By Ray Lesser
To many people, the word “schmaltz” connotes cheesy, overly sentimental, artistic slop. Like going to a Norman Rockwell exhibit while listening to Engelbert Humperdinck sing “Feelings.” But when I was growing up, the smell of schmaltz — rendered chicken fat — meant something delicious was cooking. My mom loved to fry up onions in schmaltz; this dish was called “grebenes” and was eaten as a snack, the way people of a different ethnic background might eat fried pork rinds. Other dishes Mom spiked with schmaltz included noodle kugel, chopped liver, and the best of all, matzoh balls. You haven’t had a matzoh ball until you’ve had one made with homemade schmaltz. Some of my relatives could eat a dozen of them in one sitting.
The problem with that kind of schmaltz intake is that you wind up — as some of them did — looking like a matzoh ball: big and round and soft. And back in the 60s, when we were in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, President Kennedy began to worry that too many Americans were beginning to resemble matzoh balls. So he reinvigorated the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and commissioned Meredith Wilson, creator of the Broadway hit The Music Man, to compose a workout song for kids.
This is how the “Chicken Fat” song came into being. Robert Preston, the original Music Man, recorded a six-minute version of this march, which was played at the start of every gym class in Boulevard Elementary School, and thousands of other schools around the country. Before Jane Fonda or Richard Simmons, “Chicken Fat” was the original workout tape of my generation. To this day, it often takes over my brain when I do certain exercises.
Touch down every morning, ten times!
Not just now and then.
Give that chicken fat back to the chicken,
And don’t be chicken again.
No, don’t be chicken again.
Other verses had us kids doing sit-ups, push-ups, jumping jacks, pogo jumps, twists, leg lifts, marching, running, and finally singing along, “Go, you chicken fat, go away. Go, you chicken fat, go!” Goodbye, matzoh balls.
At some insanely juvenile level, “Chicken Fat” will always be my exercise mantra. I still work out every morning, though now I call the exercises my “yoga routine,” but the truth is I’m just doing sit-ups, twists, leg lifts and trying to sing away last night’s noodle kugel. I do my best to focus on my breathing, or the Sanskrit chants my yoga teacher taught me, but my brain keeps circling back to the incessant beat of “Chicken Fat,” along with Miss Herman, our linebacker-shaped drill sergeant of a gym teacher, barking out commands as she led us through our workout, while the tinny record player, cranked on high, echoed through the cavernous gymnasium.
Miss Herman’s primary goal in life was to get us ready to pass the annual series of fitness tests that President Kennedy had instituted. Fortunately, we weren’t required to do the 50-mile hike that the President forced his brother Bobby to demonstrate. (Bobby completed the test slogging through snow and slush in his oxford dress shoes. As a reward, he was appointed Attorney General.) But Miss Herman wanted all of her students to be in the top 15 percent in all the test categories, in order to win the President’s Fitness Medal. Some of the tests were easy for me — like the softball throw — but the killer was the mile run. I think we had to run around the school five times, but it was always about 90 degrees the day we did the tests, so it seemed like 100 times, with our taskmaster yelling at me each time I trudged by: “Faster, faster, faster!”
The bottom line here is that exercise began to seem like a kind of patriotic torture. By 1964 or ’65, Miss Herman had us doing the same kinds of things they had our older brothers doing at boot camp to get ready to be shipped to Vietnam: climbing ropes, going through obstacle courses, crawling on our bellies. As I got older and no longer had a drill sergeant forcing me to go “faster, faster, faster,” I pretty much pitched all those exercises out the window.
But eventually, I started having problems with my back. Various doctors and physical therapists gave me certain exercises to strengthen it, many of which closely resembled the exercises we’d learned as kids. Then I began to have aches and pains in other parts of my anatomy: my shoulder, my hip, my neck. Of course there are sets of exercises to improve the function of all these parts, as well, and I gradually added them to my morning “Chicken Fat” routine. A friend suggested yoga was good for some of my physical ailments, so I began doing that, too. The best thing about yoga is that some of the exercises simply involve breathing — something I’m still pretty good at — although they occasionally require you to twist yourself into the shape of a pretzel first. And let’s not forget about doing our cardio: running, biking, swimming, “faster, faster, faster.”
Judging by the ongoing onsets of aches and pains in places I never really knew I had, I think that by the time I’m 80, I’ll just wake up every morning and start doing an exercise routine that won’t end until I go to bed in the evening. And in my dreams, I’ll be eating matzoh ball soup and watching all that chicken fat disappear like magic.