I was born in New York City and moved to New Jersey, when I was 5. My dad’s a lawyer and mom is in educational publishing. She was a freelance writer. I have one sibling, my younger brother. And the town where I grew up, Montclair, was at that time a fairly white bread, sort of stuffy, WASP suburb of New York. Not a lot of good food. I don’t remember there being any other Jewish families in my neighborhood. I always felt a little bit different.
Family closeness was very big. I think my dad, more so than my mom, really focused on the family togetherness. My dad grew up without a father. His father died when he was 2. So I think family togetherness and closeness and bonds have always been important to him. My dad’s grandfather was a baker. I think that his father’s family ran a construction company in Newark. They were much more blue collar. I don’t think my dad was the first one to go to college but he may have been the first one to go to law school. He had a period of distance from his family, before I was born. He sort of rebelled. His parents, his family, no one’s very intellectual, no one’s liberal. He went in this completely different direction from his family. My dad’s family is all in New Jersey.
My mom grew up in Chicago and then she moved to New York. My mom’s parents were professionals. Her father was an attorney and her mom had a Ph.D. in psychology, and worked. She was a test designer. It was very weird for my mom growing up because her mother was the only one who worked. It was a little bit true for me too. For me, a significant amount of my friends’ moms were stay-at-home moms.
We were the good eaters
I think my family kind of defined itself through food. We were the good eaters. When I was a kid an Edward Koren cartoon ran in The New Yorker — it was a family, done as only Edward Koren can do, with the long sort of snouts and huge toothy grins and big eyes, and they’re at a restaurant, the whole family, and they all have the exact same expressions on their faces. And the father is saying to the waiter, We’re very good eaters. And that was on the fridge in my house growing up.
Going out to dinner was always a huge production, always a big, exciting event. Chinese was big. I loved Chinese food. We used to go into Chinatown regularly, sometimes just our family and other times with the Ks. S. K. was my mom’s best friend and business partner. They co-wrote a lot of books, did a lot of consulting and writing together over the years. So our families basically grew up together. S. K. and her husband and their two boys lived two and a half blocks from us on the upper West Side. And about six months after we moved to Montclair they moved two and a half blocks from us there. So the four of us boys grew up together and it was like having three brothers instead of one. And we sort of were back and forth between each other’s houses all day long, because our moms would be working together, in one or the other house, every day. And so we’d go to eat Chinese food with them.
There was something about being Jewish
Now, when I say being good eaters set us apart, one of the big set aparts was with the Ks. S. was a good eater, but her husband and sons were horrible. Her husband is a terrible eater. He won’t eat fish, any seafood; he won’t eat cheese. He can subsist on hot dogs and Hormel corned beef hash. He’s a WASP, he grew up that way. I think there was a Jewish flavor to being a good eater. There was something about being Jewish. It sort of all fit together. It had an ethnic tinge.
My parents both cooked, and loved to cook. You know, my dad once told me – this was much later, when I was old enough to fully understand what he meant by this – that he had to cook. It was like his stress release. He’s a lawyer, and at the time I was growing up, he was working just huge amounts of hours, all the time. And cooking was stress release for him, something that made him feel better. We used to eat a lot of red meat when I was growing up. I don’t think my dad really felt it was dinner unless there was some protein-rich centerpiece which was usually meat. So, a lot of meat. So it’s amazing that my brother became a vegetarian. He just turned around on that. It was really weird, because he used to be the ultimate carnivore.
My brother was legendary. It was impressive how much this kid could eat. He was a little kid. When he was 3, 4, 5 years old, he had red curly hair. He was missing his two front teeth and he looked like the front of The Saturday Evening Post — that kind of cuteness. And this kid could put it away. It was amazing! We went to a buffet brunch once, an all-you-can-eat brunch, and they shut him out. They turned him away from the buffet after a certain point. They just assumed he had to be sneaking food to other people. And he loved meat. One summer when we were little, we spent a couple of weeks at a family camp resort near the Catskills where all the families ate together on picnic tables in a big dining hall. And one night the dinner was fried chicken and corn on the cob. My brother started putting it away. At the time he had lost his front teeth, his baby teeth, but he still managed to eat corn on the cob – he sort of gnawed on it with his back teeth. So, this little kid sitting here, and there’s two piles on either side of him. One of naked corn cobs, and the other stripped chicken bones. And the piles were just getting higher and higher. All the other families finished their dinners and went back to their cabins to get their cameras.
If you love me, you’ll eat it
My grandmother, my dad’s mom, was in some ways the ultimate Jewish mother. And she had this wonderful way of serving you something that was awful, I mean like boiled chicken and gefilte fish and something you just did not want to eat, and she’d just look at you with all the pain and suffering of our people in her eyes and she would just say, If you love me, you’ll eat it. But for us, for my family, especially for my dad, I think it was kind of a rebellion against that. He grew up in a kosher household. And his uncle took him out – I don’t know how old he was – and gave him pork, I think pork first and then shellfish, and said this is what your mother doesn’t let you eat. Right around when I was born, my dad took his mom out for lunch in the city and ate clams casino in front of her. Well, he came down with hepatitis. Which makes you think, perhaps god does exist and, maybe, we Jews are actually right about shellfish. He grew up in the Weequahic neighborhood of Newark, went to the same high school Philip Roth went to, the whole nine yards. So I think in some ways it was rebellion against that culture for him, and that carried over to us. When I was a kid, I remember that the eating thing was always something that set us apart from the Ks.
