It was delicious; it was stomach filling; it was right out of shtetl kitchens. It also was one of the foods of the shtetl that did not cross the Atlantic with Ashkenazi Jews. The dish is called helzel, a kind of Jewish sausage, and it had a unique place in Jewish cuisine. This Jewish delicacy was the tubular skin from the neck of a chicken filled with flour, onions, a little meat and spiced with garlic and black pepper. When cooked, the fat from the chicken neck permeated the culinary mixture and made helzel a delicious treat. Helzel was popular in the shtetls of Eastern Europe because it filled the balabosta’s requirement that no part of the chicken should be wasted. Delicious, yes, but a dietitian’s worst nightmare. Fat-filled helzel could increase your cholesterol just by looking at it and do not even think about the calories. This never deterred shetl Jews from enjoying one of their favorite foods.
But helzel also had a unique characteristic that made eating it perilous. In order to keep the stuffing in the chicken neck, it was necessary to use thread to sew both ends of the skin tube, This thread would disappear during the cooking process only to reappear wrapped around the teeth of anyone enjoying the last morsel of this Jewish delicacy. It is rumored that this tooth-wrapped-in-thread experience was the inspiration for dental floss.
Like so many attributes of shetl life and food, this Jewish dish has faded from Jewish tables. If only we could convince McDonald’s to put helzel on its menu.
Herb Belkin is a Jewish historian who occasionally delves into whimsy.