It was always a thrill to have dinner with Daddy. We ate at 6:30. That was something to look forward to. After bookkeeping for the day in Daddy's accounting office, Mother came home with Daddy at exactly 5:30. The front door to our home would nervously fly open. Mother walked to the stove to cook the evening meal while Daddy sat at the kitchen table to read his local paper. Whether or not Mother worked at the office, Daddy demanded dinner. Mother had less than an hour to cook, so her process was pared to formula. Daddy was hungry; he wanted to eat now. Nothing else mattered. That was final.
Monday through Saturday dinner was meat and potatoes. There was usually some frozen vegetable, but that wasn't really important. Steaks were the dominant element. Tenderloin steaks were the favorite. Often a meat called levitze appeared on the dinner table. Levitze was the tail end of a porterhouse steak. A coarse sweet meat highlighted with tendons, it was really a kind of peasant food found only in kosher butcher shops. Often mother ground five cuts of meats that she hand-picked at the butcher. Daddy liked home-ground hamburger, and Daddy's taste ruled the kitchen.
Sometimes lamb chops and breaded veal cutlets entered into the picture. Yet tenderloin steaks and levitze were usually the major attraction since Mother was careful to broil them in less than 45 minutes. As a substitute for slowly oven-baked potatoes, Mother broiled potato slices on the small electric broiler. Daddy was waiting to be gratified. Long waiting would not be tolerated. Though the Sunday roast beef or roast chicken took one or two extra hours, Daddy didn't mind the tedious process. He toyed with the Sunday papers; that filled up the empty spaces.
I often complained to Mother that dinner was somewhat boring. Steak and potatoes nightly were not exactly adventure. Mother countered that Daddy liked it. She had to cook just like his mother. This was the way Daddy's mother cooked, so dinner was steak and potatoes. It took me years to discover that Mother had stretched the truth. In the 1920s and '30s Daddy only ate potatoes. This limited diet of poverty almost caused death from malnutrition. Daddy's picture in a family album showed a shriveled teenage skeleton at sea in a frightening future.
Daddy's steak and potatoes were his ideal of the Great Depression. Daddy's mother never bought the steaks that we ate at our dinner table. These were first-class steaks from two kosher butchers who owed so much money to my father's accounting business that they traded steaks and other meats in payment. Night after night we ate the finest steaks (and I've never seen their equal today) so Daddy could be assured that he wasn't really starving.
One day Mother stopped at the fish store and bought an enormous lobster. Daddy was enraged; Mother had dared to deprive him of his sacred steak and potatoes, While Mother boiled the lobster, Daddy displayed his annoyance. He hinted that the lobster was trafe, non-kosher, but conveniently forgot that we all ate bacon for a distinctly non-Jewish breakfast. The underlying cause of anxiety was elusive. We didn't know that Daddy's dead mother never made lobster, so how in heaven could he ever accept it.
By the time the lobster was brought to the table our family was wishing that dinner would end quickly. My sister, Mother, Daddy and myself nibbled cautiously at the lobster. The lobster wasn't good. Daddy was certain of that. Regretfully we ate it, and that was the last of the lobster, any lobster, in our home. The next night Mother turned again to steak and potatoes forever.
In a good mood Daddy would sing at the diner table. Usually he sang "Lucky Lindbergh" or "Toot Toot Tootsie." If floating on a cloud of gaiety, he would tell a joke; and this was strange because Daddy had no sense of humor.
Daddy loved to tell the story of the man who placed his little son on the top shelf of a bookcase and told the boy to jump. The son refused to jump and the father asked him to be trusting. The father said he would catch the son. The boy finally jumped and the father didn't catch him. Standing near the broken body of his child, the father then said this would teach him to trust no one. Daddy thought this story was truly a scream. Daddy also had a favorite saying - "Money talks, but the only thing it says is goodbye." While eating he laughed at this thoughtfully.
Most often dinner was the playground for Daddy's fears. He loved to repeat the remark that Rabbi Rockoff, the head of my Yeshiva, had made about me when I was caught running through the halls in second grade. "You'll never amount to anything," that's what he said," Daddy giggled and then suddenly went silent. His other great line was, "You have a face only a mother could love."