My father’s family was religious and kept kosher. My parents were not religious. They identified as Jewish as a cultural, ethnic thing. So my only sense in terms of Jewish food comes from family gatherings with my dad’s family, which would be Passover, Hanukkah, the holidays. I would never eat the gefilte fish. I’ll eat it now. You’ve got to cover it with horseradish to make it edible. But it’s pretty gross. I sort of get a kick out of eating it now, just because it is kind of gross. But, the matzoh ball soup, always chicken or turkey, that was always the main course. There was noodle kugel, that was always a big feature of it. Chopped liver, I loved the stuff. When I was a kid I had no concept that some foods were really not good for you. Liver, for example, has got to be the least healthy thing you can eat. But it tastes so good. I would just gobble it down at these events. We would frequently have the big Sunday brunch. We’d have bagels and the smoked fish. And that was just always incredible. We’d have the smoked salmon, the nova, sometimes kippered salmon, other kinds of delicious smoked stuff. Always have the chubs, little whitefish, and they’d be whole. And my grandmother would always eat the heads. That was a Jewish cuisine that we always loved. My dad would go to the Jewish delis and get the incredible smoked fish and the best bagels and all of that.
We spent a lot of summers in Maine. That, of course, led to the discovery of serious shellfish and lobster. The two summers that were most memorable for me were, I think, the summers I turned 12 and 13. We rented this cabin on this lake, Pitcher Pond, outside of Belfast, with another family. Their younger daughter, D., was in between me and my brother in age. And she was just this complete tomboy, outdoorsy type and so she was like our sister. It was just this big cabin, practically a one-room affair. Bedrooms were set off almost like cubicles off of the main space and there was just this one big open room with a big dining table, and there was a deck off of it. And a kitchen, and indoor sink, but no indoor bathroom. Very rural. It was wonderful! And we’d cook lobsters there and we’d cook steamers and mussels. And it was just incredible. I think it was the first summer there, we were at the beach at Lincolnville and there was a big rock jetty, which would be basically submerged in high tide. One time we were out there and the tide had just gone out. My brother and D. went off on the jetty and found it was covered in mussels so they just started gathering them, and they gathered pounds and pounds of fresh mussels. And we brought them home and spent the rest of the day cleaning the mussels. All of us, it was a huge two-family project. And then we ate them for dinner that night and they were amazing. That was a wonderful meal. I have a very strong memory of that.
There was so much gusto
When I was growing up, so much of my family’s interests were centered around food. We’d go into the city a lot for dinner. I remember there was this one restaurant that my parents got very enamored of, called Miss Ruby’s, which had an American-themed menu and every two or three months they’d change the menu. Every time they changed it, it was a different regional American fare. They’d do a Southern menu, or a New England menu, or what have you. We went there and it was fantastic. And then my parents somehow befriended the owner, the woman who was the head cook. They got Miss Ruby herself — her name was Ruth, I don’t remember what her last name was — to come out for a weekend, with her much younger boyfriend, and to spend a weekend cooking with my parents. And they just cooked up an amazing storm, just unbelievable food. That was the kind of thing that my parents lived for. I mean those were the big highlights. We did other things. We went to museums, we went to the theater. It wasn’t like food was the extent of everything we did, but it was always such a highlight and the memories around that are so strong. Because it was something my parents were always so excited about. My dad especially, but my mom too. And there was so much gusto about it.
I was always a sweet tooth growing up, an outrageous sweet tooth. Like a gourmet sweet tooth. I got so carried away with chocolate and various candy. I just loved candy. Chocolate was my thing. There was a place in the city called Krohn’s Chocolate. In my memory they made their own chocolate. Of course that’s probably not true because it was a little tiny shop and chocolate production is a very big operation. However they did make their own chocolates – I’m sure they hand-dipped their own chocolates. That was extraordinary chocolate. There was a place in Montclair that was like a gift shop where they had these unbelievable chocolate truffles. I couldn’t eat a whole one. They were about the size of a golf ball. You cut it into quarters, because it was so rich. I mean it would just make you sick if you ate the whole thing.
