The following is reprinted with permission from Lucky Peach #4, published by McSweeney’s. It is on sale now. And, yes, payment for this essay will require co-publisher David Chang slaving over a hot stove.
* * *
I want to embrace the best of the kitchen.
But if DNA is destiny, and genetics holds any sway at all over the human palate, then I have much—probably too much—to overcome.
The Simons come from peasant stock, and by that I don’t mean the countryside of Alsace or Tuscany or any other place where cuisine makes the days true and beautiful, where gardens and orchards and farms and village butchers conspire for a cuisine both purposeful and ingeniously simple. We are not the progeny of any agrarian ideal worthy of Impressionist paintings.
No, my father’s people were kicked-to-the-ground-by-Cossacks peasants, wandering Pale of Settlement Yids who lived with one or two bags always packed and spent the early moments of the last century running ahead of whatever Jew-hating militia was on whichever side of the Polish-Russian border. Like fodder for an Isaac Babel story, we hauled ass from pogrom to pogrom, dragging our huddled mass west until a sign said NEW JERSEY.
My mother’s people ran, too, first from the Hungarian countryside to Budapest, where my grandfather changed his name from Leibowitz to Ligety, stealing the latter from an Austro-Hungarian family of some repute, hoping to blend. Didn’t work, though—a Jew by any other name. So Armin Ligeti—the extra i was acquired at Ellis Island amid a rush of incoming Italian stock—kept running until he felt a bit more welcome on the Lower East Side, and later, in the Bronx.
The story ends—and begins—with one grandfather a salesman for Breakstone Brothers Dairy, slinging butter and cream to mom-and-pop stores all over New York, and the other ensconced behind the counter of just such a store in Jersey City, selling pickles out of a barrel and borscht out of the jar.
Both households kept kosher. They had one foot on a new shore, but still trusted in the world of their fathers. They raised children amid a Great Depression, teaching them the value of a dollar and the notion that when it came to food, there could be nothing new or clever under the sun. This sensibility endured well into my youth.
“Your mother makes better,” was a credo of my childhood. We dined out infrequently and only on special occasions. There was a favorite Chinese dump. There was an Italian joint where we gathered once or twice a year. And then, when someone graduated or relatives came to town, there would be a rare pilgrimage to some grander palace of white tablecloths and wineglasses, with mine always promptly removed. Experimentation was at a minimum, so much so that once, when I was eight years old, I tried and failed to order raw oysters at a downtown restaurant. The Blue Points. A half dozen, please.
“Davy, they’re raw.”
“That means they’re not cooked.”
My father frowned. Who eats oysters? Who eats anything uncooked? Who goes to Duke Zeibert’s downtown, even on a special occasion, and pays these prices for food that no one even bothers to put on a stove? What mishegas.
My mother turned to reinstruct the waiter.
“He’ll have a shrimp cocktail.”
It wasn’t that we kept kosher—that wall had crumbled twenty years earlier, when my older brother, a notoriously reluctant eater, was treated to bacon by neighbors in a Brooklyn apartment house. As a two-year-old, Gary Simon took to craving pig as he craved no other sustenance, and finally he began putting on weight. Every dietary law in Leviticus was henceforth repealed.
But as a household, we were residually kosher. Shellfish was suspect, and aside from morning bacon, pork was never on the menu. More than that, exotic dishes—new cuisines, new ideas about food—were problematic if they took more than a half-step away from the known and fixed. My mother was an excellent cook, but almost all of what she served would have been recognizable and acceptable to her parents, if not her parents’ parents. Brisket, roast chicken, chopped liver, chicken soup: food was good and plentiful; it was not a multicultural adventure.
By the time I was born, my parents had moved to Maryland and the shores of that great protein factory, the Chesapeake Bay. Yet I did not taste a raw oyster until I was thirteen, or a raw clam until a year later. And, in my fifteenth year, I finally sat down with a knife and mallet and began breaking apart a dozen steamed blue crabs—and only then because my sister had taken a waitressing job in an area crab-house.
When I was in college, my parents offered to take me out to dinner one weekend. I chose a French bistro and ordered a plate of sweetbreads.
“Davy, do you know what sweetbreads are?”
“Sweet bread,” I deadpanned. “Something like a cinnamon roll, right?”
And my mother, not seeing tongue lumped in cheek, turned again to the waiter to rescue her youngest unschooled child from imminent and avoidable disaster.
