On its own it’s vile. Accompanying a pastrami sandwich it’s sublime. Why? HG is referring to Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Tonic. A mysterious beverage.
Big blizzard in the northeast. HG looks out the window at swirling snow and thinks of comfort food. Last night daughter Lesley was hit by mysterious bug. Concerned husband Massimo served her Italian comfort food, pastina en brodo (tiny pasta shapes in chicken broth with a dusting of parmesan). She’s better today. HG’s comfort foods: Buttery grits with softly scrambled eggs; egg noodles with cottage cheese; New Mexican menudo (tripe) after a night of heavy boozing; egg drop soup as prepared by Beautiful Sharon; linguini with garlic, oil and parsley; congee; age tofu (tempura tofu in broth); avoglemono soup; Perkins restaurant waffles doused with butter and artificial maple syrup (A perversion. HG has to have at least one in order to stave off boring perfection).
The golden age of cuisine Chez Ida Freeman (HG’s Mom) ended circa 1942. That year Ida Freeman discovered Victor Lindlahr’s radio program: “You Are What You Eat.” The criminal Lindlahr energetically promoted salads of grated carrots and raisins; raw shredded cabbage with vinegar; steamed vegetables; wheat germ; prune juice. HG could continue to wander through this chamber of horrors but, gentle reader, you get the idea. Victor Lindlahr took his place among my Mom’s pantheon of idols which included President Roosevelt, union leader David Dubinsky and actor Paul Muni. Banished from the table was the obligatory bowl of chicken fat to be smeared on rye bread or challah. No more gribenehs (crisp bits of rendered, fatty chicken skin very similar to, forgive me, Mom, pork cracklings or Puerto Rican cuchifritos). Farewell high calorie potato and noodle kugels. No more daily doses of blintzes and potato latkes. Yes, all of these earthy goodies appeared on special occasions but they no longer were part of the everyday Bronx routine. Lindlahr had cast his evil spell. Ida Freeman had become (partially) an All-American health nut believer. HG suffered. Oy vey!!!
HG’s father, Hershele Zvi Freimann ( Nicknamed “Grisha”), arrived in New York from Smulovich, Belorussia, somewhere aound 1907. His name was swiftly Americanized to Harry Freeman. He found employment as an assistant cutter in a lower east side garment factory. He slept on a bench in the rear of the factory. His pay was eight dollars a week. He woke very early so he could bathe in the public baths on Chrystie Street. He was always meticulous about his appearance. In order to save money, he ate one meal a day. It consisted of a large schmaltz herring, a pumpernickel bread, a raw onion, a schooner of beer. Cost: Eight cents. HG thought about Harry Freeman last night as he ate a substantial amount of Russ & Daughters (the store is located about two blocks from Harry Freeman’s first place of employment) schmaltz herring washed down with Russian vodka and India Pale Ale. An HG explanatory note: Schmaltz, in Yiddish, means animal fat (such as chicken fat or schmaltz). Yes, schmaltz also refers to cheap melodrama and sentimental fiction and music. This is a digression. Let’s get back to food. Referring to herring, schmaltz herring is a fish that is quite salty and has a unique fatty mouth feel. HG finds it addictive. The drawback: Ingestion of schmaltz herring leads to a raging, unquenchable thirst. No amount of vodka and beer can make a dent. You just have to live with it with the knowledge that this too will pass. As HG knocked off the schmaltz herring, he mused that more than one hundred years have elapsed since Harry Freeman arrived in the Goldener Medina (the Golden Land). Yes, schmaltz herring tastes good but it’s also a link to a very complex past. You’re still in my thoughts, Hershele Zvi Freimann.
Son Jeremy chastised HG. He brined for 10 days. Smoked over white oak logs.
Son Jeremy, the renowned reggae retailer and impressario, was on line at 7AM on Dec. 24 (second in the queue and followed by several hundred more smoked fish addicts) waiting for the lower east side smoked fish bastion Russ & Daughters to open its doors. R & D is one of four top flight purveyors of smoked fish (once there were scores) in Manhattan. The others are all on the upper west side–Zabar’s (Broadway–80th); Murray’s (Broadway–89th); Barney Greengrass (Amsterdam–86th). Of the quartet R & D is the choice of Son Jeremy and the HG family (also Calvin Trillin’s favorite). Famille HG has a tradition. In a bow to HG son-in-law Profesore Massimo Riva, Famille HG follows the Italian tradition of a feast of seven fishes (rich in Christian symbolism) on Christmas Eve. But, in recognition of Jewish HG’s position as family patriarch, the feast consists of a variety of smoked fish: Salmon (Nova Scotia, Pacific, salty belly lox); Sable (rock cod); Tuna; Sturgeon; Whitefish; Red Salmon Caviar; Herring (Schmaltz , Holland and Pickled in Cream Sauce). Last night, this array was accompanied by the obligatory bagels, bialys and scallion cream cheese. Chilled Aakavit. Beer. White wine. Daughter Lesley Riva provided a touch of elegance by making scores of light-as-a-feather blinis and crepes. Beautiful Sharon made a celeriac salad. ( It should be acknowledged that the homage to HG Jewishness is spurious. La Famille is Japanese, Italian, Anglo-Irish Canadian. Just a soupcon of Jewishness. Basically, folks who are nuts about old fashioned New York smoked fish). Son Jeremy curated the smoked fish collection and delivered it to Rhode Island along with wife Maiko, the gyoza and tempura magician, and adorable son Haru. He did more. He brought The Ham. This is a ham Son Jeremy brined for two days and then smoked over applewood chips. The Ham is one of the reasons why the center of the culinary universe has shifted to Brooklyn. The Ham leaves in the dust the best productions of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. HG’s cup runneth over.
