There’s an old Borscht Belt joke that goes like this:
Two women are sitting on chairs by the lake at a Catskills resort. The first woman says, “The food at this place is terrible. Everything is overcooked and too salty.” The second woman says, “I completely agree with you. And the portions are too small.”
This gives you a taste of what it’s like to eat with my aging Jewish parents. First, some background. My father grew up in Brooklyn in a working class family. They typically had enough to eat, but not much more. His mother was a terrible cook. But he lived in the Bensonhurst neighborhood where Italian immigrants mixed with Chinese and others. His taste buds awoke to flavors not found in an Eastern European Jewish kitchen. One of his favorite activities was sneaking out of school to go to the “pork store” which was an Italian market that sold all kinds of forbidden delicacies like sausage and pepper sandwiches and prosciutto and cheese, sliced thin and melting in his mouth. He will eat anything once. He’s tried haggis in Scotland and bear’s paw in China.
Modern day Bensonhurst eats
My mother, although born in the Bronx, grew up in a comfortable middle class neighborhood on Long Island. Her mother was an even worse cook, but her family went to restaurants in New York City and had friends from every corner of the world. Mom’s not quite as adventurous, but she’s never met a hot pepper she didn’t love and has dedicated herself to the culinary art. She makes a mean lasagna and amazing vindaloo.
My mother's favorite ingredient
Fast forward about seventy years, they still live in NYC and have been to almost every noteworthy and under the radar restaurant. Being Jews, they have OPINIONS on everything. My mother will comment on whether she can make the dish better herself. My father is constantly asking the waiter to substitute the side dishes. He will also remember every meal, and what every other member of his party ate. “Remember the time you had the chicken enchiladas?” No, because that was like two-thousand meals ago.
They also have their three favorite restaurants where the wait staff knows them and they order the same dishes each and every time. The staff at Gene’s anticipates my father’s preference for the chicken cacciatore with the bone in. At Fiorello’s, they accept that my mother orders the antipasto, but only the vegetables.
My parents are foodies who never knew what cuisine meant until they explored for themselves. This means they’ve earned the right to be critical and they don’t hold back. Not when the food is terrible or the portions too small.
Do yourself a favor. If you've never had a real pastrami sandwich from a real Jewish deli, go have one.