My parents were the children of immigrants, Romanian and Russian. They had poor childhoods. They were the first in their families to go to college, which led to their slowly moving up the middle-class ladder to professional careers. My mother worked in publishing, my father in television and movies.
My mother was born and raised in the Bronx. Her parents were poor. They repaired dolls and other things. They never learned to speak English. My mother worked her way – at Macy’s — through Hunter College, a free education, I believe.
My father was raised in Greenwich Village, along with his sister, by his mother who was left by my grandfather who didn’t support them. Later my step-grandfather helped. He was Russian, an engraver of buttons, which he did in our 10th Street apartment, on a small workbench set up in the corner of the kitchen.
I was an only child. I was born in Rochester, New York, and we moved back to New York City when I was 4. Our first apartment was a cold-water, third floor walk-up flat on Charles Street in Greenwich Village. The bathtub was in the kitchen, where for a bath my mother heated pots of water on the stove.
My only food memory from there was the plastic bag of margarine, where at age 4, I loved to mush around the orange dye to make the margarine look like butter, I guess. I shudder to think what poison it might have been made with.
A second floor walk-up
About a year later we moved to a second floor walk-up on 10th Street in Greenwich Village, which had been my grandparents’, who moved upstairs and later to Woodstock, New York. The apartment was above the Casa Allegra bar and restaurant. At night, my bedroom got the noises and smells of food through the vent on the roof which my windows opened up on. This was the apartment I lived in until I graduated high school, a rent-controlled apartment whose last rent – in the 1950s — was $50 a month. It was there my food memories began.
I vividly remember our kitchen and the whole smallish old apartment. The kitchen had a built-in island, with the stove, sink, and refrigerator behind it with not much room to cook and prepare food. There was old linoleum on slanting floors, built-in floor-to-ceiling cabinets, and my grandfather’s workbench. We ate most meals at the island, except when company came we ate in the dining room, which also had my parents’ desk where they did their bills and pasted their Raleigh cigarette coupons into booklets. There was also a closet. The dining room opened up to the living room, the most “elegant” room in the two-bedroom apartment, with its one tiny bathroom, high ceilings, and fireplace.
My family were secular Jews. I was brought up with no mention of being Jewish, and celebrated none of the holidays. Sometimes we would go over to friends’ houses for Seder, but they were always secular and full of humor.
Both my parents worked from as far back as I can remember. My mother was still the cook, which she did when she came home from her demanding work at Popular Science/Outdoor Life magazine. She began as a copy editor and ended, at retirement, after more than 35 years there, as president of the book club and of her department and some big title with the Times Mirror Company which had bought the two magazines.
At some point my parents hired a wonderful woman to clean a few days a week and to be there when I came home from school. She would give me after-school snacks, which included graham crackers with peanut butter and jam, sometimes a sandwich. She made great fudge, which she taught me to do. When I went away to camp, later boarding school, her fudge packages made me happy and popular. Occasionally she cooked dinner and made a mean fried chicken.
She made simple but delicious meals
But mostly it was my mother’s food I remember. Because she worked full time, she made simple, but delicious meals: meat, and potatoes or rice, and vegetables. Mostly healthy for the day. There was no soda in the house, and no white bread. She cooked steak, chicken, and my favorite, pork chops. Always with apple sauce, which, for a while I had to have with every meal. And milk, sometimes chocolate, which I drank with meals through my 20s, even asked for it, to my parents embarrassment, in nice restaurants.
There was one meat I ate at the time, tongue, which probably contributed to my becoming a vegetarian, first in my late teens, and then permanently, in my early 30s. I always had a special connection to animals. My mother, who loved nature, became a vegetarian also, at age 50.
Other food I liked and remember were chicken livers with onions, liver, meatloaf, pot roast, and chopped liver made with a grinder which attached to the island edge. A special occasion dish was chicken with peppers and pineapple in a sauce, over rice, probably a weekend meal. This is a lot of meat for a potential vegetarian, but I did like it at the time. I never have desired or missed it again after becoming vegetarian.
