12
Mar
2012
Jayne Cohen's picture

Farfel

Jayne Cohen

photo taken by famfriendsfood, on March 27, 2013, CC licensing

Farfel seems to have found a place in American lore as an iconic name for man's best friend, an idiosyncratic-if slightly ethnic-Spot. 
There are scads of dog-related enterprises, pets, famous and not so-all named Farfel. Seinfeld fans will recall the wild, incessant barker, Farfel, that Jerry got stuck caring for when its inebriated owner suffered an attack of Bell's Palsy on an airplane.
It all started, of course, with the goofy, floppy-eared dog puppet used to hawk Nestlé's Quik drink during the 1950's and 60's. A human dummy, Danny O'Day, would sing the jingle, "Nestlé's makes the very best..." Then he'd pull on Farfel's mouth strings, and the hound would drawl, "Chaaaaawk-lit."

As a child, I thought it was an amazing coincidence that the Nestlé's dog and the tiny balls of Jewish pasta my grandma cooked with mushrooms and caramelized onions both shared the same name.
As it turns out, no coincidence at all. Farfel's creator, the ventriloquist Jimmy Nelson, adlibbing late one night in a Wichita nightclub, dubbed a toy stuffed dog that a patron had left there: "Farfel." It was a word he'd seen on a menu during a recent tour of the Borscht Belt circuit.
While Farfel dogs are ubiquitous-there's even a children's book cat named Farfel-the wonderfully chewy egg pasta farfel is not so easily found these days. At one time, supermarkets and groceries in areas with large Jewish populations routinely carried different brands and types of ready-made packaged farfel. Today, while it may take a trip to a kosher market or an online search to find, farfel is still currently produced by several makers, among them Streit's, Manischewitz, Mother's, and Columbia from the U.S.; Osem from Israel; Shim'on from France; and Ferencz from Canada. I've even heard of-though never seen-pre-spiced varieties of farfel.
To be clear, the farfel I am talking about-also known as egg barley, egg farfel, and barley farfel-is not the same as matzoh farfel, which is simply broken bits of matzoh, eaten principally at Passover when the noodle kind would be prohibited. Both farfels are used similarly: in soups, stuffings, and as a side dish.

Like the egg cream which has no eggs in it, egg barley contains no barley, but it does resemble cooked barley. 
To bring out the nutty-roast flavors and lend appealing color, farfel is best lightly toasted before it is cooked. Many packaged brands are sold already toasted, but if not, it's easy enough to toast the pasta bits in the oven or on top of the stove. 
Some food historians suggest a German origin, but there's a strong case to be made linking farfel to the Hungarian tarhonya, round, tiny egg noodle balls that arrived from the Middle East via the Balkans. 
My grandmother never made farfel from scratch, but if she had, she probably would have been a chopper. Just as the Sweet/Peppery Gefilte Fish line divided the population of Eastern Europe, in the same way, you could tell where a Jew was from by how she made her farfel. As Robert Sternberg points out in his book Yiddish Cuisine, Litvaks "prepared their farfel by chopping off tiny amounts of the dough and rolling them into balls with their fingers. In central Poland, they rolled the dough into extremely thin strips, cut the strips into tiny pieces, and rolled these pieces into tiny balls," producing a more uniform size. "In Galitizia, a hand-held grater was used to cut the dough into tiny pieces, which were then rolled by hand." He adds, though, that while techniques differed, the cooked farfel all tasted just about the same.

But wherever their farfel fault line fell, for many Jews, fancy-pants farfel-served in golden chicken soup or made pilaf-style; topped with paprika-spiked gravy, baked into a garlicky kugel, or accompanying savory brisket or even duck-figured prominently in Sabbath memories.
For Hasidic Jews, eating farfel on Friday night took on a mystical quality: the Baal Shem Tov explained that farfel comes from farfallen, a Yiddish word meaning "done," "fallen away," "finished." So by eating farfel, we signal that the old week is finished, and another commences-time to begin anew.

And many Jews serve farfel on Rosh Hashanah for a similar reason: at the New Year, it's not so much our past days as our misdeeds--or perhaps our enemies, depending on your perspective-that should be farfallen, fallen away, finished. The plenitude of the small noodle bits, mimicking the seeds of a full harvest, also symbolizes fertility and abundance. And round farfel brings to mind a coming year unbroken by unhappiness.

Then again, farfel-Jewish comfort food par excellence-is delicious any time of the year.

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