* * *
My father was all about salt, which is to say, he ate Jewish.
Matjes herring was better then Bismarck, but both were preferable to herring in any kind of cream sauce. The very idea of cutting the salted, pickled-without-pity taste with anything vaguely neutral or sweet was the mark of the apostate. To my father’s reckoning, a Jew caught dipping a piece of herring in cream might as well just slather mayo on fish sticks and crawl to the nearest baptismal font.
Pastrami, with the fattiest parts untrimmed, was lean corned beef perfected. The trick to great borscht? Salt that sucker down. The trick to great shav? Well, salt helps, but there is no such thing as great shav. A hot dog was a hot dog with brown mustard and boiled kraut. When my brother married a Wisconsin girl and brought her back to the family preserve, she punched a hole in the known universe by attempting to dress a Hebrew National dog with ketchup.
My father dryly threatened to notify the rabbinate and there was talk of a bet din, a religious court of inquiry. Spinoza, my father explained, had been excommunicated for less, merely because he greeted the Enlightenment by questioning the very idea of the Hebrews as Chosen.
“This is worse,” said Bernard Simon, intimating that absent an immediate repentance, a Biblical stoning might be regrettable but necessary.
In 1977, my father was downtown, working at the B’nai B’rith Headquarters in Washington. Armed members of a local Muslim sect, a breakaway from the Nation of Islam, seized the building along with other DC locations. As the day dragged on, a nearby Hilton hotel prepared sandwiches, which were brought in to feed the hostages. Sitting on the floor with nearly a hundred others, with a half-dozen armed men hovering, my father unwrapped the cellophane from a corned-beef sandwich to find that it was on white bread, and sullied even further by a schmear of glistening white mayonnaise. He turned to a coworker and said—and this is not mot d’escalier on my part, this is an actual quote:
“Sid, they’re trying to kill us.”
To my father’s tastes, cuisine was sodium and chloride and only one possible permutation of those elements. It was belly lox before nova. And if the Parkway deli down the block had lox wings—the fatty part of the salmon near the fin that somehow retained even more salt than the sliced stuff ever could—well, pick up a half dozen of those and we can nosh. No bagel. No cream cheese. No tomato. Why trifle with such blandishments? Just bear down on strips of heavily salted, fat-greased fish on a plate. Maybe some seltzer to wash it down.
This was my birthright, my inheritance.
In the summer months, my mother—having some sense of food groups in which brine did not feature—would often start a meal with fresh berries and cream. Not crème fraîche, mind you—that stuff was for Presbyterians. No, the berries were made to swim upstream in a fat dollop of Breakstone sour cream—my maternal grandfather asserting himself from beyond the grave. But in whatever total war was being waged against the sweeter side of my father’s tastebuds, even this concoction was too close to some sort of salt-neutral Switzerland.
As a countermove, my father invented his own appetizer. He went into the kitchen, pulled out a sharp knife and a jar of Ba-Tampte brand (“tasty” in Yiddish) half-sour kosher pickles. He chopped two pickles into small cubes, and then mixed them with sour cream: Jewish tzatziki. Except more bitter, and more better to his way of thinking.
(Before proceeding further with this tale, I have to pause to remark on the fact of my father entering a kitchen anywhere, grabbing a sharp implement and a food item, then rendering that item into a different form, mixing that element with a second substance, and serving it. It’s impossible for me to convey the singularity of this event, except to reference another childhood memory, one in which my mother went to New York to visit her mother and sisters for a week. I was subsequently taken to the Parkway Deli for seventeen successive meals.)
When I first sat at a dinner table and peered over my summer berries to see my father’s bowl of dissent, I could only respect the depths. I thought I had seen the besalted Hebrew cuisine in all possible forms. What, I asked my mother, is that called?
Pickles and cream.
As a ten-year-old in the suburban Washington of 1970, the phrase “what the fuck” was not entirely unknown to me. But somehow I managed to suppress my initial reaction.
“Dad, you’re gonna eat that?”
“It’s good. Try some.”
I picked up a spoon.
Cornichons et crème. À la Chef Bernard.
* * *
I found the wider world, or perhaps, the world found me.
And now, at fifty-one, I’ve been to Georgia on a fast train, as they say. Been to New York, Paris, London, Capetown, San Francisco, Napa, New Orleans. There have been meals, oh yes, there have been some meals.
