Mmm, schmaltz. Delicious, yummy, dripping, greasy schmaltz. It’s like the smelted gold of the food world. Roast a chicken the right way and the schmaltz just drips down and bathes the vegetables. Make gravy with it, or save it for frying other things, or spread it on bread, or…
If you’re like me and first encountered the term in its figurative sense (I believe I learned it from MAD Magazine), the above might seem a bit odd. Who wants sentimentality in their gravy, or mawkishness spread on their bread? Elevator music for dinner, the Magical Strings for frying things in? But if you know only that meaning, the literal original will make it all make sense. Yes, schmaltz is chicken fat. Melted chicken fat. Primally pleasing, not a health food, not highbrow.
You can easily guess that this is a word from Yiddish. The schm is a good sign – we see it in other Yiddish loans such as schmuck and schmendrick as well as in the reduplicative derisive schm: “Chicken schmicken, it was a Cornish hen”; “Prefix schmefix, it’s a pseudomorpheme”; “Lean schmean, it’s covered in schmaltz.” All these Yiddish schm can also be spelled as shm, by the way, because they’re transliterations. Yiddish is properly written using the Hebrew alphabet. Schmaltz is שמאַלץ and can be transliterated shmalts.
So this word comes from Hebrew? Ha. Hebrew schmebrew. Like most of Yiddish, it’s Germanic. Yiddish is an offshoot of German with substantial Hebrew influence. The modern German equivalent is Schmalz, pronounced exactly the same way. It’s like if the German word for ‘fat’ were Fatt.
Which it’s not. It’s Fett. But there’s another word for fat, in modern German meaning ‘lard’ but historically broader in sense. That word is, yes, Schmalz. In Yiddish it came to mean chicken fat specifically, because that was the main fat that was available for cooking with. (It did maintain a broader sense of just ‘fat’ in schmaltz herring, an especially fatty kind of pickled herring.) Frying in butter is a no-no (not kosher to mix dairy with meat); lard (from pigs!) is no good either; and for assorted reasons, beef fat is not really a good option either. And there just wasn’t a whole lot of olive oil available in northern Europe in previous centuries, know what I mean?
Fortunately, melted chicken fat can be a pretty good thing. That’s why getting really lucky can be referred to as “falling in the schmaltz.” To dive into a vat of delicious liquid chicken fat… it’s like falling into molten gold. Only without the fatal burns that you get from molten metal.
But the connection is a good one. There is an English word related to schmaltz, you see. It’s a verb referring to melting… metals now, mainly: smelt.
Ha. Can you smelt a chicken? Well, guess what: I can. I smelt one yesterday, and it smelt damn good.