Some 72 years ago (1942), in a Bar Mitzvah ceremony at the Kingsbridge Heights Jewish Center on Eames Place in The Bronx, HG became defined as an adult Jew, qualified to participate in a “minyun” (the minimum number of adult Jews necessary to conduct religious services). The ceremony did not engender religious belief in HG, a confirmed atheist who identifies culturally with the Jewish people. HG’s lack of faith was not the fault of the presiding Rabbi, a man admired by HG. Israel Miller (1913-2002), had just been appointed Rabbi of the congregation and HG was the young, 29-year-old Rabbi’s first Bar Mitzvah ceremony in the synagogue. In the coming years (as a college student and later as a journalist), HG would consult Rabbi Miller on questions of Jewish history, politics, etc. The Rabbi would gently chide HG about his lack of religious observance. Oddly, he never criticized HG’s marriage to the beautiful, gifted, decidedly non-Jewish BSK. Rabbi Miller (who left Kingsbridge Heights Jewish Center in 1968) went on to a distinguished career as a religious writer and scholar and leader of important national and international Jewish organizations. He was particularly close to the Jewish population of South Africa and was a vigorous foe of apartheid. He took time out from his busy schedule to preside over the funeral of HG’s beloved father. Other than working to become a man, HG found some attractive side benefits to his Bar Mitzvah studies. HG would rush to the synagogue for HG’s five p.m. sessions with a stern teacher of Hebrew who would tutor, hector and scold HG in preparation for the Bar Mitzvah. HG would be bruised and scuffed from violent football games on the field hockey turf of the nearby all-girls Walton High School. Upon leaving his lessons, HG would pass a basement room where a group of old men (some luxuriously bearded) would gather daily to study and dispute portions of the Talmud, the multi volume compendium of Jewish law and religious practice. They were a loud and merry crew (their merriment nourished by bottles of whiskey and plates of herring and pumpernickel on the study table). Upon spotting HG they would issue an invitation: “Bar Mitzvah bucher (young man), hub ah brumfen (have an alcoholic drink).” Even then, HG needed little urging. A sturdy shot of Park & Tilford rye with some herring as a chaser. “Nuch ah mul? (once more) was inquired, HG nodded Yes. Another hearty drink. “A shiker!! (drunkard),” laughed the Talmudists. Yes, HG was a bit woozy when he arrived home for dinner and homework. BSK claims, with some justification, that HG continues to overdo pre-dinner alcohol, substituting vodka for the whiskey of yesteryear.
Karen K., HG/BSK’s pal and neighbor, is a multi-talented woman. A veteran movie producer/director, she is a talented gardener, guardian of chickens who provide super eggs; a trim, energetic hiker, skier and much else. HG has dubbed Karen K. “The Dessert Queen” because she creates the best desserts on earth: goat milk ice cream (HG, at first dubious, was overwhelmed by its goodness), flan that combines Mexican and French flavors with ecstatic results and many varieties of healthy, flavorful baked goodies. Karen K. lives a few hundred yards from HG/BSK/s New Mexico home in Las Barrancas, a cluster of lovely, old adobe dwellings (condominium ownership) created by Cady Wells (1904-1954). Wells, who died much too young, was one of the greatest New Mexico painters (as good as Georgia O’Keefe in HG’s opinion). One of the pleasures of Las Barrancas is “The Kitchen House”. This is a separate building containing a kitchen and a dining room. It evokes a beautiful, romantic past. Many southwestern touches (including a warming kiva fireplace in the dining room). This was the setting for a delightful dinner party hosted by Karen K. a few nights ago. Present were two of Karen’s friends from the film industry–Lisa, retired from a long career as an eminent set decorator and Laurie, also retired, acknowledged as a premier movie still photographer. Lucky HG. The only male at a dinner table with four lively, entertaining and attractive women. HG provided the appetizer, baba ganoush, the middle eastern eggplant dip. Karen served a cajun meat loaf (lots of New Orleans flavors and just enough heat from jalapeño peppers) accompanied by a moist cornbread. Spaghetti squash, roast carrots, tiny potatoes and something braised (was it celery?) rounded the meal out. Sumptuous food, perfect for a very chilly evening. Much red wine was drunk (HG led the way) as the flames flickered in the kiva. A very good salad of baby greens. Then dessert. The Dessert Queen continued her reign. Moist, lush gingerbread topped with traditional hard sauce. A graceful bow to the past. Generous Karen poured HG some wonderful calvados, HG’s favorite brandy. And, there was another happy surprise for HG. Knowing HG’s predilections, Laurie gave HG a bottle of Russian vodka as a birthday present. HG immediately sampled it. Nazdrovya !! A great party.