My mother’s Romanian parents, who died before I was born, inspired two of my favorite food memories, food which I love to this day: mamaliga, or cornmeal mush, with the leftovers cut and fried the next morning; and an eggplant salad, potlagel, eggplant roasted on the stove top, skinned, mashed with onion and oil and put into mason jars for company appetizers. I just couldn’t get enough of it and would take spoonfuls of it when I could. My mother also did delicious marinated mushrooms, also in jars, layered with oil and herbs. She was a good cook, and became an excellent vegetarian one, growing her own vegetables upon retirement in a gorgeous, large garden in upstate New York. My love of food, I am sure, began in that 10th Street kitchen, and continues to this day.
My parents’ breakfasts, before work, were always a boiled egg, toast, and coffee. I had the egg and toast and sometimes hot Cream of Wheat or Wheatena cereal, on which, when I was younger, my mother made a face with raisins, butter, and brown sugar. When I was sick, my mother made me hot milk with cinnamon and a pat of butter. Weekend breakfasts, when my mother had more time, were special: pancakes, eggs, bacon, rolls or biscuits. On some Sundays my father and I would go down to the Lower East Side and buy bagels at Yonnah Shimmel’s, and pickles from barrels, then lox and cream cheese to bring home.
I bought ice cream from the Good Humor man
I developed a sweet tooth early. Probably from my father and his mother. He loved Sara Lee’s frozen cream cheese cake, which I then did also. I could have eaten the whole thing, and sometimes did. My mother did not want sweets around, so this was an ongoing conflict between them. Other differences led to their divorce when I was 16. I think my mother’s forbidding sweets may have also led to spending my allowance on candy bars when I was out playing on the street, which I was whenever I could. I loved sports and was rather good at stoop ball, which I played on stoops all over the West Village, including against the arch at Washington Square Park. On warm days I bought ice cream from the Good Humor man, Toasted Almond bars being one of my favorites.
When company came, I loved the specialness of it: the appetizers and drinks in the living room, sitting at the dining table with a tablecloth. Thanksgivings were mostly at my cousins in the suburbs, but later my mother had wonderful, elaborate Thanksgiving meals with delicious dishes, some brought by friends. The company was filled with interesting Village friends, many writers and artists. There were cranberry sauce wars between two male friends, both insisting that their version was the best. I was not excited by cranberry sauce and didn’t see the point. I particularly loved my mother’s stuffing with chestnuts and Brussels sprouts, also with chestnuts.
I have to also mention my grandparents’ food. My beloved grandmother loved sweets, so in Woodstock, after a game of Canasta, and always with a box of chocolates nearby, we would go across the street to Miss Mary’s Ice Cream Parlor and sit on the deck overlooking a small river, with a hot fudge sundae, always with extra fudge. To this day I have dreams about this. Oy, no wonder neither of us was ever thin.
My grandmother and I would also go to Horn & Hardart Automats sometimes. I loved it, of course, going around looking at all the choices, putting the coins in and having your own chosen sandwich or pie pop out. A brilliant concept. I think the one we would go to was either on 14th Street or Midtown. I remember marble counters and the front being all windows. Also going to Schrafft’s for ice cream.
My thin Russian grandfather made a delicious borscht, which was made with beef, beets, and other vegetables, served with sour cream and a dark pumpernickel bread. The soup cooked all day. I remember him smoking cigarettes the whole while. At the same time my grandmother, also of Russian background, would cook her wonderful pierogies. My grandparents often fought, or to be precise, my grandmother picked on my grandfather a lot, but during cooking there was harmony. She also made a delicious pie crust, with cream cheese I think. It was either an apple or cherry filling.
