Today marks my dad’s passing, 16 years ago. I’ve been grappling with what to write so please excuse the rambling thoughts in this blog. Dad was a complicated man, yet also very simple and trying to encapsulate all into one page is hard. Crazy to think it’s been that long. As many of us who had those close to us pass, I can remember that day and the preceding day perfectly. I remember his arrival home by ambulette; him entering the house for the last time to be surrounded by me, mom, his 2 best friends and a dinner of bagels and lox. Dad was a teacher at heart and up to the end he was still telling us all how best to eat. He couldn’t help himself, in his mind he knew best, and would teach everyone he knew how to, when to and why with most things even a bagel and lox dinner.
Born on the Lower East Side to Polish Jewish parents, my dad went on to be one of the most educated, knowledgeable, curious and driven people I knew. When most people have maybe 1 or 2 careers in their life, dad had multiple; all of which he dove into full force. He always learned as much as he could about whatever he did, whether it was as a musician — his first profession; or later on in the wine industry. Dad’s parents were not very educated in the traditional sense. They were poor and had to do what they had to do to make sure their children had. Dad got his love of music, art and food from his parents. Grandma, his mom always cooked and Grandpa love music and the art of jewelry. Grandpa probably didn’t go past 6th grade as was usual back then, but he had a sophisticated love of music, especially Opera. He joined a chazan group (religious singers) that would sing at weddings, and special religious events and it was there that he heard what the voice could do and fell in love with music. In fact the great Richard Tucker was part of that “Chazan Society” of singers and thought of him as the greatest opera singer ever. He was also fascinated by jewelry, especially watches and coins. Dad went on to study the Bassoon and became a music teacher; and somewhere he also became a Coin Dealer, specializing in Russian Coins. Eventually he went back to teaching music and was a music teacher for many years. I can still remember sitting on his lap, I’d blow into the Bassoon and he’d do the keying and together we’d play Peter and the Wolf. I’d watch him make his reeds, and also make reeds for some of the kids he taught oboe or clarinet. The one instrument he couldn’t play was flute, which was what I played and eventually helped him “teach” in school. I was just a kid, and had a talent for the flute so I was really happy to help him. So this is Part one — Music Teacher, and Russian Coin Dealer.
Part two of Dad’s story is Wine Expert and Culinary Maven. Early on dad fell in love with wine, he already loved food, so wine was a natural. He became obsessed with wine and food and learned all he could. When he was really deep into wine, and ran tastings for Les Amis du Vin (I will expand on this at a later date) mom and he had legendary 10 course dinners at home for the wine luminaries who did his tastings. But what I found most interesting about him was that even though his tastes in food and wine were very sophisticated, what he longed for most were simple meals, comfort foods of a sort that were mainly reflective of his roots. Don’t get me wrong, his taste in food could be incredibly sophisticated but favorites gravitated toward the simple, mostly Jewish comfort foods. I had wanted to recreate what I thought would be his favorite meal for this blog, but when I thought about it, I realized that his favorites were either a good Corned Beef sandwich, or a Bagel and Belly Lox or even lox, eggs and onions. Now dad being dad, nothing was a simple as it seemed. Even a Corned Beef sandwich turned into an instructive event with him. At one point, pretty much the only restaurant we’d go to with my grandmother was the famed Second Avenue Deli. It was Kosher and in our opinion had the best deli meat. And if we didn’t eat there, it’s what we brought up to grandma for lunch. But dad, being dad, there was always a ritual for ordering and eating. He and I would go in if we were ordering for take out, and push our way to the counter and wait for our favorite deliman to be free. We’d only order from these 2 guys. First up we’d order a hot dog with mustard and coleslaw, which we’d munch on and Mohammad would slip us a schmear — a chopped liver on rye. Then we’d get started. We’d order the Corned Beef and Pastrami — fatty (not the PC “Juicy”) but proper, fatty. Taste of course, you couldn’t buy it without tasting it first. Too lean and you would get yelled at and feel like a deli failure. So now I’m full, and we order Corned Beef, Pastrami, coleslaw, knishes…and bring to grandma’s to eat more. Dad would make sure loads of mustard were in the bag along with pickles, which back then were just added, no charge. All of this had to be washed down with a good old Dr. Brown’s Celray Tonic and seltzer from the bottle. If we brought grandma and my uncle to eating at Second Avenue this too was a process. We’d have to have the same table, same surly waitress and we’d only order from the counter because of course dad wouldn’t trust they’d get the order right. He and his brother would yell at each other, I’d roll my eyes, mom just stayed quiet. In typical fashion grandma feigned embarrassment but in reality I’m sure she loved the show. Somehow with gold bag in tow, she always managed to walk off with the rye bread on the table, though she never admitted that she took it home. This was normal everyone took home the bread, if you didn’t well there was probably something wrong with you! There was something comforting about this ritual, and I miss it. Going to the new Second Avenue Deli, which is not on Second Avenue anymore isn’t the same without the guys at the counter, the old fashioned waitresses and my dysfunctional family.
Another family favorite was Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse. The place was below ground in a building on the Lower East Side, with walls adorned by pictures and pictures of all who ate there. Simple good Jewish food, accompanied by Jewish schtick. As famous as they were for their garlic laden, schmaltz coated food, they were famous for the music played by a guy with an electric keyboard who would sing old Jewish songs. Tables always had bottles of seltzer and the most garlicky pickles and pickled tomatoes, Vodka frozen in ice and syrup bottles filled with schmaltz (chicken fat). Chicken fat was to us what olive oil is to the Mediterranean diet or butter is to the French — no judgement please! Chicken fat went into everything and I mean everything even the mashed potatoes. While most folks drank Vodka or Seltzer, we often had wine. Dad would love bringing his wine friends from overseas here. He said they could have a fancy meal anytime but an experience like this was priceless. Once he brought the General Manager for Bailey’s Irish Cream from Ireland. At the end of the meal dad made him an egg cream and together they laughed as he said it was the precursor to Bailey’s. He even did wine dinners at Sammy’s. Dad loved doing the non traditional, and unexpected with wine. He was a rebel and a pioneer in the wine business and loved doing things that made people think and see wine in a different way.
So as I think about who you were, and what I am today, I thank you for giving me my love of food, wine, music and art. You taught me to love the beauty in life so today I toast you with what else, a bagel and lox with a side of Prosecco. Even now I can hear you saying, something bubbly would go best, the bubbles and the acid will cut through the fattiness of the lox. So here’s to you dad!