The Bristol in Paris. Le Bernardin. The French Laundry. The River Café in Hammersmith. The Ivy in Soho. Momofuku. Gotham Grill. Tasting menus from Dufresne or Mina or Colicchio, omakases from New York sushi lords and Los Angeles sushi nazis and Nobus upon Nobus upon Nobus Next Door, wherever they are to be found.
And, too, I’ve had time enough to hunt down perfection without pretense, on back roads and back streets. A slice of Di Fara’s. A T-bone and tamales at Doe’s in Greenville. A burnt-end sandwich at Arthur Bryant’s. Pork ribs at Smitty’s in Lockhart, Texas. Fresh, soft tacos from La Super-Rica in Santa Barbara. Malva pudding at that joint on the road south of Capetown. Brisket from that no-name shack in Georgiana, Alabama. In New Orleans, I’ve tasted the chicken à la grande at Mosca’s four times in a single life. In Baltimore, I’ve stood at the Faidley’s bar with a crabcake platter at least twice a year for my entire adulthood. And thanks to this Bourdain fella, I’ve wandered a campground in Opelousas, Louisiana, and watched an entire living pig transformed into serving sizes, tasting all and loving all.
I don’t claim to know a damn thing about food—about why a dish works or why it doesn’t, about ingredients or seasonal menus or wine pairings. My credentials are akin to someone who likes to drive a beautiful car at high speeds but sees no point in opening the hood and looking inside. I know when something new explodes in my mouth and messes with my brain; I have no clue how it comes to be, and my incuriosity when it comes to the world of the kitchen is, at this point, just embarrassing.
But I do love a new taste, a new experience. I know what I don’t know and yet am content to put just about anything in my mouth on even a little bit of say-so. My father, as you can imagine, found this appalling.
First of all, some of the stuff I ate didn’t have enough salt. And some of it was from countries whose cuisine was unknown and uncertain in say, 1955, when the invention of food was largely complete and fixed. And, too, some of it was ridiculously expensive.
My father was a generous man, a liberal, charitable man. But he also knew what he knew, and he knew the value of a dollar. Walking my father into Le Bernardin or Nobu would have produced apoplexy. Money was only money to my father; he would not begrudge anyone their pleasures, their luxuries, their extra expenses. He hoarded hardback books, for example. Cheaper paperbacks brought him no pleasure at all. A book was worth whatever anyone asked for it. But food? How good, how unique could anything worth eating really be? For my father, a child of the Great Depression, high-end cuisine was all pomp and presentation, and, he feared, a great scam perpetrated on a public easily impressed and hungry for status.
I remember the first and last time Bernard Simon tasted sushi—a cuisine that should have appealed to a man who had embraced fish and salt as an essential combination for life.
“People pay for this?”
Or the time my LA agent took us out for brunch at Barney’s on Wilshire, where my father ordered lox and eggs, a deli staple. Alas, it came with crème fraîche and Osetra caviar and was priced accordingly.
“Your mother makes better.”
And the idea of journeying to find the perfect fried-oyster po’ boy or the perfect pizza slice? The miles-to-go-before-we-sleep hunt for the barbecue place that has no name, no phone? The whispered rumor of a food truck that’s killing it according to Chowhound?
To my father, the world had lost all sense.
In New Orleans with my parents, I once tried to drive out of the city, west to Houma, Louisiana and a little shack named A-Bear’s, a place said to be serving a fried-catfish sandwich that made even full-blooded Cajuns weep with gratitude.
“Dottie,” he grumbled to my mother, as we rolled down I-10 and the city skyline receded. “Don’t ever tell anyone we went to Houma, Louisiana to eat catfish for lunch.”
When I told him that catfish might actually be dinner, that we might first stop for lunch in Thibodeaux for boiled crawfish, he began to panic. He knew there was no hope of a delicatessen in such a wilderness. Reaching for his wallet, he pulled out a coupon for a run-of-the-mill Italian joint in downtown New Orleans, a place where, if he had to eat Italian, he could at least order his preferred dish: veal parmesan, without the cheese.
“You’ll get a good meal here,” he said, waving the coupon.
“Dad, did you ever eat there?”
“No, but I got a coupon. And Italian is Italian.”