I also have to mention the fabulous spaghetti sauce made by my friends’ mother. My friends, two sisters, lived around the corner. We would be sitting on their stoop and they would ask if I wanted to come up for dinner. What are you having? I would bluntly ask. If the answer was spaghetti, I was in. We all loved it, and after dinner would sneak into the kitchen, take big spoons, open the mason jar where she had stored her sauce, and indulge ourselves.
Around the corner from my apartment, on Greenwich Ave, was a small, narrow store which in the front sold newspapers, magazines and candy. In the back they sold hot and cold sandwiches. I loved the hot meatball hero and eggplant Parmesan hero. When I had the money, those were a special treat.
I could shell and eat those peas all day
Along with my parents’ friends and their children, we rented a small cottage in rural New Jersey every summer, where we would go on the weekends, and sometimes longer if one or more of my parents had time off. Down the road was a farm, owned by farmer Rance. He had these extremely large work horses, which we kids loved to see on our visits there. Our parents sent us to pick up corn, tomatoes, and shell peas. I could shell and eat those peas all day. I remember also loving the freshly picked young white kerneled corn, eaten raw. We had many memorable picnics near the pond, swimming and eating food off the outdoor fire pits, cooked by the fathers. Hot dogs, of course, tomato and potato salads, corn. On the sometimes long stop-and-go trips from the city to New Jersey, my mother would bring bags of munchies, mostly fruit, grapes, and apples, sometimes hard boiled eggs. Along with a cat and dog.
And of course, there were s’mores at my camp, Camp Killooleet in Hancock, Vermont, run by Pete Seeger’s brother John and his wife Ellie. Roasting the marshmallows over the fire by the lake, smooshing them burned black with gooey centers on top of the chocolate bar pieces sandwiched between two graham crackers, couldn’t be better than that.
When I visited my father at his apartment after my parents’ divorce, he would make us a dish he ate often. It was sliced hot dogs, canned baby Le Sueur peas, and canned baby peeled potatoes, all fried together in a frying pan. Sad to say, I sort of liked it. He never really cared for food that much. I know that my love of food came from my mother and her cooking when I was a child. She loved fresh vegetables which she bought at a store named Balducci’s. After she became a vegetarian, she wrote several articles for local cookbooks and country magazines on roasting vegetables and other ways of preparing them simply and deliciously.
Restaurants were not a part of the culture when I was growing up. Occasionally my parents and I would go out to a restaurant. This was a big treat. We sometimes stopped at Howard Johnson’s when we drove to our summer house in Redding, Connecticut, when I was a teenager. Later, my father took me to Sardi’s and the Russian Tea Room. What I loved most was shrimp cocktail. The height of sophistication, I felt. The sophistication was spoiled, perhaps, with my glass of milk.
I went to the Little Red School House in Greenwich Village. I didn’t take my lunch, so I must have eaten there, but the food was not memorable. From 9th to 12th grade I went to a boarding school, the Stockbridge School in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The food was served in hard, heavy plastic bowls full of mushy food such as mashed potatoes, mixed boiled carrots and peas, and soggy broccoli. To this day I don’t like the combination of carrots and peas. Tell you the truth, I think the food at the prison I was later in — having done civil disobedience at the Pentagon — was better. It was buffet style, whereas at Stockbridge it was bowls full of food put on the tables and that was it. No choices. The girls’ rooms were upstairs from the dining room and at night we would sometimes sneak into the kitchen and help ourselves to whatever looked appealing, mostly cakes and brownies. On our Saturdays in town, we would buy jugs of cider and concoct what we considered to be “hard cider” by adding brown sugar and raisins and letting it sit hidden in our closets until it turned to what we thought was alcohol.
At some point a French bakery, Sutter’s, opened up down the street from us on 10th Street and Greenwich Avenue. This really changed breakfast habits, and may have been the beginning of the gentrification of the West Village. I discovered croissants, buttery cookies, and many other delicacies. I was often sent to get croissants and rolls for weekend breakfasts. Spread with butter and strawberry jam, this was hard to beat. A long road from bags of margarine with food coloring, to fresh buttery pastries. Ah, progress!