In some past mini-essays, we indulged ourselves in a nostalgic time excursion to the 1940’s, in East New York, Brooklyn, to revisit the lifestyle and atmosphere, of that era, then largely populated, by recently arrived, Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants, (accurately put, “refugees”) from Eastern Europe. Our writings attempted to convey a brief, but, essentially, accurate and colorful, picture of these new Americans, recently transplanted from the Old World Russia and Poland, (Czar Alexander had just had outlawed Serfdom), to a new and exotic venue, with an unknown language, illuminated and powered by electric, featuring street cars, (“trolleys”), traffic signals, radios, movies, telephones, steam heated apartments, running hot and cold water, and the Brooklyn Dodgers, just to mention, a partial list of their astounding discoveries.
In past writings, we attempted to convey, their systemic fear and insecurity, historically accumulated, from Europe’s universal history of atrocities and pogroms, practiced against Jews, and were, eternally grateful, but still psychologically, and empirically, hesitant, to celebrate at last, a new and unfamiliar, perception of safety, and general acceptance in a new land.
We, in such prior writings, made reference to their premature, but sincere, attempts to quickly, Americanize, by their brave, but unsuccessful attempts to install the English language, in place of their Yiddish, resulting in a comical, but charmingly compelling, hybrid, we can permissibly call, “Yinglish.” We also referred to the young boys’ Street patois, to the arcane metamorphosis of their street names, the latter, often a mélange of their new American name, with their traditional Yiddish one, to the neighborhood “Olympic games,” the outdoor sport of marbles, to the less than luxurious lifestyle, in the aged Brooklyn apartment houses, to Trolley cars, to Ebbet’s Field, then, home of the American heroes, the Brooklyn Dodgers, to their cooperative and patriotic collection of metal, in aid of the war effort, and to other selected recollections deemed necessary, to re-create some sense of the unique, now, long extinct, amphitheater of this warm, iconic immigrant experience.
Sometime subsequent to the most recent installment, on the subject, which was intended to be the final return to the period, we realized, with great dismay, that a virtual world of significant cultural experience and ambiance, was thoughtlessly omitted: food; particularly, the redolence and savory atmosphere of the traditional immigrant kitchen, and additionally, the existence of the outdoor traditional food vendors. We are literally, mortified at the realization we, who purported to paint a portrait of these exotic, newly arrived American citizens, were remiss, in this most colorful and uniquely nostalgic subject. The subject of food, in this context, and milieu, is truly a mammoth, but an existentially, necessary undertaking. We will, (in addition to, again, humbly begging the reader’s apology, for our previous irresponsible omission) try, and, nevertheless, to be brief.
Even in the humblest, poorest and dankest apartments, where paint on the walls may have been chipping, the plumbing, commencing the slow but, determined, path of ancient rust, and the linoleum on the floor showing fatigue, the kitchen was, without question, the secular, Holy of Holy’s; and the person who (authoritatively) did the cooking, was its presiding High Priest. The eldest female, in this respect, was the Alpha (or should we say, Aleph) “male,” and, as in the case of a Pride of Lions in the Serengeti, suffered no vain challenge. Discord sometimes was a possibility, if there were two sisters of mature age, in the family group. But usually, Mama or Grandma, was the uncontested, revered and absolute, tribal monarch of the kitchen. The cooking was performed in the traditional Eastern European genre, and the selection of menu, the Biblical Rules of Kashrut, old Eastern European folkways, and limited financial resources.
We will refrain from the recitation of the traditional meals, relevant to ethnic or religious holidays, the demanding standards of the cook, in generally, buying food for the house, involving intricate negotiations with food vendors, and the entire outmoded procedure in mixing and matching food, and its preparation, (in order to comply with ancient rules of dietary compliance). The latter, would require a writing, comparable, in size and detail, to the (OED), Old English Oxford Dictionary. However, the Aleph female, possessed the knowledge, tactics and learned expertise, akin an old Algonquin Witchdoctor, in their strict observance.
It can be said, with empirical authenticity, that this genre of cuisine was uniquely such, that all of the basic menu items, prepared, can legally and aesthetically qualify, for the contemporary designation of “comfort food.”
The kitchen was redolent, all day, and often at night, with delectable food aromas. Since the choices of menu were somewhat limited, by law and custom, often, in many households, people ate similar dishes. We remember, occasions when returning home, from school, or from a friend, noticing that the entire block of tenements, (old, multiple residences) had the pleasant ambiance of roast chicken, and soup. It would not be a practical possibility to describe the wide array of foods, except to make the following few generalizations. Dishes made with chicken, lamb or fish, were usually enjoyable; beef or steak dishes, due to the process, felt required by dietary law for their preparation, were (mandatorily) eatable, but, often, taste-challenged.