He died two years ago. Toward the end, he was invalided and his world was limited to the meals my mother brought him at bedside. Tellingly, as he began to fail, he lost his taste for salt, for delicatessen, for all the heart-stopping glory of pastrami or lox wings or knockwurst and kraut. The bypass surgery years earlier certainly provoked some of the moderation, but something else was at play. In the end, he was eating less and less, and most of it very simple, very basic, very bland. He developed a sweet tooth, of all things. Ice cream became one of his few remaining favorites. Regardless, and to the very end, if my mother made it, it was better.
* * *
Two weeks ago, I found myself exhausted after a long day on a film set. My family was back home in Baltimore, and the house was empty. I’d been eating late meals all over New Orleans, and of course, as anyone familiar with Crescent-City cuisine is aware, a string of late New Orleans meals will kill a man dead.
Anything worth doing is worth overdoing down here, and the only way to survive the local fare, good as it is, is to retreat now and again to one’s own kitchen. A salad here, a broiled piece of chicken there, and maybe, just maybe, you come off a 120-day film shoot with a body weight that is moderately less than planetary. So I drove to Breaux Mart, the neighborhood grocery, just before it closed.
And there, in the deli section, I glimpsed a jar of kosher half-sours. Not Ba-Tampte, but close enough. In the dairy section, I found Breakstone sour cream. And late that night, alone in the City That Care Forgot, I sat down and ate something that my father, a man who knew what he knew, had invented.
The first spoonful threw me back to childhood, a Proustian moment of remembrance and joy and, yes, sudden grief. I sat there eating and crying, finally admitting to myself that, for all the great chefs and magnificent dishes and wondrous journeys toward a finer and newer meal, this was, for me, utterly perfect.
I had seconds.
* * *
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Thanks for posting this. It struck a chord with me, as a 57 year old man whose father was also of a previous generation that had seen two world wars, did not waste food,and harboured a suspicion of any cuisine outside of his own mother’s repertoire. I have an inkling that as we grow older we see the world through our father’s eyes more clearly. Thank you for the opportunity to see the world through your father’s eyes.
There was no Polish-Russian border “in the early moments of the last century” for the simple reason Poland had been wiped off the map since the late 18th century. Returned in 1918.
In 1977, I was a 27 year old executive with B’nai B’rith and was a hostage with Bernie. Bernie and I were lying next to each other during part of the 39 hours we were held by the terrorists. Late Wednesday on March 9th the first day of the siege, men over the age of 50 were untied and told they would be the first to die since they had lived their lives. This included Bernie and I remember how insulted he was that he was told he was old. The rest of the men remained with our arms tied behind our backs. Lying on a hard cement floor with your arms tied behind your back is not the most comfortable position. Later, as the evening wore on and Bernie and I were next to each other he noticed how uncomfortable I was and he wanted to know if I wanted to rest my head on his hip. An act of kindness offered under a difficult situation and one never forgotten. He was also picked by the terrorists the next morning to help feed other men a piece of doughnut and a sip of coffee–black. Bernie apologized for not being able to provide something more appropriate and some cream and sugar for the coffee.
Thank you for this, Paul. My father passed away two years ago, but I am still learning about the man.
I do remember how upset he was to be labeled as old.
I also remember one thing about the Hanafi crisis that has stayed with me. During the event and in the aftermath, my father was bothered about the fate of one of the hostage-takers, a quiet fellow in a knitted cap. That man, my father said, didn’t want to be there. He had dutifully followed Hamas Khalis, who in the pain over his family’s murders by the Nation of Islam, had lost all sense and taken over the three D.C. building and threatened the lives of innocents. But the Man in the Knitted Cap was clearly troubled, and he exhibited, at odd points, small kindnesses toward the hostages. My father sensed that this man knew that the entire event was a horrible mistake.
In an op-ed piece in the NYT written after his release, my father singled out Knitted Cap for his humanity and empathy. At the trial, my father was a witness and he was hoping someone — a defense attorney, perhaps — would ask him a question that would allow him to speak on this man’s behalf, to at least relate his kindnesses and his obvious distaste at being a participant. No one did.
It is a small, but telling thing. That kind of empathy doesn’t come often, and it was something that I always remembered about that time.
Awesome and hilarious! Brings back a lot of memories. Happy for the mention of Parway Deli. Your mom also permitted an over-abundance of Good Humor ice cream products (in the foot locker fridge in the basement) and Hostess chazerai — all manner of Twinkies, Ho-Hos, cupcakes and fruit pies.
