Two nights ago a miracle in the form of an attractive 70-yr-old woman appeared, like Glinda the Good Witch in her ephemeral bubble, waving her magic wand. POOF! Leftover food from her Yom Kippur breakfast appeared on the empty kitchen countertop at my friend’s house. Bags of bagels and tubs of whitefish salad, piles of lox and pans of kugel materialized like the poppy field that Dorothy and her nice friends get high and fall asleep in. In my delight, I suddenly found myself clapping my hands like a seal.
Where I live there is no easy access to food like this. Twice a year Whole Foods trots out buckets of chopped liver and brisket and I stand in front of the case wide-eyed, like a kid watching someone put a final squirt of whipped cream on a sundae. The Whole Foods employees look rather horrified as they are faced with the task of spooning the chopped liver into takeout containers, undoubtedly thinking, “This is not in my job description.” I want them to believe me when I tell them that it’s better than ice cream, but clearly they don’t believe me. And, when people ask if it’s like pate, I don’t betray the integrity of what it is—chicken liver, chicken fat, onions and egg. Just like people call Target, “Tar-jay,” I don’t buy into this notion of “let’s make it sound fancy” because it’s NOT. It looks like cat food, it’s got tons of cholesterol, it smells, BUT, it is the most delicious thing you’ve ever tasted.
It’s not an original subject, talking about a Jewish cultural connection to food. Every race and religion has one. My Puerto Rican husband will go to the ends of the earth for the perfect paella. An Asian co-worker of mine taught me to cook with bok choy and talked about the culinary wisdom her Thai father continues to pass on to her. We all love to gather around and eat food that is familiar to us with those that we have done it with before. My husband is not going to pick up the last remaining hunk of gefilte fish with his fingers like my brother would. New friends are not going to hang around in the kitchen and peel the skin off of a roasted chicken and shove it in their mouth like my sister would. At my former (Catholic) sister-in-law’s house, I would get a hand slap if I pinched a glob of stuffing, and be forced to eat the green jello mold that was a family tradition (no so bad, actually).
I will always give my father credit for creating one of the lovliest rituals of my childhood. Like Jews all over the the tri-state area, my father would get up early and hunt and gather. He would go to the not very originally named “Hot Bagels and Bialeys” which flashed in neon on a storefront, stand in line, and tell the guy behind the counter what to include in the baker’s dozen. They were picked from bins like the ones above, WAY before there were blueberry and chocolate chip bagels. The poppy seeds from the poppy seed bagels and the salt from the salt bagels would get mixed up with the onions from the onion bagels, so by the time he got home, the bottom of the paper bag looked like a dumped spice rack. We’d come back to them after eating, wetting our fingers and rolling them in the mixture, licking them off our fingers.
He would also go to what is called an “appetizer store” and get cream cheese and chives, whitefish rolled in wax paper, lox, muenster cheese and sometimes herring in cream sauce. With the resulting breath it’s no wonder we spent our Sundays in separate rooms.
When the question comes up, “What would you want your last meal to be?”, you know, which happens a lot, I would go for everything in both of these pictures. In honor of my mother, I might ask for a pot of boiled beef flanken which looks like this:
I’d throw in some rice pudding, a linzer tart and I’d HAVE to have mint chocolate chip ice cream, which incidentally, was the only thing Timothy McVeigh, Oklahoma City bomber, asked to have as his last meal. He certainly wasn’t Jewish.