To paraphrase the genius of Frank Vincent Zappa, I believe that writing about food is like dancing about architecture. Writing about dining, however, that I can get with. Not the fine dining that grabs all the press. I’m talking about that great theater—the American dinner table.
Before the smartphone, we had the dinner table. You sat down and got up about two and a half hours later. Family dinner was a defining nightly event. The dinner table was where family stories were born, raised, and buried. Sad and glorious, with coffee at the end. And cordials.
Here’s my favorite table story: I was 18, eldest of five. Living in Rutherford, New Jersey. My father had just died, and with the insurance money, my mother bought a house across town. Big three-storey job with a porch. All of her brothers and sisters told her not to. Right after she bought it, my grandmother and one of my mother’s sisters moved from the Bronx to an apartment near us.
We couldn’t afford a house. Didn’t buy any furniture for it. The only thing we did to fix it up was to scrape the white paint in the vestibule. Me and some friends put in a few nights there drinking beer, smoking joints, and occasionally scraping paint.
And we had guests. On my mother’s side we had Aunt Anna, from the Bronx. She had money. She was married to a guy named Henry Gottlieb. Henry was old for as long as I could remember. He was one of those people you could never picture being young. Ever. Anna and Henry never came to family parties. If they hosted one, nobody drank. They had a house in Westhampton, an apartment on Park Avenue, and when they “downsized” it was to Great Neck. My nasty old grandfather always referred to Henry as “The Bootlegger.” I never got the real story.
Anna and Henry didn’t drive. When we got the word that they were going to grace us with their presence for Thanksgiving Dinner, we thought they were joking. At that point we were a rowdy crew. My brother Chris was all about proving this to Anna and Henry. We did not make them feel welcome. But she never helped when my Father was in the hospital, so fuck Anna and Henry. Anyway, they took the bus to Rutherford and stepped off as if dressed for church. Anna carried a neat little white bakery box with red and white string. Henry coughed and blew his nose into a white handkerchief.
“Hiya Johnny. Happy Thanksgiving. Is this your car?”
We had this boat of a Chevy station wagon with a loose tailpipe (and worse motor mounts) which made left-hand turns a thrill ride.
They had no idea. Holy shit, they had no idea.
We fixed up the house, at least a little bit. No empty beer cans visible. We sat at our rickety dining room table. My mother made pot roast. When Old Uncle Henry started sawing away at his slab of meat the table almost collapsed, and we all laughed uncontrollably. Anna was unamused. Henry too. You know what? To hell with Anna and Henry. This was our table. This was our family. They left after the babka.