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A Sweet, Sour, Thrifty-As-Can-Be Dish That's Been in My Family for 100 Years

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Chicken gizzards are not as lovely a symbol as Proust’s madeleine, but they are the gateway to my childhood and to my New York Jewish immigrant roots.

Once or twice a year, I make a dish we call chicken fricassee, one that my mother and grandmother used to make. If it's Passover, I lay it over matzo farfel: Growing up, this was always the appetizer course for our seder meals, served over the broken up matzo bits after reading the first half of the Haggadah and before the matzo ball soup. Other times of the year, I'll spoon it over rice, as is pictured below.

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Chicken Fricassee
Chicken Fricassee

According to the 1910 US Census, my maternal grandfather was a boarder in a tenement apartment in what we now think of as the East Village on the cusp of the Lower East Side, just a few blocks from where my niece lived, some hundred years later, in one of her most upscale post-college apartments. He shared the one-bedroom apartment with a young couple and their three-year-old, plus with two female boarders; all of the adults were Russian Jews in their 20s who had immigrated during the first few years of the twentieth century and were now working in the garment industry.

My grandmother, also of Russian Jewish stock, was from South Philly, where she was the daughter of a peddler who called himself a “salesman” on the same 1910 Census. She worked in a millinery factory until she married and moved to New York in 1914.

This dish came out of the household they made together in Brooklyn. It may now be a hip borough, the origin place of many a food trend, but my sister once termed it our “Old Country.”

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My grandmother (left) and with my mother (right).

For my grandmother, probably shopping somewhere on Nostrand or Flatbush Avenues in the 1930s, pocketbook hanging from the crook of her arm, the ingredients for the origins of this homey dish would have been as thrifty as can be: beef bones with just a few shreds of meat and sinew clinging to them to add heft and flavor to the sauce, improbably sweet and chewy chicken gizzards and chicken neck bones practically given away by butchers, and a little tomato sauce, some sugar, and some lemon.

When I wrote about this dish last fall for the Jewish Food Experience, a DC-area platform connecting people around Jewish food both online and in person, I tried to uncover how my family might have arrived at its unusual name:

This fricassee bears hardly any resemblance to the creamy French dish of the same name. According to The Food Lover’s Companion, fricassee (frihk-uh-SEE) is a dish of meat (usually chicken) that has been sautéed in butter before being stewed with vegetables. Chicken? Check. But that is the end of the similarity. Certainly there is no butter, as this evolved out of a kosher house. Nor has a vegetable ever entered this dish, as far as I’m aware.

Further research showed that while there are other Ashkenazi families that make a dish called chicken fricassee, my family’s is not like these, either. Mimi Sheraton and Sara Moulton describe what seems to be the most common: a kosher paprikash featuring chicken parts, onion, some liquid and paprika.

Joan Nathan’s version from Jewish Cooking in America lacks the paprika, but includes tomato sauce. At some point, one of my maternal forebears conflated this style with a sweet and sour dish, creating a delicious amalgam of the two.

Further research showed that while there are other Ashkenazi families that make a dish called chicken fricassee, my family’s is not like these, either. Mimi Sheraton and Sara Moulton describe what seems to be the most common: a kosher paprikash featuring chicken parts, onion, some liquid and paprika.

Joan Nathan’s version from Jewish Cooking in America lacks the paprika, but includes tomato sauce. At some point, one of my maternal forebears conflated this style with a sweet and sour dish, creating a delicious amalgam of the two.

My grandparents, sometime in the 1940s.
My grandparents, sometime in the 1940s.

The earliest chicken fricassee I remember, from when I was a little girl, had gizzards and necks, with some flanken bones and meat. Later, my mother added chicken wings and then, even later, chicken drumsticks made an appearance. When I began making fricassee in my own home, I left out the necks, as my family were not keen about sucking the rich sauce out from the little bones. Sometimes, to please my husband and son, I make an all-beef version with flanken and tiny meatballs and no giblets at all.

While that version satisfies them, for me, it’s lacking the integral component. Once or twice a year, I make fricassee with gizzards and as I eat it, I am transported back to the my youth in the 1970s. My grandmother and parents are still with us, my aunts and uncles, my older sister, all of us around the seder table in our chartreuse green dining room. It’s the gizzards that provide the bittersweet portal.

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Chicken Fricassee

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Serves 6
  • 1 1/4 pounds lean, first cut flanken (top rib) from a kosher butcher. This is similar to short rib, but cut across the bone. Trim any large pieces of fat and cut into bite-sized pieces. Leave some meat attached to each bone.
  • 1/2 pound chicken gizzards, trimmed of any green or yellow skin and halved
  • 2 1/2 pounds chicken wings, cut at the joints and tips reserved for another use, or the same amount of drumsticks (I like to remove the skin)
  • Olive oil, for browning meat
  • 1 container Pomi strained tomatoes (26.46-ounce box) or canned or jarred strained tomatoes of similar package size.
  • 2 tablespoons sugar (I use natural cane sugar), plus more to taste
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice, plus more to taste
  • 1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
  • a few grinds of pepper to taste
  • About 12 ounces water
  • Rice, for serving
Go to Recipe

Read my full article on my family’s fricassee on the Jewish Food Experience. Excerpted with permission.