Pete Wells, The New York Times restaurant critic, did a delightful, witty review of Sammy’s Romanian Steakhouse, The Cardiolgist’s Nightmare on New York’s Lower East Side. Sammy’s serves a nostalgia drenched, schmaltz (chicken fat) drenched, heavy on garlic cuisine. The place evokes the yesteryear Jewish New York of The Bronx, Brooklyn and the Lower East Side. It is loud and clamorous with music from a non-politically correct pianist. Customers, fueled by vodka from ice enclosed bottles, join in the songs and dance between the tables. There are no strangers, just one big family. Wells got it right when he called it a “permanent underground bar mitzvah where Gentiles can act like Jews and Jews can act like themselves.” The restaurant provokes strong emotions. Love it or hate it. Wells wrote: “Sammy’s is the most wonderful terrible restaurant in New York.” BSK is firmly anti-Sammy’s. HG and SJ love it. Sammy’s is a once (maybe twice) a year place. More than that is suicidial. HG once left Sammy’s full of vodka, chopped liver and silver dollar potatoes. Driving uptown on the East Side drive, HG’s equally sozzled companion pointed out he was driving in the downtown lane. Both survived. Barely. Some sensitive Jewish readers have complained about the Wells review. HG’s advice to them: “Lighten up. Sammy’s is just a Jewish joke. Have a shot of icy vodka. L’Chaim.”
Ring those bells. Make noise. Shout happy new year wishes. Rosh Hashonah is upon us. Though not a practitioner of very orthodox Judaism, HG’s Mom would always make a tasty, multi-course dinner to welcome the new year. A feature was tzimmes, a sweet and savory carrot stew. The sweet element was supposed to induce a happy new year. Among the ingredients were chicken fat (of course), ginger, honey, a touch of cinnamon. And, plenty of chicken feet. HG”s Mom thought they brought a rich, glutinous quality to the “tzimmes.” HG loathed them. They looked very much like what they were — scaly feet, with nails — and were unpleasantly gristly and nasty. HG ate his way around them. HG still hates chicken feet. The Chinese love them, serving them up as snacks at Taiwanese movie theaters and, of course, they are a standard on dim sum carts the world over. HG likes every other part of a chicken–liver, heart, gizzard–so last year HG tried to give them another chance by tasting them at Nom Wah, the venerable dim sum eatery in New York’s Chinatown. Terrible. For some obscure reason, the word “tzimmes” is a Yiddish idiom for a fuss or tumult. HG’s Mom didn’t believe in coddling. When little HG sought sympathy for a cut or a scrape, Mom said: “Don’t make a tzimmes. It’s only a scratch.”
The old time New York Jewish waiter has disappeared. Nostalgia, of course, colors many memories of these flat-footed, bad tempered guys. They were not subservient. They did not introduce themselves: “My Name is Moisha. I’ll be your waitperson tonight.” They were not actors, directors, artists. They were career waiters and not happy about it. Most Jewish waiters disapproved of HG. At Gitlitz, located on Broadway and 79th, the best of all delicatessens, HG always ordered a sandwich that HG’s waiter considered an abomination: Pastrami and chopped liver on rye with Russian dressing. “You sure you want Russian dressing?” “Yes.” “Feh!!”, exclaimed the waiter. At the Paramount Dairy on W. 72nd Street HG would order warm gefilte fish in broth and wave away the proffered challah (egg bread). HG would accompany the fish with buttered onion rolls, undisturbed by critical glances. The Jewish waiter attitude was exemplified by a response HG received at Moscowitz and Lupowitz on the Lower East Side. “So, what’s good tonight?”. queried HG. “Whatever we got is too good for you.” The wonderful actor Fyvush Finkel, a stalwart of the Yiddish stage, was a long time customer at Cafe Royal on Second Avenue, the hangout of Yiddish actors, musicians, composers, directors, producers, press agents, playwrights, set designers and others connected with New York’s once vibrant Yiddish theater. Finkel always sat at one waiter’s table. He would watch some beautiful pot roast go by and order it. The waiter would shake his head. “Nem (take) deh chicken.” So, Finkel ate chicken. Went on for years. “Nem deh chicken.” Then Cafe Royal closed before he could taste the pot roast. Asked why he always sat at the waiter’s table, Finkel explained: “I am a masochist.”
