Chopped Liver Stories

Part Three


It never enters into my mind that chopped liver should be made from anything other than chicken livers. I guess it’s because that’s all my grandmother ever used. Beef liver… I don’t know. I guess I’ve never really given it an honest chance, never really considered it as anything other than an inexpensive, but unacceptable, shortcut. I just humor the beef liver lovers with a cynical, raised eyebrow. Chopped liver is supposed to be made from chicken livers.

My grandmother always broiled the livers. That’s what you have to do to make them kosher, because the liver has blood in it, and the rules of Kashrut are strict here—no blood. Since Zingerman’s doesn’t keep kosher, we just brown them in the oven. But we still use only chicken livers. In a little irony of culinary inter-marriage, the livers come from Amish-raised chickens, which are much more flavorful than those from mass-produced chickens.

One secret of great chopped liver I learned from my grandmother is that you have to cook the hell out of the onions. Cook ‘em ‘til they’re the color of dark wood, as dark as my grandmother’s chopping bowl, streaked black, brown, and just a touch of gold left in the pan. It takes a long time to do this right, so most people don’t do it anymore. Make sure to cook ‘em in a heavy pan or the onions will burn.

And I don’t want to forget about eggs. You know how many hard-boiled eggs you have to peel to make a batch of chopped liver? For my grandmother it was just a couple at a time. But when you do liver en masse, as we do at the Deli, you’re talking a whole heckuva lot of eggshell cracking and peeling. But, what choice is
there really? We could
use those pre-cooked, pre-peeled eggs that come packed in white plastic pails, but they just don’t taste like fresh eggs. My grandmother would never have allowed them into her kitchen.

How finely do you chop chopped liver? Now there’s a question that’s been debated in Jewish kitchens for a couple hundred years.


As with all her cooking methods, my grandmother probably wouldn’t have given you a concrete answer. But she certainly would have shown you. She was from the school of coarse chopping. Not too coarse, not too smooth. The liver was supposed to have some texture, some life to it. Too smooth, and it became liver paste. (Sara Kasdan again says, “pheh” to too smooth.) Too coarse and the flavors of onions, eggs, schmaltz and livers won’t come together as they should. So how coarse? “Coarse enough,” my grandmother probably would have replied. Of course.

At Zingerman’s, we use a grinder to keep some of the texture my grandmother insisted should be part of a well-made chopped liver. And so the whole thing—livers, well-done onions, and hard- boiled eggs—is pushed through the grinder, a handful at a time. A little chicken schmaltz, a good bit of mixing, some salt, some ground black pepper. Now that’s chopped liver.

Every now and then, I treat myself to a chopped liver sandwich. It’s such seemingly simple fare that it gets less attention than our more glamorous sandwich combinations. And yet, spread on thick slices of hand-cut rye or challah, with a bit of yellow mustard, a chopped liver sandwich is the one that comes to mind when I need a little culinary comfort.

Although I try to taste as many items at the Deli on a regular basis, I know I can’t taste them all. But without fail, I make sure to taste the chopped liver whenever I can. Partly to check the flavor, to make sure the salt and pepper are right, that the onions were cooked long enough. Partly because I love to eat it. Taking that taste, my daily chopped liver sacrament, is my way of staying connected to where my family food memories began.

In my grandmother’s chopped liver bowl.