For reasons I can't fully explain, I have been waiting for years to use the expression, "What am I, chopped liver?" It's my hasta la vista, if you will, the one sentence that I see myself saying with gusto in imagined social settings. Part of the attraction stems from the paucity of colloquialisms out there that make references to offal.
Or maybe it's because I really like chopped liver. I wasn't exposed to Jewish delis, selling liver and other godly fare like pastrami and rugelach, until my college years. The first time I ordered chopped liver, the man behind the counter scooped two large, perfectly spherical scoops of the stuff into a bowl for me and I ate it on the premises like it was ice cream. It was so good: creamy with chicken fat and the taste of fresh and sweet liver, with nary a metallic undertone. Neither whipped like a mousse nor dense like a pâté, the chopped liver had its own unique texture, carefully blended to achieve the right balance between airiness and substance. Years later, this is still the chopped liver I yearn for.
Chopped liver enthusiasts fall into two camps. On one side, the purists hand-chop the cooked liver with onions sautéed in chicken fat, adding just enough boiled egg to make the mixture textured. In the other camp, the experimentalists play around with the consistency, using food processors to achieve a finer, more puréelike texture. Additions of fresh herbs come into the picture, and maybe vegetables like celery to lessen the dominance of the livers. While my preferences place me squarely in the traditionalist camp, love your liver any way you want, I say.
What am I, chopped liver? The utterance has just the right degree of levity for expressing frustration—a mild, slightly ironic sense of being thwarted. The provenance of the term is unclear, but it surely has to do with the lowly status of liver in the ranks of meat consumption. Besides which, a platter of chopped liver is not pretty to look at. It's grayish and unappealing; even the tastiest specimen still looks like something you'd scoop out of a can of dog food. Whatever the source of the saying, it's hard to find the opportune moment to say it. It must be an occassion in which the offense committed is not grave, yet objectionable enough to warrant a verbal reprimand.
I found just such an opportunity last week, at Best Buy, as I was looking for a new netbook. Prices were already affordable and I could upgrade my RAM for a mere $40? I don't even know what RAM is, but it sounded like a fine deal to me. After much confusion and hand-wringing, I finally arrived upon a few models to my liking and went to flag down an employee. Doing so was an ordeal in itself, but finally, a man from the computers department walked over to where I was standing.
Pleasant enough though clearly bored by his work, the man was all but two minutes into explaining the inner workings of battery life when someone diverted our attention. A tall, beautiful woman dressed in very form-fitting jeans, with curly hair tumbling down her back, approached the counter and said with a beguiling smile on her face, "I need help with picking out a laptop." Then she leaned ever so slightly into the counter, optimizing the angle at which we could perceive her feminine charms.
Suddenly the employee moved with the agility and speed of a man on a mission. Signaling to a coworker halfway across the store, the man turned to me and said, "Ma'am, someone else will be with you shortly while I help out this other customer."
Swiftly, he turned his back to me and walked away with the woman. "Now what kind of laptop are you looking for?" he asked her, "And what was your name?"
Uncomprehending, I watched the employee and the woman as they walked away, the woman's hips swaying side to side as she ambled down the row. Then I looked down at my own sweatpants. There was another splotch of duck fat from earlier experiments that morning, and maybe a dash of toothpaste or two. At once I understood, and the rush of the other customers all around, the blare of the speakers, and the flashing television screens on the walls became overwhelming and loud.
Buried feelings of shame and inadequacy surfaced. It never feels good to be slighted, even if the offense and the offender are trivial. For a moment, I allowed a sense of helplessness to wash over me: I was in a very large store, I needed a laptop, I still had no idea what RAM was. But as quickly as the shame had come, it was replaced by indignation, and finally, amusement at the absurdity of the situation. And then, it came to me—the right moment and the right time, provided I could still catch up to them.
Gathering my wits, I jogged over to the employee and tapped him on his back, uttering with as much gravitas as I could muster, "What am I, chopped liver?"
"What did you say?" he asked.
I flailed my arms. "I said, what am I, chopped liver?"
There was a vacant look in his eyes. "What's that supposed to mean?" he replied.
That he was ignorant of the meaning of my missile only confirmed my absolute superiority.
"Never mind," I answered, rolling my eyes. "I'll wait for someone else."
I'll never be sure of his facial expression as I walked away, but I'd like to think that his jaw dropped ever so slightly.
I left the store that afternoon hugging a sleeker, slimmer laptop to my chest. Of course, to celebrate my successful purchase, I went home and made chopped liver.
Being a traditionalist, I sautéed the onions in chicken fat, all the while rendering bits of chicken skin in the pan. In Yiddish, chicken fat is schmaltz, and the chicken cracklings are called gribenes. Beautiful words, don't you think? I chopped the gribenes with the livers. Toward the end, I dribbled in the reserved schmaltz, blending just until the mixture was creamy yet still rough nd textured. It was the chopped liver of my college years and it was not as pretty as pâté, but it was damn good.
Note: For kosher dietary guidelines, coat the livers in chicken fat and place under a broiler for 4 to 7 minutes, until the interior of the livers are pink and the surface is browned.
Chopped Liver with Gribenes
- 1 pound chicken livers
- 1/2 pound onions, thinly sliced
- 2 ounces chicken skin, or vegetable oil
- 1 boiled egg
- Salt and pepper to taste
Place a saute pan over low heat and add the oil. Add the chicken skin to the pan and slowly render the fat from the skin, turning the pieces of skin every few minutes. Saute the skin in the chicken fat until the pieces are golden brown. Remove the skin and set aside. Pour off all but one tablespoon of the liquid chicken fat, reserving the rest of the fat for later use.
Place the pan over medium heat. Pat the chicken livers dry with a paper towel and add to the pan. Saute over medium-high heat until the surface is golden brown and the interior is still slightly pink, about 4 minutes. Remove the livers from the pan and set aside. The livers will still be cooking slightly as you remove them, making the interiors perfectly tender.
Place the cooked chicken livers, sauteed onions, crispy chicken skin, and boiled egg on a clean cutting board. Using a knife, rock the blade back and forth, finely chopping the mixture until it reaches a fine consistency. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and blend further with a spoon. Dribble in the reserved chicken fat until the mixture is creamy. Add salt and pepper to taste. Remember that the chopped liver will be served chilled, so salt a little more aggressively than usual.