Although it wasn’t as quaint as it sounds now, I attended first grade in a four-room schoolhouse building called the Seymour School (we used to call it “the Old School”) in Wantagh, the town in which I grew up. By the time I attended, the building served only first graders, and I’ve spoken to many classmates through the years who remember it fondly, as I do.
Memories that are seventy years old can easily become conflated, but I distinctly remember sitting in a desk in front of a thin girl with dark hair. We would all eat lunch at our desks, and my mother would fix me either a tuna or peanut butter & jelly sandwich that I carried to school in a lunchbox that featured an image of some long-forgotten cartoon or adventure figure. Although I can’t be absolutely sure, it was probably Roy Rogers or a World War II battle scene.
All I remember about the girl sitting behind me was that one time when I turned to ask her what she had for lunch she quietly took the top piece of Wonder Bread off her sandwich to reveal a sliced 3 Musketeers bar. Without a word, she closed the sandwich and took a small bite. (As some of you may recall, at first Wonder Bread advertised that it built strong bodies eight ways, but later increased this number to 12 after throwing some more vitamins into its otherwise white formula.)
Later that day when I reported this startling culinary discovery to my mother, it was with the hope that perhaps she might add a similar sandwich to my limited lunchtime offerings. (The truth was, even then as now, I’ve never been a big fan of 3 Musketeers, preferring Snickers, introduced by Mars in 1930. But I digress.)
My mother’s reaction to this news and subtle suggestion was a rare scoff.
“It’s probably the only way her mother can get her to eat two pieces of bread.”
If the girl is still alive, I wonder if she still eats 3 Musketeers bars—with bread or without. (Note the official spelling: they use a numeral “3” instead of spelling it out. One can learn much important information in this manner.)
When I was a kid, candy bars cost a nickel. The exception to this was a Mars bar, which was a dime. Personally, Mars bars never appealed to me, my childhood reaction being, “Are you crazy? Why would anybody spend double for a candy bar that isn’t that great?” In fact, the only person I knew who ate Mars bars was my dad, so I had to give it some credence—maybe it was an adult thing.
Television, even in the early 1950s, was pushing all kinds of crap aimed at kids. One minute Captain Kangaroo was having a serious discussion with Mr. Green Jeans, and the next he was speaking directly to you, encouraging you to tell your mom to buy some sugar-coated substance in a box.
One ad that I recall well was for Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy. Turkish taffy was invented in 1912 by an Austrian immigrant named Herman Herer, who sold the rights to M. Schwarz & Sons, who sold the rights in 1936 to a Turkish Sephardic Jew named Victor Bonomo, whose father had founded a candy company on Coney Island in 1897. The taffy was sold in large sheets to Woolworth’s stores, where someone would break off pieces with a ball peen hammer and sell them based on weight. Later produced in a candy bar size, this business of whacking it against a hard surface and breaking it into bite-size pieces was to any kid a major selling point. Bonomo specifically cited the decision to use television as instrumental to the popularity of Turkish taffy.
Available in vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, and banana flavors, the great appeal to me as a kid was never the taffy itself, but rather the joy of breaking the damned thing into little pieces, and “sharing it with your friends,” as recommended on TV.
I was one of the fortunate kids who was able to eat virtually anything and not put on any significant weight. Today I would view this as both a blessing and a curse.
For a time, one of my favorite breakfasts as a boy was a toaster waffle topped with cream cheese and sardines. My mother indulged me, knowing that sardines were good for me, Philadelphia cream cheese was considered a healthy (and traditional) cheese choice, and a toaster waffle was well-advertised and probably not evil. I remember distinctly eating this gourmet combination every day for weeks until one day my body had had enough and I threw up. I’ve never been tempted to try it again. (I suspect that the culprit was probably the toaster waffle itself.)
When I first moved to San Francisco with my ex-wife (I occasionally wonder if she ever writes anecdotal stories that include me?), we lived within walking distance of the city’s world-famous Chinatown. One night, we felt like Chinese food and found ourselves in Joe Jung’s popular restaurant. It was our first visit there and we ordered from the menu. While we waited for our selections to arrive, we were impressed by the many tables filled with Asian diners—a sure sign that we were in an “authentic” Chinese restaurant. Then my keen eye observed that the trays going by were filled with platters of fried chicken. Fried chicken?
“What the hell is this all about?” I muttered. Indeed, all of the Asian diners had ordered fried chicken; we were the only people eating Chinese food.
I had to wait until our next dinner out to sample what turned out to be Joe Jung’s famous fried chicken. It became one of our favorite places to eat.
Oakland’s Chinatown is also well-regarded, and when I was a student at Laney College and later at Berkeley, I ate there often. Early on, I recall looking at the lunch menu of a neighborhood restaurant and then spied an older Asian man with a large bowl of some kind of soup in front of him. I asked the waiter what he was eating and with a smug look he handed me a mimeographed page. The sheet was filled with that distinct blue mimeo writing, but it was all hand-written in Chinese. That explained the smug look.
Ha! I thought to myself. He thinks he’s going to put one over on me! In a classic move reserved for idiots, I blindly chose an item on the menu and told the waiter, “I’ll have this.” How bad could it be?
