Monday, March 30, 2020

The Good Old Days - Part I

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published April 1, 2020] ©2020

In the last year or so, I’ve been able to reconnect on a more positive basis with my first husband, “Fred,” from whom I’ve been divorced since 1983.  He’s been ailing and I’m probably the only one around who remembers his parents, his family home in New Jersey, and certainly his medical school years at Albert Einstein in the Bronx. 

Pleasantville, NY, where I grew up was exactly 22.8 miles from Albert Einstein but the Bronx might as well have been in another galaxy. I met Fred at a college mixer at a not-NYC school. He’d been in the area visiting his physician uncle, his mentor.  It was Yom Kippur 1967 and Fred picked me out as the most Jewish-looking girl in the room. Actually, all the real Jewish girls were home atoning. 

Fred invited me to spend the day in NYC the next weekend and, wanting to impress me on his meager medical student budget, took me to a well-known deli. Let me just say that Pleasantville was not exactly the food capital of the world, having exactly one restaurant, the Pleasantville Diner. The gastronomic delights of New York delis were unknown to me. 

So I could be forgiven for replying to his ordering bagels and lox for us with, “What’s a lock?”  I have never lived down that line. It was Fred’s first clue that I was not Jewish.  But by that time, there I was sitting across from him. 

At first I couldn’t imagine that anyone would want to eat fish for breakfast but not wanting to be rude, I ate it when it arrived.  And thus began my 50-year love affair with smoked salmon and its luscious cousin, gravlax, and in fact, fabulous food in general.  If I am to thank Fred for anything, it is for introducing me to the wonders of cheap ethnic foods of all persuasions which New York has in abundance.

I initially held out on Chinese food convinced I didn’t like it after being subjected to a dinner of canned chow mein when our family was quarantined for polio in August of 1955.  When a meal is so awful that you remember it for the rest of your life, you know it was pretty terrible.  But when you’re quarantined, the food options are pretty limited. Even if there had been Instacart, they sure as heck wouldn’t have delivered to us. Public fear of polio was second only to nuclear war.

Fred’s roommate at Einstein was a guy named Richie Wu who would direct him to hole-in-the-wall restaurants in Chinatown that were totally off the grid and would write down in Chinese what to order. So within weeks of discovering the wonders of New York delis, I was now an avid consumer of Chinese food as well. Even chow mein.

But the food that both my ex and I remember above all else were the many Italian restaurants in the Bronx – the veal and pepper sandwiches, clams casino, scungilli fra diavolo.  What’s interesting is that both my ex and I can remember favorite dishes at specific restaurants in the Bronx to this day. Just as horrible meals can be permanent imprints, so can great ones.

My food education was not without a few bumps.  The cafeteria at Einstein was kosher meaning that there were two separate kitchens, sets of dishes, and serving lines depending on whether meat or dairy was being served.  Never were the two served together. So if you wanted a cheeseburger, you were out of luck.  Certain foods – including pork and shellfish – were never served at all.  Kosher law is fascinating and the reasons for its prohibitions were hardly random.  In the Middle East in the centuries before refrigeration, shellfish went bad very quickly in the heat.  Pigs, meanwhile, were thought to be pretty indiscriminate eaters. 

But I didn’t know all that initially and so can be forgiven for going through the cafeteria lunch line at Einstein and ordering a ham sandwich. Turns out what I was pointing to was pastrami. I didn’t know from pastrami.  It was a good thing we were at a medical center because I think at least half of those cafeteria ladies needed to be resuscitated.  Hey, give me a break. It wasn’t like there was Google then where you could look this stuff up. 

What I loved about that area of the Bronx then was that most of the food emporia were little specialty food stores for meat, vegetables, baked goods, and dairy. One night Fred and I decided to have French fries with the steak we’d just purchased, and bought a single potato at the vegetable shop next door.  As the guy behind the counter rang it up, he queried drily, “Having a pahty?”  The humor came at no extra cost.

So this amazing food fest was going (mostly) wonderfully until Fred decided some months later to introduce me to his parents. Stay tuned next week for “Are you trying to kill your mother?”

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