An oddity. One of HG’s favorite drinks and favorite sweet confections are named for a brutal, hated military (or police) force. The Black and Tans (the brainchild of Winston Churchill, unfortunately) were a force of World War One veterans recruited to aid the Royal Irish Constabulary to fight the Irish Republican Army during the Irish War for Independence (1919-1922). They had a reputation for fierce brutality, much of it directed against the civilian population. Their name came from their khaki uniforms and black headgear. Some 9,000 served in Ireland and more than a third died or left the service. During their underground terrorist war against the British military in pre-Israel Palestine, the Irgun (and other Jewish militants including young HG, an Irgun sympathizer) often referred to British soldiers in Palestine as “Black and Tans.” Given all of that, it does seem a bit strange that HG often ordered a “Black and Tan” (one half Guinness Stout and one half Bass Ale, the perfect accompaniment to oysters). Howard W., HG’s journalistic mentor and an I.R.A. veteran, would often sup with HG on oysters at the Grand Central Oyster Bar. Howard would never say “Black and Tan” (he had killed a number of them) but simply order a bottle of Guinness and a bottle of Bass. As for sweets: In the Bronx youth of HG, the young man’s favorite ice cream parlor was Addie Vallin’s (Gerard Avenue and W. 161st Street). The “Black and Tan” was an ice cream soda. Coffee ice cream, milk, seltzer and a slightly bitter chocolate sauce mixed with chopped pecans. An incomparable ice cream soda.
One frosty winter night in Montcalir, N.J., many years ago, HG/BSK (and family) joined their friends, the great jazz duo Jackie Cain and Roy Kral (plus their daughter, Dana) for ice skating on the frozen pond in the center of town. BSK and Roy were graceful skaters, HG was a klutz. Everyone else displayed moderate skills. Lots of laughs as appetites were sharpened under the starry suburban skies. Apres skate, the group gathered around the Cain/Kral dining table for a perfect winter dish–steaming bowls of Texas chile. The hungry folk topped their bowls with grated cheddar cheese and chopped raw onion. The fiery heat of the chile peppers was tamped down with some dollops of sour cream. Jackie confessed that the secret of the chili (best HG had ever tasted) was the use of Wick Fowler 2-Alarm Chili Mix. It was the only packaged mix that Jackie ever allowed in her home. The mix included numerous packages–chile powder, sage, super-hot cayenne pepper, masa flour, oregano, paprika, garlic, salt. These ingredients were added to two pounds of browned ground beef, a can of Ro-Tel (or canned tomatoes) and two cans of water. A half hour (or a bit more) of simmering and you had a noble Texas treat. According to chili history, Wick Fowler in 1967, won the first world chili cook-off. The event was held in Terlingua, Texas, and the Chili Mix company was born soon after. Roy Kral died in 2002. Jackie died last week in the Montclair home where we first tasted her (and Wick Fowler’s) chili. So, here in New Mexico, HG/BSK (and granddaughter Beautiful Sofia R.) paid tribute to HG/BSK’s dear friend and lovely artist of song: Jackie and Roy cd’s were on the Bose. Wick Fowler’s 2-Alarm Chile was on the table. A bittersweet occasion as rollicking times were recalled and toasts were drunk to Jackie. Happily, her voice filled the room with its essence of champagne bubbles (SJ’s memory) and eternal spring.
For a few years, one of HG’s favorite lunchtime treats has been a big, steaming bowl of instant ramen–specifically hot and spicy Shin Ramyun Noodle Soup, created and manufactured in Korea and consumed throughout the world. Low in calories. No cholesterol. Healthy stuff, thought HG, until Gifted Daughter Lesley R. pointed out that a package contains 1040 mg of sodium. That’s a super abundance of salt. Not helpful for high blood pressure. Instant ramen has been under attack from American nutrition scientists (causing consternation in Seoul). With all of this in mind, HG has not given up on Shin Ramyun but has made (HG believes) beneficial modifications. Each package of Shin Ramyun contains a little package of dried vegetables and a package of soup flavoring. These are the villains, HG surmised. The noodles themselves are just a modest source of carbohydrates. So, HG tossed those packages (but adding a 1/2 teaspoon of the soup flavoring for color). HG provided taste by putting some tablespoons of healthy kimchi (sourced at Whole Foods) in the ppt with the water and noodles. Turned out great. HG has been experimenting. Tofu and a smidgen of soy sauce to the noodles. A beaten egg swirled in the soup and a dash of Frank’s Louisiana Thick Hot Sauce or Sriracha. In the future is noodle soup with a poached egg and bacon (low sodium chicken broth instead of water). Also the soup with watercress and snippets of ham. David Chang, the eminent chef and founder of the Momofuku restaurants, demonstrated that ramen translated perfectly into a Roman style cacio e pepe; then again, Chang likes to munch on the uncooked noodles as a snack. HG will take a pass on that one.
