Abraham Rothberg  - Author


The Taste Of The Past;                                      Home
A Brooklyn Nostalgia
by Abraham Rothberg

Old men are prone to nostalgia and anecdotage--and why not?  If the past was never the golden age many touted it to be--I listen with amused disdain to tales of how wonderful the 1930s and 1950s were by people who never lived through those times—some things were indeed better then.  Food, for example.  As I have grown older, I am struck with yearning for the foods of my youth, some "family" foods, prepared by my mother and her two sisters, others from companies and restau­rants now gone, or making their products differently.

When I was growing up, we lived a brief nickel's ride on the New Utrecht Avenue trolley from Coney Island, where I regaled myself with the delights of Nathan's hotdogs and French fries, the equals of which I haven't been able to find since I moved away from New York City some twenty years ago. I, un-American in my distaste for virtually all French-fried potatoes, including even my mother's, loved Nathan's, which were made in a quite different way, the secret of which, we were told, was as closely guarded as the formula for Coca-Cola.

How can I describe the boyhood pleasures of chewing Black Jack chewing gum, which, when we had a penny, we pre­ferred to chewing street tar, which we believed would make our teeth whiter.  Or the  marvels of Horton's French vanilla melorols, on the rare occasions during the Depression we had a dime to buy them, a truly tangy vanilla-bean taste and a prewar butterfat content that was an invitation to clog your coronary arteries.  Or, even better, the home-made ice-cream of a spotless little German ice-cream parlor near the Hewes Street synagogue, where I sang in the choir.  Between services, I would sneak away to watch transfixed as the owner, with a large wooden spoon, ladled gobs of rosy strawberry, dark chocolate and green pistachio ice-cream into sundaes, sodas, floats, malted and frappes, and who, doubtless out of pity for my forlorn, impoverished longing, would give me twice the amount I ordered and could pay for, and then, "as a favor to him," ask me to "sample" his new flavors--peach, or cherry, or pineapple--and tell him how they tasted.  Or the small stores on Thirteenth Avenue where they sold fresh charlotte russe with a layer of raspberry jam between the aery sponge cake and the thick swirl of genuine whipped cream.

During the Depression, potatoes were a staple, cheap and plentiful.  Never did they taste better to me, wonderful Long Island potatoes which grew where now sprawl acres of suburban houses and concrete malls.  Frequently, we boys, al­ways hungry, took a potato or two from home to roast over fires we built in backyards.  We called those potatoes "mickeys," a term I didn't connect with the Irish or the potato famine until I was at college.

Men out of work sold roasted chestnuts and sweet potatoes from small metal carts that were charcoal-fire ovens on wheels. They wrapped the potatoes or chestnuts in a cone of the day's newspaper so you could handle the hot potato or nuts as, right there on the street, you ate them.  Most of the time, most of us didn't have the nickels and dimes such things cost, so we had to make do with the "mickeys."

Commercial products in the Brooklyn of that time also satisfied the palate, Stuhmer's dark pumpernickel or Wisotsky's crisp-crusted rye bread to be eaten with fresh, sweet-smelling tub butter and white and black radishes whose sharp flavor brought tears to my eyes.  Old-fashioned farmer cheese, wrapped in cheese cloth in the ice box, before my mother brought it out to spread on our bread.   Ebinger's splendid double-chocolate layer cake as a treat to be eaten with a glass of unhomogenized milk which came with a thick head of cream.  Lofts' parlays, chocolate, nuts and nougat.  And the coffee beans in the grocery brought from the sack to the grinder, and then freshly ground before your eyes, which filled the store with a coffee aroma.  On special occasions, we were allowed a cup of this dark nectar, though well-diluted with milk.

