I feel sorry for those who didn’t grow up in a housing project and never got to experience the ethnic medley of cooking aromas in the hallway at dinner time – the stuffed cabbage smell from apartment B, the fried chicken smell from apartment C, the simmering tomato sauce from apartment D. And if you walked upstairs to the next floor, you’d get a whole new olfactory experience.
My mother, Sylvia, may she rest in peace, was never a very good cook. She would make us spaghetti with ketchup when we came home from school for lunch, which explains why I eventually married an Italian girl. My mother had a very consistent weekly menu, one dish for every day of the week. I still get flashbacks of Thursday, designated tasteless pot roast day.
My father was a somewhat better cook and he made breakfast on Saturday and Sunday morning. Saturday mornings, after he came back from playing handball at PS 201 park, he’d always make lox and scrambled eggs. My job was to cut the lox up into small pieces and get the fishy smell all over my hands. The lox and eggs would be served with some variety of bread from Garden Bake Shop, but I’ll get to that later.
On Sundays, it was salmon pancakes. The salmon was from a can, so the bones had to be removed. My father didn’t trust me with that job. Instead, I got to mash up the salmon, eggs and matzoh meal as finely as possible, like a human Cuisinart. Then my father would form the patties and cook them in oil until golden brown. They would be served with buttered pumpernickel bread, from Garden Bake Shop, of course.
Garden Bake Shop was across from Whelan’s on Kissena Blvd. My father would take me with him on weekend mornings to buy fresh bread. For some reason we hardly never went to Butterflake, which was on the other side of Kissena. If you grew up eating bread from Garden Bake Shop, you were spoiled for life.
My personal favorites were the “horns”, as my father called them. They were horn-shaped rolls, fluffy light on the inside, crispy on the outside, and sprinkled liberally with rye seeds and salt. I recently came upon horn-like rolls at a local bakery in New Jersey, where they were referred to as “salt sticks.” Not only were they not shaped like horns, but they were not nearly as fresh and tasty as the ones I remember. (see photo) Garden Bake Shop also had the best rye bread I ever tasted and something I’ve never seen anywhere else – onion boards.
Here’s a mouth-watering description of Garden Bake Shop’s rye bread by Julie Michaels:
“It was the beckoning smell of rye bread that lured us into the shop. If you were lucky, the bread was still warm when it came from the slicer. My brother and I had a ritual way of eating a slice as we walked home: first, we would punch out the center, sometimes even rolling it into a ball and nibbling as we walked. Then we would snap the circle of crust and feed it, like a long snake, into our mouths. Yeasty, chewy, endlessly satisfying.”
My favorite food experience in Pomonok was take-out. Pomonok was surrounded by great Chinese take-out and delicatessens. Weekend afternoons and evenings were our designated take-out days, a wonderful reprieve from my mother’s weekday regimen. My father would usually go alone to pick up the food, probably so he could get away from his wife and three kids for a while, and return an hour later with a big brown paper bag stained with grease.
Out of the bag would magically appear pastrami, salami, corned beef, knishes, and a sour pickle, all wrapped in wax paper. If was a Chinese day, cartons of chow mein, fried rice, wanton soup, fortune cookies, and barbecue spare ribs would emerge from the bag. Needless to say, my mother ended up with one bypass operation, my father with two, and five years ago I had my first. Luckily, we have statin drugs today.
We also had some quirky foods that seemed unique to my family, besides the spaghetti with ketchup. One was seltzer mixed with strawberry jelly. We always had seltzer and soda in the house, delivered right to our door by the Hoffman soda guy, but I guess they never carried strawberry soda, so my father made his own with a spoonful of jelly from a jar of Smuckers. Then there was the pear with pumpernickel snack. Fresh pumpernickel from Garden Bake Shop, heavily buttered, with pear slices on the side. That was a sort of appetizer to tide us over before we ordered out deli or Chinese food.
One’s early experience with food inevitably sets a lifetime in tastes. These days I try to watch my diet, but every once in a while I still go on a fling and have a pastrami sandwich or order out Chinese, even after I managed to crack a front tooth biting into a spare rib. But as a kid, you are also held hostage to the particular cuisine of your household, so you may be deprived of a more worldly, or tastier, food experience.
For example, I used to look forward to my father’s potato latkes. I would help by grating the potatoes, sometimes grating my fingers as well and adding a soupçon of blood to the mix. But one day at a Chanukah celebration at the Yiddish school in Aguilar Gardens, one of the mothers brought in her version of potato latkes. When I tasted them, I almost cried for what I had been missing all those twelve years of my life up till then.
This woman’s latkes were amazing, and I found out why. First of all, she didn’t use her children as slave labor grating potatoes and making their fingers bleed. She used a blender and made a smooth, creamy potato mixture. My father’s latkes were stringy and watery by comparison. Secondly, instead of using matzoh meal, this woman used flour, making her latkes light and fluffy. My father’s latkes were heavy enough to be used as doorstops. And finally, this woman fried her latkes very lightly, so you could eat five of them and not even feel full. My father deep-fried his latkes in several inches of boiling oil until they were burnt around the edges.
I realized on that day how insular my culinary experience had been, but, then again, I wonder how many unfortunate kids grew up without the joy of stirring Smucker’s jelly into their seltzer.