New York 1953 or 1954. HG was combining two careers: journalist and night club (mostly jazz joints) press agent. HG was press agent for the short lived midtown Clique Club where the late Sammy Benskin, a superb jazz pianist and an HG pal, was headlining with his trio. Sammy called HG and told him to get down to the club the next night when a vocal duo, Jackie and Roy, would be making a guest appearance. You will be blown away, promised Sammy. And, so it came to pass. They did “Mountain Greenery” and it was a revelation. Did their takes on some standards and the tunes became as fresh as a Spring morning. How to describe Jackie’s voice? Champagne bubbles. A mountain stream. Silver. Warm, glowing verbal precision with the earthy hint of her Midwestern accent. No, words aren’t ample, HG was surprised at the couple’s appearance. Jazz performers either wore outlandish clothes (women in super snug “mermaid” gowns) or were drug addled and unkempt. Handsome Roy Kral looked like an Ivy League fashion plate and beautiful Jackie Cain wore tweeds. Yes, tweeds. Not sequins. The two best looking people in the jazz world. (No need to recount their career. The NY Times and LA times had good, accurate obituaries of Jackie this week). Listened to their albums but never saw them again until Fire Island in the 60′s. Jackie and Roy were beach neighbors and HG/BSK formed a close friendship that lasted through Roy’s death in 2002 and Jackie’s death this week. When HG/BSK moved to Montclair, NJ. in the 70′s, Jackie and Roy soon followed (and that’s where Jackie died). So many joyous memories. And, some tragic ones. Their strikingly beautiful daughter, Niki, died in an automobile accident. Jackie and Roy were wonderful to our children. Jackie, who had an ethereal beauty, was a surprisingly robust cook in the Czech/Polish tradition. Our families ate, drank, played and laughed together for many decades. Now, Jackie’s gone. Another bright light from HG’s life has been dimmed. Permit HG to share a memory: Roy once recalled that the first time he accompanied Jackie was at a Chicago night club. Jackie was 18 and fresh out of high school. Roy was reluctant. Didn’t think much of girl singers. She changed his mind. Jackie sang that great Harold Arlen/Yip Harburg song: “Happiness Is Just A Thing Called Joe.” Said Roy: “The place went nuts.” Years later, at an HG birthday dinner, sang the song (unaccompanied) as a birthday treat. HG went nuts.
The time: Early 1950′s. The place: Murphy’s Bar & Grill on 45th Street and Third Avenue (the El roaring overhead). The occasion: A drunken informal observation of HG’s birthday. While HG ate pickled pork knuckles with mustard accompanied by boilermakers (rye whiskey with beer chasers), Dan M., a Daily Mirror rewrite man, sang HG’s birthday present: A full length, heart ending version of “Kevin Barry”. The many verse song told of the martyrdom at the hands of the British of 18-year-old Kevin Barry, medical student and soldier in the Irish Republican Army. Barry met his fate during the Irish War For Independence. He was hung on Nov.1, 1920. The song noted: “A lad of 18 summers, Kevin Barry gave his young life for Ireland and the cause of liberty.” Memorable was Barry’s request of the British: “Shoot me like an Irish soldier. Don’t hang me like a dog.” The British hung him. Dan M., who had a varied repertoire, followed “Kevin Barry” with a rousing rendition of the Yiddish music hall hit, “Romania, Romania” as done in the style of Aaron Lebedeff. Present at the raucous festivities was Howard W., HG’s journalism and life mentor. An I.R.A. gunman during the War For Independence and the subsequent Civil War, Howard W. did not join in the “Kevin Barry” song. He hated all Irish rebel songs and, disillusioned with violence, called his experiences “a catastrophe of blood, treachery and politics.” He despised the Irish-American habitués of Third Avenue bars and their loud Irish patriotism. ‘Whiskey warriors,” said Howard. He figured in an extraordinary incident where, as he boarded the Third Avenue trolley (they used to run under the El), the driver suddenly leaped out of his driver’s