Chopped Liver and a Lost Literary Friendship

I’m going to interrupt my impeachment coverage this week in part because there’s not much new to say about the procedural wrangles that have led up to the depositions, which (as of this writing) are still under wraps. But also because I have some remarkable news to report about the results of a perhaps even more significant judicial-well, quasi-judicial-proceeding: the blind taste test of New York City chopped chicken liver, conducted by the highly esteemed, utterly objective and incorruptible “Food Maven” of The Forward , the leading Jewish weekly in America. A blind taste test that pitted the chopped chicken liver from Barney Greengrass I’ve celebrated in these pages against chopped livers championed by New York magazine’s “Insatiable Gourmet,” Gael Greene, and by essayist Daphne Merkin in The New Yorker . A blind taste test that turns out to be a devastating impeachment in its own right-an impeachment of the taste and judgment of the latter two writers.

In a front-page piece on what The New York Times first dubbed “the chopped liver war,” Forward food maven Matthew Goodman made the point that “New Yorkers are as proprietary about their chopped liver as Parisians are about their croissants. A New Yorker who really knows the best chopped liver in the city possesses the unshakable self-confidence of one who has, say, finally solved the longtime problem of who among Mantle, Mays and Snider was the best centerfielder.”

In other words, this is a war not just over chopped chicken liver, but over taste discernment, sensual attunement and judgment, mysteries deeper than mere schmaltz.

And just who would that person be, that “New Yorker who really knows the best chopped liver in the city,” who’s unlocked a mystery akin to the riddle of the sphinx, or the question of what God was doing before the Creation? To determine the answer, Mr. Goodman arranged a carefully objective blind tasting of chopped liver from Barney Greengrass, from the five places Gael Greene claimed had better chopped liver (Katz’s Deli, the Second Avenue Deli, the Stage Deli, Zabar’s and the Carnegie Deli) as well as chopped liver from Fischer Brothers & Leslie, the kosher butcher Daphne Merkin promoted in a recent Talk of the Town piece, and an entry from Murray’s Sturgeon Shop, a rival smoked fish emporium to Barney Greengrass.

Do I need to tell you who won? Let me quote the Forward Food Maven’s blind taste test judgment upon Barney Greengrass in full:

“A blind taste test confirms it: This is the best chopped liver in the city. The key to this chopped liver’s success is balance: The consistency is rough-chopped and the texture faintly oily, yet it retains an admirable lightness; the taste is strong and well defined, yet also surprisingly sweet, without leaving much of an aftertaste. But what put this one over the top was the remarkably large, high-quality chunks of liver throughout. Only the too-many pieces of egg keeps this from being the perfect chopped liver.”

Jeez, enough with the egg already. Get over it. My other slight quarrel with the Forward Food Maven is that he doesn’t seem to get the tone-tongue-in-cheek hyperbole-of my remark that Barney Greengrass chopped liver is “a supreme achievement of Jewish American civilization.” But that faint objection scarcely mars an appraisal which completely vindicates my judgment and leaves the other choices in the dust. I think we can safely say the chopped liver war is over, the victory is total. Only Katz’s Deli, of the other seven contenders for the throne, is given any real praise. And listen to the descriptions of some of Gael Greene’s favorites from the Forward Food Maven’s blind tasting: “disconcertingly rubbery” (the Second Avenue Deli); “the first bite tastes frankly more like egg salad than chopped liver” (Stage Deli); “the taste is very livery, but that’s the main problem: The heavy liverishness is not adequately balanced … it’s like eating a piece of liver on a plate” (Zabar’s); “by far the worst chopped liver of the bunch, it was also by far the most expensive. This is chopped liver for tourists, or for anyone else who doesn’t know from chopped liver. Feh” (Carnegie Deli).

In other words, chopped liver for Gael Greene, four out of five of whose choices were greeted with one eloquent variation of “Feh” after another in the blind taste test.

