Thousand-year Eggs and Knishes to Die For, a Brooklyn story

The Brooklyn Bridge, seen from Manhattan, New York City courtesy of Postdlf under CC BY-SA 3.0

“Brooklyn was a dream. All the things that happened there just couldn’t happen. It was all dream stuff. Or was it all real and true and was it that she, Francie, was the dreamer?” Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn



Knishes (knyshes) stuffed with mashed potatoes and fried onions courtesy of koritca under CC BY 3.0 license

At that time, we lived along a treeless street around the corner from the Li’s Chinese Laundry and Saul’s Jewish Deli and a five-minute walk from the neighborhood public school. I used to play with Ju Li on hot summer days when we’d pool our found pennies to buy a giant 5-cent Kosher pickle from Mr. Saul Levy and his wife. The pickles were cold, wet and salty. They were more invigorating than ice cream when the air was humid and temperature hit three-digits.

Eating with Ju was one of my favorite pastimes. I was enamored of the mischievous sparks that shot from the depths of her eyes, especially when it came to Kosher pickles. “Āiya! For once …” she was eating something that didn’t originate in her mom’s kitchen or the school cafeteria.

The Li’s lived above their laundry. Sometimes after school her mom would give us oolong tea and red bean cakes. Ju regularly complained about her mother’s cooking. “Always with the rice,” she’d say, mimicking Mrs. Levy’s manner of speaking. Ju said that to be fully “Americanized” you’d need to eat lots of potatoes: baked, stuffed, fried, or mashed. If Ju was to be believed, Mrs. Li never made potatoes and cooked pork almost as often as she cooked chicken.  Mrs. Levy never cooked pork but she roasted beef in an oversized oven and it was known throughout the neighborhood that her potato knishes were to die for.

Occasionally on Friday when school let out, Mrs. Levy would call to us before sunset and Shabbas and invite us in to eat with Moshe, her eight-year-old son. At school and whenever his parents weren’t around, we called him Moose, which he much preferred. Moose wanted to be a baseball player, but I think the Levy’s had other plans for him.

Mrs. Levy would serve us a roasted beef sandwich, half for each of us along with half a potato knish, a slice of pickle, and a glass of creme soda. My mom would have been upset to know I ate meat on Friday, but I didn’t think Jesus would begrudge me such a meal. After we finished eating, she would close the deli. “Have a good rest,” we’d say politely as we left. “From your lips to God’s ears,” was Mrs. Levy’s inevitable response.

As for my own mom’s cooking, I should first explain that my Sidto, my mother’s mother, was the cook in the family. She and my mom were mad at each other and hadn’t spoken since I was five or six. I do remember though that like Mrs. Li my Sidto was also “always with the rice,” which was typical for a Lebanese.  I remember her bottomless pots of chicken-rice soup scented with cinnamon and carefully ladled into small bowls with pink roses on them. I remember her knobby fingers fussing over stuffed grape leaves and kibby, ground meat mixed with cracked wheat, onions, and seasonings. I remember Sidto’s tart yogurt in quart-sized Mason jars. She’d wrap the jars in a Navy surplus blanket and set them by the dining room radiator to ferment.

At my house we had bakery-bought ghreybah, Lebanese butter cookies, or chocolate chip cookies from Safeway, usually on a Saturday afternoon when my mom was home from work. Once my mom invited Ju for dinner but one look at our frozen dinners and Ju went home to her rice.

In fairness to my mother, I don’t want to give the impression that she didn’t cook. She did! She made tea with honey and buttered Wonder Bread with cinnamon sugar for breakfast. She prepared packaged chicken noodle soup with sandwiches of cream cheese and orange marmalade for lunch.  She made good spaghetti – perfectly al dente – with canned marinara sauce that she topped with cheese dust that came in little green containers. She was great at baking those frozen dinners without burning them. Sometimes she’d make lamb chops in a pressure cooker with potatoes and carrots. There were three seasonings in her cabinet: salt, pepper, and allspice. I’m not sure why the latter. I don’t think Mom ever used it. Throughout my childhood the tin sat untouched, growing greasy brown pimples and collecting miniature dust bunnies. Though I gave Mom credit for what she could and did do, I figured that if I had to live with my mother’s rather stunted culinary repertoire, I better learn to cook in self-defense.

Century egg, also known as thousand-year egg courtesy of Kowloneese under CC BY-SA 3.0

In those days, I only ate tidbits. Nonetheless, food had a habit of drifting through my imagination and my dreams: roasting beef a la Mrs. Levy, making chicken soup like my Sidto, and cooking the exotic Chinese dishes I imagined Mrs. Li did. Āiya! What, I wondered, were thousand-year eggs and bird’s nest soup? I prayed out loud from my lips to the Jewish God’s ears, silently at Mass on Sunday to Jesus and Mary, and in bed at night I whispered to Ju’s mysterious Buddha. I need to learn to cook, I told them. Please! 