I was much pickier then
I was always kind of the least adventurous of my family, so I had a soft spot for some really bland comfort foods. My mom made homemade macaroni and cheese that I loved. She cut up hot dogs and put hot dog slices in it, which was dreadful, but that was something I always loved when I was growing up. Spaghetti with homemade meat sauce was always a favorite. I was the picky one. It wasn’t that big of a deal. It was always minor. But I think it bothered them to some extent. It was smaller things, like when we’d have salad I didn’t like dressing so I’d have a separate plate of salad before they tossed it with dressing. I basically picked stuff out I didn’t want to eat. I picked the onions out of the pasta sauce. I liked the flavor they added but I didn’t want to eat them. I remember not wanting raw tomatoes — looking back on it I think, Wow, what was I thinking? I definitely improved as an eater. I think it’s sort of a point of pride for me, even if it’s not something I especially like to eat. But I was much pickier then. I didn’t eat mushrooms. I was pickier than my parents or my brother, but in the grand scheme, in relation to other people, a lot less picky.
My dad grilled and we always had a Weber kettle or two or three. I think at one point we did have three of them and sometimes they would all be going at once. And I loved grilled meats. A lot of the stuff my dad would cook would be a lot of the meats. I don’t remember what cut of meat it was he had, but it was some less expensive cut of beef. It was a little tougher. We used to call it beaver tail. My brother and I got that into our heads because the first time he grilled it, it had sort of crosshatching from the grill. And it looked like a cartoon beaver’s tail with the crosshatching so that’s what we called it. That became sort of a favorite just because of that. We had a lot of steak, always rare. That was another thing that set us apart. Because the Ks wanted their meat well done. And that was disgusting to me. Why eat it if you’re going to burn it? And my dad could not cook it that way. He could not cook it well done. He just didn’t know how. It would always come out burnt, really burnt. And inedible. And the Ks would get so upset and I’d be so disgusted with them for being upset. Well, it’s like if you want it well done, that’s what you get! But we liked it rare. Yep, very rare, that was the constant thing.
My mom’s sister lived in Seattle and one time we were going out to visit and had the opportunity to eat real Pacific salmon and it was just extraordinary. And then we came back and we were able to get some at home and I think I missed that meal for some reason. I was terribly upset about it. I don’t remember the details, but I just remember getting so upset about this Pacific salmon. I was over at a friend’s house or something like that. It was tough being a teenager and just wanting to be out with my friends, and having to balance that with wanting to be in on the big family meals. It was a difficult shift in priorities.
Today I’ll eat almost anything
I love to eat. I like to cook. I have a Weber kettle at home and I basically learned how to grill by helping my dad. And that is one of my favorite things to do now. I’m not a great cook by any means but I’m fairly good. I found what my dad told me about cooking being a huge stress reducer is very true for me. Especially when I’m really in the midst of a lot of work, a lot of writing. I’m a full-time freelance writer and I’ll sometimes have multiple projects going at once and I’m working ten, twelve, fourteen hours a day – at home, in front of my computer. You know a lot of single people will just do something very slapdash and last-minute. I won’t. I make a real dinner, partly because I feel better if I’ve had a real dinner, but mostly because that just feels good to make a meal, to really cook.
I try to eat very healthy now. I’m more conscious about what I eat, but it’s not that I rule things out. I eat meat. I try to eat a balance of everything. I’m much more conscious about making sure I’m having vegetables and generally use olive oil instead of butter. I don’t take it to any kind of extreme, but I figure a balance, that’s a good thing.
I really don’t eat sweets at all anymore. I really don’t eat chocolate. I lost my taste for all of that. I stopped eating sweets altogether when I was in college. I was a very heavy pot smoker. Really absurdly heavy, actually. When I was a freshman in college, being away from home for the first time, for an extended period, with really no guidance as to what I was eating, and being in the dorms, and the food just being lousy (me having my sort of food snobbishness built in), I would often go to the dining commons and just be completely disgusted with what was offered — and be stoned — so eating just desserts seemed reasonable. And somewhere in freshman year I started getting upset stomachs every time I ate sweets. So I quit. My theory at the time was that I would quit for a few months and then resume in moderation. But when I tried to do that I pretty much lost my taste for sweets and I stopped eating them.
Once in a while I’ll have dessert in a restaurant, and then only when it’s something that’s not terribly sweet. Last weekend, a friend turned 40 and had a birthday party. There was all sorts of food and at the end there was a big chocolate cake. And my friend was just, Cake, cake, cake, you must have cake. And I said I really don’t want any and he said, Cake! So I humored him. I took a couple of bites and it was just so sweet. It was clearly good cake, but I’ve lost my taste. That just doesn’t appeal to me. When I eat a snack it’s usually because I’m actually hungry, and junk food I don’t find satisfying. If I want a snack, I want something that I’m actually going to feel that I’ve eaten something. So I’ll have cheese and crackers or I’ll have dried fruit.
I’m proud I’ve grown out of my pickiness. While there are things I don’t especially like, I don’t go out of my way to avoid them. I’m not big on mushrooms, for example, but if the dish that I want is prepared with mushrooms I’ll eat them. I won’t pick them out. I’ll eat almost anything. I went for lunch the other day to a new Vietnamese noodle place. I’m looking through the options and I’m seeing tripe in this and that, and for a minute I sort of thought, Ooh, I don’t know if I want to eat that. And then I thought, It’s a Vietnamese place and I’m going to order the soup that has everything in it. And I did. And it was delicious.