During HG’s budget restricted younger days, a long walk with a girl friend through the ever colorful streets of New York was an entertainment. New York neighborhoods were low rise, lined with Mom-and-Pop shops. The poor and middle class had not been banished and the city did not belong to oligarchs. Inevitably, HG and girl friend would go to Little Italy and Chinatown for dining. Chinatown has metastasized into a mega-Chinatown but looks the same, for the most part. Little Italy, however, is a disaster. The ultimate tourist trap. Tony Soprano seems to be the local hero or at least the hero tourists want to believe in. Every type of low TV kitsch glorifying fictitious gangsters is displayed. And the restaurants that were such an ornament of Little Italy? They’ve more than gone down hill. They’ve gone down a precipice. In the mourned days of long ago, girl friend and HG would go to Puglia, Angelo’s, Grotto Azzura, Luna and for less than five bucks have a very robust bowl of pasta, plenty of good bread and olive oil, a big glass or red wine and tortoni or spumoni. We were welcomed warmly, served with style and dignity. Sent on our way with kisses and handshakes. The Italian immigrants who lived in Little Italy built New York with their hands. The subways. The building foundations. The masonry of the high rise structures. Their sweat; their work. All immigrant experiences in New York, from the very beginning, are sagas of hard work, pain, disappointment and hope. To see it all turned into a TV caricature is troubling.
Max Beerbohm, the Edwardian wit, critic, caricaturist and all-around man of letters observed: “Why do strawberries picked from a dew kissed meadow never taste as good as strawberries bought at a shop?” Beautiful Sharon vehemently disagrees with The Incomparable Max. HG’s thought after Generous Jay paid for the recent Korean barbecue bash: “Why does food have a particularly delicious savor when somebody else is paying?” Thank you again, Generous Jay.
Flushing is a Queens neighborhood adjacent to the old New York World’s Fair sites. Just 30 minutes from Times Square. Correction: Chinatown is a neighborhood. Flushing is not a neighborhood. It is a city, an Asian city plunked down in New York. The only thing comparable in North America is the island of Richmond next to Vancouver, B.C. Scores and scores of Chinese and Korean restaurants. Asian supermarkets. Fragrant variety of street food. The chicken lady does charcoal grilled chicken yakitori (chicken kebabs on a stick). She dips the lightly charred chicken in a dark pool of goodness. A buck a yakitori. The line stretches around the block. Rightfully so. Chinese mystery. An unmarked door in an apartment house. Open and enter. The food aromas are overwhelming. You are in a souk-like maze of stalls, each equippd with gas ranges and ovens, turning out an astounding variety of grills, stews, noodles, soups, stir-fries, steamed dumplings and more. Food that adventurous HG has never tasted…grilled cumin lamb on a bun, broad noodles with preserved vegetables and duck, for example. Hygiene is not strictly enforced. The sanitary facilities are not third world..they are fourth world, maybe fifth world. Nevertheless, an experience no food obsessive should miss. Another don’t miss is Hahn Ji Bahk, a Korean barbecue bistro on a side street. This was the venue of son Jeremy’s birthday bash. In attendance: HG, Beautiful Sharon, Jeremy, wife Maiko, grandson Haru. Plus Jeremy pals Jay, Jan and Brad. A ten foot long table covered with every variety of kimchi, salads, greens, hot and mild sauces; sauteed, steamed and fresh vegetables. That’s a pared down list. Meal started with scallion and shrimp pancakes topped with hot sauce. Shoju (a Korean spirit that is a cross between sake and vodka). Korean beer. Hot, spicy ruby red Korean beef and cabbage soup (very Eastern European). More pancakes. Kimchi and side dishes. Rice and beans. Shoju and beer. More pancakes. Two burners on the table were heated and serious barbecue eating began. Thick pieces of juicy pork dipped in vinegar and chopped peanuts and wrapped in thin slices of daikon radish. Thin slices of beef and hot sauce wrapped in lettuce leaves. More shoju. More beer. Much more. Final dish: A remarkable egg souffle. Much laughter. Noise. Ribald stories. Love. Who could ask for more?
Prescient HG. At the height of the Vietnam War (Police action? Battle to prevent evil Communism spreading across Asia through the Domino Effect? American craziness?) HG made two predictions: Uncle Ho would win and New York and some other American cities would get some splendid Vietnamese restaurants. Well, Ho won; Vietnam is a growing American tourist destination. Capitalism toppled all Dominoes and it looks like China (if it ever calls its loans) will own the United States. And, you can get some terrific pho
all over the land of the free, brave and bigoted. When HG lived in Denver he haunted Federal Boulevard, lined with more than 40 Vietnamese eateries. So, when can we expect some Iraqui restaurants with platters of mezze and inventive kebabs? Of course, Afghan barbecue has many fans and is eagerly anticipated. (Soon, HG hopes, after this nutso war ends). Before the New York World’s Fair of 1939 New York had a few very cheap French restaurants..mostly on the far West Side catering to the crews of French Line cruisers like the Normandie and Ile de France. Then war hit in 1939. Henri Soule ran the French Pavilion at the Fair. Eye opening cuisine. The Fair closed. Soule wisely stayed in the United States. Opened Le Pavilion in New York. Great haute cuisine. It was the breeding ground for great chefs, sous chefs, waiters, busboys, maitres d’ who all went on to open wonderful restaurants and change American dining and cooking forever. Moral For the obsessed gourmand like HG there’s always a silver lining.