[…] David Simon on food, eating, and his father. […]
More on the 1977 B’nai B’rith hostage crisis, where Bernard Simon was among the captives:
Sidney H. Closter, director of the B’nai B’rith Foundation, said the Hanafis behaved “alternately with civility and great cruelty.” He said anti-Semitic tirades and epithets were hurled frequently at the hostages who were told that “we were responsible for all the ills of the world.” Bernard Simon, B’nai B’rith public relations director, said the Jewish hostages were not singled out for special attention by the gunmen even though the Hanafis said repeatedly they were anti-Zionist. Old men were told they would be decapitated by the Hanafis who wielded machetes and automatic weapons. Some men were pistol whipped and kicked, apparently without provocation, one released hostage said. The women, however, were left untied, unlike the men, most of whom were tied with electric cords and neckties …
Several of the hostages said the captives had very little to eat during the siege. One reported that they were fed coffee and doughnuts in the morning and “lousy” corned beef sandwiches in the evening. “Who eats corned beef with mayonnaise?” asked one of the hostages. “For a Jew, that’s a travesty.”
On a day when many things made me angry or sad, this food memoir brought tears of joy. It evoked a dormant memory of taking my mother and step-father to an Indian restaurant owned by a friend in Washington, DC involving lamb vindaloo many years ago. I know they never ate Indian food again. Sushi? No way. We share the same heritage and are close in age. In the midst of my political angst and apoplexy today, you made me close my eyes and remember good times and my wonderful family. Thank you for so perfectly capturing the cuisine of my childhood and young adulthood.
A corned beef or pastrami sandwich at Manny’s Deli in Chicago will put you right back there in time…
I’m in love. I sort of accidentally ran across this and I’m in love.
My father and yours were cut from the same cloth, from the same region (central Europe) only my father was Christian.
You write beautifully. Thank you.
Thank you for sharing this, David — simply wonderful!
[…] publications like Lucky Peach, especially when they’re producing quality material like this David Simon piece, and Anthony Bourdain has been doing great work for years now, and wrote one of my favorite graphic […]
I love food writing and this was a really great story.
I can’t help thinking that if your mom made the matzah brei salty (and I’m betting that with your dad’s palate, she did) – those pickles in cream would’ve been amazing on top.
Thanks for the piece. Humorous. Sentimental but not maudlin, touching but not cloying . It brought back many memories. My people probably knew your people in Jersey, in New York, and all over Eastern Europe. Of course, “our people” aren’t really Jews per se. Our tribe is (hopefully) a little bigger than that. It’s made up of those of us left on the planet who might in another time have been called humanists. The tribe of the compassionate, the tribe who still gives a fuck (even if sometimes we don’t even want to anymore) – we can’t help it. It sounds like your old man definitely belonged to that tribe.
But I digress…Just wanted to mention a couple of memories your piece knocked loose in an already rattling brain. My grandmother happens to be The Jewish Mother. Your piece reminded me of a common snack at her house: sour cream and bananas…I can’t imagine that combination occurred in the old country, but it definitely occurred in the Valley. And how is this for old school: A bagel for her is toasted, slathered with butter, then spackled with about a quarter pound of cream cheese. She’s ninety-six. I think people gave up telling her it was bad for her about twenty-odd years ago.
I also got a kick out of your La Super-Rica reference. I used to eat there every week when I was semi-attending Santa Barbara High – and I never miss it when I go back to visit.
Last, I’m sure this already crossed your digital desk, but just in case:
Well, I won’t bore you with praise, but I can honestly end this by saying,
keep up the good work.
We had two versions of the sour cream thing. Sour cream + cottage cheese + bananas + blueberries + other berries, with about a quarter-cup of sugar on top.
The other one was egg noodles with sour cream and cottage cheese and sugar and cinnamon. Kind of a no-bake kugel, now that I think about it…
My Mom called it “tzinamonarinka”.I’m sure that was made up.My sisters and I still talk about it.
I seldom read long pieces for lack of time. I’m glad I read yours. This was beautiful, thank you for writing.
thanks for this great piece. it always drives my New York friends into apoplexy when i tell them that the best pastrami sandwich in the world is actually made at Langer’s deli here in Los Angeles. i try to limit myself to one of their #19s per year (anything more is just taunting the atherosclerosis fates) from the way you’ve described your father, he probably would have been content to eat there every day
Every loss is recent in its own way. I’m sorry for yours.
Thanks for sharing the memory.
This was a very nice read. Thank you.
I’ll bet your dad bragged all over town about you.