And finally we come to Fischer Brothers & Leslie, the chopped liver celebrated by Daphne Merkin in a Talk of the Town piece: “The problem, quite simply, is the taste” said the Forward ‘s Food Maven of Ms. Merkin’s choice. You could say, with apologies to Ms. Merkin (author of an essay about the erotic appeal of spanking), the Forward gave her chopped liver choice a good spanking: “It’s way too salty, which makes the liver sour and leaves a strong aftertaste.”

Fascinating! That description of Ms. Merkin’s favored chopped liver could easily apply to her little Talk of the Town disquisition on the chopped liver wars: sour and leaves an aftertaste.

The Forward shrewdly busted Ms. Merkin on her condescension to the chopped liver contention, her assertion that the whole fuss over chopped liver was a bit beneath her, a bit too distastefully “borscht belt” for a serious littérateur like herself. It was, she said, “an acute case of ethnic nostalgia”: one not suffered by “observant Jews”-or (as The Forward put it), “one can’t help but feel she means ‘genuine’ Jews.” Exactly. She goes on to read the minds, explain the motives of the partisans in the chopped liver wars with the insulting aperçu that “It seems that the further you’ve moved from your origins, the more you look back in hunger.”

In other words, for someone like her whose relation to her Jewishness is oh-so-much-more genuine this fuss over chopped liver reflects the deracination of Jews less authentic than her, seeking a simulacrum of that which she already possesses.

But since she feels she’s psychic enough to read the minds and motives of other writers she hasn’t met, to insult them in this fashion, let’s look a little more closely at her motivations, what we know of them, and see whether there might be some agenda she didn’t disclose to her readers (and I suspect her editors) which might explain her sneer-what some might call the sour grapes beneath her sour liver. Just speculating, of course, the way she speculates in her piece, but with a little bit more inside information.

It’s really a story about a New York literary friendship that might have been but never was. In a way, it reminds me of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s comic tales of rival scribes in the Warsaw writers club in the prewar period before Hitler destroyed the golden tradition of Yiddish writing. And Hitler, alas, may play a role here, too.

Both Ms. Merkin and I had books with Hitler in the title published last year. The title essay of her book, “Dreaming of Hitler: A Memoir of Self-Hatred,” begins with an account of her recurring dreams as an adolescent of romantic encounters with Hitler. With a Harlequin romance-type Hitler: “His eyes were a piercing light-blue with tiny pupils, and he sported a perky, abridged mustache” (excellent adjective choice: “perky”). In Ms. Merkin’s romantic dream encounters, after “a lot of gentle argument, of the sort two lovers might engage in,” after Hitler strokes her hair affectionately, Ms. Merkin succeeds in convincing Hitler that he really shouldn’t hate the Jews, or that he hated the Jews for the wrong reason-“and 6 million lives were about to be spared!”

I will forbear making any judgments about her dream, or the essay that follows in which she comes to reconnect with her Jewish roots after she takes time off from attending the Frankfurt Book Fair to make a brief, unsuccessful search for an ancestor’s grave in the Jewish cemetery of Frankfurt.

But I would quarrel with what she presents as her explanation for Hitler’s hatred of the Jews, since that is my expertise: Hitler explanations and the agendas behind them. She tells us that her explanation had “little to do with what I considered to be the pompous male line of thinking about the world, with theories of a humiliated post-World-War-I Germany or of an entrenched national anti-Semitism.” I wonder if she includes in her condemnation of such “pompous” thinking the powerful thesis articulated by the late Lucy S. Dawidowicz in her landmark book The War Against the Jews . I guess Ms. Merkin probably would condemn it, so quaintly is it concerned with an exacting examination of the historical origins of Hitler’s anti-Semitism. It seems that Daphne Merkin knows better than Lucy Dawidowicz, with her drearily rigorous historical concerns. Daphne Merkin thinks it’s all about Hitler’s daddy: “Having been fascinated by Hitler for years, I had read enough about his background to know that the real object of his fury was his father, Alois, who had beaten him with Teutonic conviction,” she tells us. (In other words, Hitler’s daddy spanked him too hard. Hmmmm … Let’s not go there.) In fact, this is the widely discredited theory advanced by Alice Miller in For Your Own Good , her tract against corporal punishment, a theory whose shaky historical foundations, whose naïve and reductive theoretical logic I criticized first in a 1995 New Yorker article and then in my book.