A few minutes later I found out. The bowl was filled with broth, some noodles, and a few vegetables. Floating amongst these not-unexpected items were several chicken feet. Webbed chicken feet. I did my best to get through my soup, left the “meat,” paid and tipped, and not for the first time acknowledged to myself that I was an overeducated fool.
Author Bob Greene, who, in spite of his dismissal from the Chicago Tribune following a hotel tryst, was a dependable chronicler of my generation. He once told a story of being invited to share a pizza with a friend. The friend described the pizza as “the best pizza in the world! You’ve never had anything like it!” As I recall the story, after driving over an hour, they arrived at a pizza joint where Greene described “the best pizza in the world” as no more than “a fairly good pizza.” This was followed by his admonition that “One shouldn’t travel for food.”
I recalled Greene’s words when reading the book American Fried by American author, humorist, and food writer Calvin Trillin. Without hesitancy, Trillin said that “the best ribs in the world” could be found at Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue Restaurant in Kansas City, Kansas.
At the time I read this I was living in Columbia, Maryland, but was planning to move with my wife-to-be, Sharon, back to Oakland.
“We need to stop in Kansas City on our way,” I told her. At the time, I was still eating meat, and who was I to doubt the acknowledged “food writer,” Calvin Trillin?
We arrived in Kansas City on a Sunday afternoon, carefully parked our possession-laden car in front of the restaurant where we could see it through the plate-glass window, and entered the legendary restaurant that featured small Formica tables and red-vinyl upholstered chairs. On the walls hung dozens of photographs featuring celebrity patrons (including U.S. presidents both dead and alive), plaques, and certificates of achievement and merit. Behind the counter stood our unenthusiastic host. We ordered and sat at our table while keeping an eye on our car on the street outside.
Arthur Bryant may have been the legendary King of Ribs, “the most renowned barbequer in history,” and a host to Harry Truman. But I will state simply: Screw you, Calvin Trillin! I’ll be the judge of what is “the single best restaurant in the world.”
Okay, I’ll tell you.
My favorite—and the best restaurant in the world—is Saysetha Thai Cuisine at Telegraph and 62nd in Oakland, where Sharon and I have been eating since 1983, where my band performed for over 5 years on a small stage, and where we still return for great food, special occasions, and personalized service. When he learns we’ve arrived, Eric (the owner) invariably comes out of the kitchen to greet us. Now, that’s the best restaurant in the world. (I’ll add that the wait staff is friendly and attentive, and remembers our favorite dishes after over 35 years.)
Anyone who has traveled has “food stories.” One of my favorites is ordering the vegetarian sandwich at a Starbuck’s in the Guadalajara airport and discovering it contained ham. In Prague, I questioned the waiter as to what type of “meat” was in a particularly enticing dish. After conferring with another waiter, whose English was obviously much better, he returned with the answer: “The meat is white meat.” I chose another dish.
As a 17-year-old freshman at Boston University, I met Mike Jacobson, who would be my roommate for the next year in the Myles Standish Hall dormitory. I shook hands with him and his father and they invited me to join them for dinner at Anthony’s Pier 4. As a restaurant that was in business for over 50 years, and had “earned a special place in the hearts of New Englanders,” I was told that I was in for a special treat.
Since at the time I knew little of New Englanders and nothing of lobster etiquette, I followed the lead of my hosts, who were from Hartford, Connecticut, and not born in Brooklyn, NY as I was. (I didn’t mention that I had once been crabbing with my grandfather Morris when I was four years old, and could be considered a seasoned crustacean connoisseur.)
The lobster was preceded with the bib, the nutcracker-like tool, the teeny forks, and the ubiquitous butter sauce. (I am reminded of the scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen attempts to lure an escaped live lobster from behind the refrigerator with a dish of butter sauce.)
I’ve eaten a number of overpriced dinners since that time, but I believe that was one of the most pretentious. (I was glad I wasn’t paying.)
Although I no longer eat shellfish, meat, or poultry, I do remember the last steak that I ate. I was travelling for work, was in Southern California, and had been questioning my lifelong meat-eating self. I decided that, since I wasn’t paying for it, I would indulge.
I went to a highly-rated steakhouse, and without looking at the menu, told the waiter that I “want the best steak on the menu.” As I recall, it came with a baked potato. (Of course it did.)
Perhaps it was the best steak they had, and it might have even been the best steak I had in my life. Either way, I was not impressed. My mouth did not achieve orgasmic levels, nor did I sigh with the first or last bite. It was just a steak. Sue me.
I don’t ascribe to the notion that “food is fuel.” I’ve eaten at Chez Panisse, the Carnelian Room, and other obscenely expensive restaurants in the US and Europe. Often I’ve come away with a feeling of meh. And even though I am Jewish, I’ve never cared for brisket or kasha varnishkes, and I’m not a fan of matzoh balls. I do, however, appreciate a well-prepared salmon burrito with sautéed vegetables, or what my mother would refer to as “a nice piece of fish.” And my good friends can confirm that my own idea of “fun” is sharing a pizza with those closest to you, even though I don’t eat pizza as much as I used to.
In the end, good food is what brings you joy. Bon appétit!