still basking in the joy of eating gribenes, wrote me an email to tell me that he had calculated out the last time he had eaten gribenes: 1952. It had been 65 years since he’d tasted gribenes, since he’d had tasted his childhood, with all of his mother’s love encapsulated in each crispy bite.
Needless to say, I won the competition.
And I realized I had seen my own version of that feeling Pixar had portrayed in its movie about a rat who cooks. The manner in which food is a connection to our past and our heritage, the way in which it serves to elicit primal memories of family and comfort that perhaps can not be touched in any other way, how food connects us across generations and reminds us who we are and where we come from, perhaps especially when the food in question is delicious and even a bit sinful to eat.