Curiously, in the revised hard-bound version of Dreaming of Hitler , Ms. Merkin appends to her Hitler’s-daddy explanation an abrupt parenthetical retreat from that claim: “Although I am not one of those who believe, as the analyst Alice Miller argued, that Hitler’s genocidal impulse can be attributed to a single cause, such as child abuse.” In fact, that’s exactly what she does argue in the previous sentence: ” I had read enough to know … that the real object of his fury was his father Alois, who had beaten him …”

A possible explanation for this contradictory insertion: She added this awkward parenthetical retraction after she read my critique of Alice Miller’s naïve single-causation theory in The New Yorker in 1995. (The parenthesis does not appear in the original 1989 version of her story, published in Esquire.) By adding the parenthesis, she apparently hoped not to appear naïve historically while still somehow preserving her bad daddy thesis, but it doesn’t quite add up.

But let’s set aside this confusion and return to the Warsaw writers club-type comedy of literary manners. One evening last year, not long after Ms. Merkin’s book Dreaming of Hitler had been published, and not long before my book Explaining Hitler was to be published, I got a call from my sometime phone-friend Jonathan Schwartz, the gifted radio man. Jonathan told me he was having dinner with his friend Daphne Merkin, and he decided he had to call me right there and then to suggest we get together. After all, he said, in so many words, Daphne and I had Hitler in common.

Charming as he is, I think Jonathan’s well-intended enthusiasm made both Ms. Merkin and me slightly uncomfortable. There followed a period of phone-tag attempts at arranging a get-together, a series of rescheduling near-misses that then trailed off into the busy-ness of New York life, although I think the ball was last in my court, where I let it lie.

So there the matter rested until January, when her disdainful piece disparaging the chopped liver wars as “borscht belt” stuff appeared. One hears in that condescending “borscht belt” sneer the old German Jewish disdain for the vulgarity of more recent Russian Jewish immigrants and their delight in American popular culture. I guess to Ms. Merkin, Groucho Marx is a less authentic Jew than her kind, although in some respects I’d argue that even borscht belt fixture Shecky Greene is more authentically Jewish than someone who looks down her nose at Jewish popular culture as evidence of “ethnic nostalgia.”

But there is one other Warsaw writers club-type moment I should mention here. One that took place while we were still playing phone tag. A report I got about Ms. Merkin’s reaction to a review of my book in The New York Times . The report, from a pretty good source, said that the day the review came out, someone asked Ms. Merkin, “Did you read the rave review Ron’s Hitler book got in The Times ?” According to my source, her reply was not exactly the warm surge of delight for a fellow writer who spent an arduous 10 years of his life wrestling with a difficult book. It was more along the lines of, No, I haven’t read it (the review), and I’m not going to.

Hey, that’s understandable. I’ve been there. I’ve felt Glückschmerz (the opposite of Schadenfreude : not joy at another’s sorrow, but sadness at another’s good fortune; Glückschmerz is a coinage of “Wanda Tinasky,” the pen name of a now silent columnist for a Californian newspaper, The Anderson Valley Advertiser , in the 80’s, a writer some have identified as Thomas Pynchon). Glückschmerz is a major writerly emotion, let’s face it. I’m not condemning it, I’m just wondering whether a little more stringent and honest self-examination on Ms. Merkin’s part might have revealed to the author of Dreaming of Hitler (the paperback edition of which did not appear to offer any quotes from a Times review) that her disdainful disparagement of the motives of the author of Explaining Hitler , might seem , at least to some, to derive from a case of displaced Glückschmerz . Or should we call it “Hitler envy”?