BSK is a seasonal and inventive cook. For example, a few weeks back: Green tomatoes. BSK found some nice green tomatoes at the Pojoaque Farmers Market close to HG/BSK’s New Mexico home. Traditionally, green tomatoes are sliced, dipped in egg and spicy corn meal and fried (preferably in bacon fat). A staple of down home Southern tables. That’s not what BSK did.. BSK cooked a batch of the green guys with chicken broth, onions, coriander, cumin, cardamon, pepper and salt. When done, the mix went into the blender and was pureed. The smooth stuff was gently reheated. Voila!! Green tomato soup. Tangy. Spicy. Perfect way to start a meal.
HG often longs for the great breads of HG’s Bronx youth. Rye bread. Pumpernickel bread. Bialys. Onion “pletzels” (rolls). A number of grocers offer “Jewish” rye bread. HG believes this is an affront that calls for investigation by the B’nai Brith Anti-Defamation League or even more drastic action by the Jewish Defense League. Dismal present day for HG’s favorites. Pumpernickel bread? Insipid. Bialys? Other than Kossar’s, they are pale imitations without that unique oniony flavor. “Pletzels” ? They’ve disappeared. Bagels, of course, are a sardonic joke. HG doesn’t care because HG never liked bagels. Bagel lovers deserve the nasty chocolate chip and cinnamon raisin bagels now being offered. However, there’s hope. Recently, HG ordered Zabar’s sourdough seeded Jewish rye and Russian pumpernickel bread. Made HG’s eyes misty. These are the authentic loaves. Topped with scallion cream cheese and smoked fish. HG devours many slices with glasses of icy vodka (This regime draws frowns from BSK but HG shakes off disapproval). Another happy note concerning traditional Jewish baked goods. Restaurateur Daughter Victoria sent HG some “Traditional Raspberry Rugelach” (from Russ & Daughters). Spectacular. Sorry, Mom in Heaven, better than yours.
Hey, what’s this? Woke up this morning to see white stuff covering the trees and meadow. Snow. Rare in New Mexico in mid-November. But, once snow arrives, HG enjoys it. For HG this doesn’t mean skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding or any other frigid and energetic activity. Snow means a fire in the fireplace and a long breakfast of softly scrambled eggs with red salmon caviar, sour cream, toasted ciabatta, numerous cups of coffee. This is the sort of morning where HG catches up with magazines, newspapers, art books. This is the first snowfall for Toby, our newly acquired (but already beloved) dog, a Dandie Dinmont/ Jack Russell cross breed. Toby much enjoys the snow, leaping at snowflakes, sniffing and tasting. By noon the snowfall ends and the sun begins to shine as the snow melts. In the high desert atmosphere of New Mexico, HG expects the snow to have totally vaporized by the next morning. Much different than New York where snow immediately turns into nasty slush or HG/BSK’s mountain ranch in Colorado. There, snow fell in October and drifts lasted until July. No, HG was never tempted to move to sunny Florida, a state where the sun turns older folks into semi-roasted vegetables before hurricanes sweep them into the sea.