Daddy's clients always gave him detailed advice about my rearing, and he brought these ideas to the dinner table. His clients terrified him, but he needed their money so he promised to follow their notions of life management. Once, after I supposedly earned the wrath of an important client who had criticized my behavior and embarrassed and shamed my elders, Daddy upset a water glass on the edge of the dinner table. The glass shattered into hundreds of shards that flew into the bowl of fresh coleslaw that Mother had spent an hour preparing. Mother attempted to salvage the wrecked coleslaw by removing the largest glass slivers while Daddy moaned softly as the water dripped all over him.
Whenever he was angry Daddy destroyed the dinner setting. This was a decided improvement over other male relatives who displayed more violent proclivities. The afternoon Uncle Charlie threw Cousin Martin down a long flight of stairs following luncheon at my grandmother's was not a unique instance in our history of family eating.
Daddy never learned to cook. For him to learn was preposterous. Daddy demanded dinner and Mother would provide it. Once Mother put Daddy in charge of watching the gribbenes simmering on the stove while she took me shopping for clothes. The gribbenes, an old East European mixture of chopped chicken skin and onion in boiling rendered chunks of chicken fat, was mashed into Mother's chopped liver. When mother and I returned from the stores, the pot was a burning disaster. I, who at 10 was already cooking, noted Daddy's failure to watch the gribbenes. Daddy, horrified that he possibly could have screwed up, rewarded me with a punch in the stomach.
As a teenager I obtained some revenge. Mother, away at the shopping malls, had forgotten to plan our dinner. Daddy pleaded with me to make him a sandwich. Cooking was unmanly but was easily forgiven in a tight spot.
Spurred on by Mother, Daddy occasionally had dinner at exciting restaurants. His favorite was Robin Hood Inn, a north New Jersey eatery that specialized in roast chicken and potatoes. Across the street from Robin Hood Inn was Friar Tuck Inn, which carried an identical menu. Both establishments were in fake Tudor buildings, which Daddy thought dignified family outings. Twice a year Daddy took Mother to a Broadway play preceded by dinner in Chinatown. He loved the ritual of "eating Chink" and the magic of theater that was "seeing a little leg."
Eventually Daddy retired from accounting, gave up his clients, sold the house in Passaic, and moved with Mother to Florida. For a while they lived in apartments. My sister was scandalized when she met my parents for dinner. Mother still fed Daddy like a servant to a master. Mother waited on him hand and foot, Sister told in disapproval. Daddy built a little dream house in Delray Beach near the eastern shore. Right after they moved in Mother made his lunch. He ate, laid down for a nap, and died in his sleep.
I'll always think kindly of Daddy eating his dinner steak. "Don't trust anyone but your parents," he said between heaping mouthfuls.
(Basically, this is chicken skin and onions cooked in boiling chicken fat.)
- 2 lbs. raw chicken fat
- 1 lb. raw chicken skin
- 1 enormous fat onion, chopped coarsely
You have to collect the hunks of chicken fat and chicken skin from the cavities of whole chickens. The fat and skin cover the large cavity left by the butcher. You can freeze the fat and skin until you've collected enough. Chicken necks are also excellent sources for chicken skin, and available in quantities from butchers on request.
With a very sharp knife, cut the chicken skin and chicken fat into small pieces. Place in a metal pot (no frying pan, please) over a low flame. The fat will render into liquid and eventually boil. Using a spatula, occasionally stir to prevent skin pieces from sticking to pot. Avoid spattering fat. When chicken skin turns very light brown, add the chopped onion. Cook slowly until onions turn brown and chicken skin turns dark brown and crisp. Do not burn or onions and skin pieces will turn black and tasteless. Watch the pot carefully or you'll cause a fire! When onion is done, turn off the heat.
Separate the gribbenes from the chicken fat using a fine strainer (be careful not to burn yourself). The chicken fat should be refrigerated in a covered metal container for future use. The gribbenes can be refrigerated in a covered glass or plastic container. Several tablespoons of gribbenes and chicken fat should be added to chopped liver when you're grinding the chicken livers. As kids, we put fresh chicken fat on rye bread, heavily sprinkled the bread with gribbenes, and salted the top.
If this disgusts those on low-cholesterol diets, you have my sympathy.
Joel Gersmann is artistic director of Broom Street Theater.