The local delicatessen, Skilowitz's, whose savory pastrami, garlicky salami, rolled beef, and brisket were all dispensed on seeded rye bread with special mustard. The local "appetizing" store, Miller's, which sold all sorts of herring--pickled, chopped, smoked, in schmalz, sour cream and wine sauce--and other pickled and smoked fish--salty lox sliced thin and orange long before I ever heard of saumon fumée; chunks of salmon in brine with slices of onion, which we called pickled lox; whitefish and butterfish whose soft flesh was a smoky delight to the palate; but I haven't seen a single butterfish in more than twenty years.  Fished out, they tell me, gone, vanished, no more.  And the sauerkraut, sour and half-sour pickles and pickled green tomatoes we called gherkins but pronounced jerkins, dipped tingling cold from great wooden barrels of brine and spices.

Best of all were the foods my mother and her sisters prepared.  All three of them were brought up on Middle-European cooking and baking, and very proud of their culinary skills. My mother's cheese and potato blintzes, potato pancakes and salmon croquettes are the best I have ever eaten.  She made a Mitteleuropaische delicacy, babulyiniklach, a heavenly com­bination of potatoes, onions, chicken fat and eggyolks I never found elsewhere, not even in Vienna or Prague, and superb kugels with crisp crusts and hearts of thick broad noodles spiced with cinnamon and white raisins.  She baked a remarkable rice kugel, with a crispy crust and both black and white raisins, I never found elsewhere either.  She pre­pared mushroom and barley soups from dried mushrooms--the Czech dried mushrooms she thought the best—thick with carrots, celery, parsnip and bits of meat which warmed us many a cold winter night.

The youngest, most Americanized of her sisters, my mother experimented more with her recipes.  It was she who baked the first—and best--carrot cake I ate, and a pineapple-meringue pie she might have "invented," which I can still re­member more than three and a half decades since her death. My Aunt Yetta's apple pies and shtrudel, full of lemon peel and orange peel bits, melted in the mouth, as did her sweet and sour lima beans and a baked potato log we called bubeh or potatonik, a slice or two of which was a meal in itself. My Aunt Fanny made chicken soup that could be eaten with a fork so thick was it with chunks of chicken, vegetables and farfel or egg barley.  She baked tiny, fluffy circles of flaky dough with powdered sugar she called cheese bagels, which were nonpareil.  And she whipped up superb dark-chocolate pudding with heavy sweet cream and maraschino cherries that all her nieces and nephews loved.

A little while ago, in the local newspaper, a small item reported that the "original Nathan's" was opening a branch at a nearby discount department store.  The second day it was open, I drove there, made my way to a half-concealed alcove where I found the sort of counter one usually finds in fast-food restaurants these days, but above it, in blazing neon, was that old familiar sign: Nathan's.  It was lunch hour, but no more than a handful of diners were there, and only one person stood at the counter.  As I stepped up to give my order, I remembered the crows that mobbed Nathan's Coney Island counters, eight and nine deep, jostling and yelling their orders, the hilarity and peevishness, the eating and spilling, the aromas of other Nathan specialties—their chow-mein sandwich, for instance—vying with the fresh ocean smell of the wild Atlantic only two streets away.

Forgetting my present-day strictures about nitrites, salt and saturated fats, I eagerly ordered two hot dogs and French fries.  Hypnotized, I stood watching the frankfurters sizzle on the grill, the rolls toasting brown, the French fries spitting oil from the deep-fat fryer, breathing in the scents as though they were perfumes.  Bliss!

When I got my order, I was shocked back into reality by the price, well over $5.  O where are the prices of yester-year!  I sat in one of the small booths with its vinyl-covered benches and formica-covered table, savoring every mouthful. Delicious!  Yet it wasn't at all like standing on Stillwell Avenue in the crowd of Nathan's devotees, gulping down a frank and a batch of French fries, dripping mustard and ketchup, listening to the oohs and ahhs of appreciation, making a few myself.  Still, the franks and fries did taste like old times, almost like the "original Nathan's," almost but not quite. Something was missing--but what?

When I got home, I told my wife about the whole es­capade, and she roared with laughter.  Irked, I repeated, "Well, something was missing." And she, who remembered Nathan's as well as I did, went right on laughing, and in her good-natured way, said, "Sure, something is missing, you fool, your youth!  It's not the taste of the frankfurters and fries that's different, Abe, it's your mouth."

Copyright © 2005, 
Abraham Rothberg

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