Got a very nice comment today from Rev. DeForest Soaries concerning a recent HG post. Rev. Soaries (known to HG/BSK by his nickname, “Buster”) was a dear friend of HG/BSK’s when the duo lived in Montclair, N.J., some 30 years ago. Buster was the pastor of a small church and a very eloquent activist on behalf of Montclair’s African-American community. Buster and HG/BSK fought many political battles side by side. Won some. Lost some. Always had an exciting time. Since that time Buster has fashioned a very distinguished career in religion, housing, education, government and politics, not the least being the former Secretary of State of New Jersey. HG is sure he has lost none of his fire. In Montclair, HG/BSK lived in a turn of the century mansion. Beautiful gardens. Big swimming pool. Quite classy. Buster would sometimes bring a group of his young parishioners to visit to shed some perspective on race relations, class relations and aspirational hopes. Once, Buster and a group arrived when HG/BSK had just finished preparing a steaming pot of Soupe de Poisson. This is the Provencal fish soup that involves fish, onions, fennel, tomatoes, saffron, Pernod and other good things. Boiled. Simmered. Pureed, It is served with slices of toasted baguette slathered with a mayonnaise whipped with garlic and a load of the hottest hot sauce available. (An excellent Soupe de Poisson can be found at Brasserie Stella in Paris, one of HG’s favorite restaurants). BSK dished out some Soupe for Buster and his friends. The reaction was extremely negative — while HG’s lifestyle seemed quite ideal, Buster’s young parishioners found HG’s food to be quite the opposite. Tonight, as winter descends on New Mexico, BSK is preparing her version of seafood (cod, clams, scallops) in Spanish green sauce. One of the unusual flavoring elements in this dish is the juice from a can of asparagus. Not the asparagus. Just the juice. Sounds odd but trust HG. It works. Wish Buster could be with us to share this food.
HG is very fond of those enhancements to alcohol known as bitters. And, HG makes good use of them. Topping the list is Peychaud’s Aromatic Cocktail Bitters. HG enjoys perusing the old fashioned Peychaud’s bottle which mentions many honors such as the Diploma of Honor. The Grand Exhibition of Altona-Germany, 1869 as well as many other awards from long gone expositions in 1885, 1895, 1905 and 1907. L.E. Jung and Wolff Co. (the makers of Peychaud’s) are proud of their product which they proclaim: “Has no equal for flavoring cocktails and is used in every bar of any prominence.” HG uses the delightful product in flavoring modest brandies (originating in New Orleans, Peychaud’s was first used only with cognac for alleged health benefits). HG also likes a dash in vodka on the rocks. HG alternates by giving his shot of vodka a hit of orange bitters made by a company named Stirrings which originated on Nantucket Island (where HG/BSK once had a summer home). Bourbon, with a few drops of these Blood Orange bitters, mixed with a bit of sweet vermouth and plenty of ice produces a delicious, vaguely Italian cocktail. A refreshing non-alcoholic drink HG enjoys in the summer is a dash of Angostura Bitters in a glass of Pellegrino and ice. (Yes, HG sometimes drinks non-alcoholic beverages but doesn’t make a habit of it.)
85. Hey, that’s a lot of years. But, HG, the birthday boy, is not only Hungry Gerald but Greedy Gerald. HG wants more. More life. More years. More food. More wine. That’s because HG has the best wife, the best children, the best grandchildren and the best dog (Toby, a new member of the family). And, of course, HG/BSK divide their time between two delightful and very different paradises: New Mexico (the Land of Enchantment) and Prince Edward Island (The Gentle Island). In New Mexico, HG/BSK have the benefit of interesting, generous, amusing friends. Among them are Polly B. (the renowned photographer); David F. (novelist and historian); Karen K.(film producer). This trio gathered with HG/BSK and Gorgeous Granddaughter Sofia for a birthday feast of red salmon caviar (from Zabar’s) and home made blini (via the Roger Sherman recipe from Canal House Cooking, Vol. 3). Also Gaspe Nova Scotia smoked salmon and sable (from Russ & Daughters, a very generous gift from Restaurateur Daughter Victoria). On the table was creme fraiche and thick sour cream; scallion cream cheese; whitefish salad; pickles; capers; caper berries; sliced sweet onion and tomatoes; black olives. Jewish rye and pumpernickel bread (from Zabar’s). Genuine New York bagels (Russ & Daughters). The group toasted HG with Kristal champagne (a startling pre-birthday gift from Antony and Claudia C.) and then went on to a variety of cold, dry white wines. Dessert. Ah, dessert!! This was provided by Karen K., acknowledged as The Dessert Queen. HG has written about Karen K.’s wonders before but this time the talented lady outdid herself. Dessert was flan. A wondrous flan that hovered somewhere between traditional flan and an ethereal creme brûlée. A dream custard with toasted flakes of almond to provide a contrasting crunch. Providing some overkill, HG sliced pistachio halvah accompanied by Bushmill’s Irish Honey Whiskey. Polly B. and David F. gave HG a magnificent straw sombrero as a birthday gift. This will be indispensable on PEI’s beaches even though the hat makes HG look like an exotic variety of Jewish mushroom. Thanks to all (including little granddaughter Teru) who sent birthday greetings and wishes. A joyous birthday, indeed.
