Growing Up Ethnic in New York

By Jim Feldman

Being ethnic in the fifties and 60s was different than now. Everyone seemed to get on pretty well. We all knew and accepted that jokes were being told about people like us by people like them, but we were telling jokes about whatever ethnic background was an easy target too. The war had thrown all kinds of people together. Now they were starting to live in the same neighborhoods, and the borders began to blur. An Italian Jewish mutt, product of the times and merging cultures, I belonged to two camps, and got hear jokes, some pretty low, about both sides. I never liked hearing them, but acted like they rolled off my back. But as compensation, I got to eat all sorts of really good things on both sides of the street.

We all lived within a few blocks of each other in Brooklyn so we ate over at someone else’s house, or someone else at ours all the time, but the cuisines rarely mixed. (My mother, to her credit, says that the secret to light and excellent matzo balls is a splash of olive oil). When you went to Grandma Flora’s house, you were back in the hills of Piemonte, replete with lunch under the grapes in the back yard, the tomatoes growing a few feet away. At Aunt Ann’s house, the cuisine of the Jewish Pale, straddling Poland and Russia, held sway. Her blintzes were heaven for this little kid, making myself ill by snatching and snarfing dough and filling to eat raw.

Each side of the family had outlying districts to explore. Occasionally you’d get a chance of eating in the apartment (in Manhattan no less) of Uncle Joe, who wasn’t really our uncle, but a very cool guy who came from Odessa before the Revolution, had been married to a French woman, and cooked amazing meals out of his tiny kitchen, which was a large closet in his residence hotel on West 72 Steet. Lemony garlicky chicken, I remember no other detail of how or what he cooked. Until dessert. That I remember with crystal clarity.

Uncle Joe lived upstairs from the Royale Bakery, the bastion of Romanian Jewish baking, with American recipes fattened up just a bit to round out the selection. Their Strawberry Short Cake was a family favorite at the end of Uncle Joe’s meals. If we got there early enough I could visit the bakery, staring at glass cases filled with cookies to make any little kid weak in the knee. And ladies behind the counter offering samples. Kid nirvana.

There was quite a cast of characters, culinary and otherwise. Mom worked in a fancy restaurant, and every so often, Andre the dashing maitre d (really I did not make that up) would come over to our garden apartment, make a huge mess, a wonderful meal, a flaming dessert. My father was keeping on eye on the flammables, including his family, when Andre was whipped into a frenzy of high wire cooking. Iron Chef get back. He was real entertainment in the kitchen.

If were doubly lucky, Chen the Chinese cook came too. When he came the place even got decorated with paper lanterns. Food rolled out of the kitchen, flames shot up, and my father rolled his eyes. Italian-Mandarin-French. Andre swore he was French, my mother said he was really Italian trying to “pass himself off” and my father said he came over on a banana boat (I didn’t quite get that reference, but it sounded illicit and foreign so that was the version I preferred.)

There would be a UN dining room of antipasti, fried rice and veal cutlets, and on really good Sundays, Andre would make zabaglione. I loved to see it all get whisked together, hot and frothing and so good. To this day I associate the smell of Marsala with him and those meals. Zabaglione with fortune cookies actually went pretty well together.

Grandma Flora’s kitchen was a place of wonder. I didn’t spend much time hanging out in it, but passed through it at every opportunity to get to the backyard. She made fruit pies, deeper than crostata and more dense with fruit and flavor than American pies. She always added brandy or rum to the fruit before baking. She didn’t have any of either around one day and used someone’s martini, sans olive. People still talk about that pie.

That’s Grandma in the photo, demonstrating Barba Louie’s newly invented pasta cutting machine, for his application for a US Patent. The photo was taken in May 1930, just a few months after the crash, and here was my great uncle pursuing the American Dream.

She made ravioli. Need I say more.

There were antipasti and roasts and risotto of all descriptions. The table literally filled the dining room, you had to squeeze in and out from 2 of the 4 sides

One of Grandma Flora’s signature dishes is Riz al Crem (pronounced "reez al cream") a wonderful risotto with chicken and cream sauce. I am relying on your basic skills for this. My mother and I made this today. It is a rich, simple crowd pleaser.

It was all different when I was away from the family, in school or with the other neighborhood kids. Around the school lunch table or going over to someone’s house I was disoriented. They ate different stuff, things I knew were American, or guessed were. I once pleaded with my mother until she let me go over to Carl’s house for a TV dinner. I had seen them advertised and craved one. We ate on little folding tables in front of the television. I was more fascinated by the order of things in their compartments (and the fact that dessert was in its compartment too, right there with dinner) and that no one talked to each other, that the phone didn’t ring, than the food itself. I was cured. The next TV dinner I had, was, well, that’s another story.

My mother made my sister and me lunch to take to school every day no matter how late she got home from the restaurant. Lunch was always good, the kind of things that would make me very happy at any midday now. I remember a sandwich on crusty Italian bread, prosciutto and lettuce inside. My three friends at the lunch table were eating PBJ on white, or American cheese on white. Their sandwiches made no sound. Mine was noisy. Theirs were neat and compact, mine was long and sent crumbs everywhere. Theirs went into their mouths without a struggle, which was nailed home to me when a strip of prosciutto didn’t make it all the way in and was left hanging on my chin, and they all saw it. Right then I wanted to chuck my family and move in with Bob and June and Wally and the Beaver and forget that most of my relatives spoke another language first.

But then I would get home. If my mother was working that night, there were pots on the stove for my father or sister to heat up. If she had a night off, we’d sit down to dinner around 6. The bitter taste of wanting to be someone I was not was gone.

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