The culinary enterprise, in which these traditional cooks, truly excelled, was in their unforgettable soups. It is our unsupported supposition, that in the “Old Country” the availability of protein was limited, and, when obtained, had to go a long way; that soups, containing what limited quantities of meat or chicken, was available, were universally prepared and developed, over time, into a true specialty. Mushroom and Barley Soup, Chicken Soup with dumplings, Cabbage Borscht (sweet and sour), served hot, with, or without meat, Hot beet Borscht with meat, or Cold Beet Borscht with sour cream (dairy), Potato Soups of various kinds, Vegetable Soups, Lentil or bean based Soups, and others were superb, but, sadly, are contemporaneously unavailable. Dark Russian Bread, was always a welcome addition, to any soup, and legitimized, as well as complemented, the meal. Certain dishes were unique and absolutely marvelous, respecting which, decades of vain attempts to replicate, have been appalling; these include: gefilte fish (blended varieties of fish, eaten cold in its natural fish gel), chopped liver pate (chicken livers, sautéed, with onion and small dose of hard- boiled egg), chicken soup with dumplings, few can now, to our experience, properly replicate the dumplings (“knadlech”), and many succulent others. As stated, these dishes were sensually productive of memorable smells, which were distinctive, mouth- watering and, unfortunately, often, enduring; some children came to class, noticeably bearing the spicy redolence of Mama’s most current, “piece de resistance.”
Before we leave our kitchen, it is a mandatory obligation, to aver, that food was not simply sustenance, nor, merely, a sensually, enjoyable experience, it was, for these people, a primary, cultural, albeit inarticulate, social interaction. Well cooked, difficult to prepare, specialties, indicated the respect and familial affection for the guest, or, perhaps the important circumstance of an ethnic holiday. Social conversation, as such, was conducted before the meal, and, after the dessert and tea. The communal act of eating, itself, constituted the conversation, accompanied by respectful, approving sighs, or other, overt articulations of dining pleasure. Mama, the eternally confident, chef, would never deign to respond to such [unnecessarily] expressed approbation, no doubt, because, she knew that excellence was necessarily implicit, in her aesthetic cooking. Regardless of the financial circumstances of the family, meals, consisting of foods that were generally desirable, and, also, affordable, were always prepared with familial expertise, and rarely disappointing.
We would not have offered a complete representative snapshot of the subject scenario, were we to omit the element of neighborhood food vendors, located, in the streets and neighborhood. Nearby, there was an area, consisting of approximately three city blocks of food markets, truly reminiscent of an Arabic Souk, with several small stores containing, baked breads, smoked fish, cheeses, delicatessen, vegetables and condiments, in front of which, on the sidewalks, were large barrels containing pickled herrings, sour pickles, sour tomatoes, and sauerkraut, plus push carts, containing fresh vegetables and dry fruits. It was a memorable experience, to see the herring vendor, reach a bare arm into his huge cold barrel, and extract a fat herring, from the cold brine, for display and sale to an eternally knowledgeable and demanding purchaser. The purchased herring would then be wrapped in (a Jewish language) newspaper, and then bagged for the customer. We were never able to solve the intriguing question, as to why the herring seller, without fail, wrapped each purchased herring in the newspaper on an angle, and not parallel to the newspaper page.
Nor were the streets and avenues, in the neighborhood, free from the ambience of food. In season, hot chestnuts, baked potato knishes, cooked, salted chick peas (“arbis”), baked sweet potato, or in warm weather, Mello Rolls (sideway ice cream rolls) eaten on a rectangular topped cone, and Charlotte Ruisses (light, filigreed cardboard wrapped, small cakes, topped with whip cream and a red cherry, were among the popular items. Frozen, fruit flavored, ices, were desirable, in season, but was an item, culturally, and exclusively, reserved for sale by neighborhood, Italian immigrants.
It is no less than truly remarkable, despite the realization that this recreated scenario, was substantially more than one-half century ago, that any salty, crunch of a good sour pickle, the exotic taste of a salted fat herring appetizer, or the the majestic taste of authentic mushroom and barley soup, like the known dynamics of hypnotic suggestion, returns us to the entire, savory, and colorful panorama, of these loving, lovable and admirable new Americans.