So sad. The Cafe Edison, affectionately known as “The Polish Tearoom,” is closing its doors. The landlord (the Hotel Edison on 47th Street and Broadway in New York) is replacing it with a fancy restaurant headed by a “big name chef.” Another haimish New York restaurant bites the dust. Haimish is a Yiddish word meaning many things: Down home. With family and friends. Warm, cozy, plain and unadorned. Like eating an overstuffed sandwich at the kitchen table with Mom, Pop, your wife and the kids. Cafe Edison was decidedly Jewish with matzo ball soup, kasha varnishkes, pastrami and all the other Jewish/ Eastern European staples. Theater folks of every ethnicity gathered there daily to eat, shmooze, make deals, exchange show biz chatter. There were other theater district restaurants, not Jewish, that were haimish. Delsomma (Italian) and Fornos (Spanish). Both gone. In fact, the Jewish-Irish-Italian Manhattan where HG spent many years has vanished. The Irish bars with their corned beef and cabbage, pig’s knuckles and hard boiled eggs belong to yesterday. Italian red sauce joints are no more. The Torissi guys (Italian Specialties, Parm, Carbone, Dirty French) have upscaled Italian food ($52 veal chops, for example). Thankfully, Manhattan’s African-American and Latino population is keeping the haimish tradition alive. You can still get splendid fried chicken and catfish in Harlem. Mofongo remains on the menu in Puerto Rican eateries. Cubans in Washington Heights are still dishing up Cubanos, moros and cristianos and other good things. But, if haimish is your thing get on the subway (and ferry) and head to the boroughs. Forget Manhattan. HG, to paraphrase the song, will take The Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island, too.
Sheer comfort on a chilly (or not so chilly) day is a big steaming caldron of pho and an accompanying tangle of mint, bean sprouts, basil and other fresh greens. HG consumed this Vietnamese dish many times in rainy Vancouver, B.C.; snowy Denver (that city’s Federal Boulevard is lined with good Vietnamese restaurants) and in New York’s Chinatown as winds whipped off the East River. Yesterday, New Mexico’s Indian summer took a turn to the frigid so BSK served some ample bowls of pho for dinner. No, BSK didn’t spend the day cooking bones and spices into a broth. Instead, BSK opted for packaged pho (the Pacific brand). Previously, HG/BSK found Pacific’s broths (chicken, beef and vegetable) to be rather insipid. Surprisingly, the Pacific pho was quite good and redolent of authentic Asian spices. No, it wasn’t the pho you get in Vietnamese restaurants and even the lowliest citizens of Ho Chi Minh city would probably sneer, but it tasted good to HG. Of course, BSK enhanced it with slices of steak, plenty of De Cecco Angel Hair pasta, ginger and a touch of cinnamon. Mint, basil, bean sprouts and sliced scallion were added. Indispensable sriracha for heat. Nice dining as HG/BSK and GGS (Gorgeous Granddaughter Sofia) glanced at the colorful and fragrant piñon ablaze in the fireplace.