seat, abandoned his vehicle and ran away. It seemed that the driver, who had been an informer for the British, recognized Howard as an I.R.A, enforcer. He thought his final moment had come. Howard made no comment about the incident. There was much saloon singing during HG’s journalistic days. Nat O.,a newspaper motorcycle messenger (and a former driver for burglars), was an HG drinking companion. Nat, who was Jewish, had a remarkable Irish tenor voice and a vast array of sentimental Irish sings of the “Mother Machree,” and “Danny Boy” vintage. Whenever Nat raised his voice, he and HG rarely paid for a drink. Unfortunately, after many songs and drinks, Nat would become hostile and evenings ended with fisticuffs. Somehow HG emerged always without injury. HG’s favorite saloon singer was a quasi girlfriend, Alice C. Only in her twenties when HG knew her, Alice (mature for her age), ran away from home at the age of 14 and became a Las Vegas showgirl. This was followed by a career as a singer in Jewish Borscht Belt hotels where she learned a number of schmaltzy, tear jerking melodies. Her next career was as a heavy drinking Broadway press agent (that’s when she and HG became pals). HG, Alice, police reporters, bail bondsmen, loan sharks and Jewish thugs had a late night hangout: Dubiner’s Bar and Restaurant on Stanton Street off Allen on the Lower East Side. The specialties of the house were gefilte fish with hair-raising horseradish, chopped liver with abundant chicken fat and garlicky, room temperature fried fish. HG enjoyed these goodies with lots of vodka. Alice, a determined bourbon drinker, would sing. “Yiddishe Mama” and “Papirosen” were two of her big numbers. She could really milk those songs. HG does not exaggerate: Tears rolled down the cheeks of the tough guys. What happened to Alice? She abandoned her dissolute ways (HG played a small part in that development). Went to medical school. Became a pediatrician. Lived a productive and conventional life in the suburbs with two children and an investment banker husband. Go figure.
Green chile menudo and carne adobado tostadas at El Parasol. Red chile menudo, sopapillas and Christmas enchiladas at Sopapilla Factory. The sweet fragrance of freshly roasted green chiles circling around sweet peas and Japanese eggplants from Pojoaque Farmers Market. More roasted green chiles, shishito peppers, tiny potatoes and world’s best greens from Santa Fe Farmers Market. Watching the colorful fish in HG/BSK’s pond; long swims in the comfy warm water of HG/BSK’s lap pool; watching (with pre-dinner drink in hand) the sun coloring the Barrancas cliffs and mesas. Your guess is right. HG/BSK are back in New Mexico or as the state’s license plates proclaim: The Land of Enchantment. Adding to the joy is the presence of Gifted Daughter Lesley R. (for a too-brief visit) and Lovely Granddaughter Sofia R. (happily remaining to finish her prep school senior year at Desert Academy). BSK is planning to add a dog to the family. Though once opposed to such a plan (selfish HG likes all of BSK’s attention to be focused on HG), the aged hungry chap is now looking forward to meeting a new furry friend.
HG is often nostalgic about the spicy, fatty, garlicky dishes HG’s Mom constructed during HG’s Bronx boyhood. A particular favorite was kishke (also known as “stuffed derma”). This was a beef intestine (or chicken neck) stuffed with matzo meal, chicken fat (obligatory in much of Mom’s cuisine); garlic, finely chopped onion and a plentiful amount of of salt, black pepper and paprika. This was roasted and served with long cooked brisket and gravy or pan broiled liver and onions. Good? Like Dashiel Hammet’s Maltese Falcon: “It was the stuff dreams were made of.” Kishke often appeared on the menus of the Jewish “Borscht Belt” hotels nestled in New York’s Catskill Mountains. The principal road leading to these resorts was nicknamed “the Derma Road.” “Kishkes” was a Yiddish slang term for stomach or guts. HG recalls fight fans at venues like St. Nicholas Arena and Sunnyside Garden cheering on headhunting Jewish boxers with the immortal phrase: “Hit him in the kishkes!!”