Then, early one September when I was nine, hope arrived in the person of Ju. She came around to our apartment with our first invitation to dinner at her place. It was for Sunday. The dinner would be to celebrate her parents’ newly acquired citizenship, but really it was all about me. I could think of nothing but watching Mrs. Li cook so I could steal her culinary magic. Her English was poor and I didn’t speak Cantonese but in our melting-pot world we were skilled at listening for the few words here and there that we might understand, watching facial expressions, hand gestures and body language, and taking context into account. In this way, we managed to communicate across cultures. And, well, you know, food has a way of speaking on its own. Sights and smells. Sizzle and crackle.

On our way home from noon Mass that Sunday, Mom picked up a congratulations card and a tray of baklava for us to take to the Li’s. At Mass, my mind had already eloped somewhere with bird’s nests and thousand-year eggs, but as we climbed the Li’s stairs, I was startled out of my imaginings. I shot a questioning glance at my mother. Something was wrong. No scent. No scent! No cooking? Slowly, I trudged the rest of the way. We were met at the landing by Mr. and Mrs. Li’s big smiles and warm welcome with their arms outstretched and ready hugs for me. They were nodding their heads, proudly drawing us inside to see a room filled with neighbors and relatives and a “real American dinner.”  There were sandwiches and salads – potato and macaroni – and a platter piled high with knishes from the Levy’s. A fruit bowl and two apple pies sat at the end of the table and a punch bowl and glasses were on the kitchen counter next to a bowl of fortune cookies.

Ju ran up to me. “Do you believe it? Potatoes! Potatoes in the Li household.” Moose caught my eye, nodding at me from around the end of the buffet, munching on one of his mom’s knishes. He eyed the salads with longing but didn’t dare touch any with his parents there. The salads were probably from Mr. Bjornstad’s. He was given to putting smoky bacon in almost everything. He said it was his signature touch.

Mr. Li was calling to us. “More news,” he said, pulling Ju next to him. He patted her head. “Now better known as Judy.” Well, I thought, so much for Thousand-year Eggs and Birds’ Nest Soup, but how could I begrudge my friend her happiness. There she stood with her mouth full of potato salad, a new American name, and stars in her eyes. Well, I thought, somewhat dejected on my own account until my eyes landed on Mrs. Levy. Schmatz and gribenes. Chopped chicken livers. Potato knishes to die for. Prayers began afresh from my lips to the Jewish God’s ears, silently at Mass on Sunday to Jesus and Mary, and in bed at night I whispered to Ju’s mysterious Buddha. I need to learn to cook, I told them. Please! 

© 2019, Jamie Dedes

If you are viewing this from an email subscription, you’ll likely have to link through to view the video.



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Recent in digital publications: 
* Four poemsI Am Not a Silent Poet
* Five by Jamie Dedes, Spirit of Nature, Opa Anthology of Poetry, 2019
* From the Small Beginning, Entropy Magazine (Enclave, #Final Poems)(July 2019)
* Over His Morning Coffee, Front Porch Review (July 2019)
Upcoming in digital publications:
* The Damask Garden, In a Woman’s Voice (August 2019)

A busy though bed-bound poet, writer, former columnist and the former associate editor of a regional employment newspaper, my work has been featured widely in print and digital publications including: Levure littéraireRamingo’s Porch, Vita Brevis Literature, HerStry, Connotation Press, The Bar None Group, Salamander CoveI Am Not a Silent Poet, Meta/ Phor(e) /Play, Woven Tale PressThe Compass Rose and California Woman. I run The Poet by Day, a curated info hub for poets and writers. I founded The Bardo Group/Beguines, a virtual literary community and publisher of The BeZine of which I am the founding and managing editor. Among others, I’ve been featured on The MethoBlog, on the Plumb Tree’s Wednesday Poet’s Corner, and several times as Second Light Live featured poet.

Email me at thepoetbyday@gmail.com for permissions, reprint rights, or comissions.


“Every pair of eyes facing you has probably experienced something you could not endure.”  Lucille Clifton

Ah, Yes! I remember it well … Atlantic Avenue, reading coffee grinds, and the French novelist and woman of letters, Colette

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954)

“Sit down and put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth and, without pity, destroy most of it.” Collette, Casual Chance, 1964



I remember it well: my first encounter with Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. Picture it.  Brooklyn. A Lebanese restaurant someplace on Atlantic Avenue, ambiance of the Middle East, redolent with fragrances of cinnamon and cardamom and the mouth-watering smell of lamb roasting.

It was 1958. We had just seen the movie, Gigi, starring Leslie Caron, which is based on Colette’s novella of the same name.  You might remember that in the early scenes Ms. Caron wore a wide-brimmed straw hat with a ribbon tied in a bow. The ribbon trailed gracefully down her back. I had such a hat and suffered the illusion that I looked just like Gigi in the film. This illusion was strongly supported by the fact that Gigi is my childhood nickname. In fact, from that day on and until her death, my mother would tell everyone  – as she did at the restaurant on this occasion – that I was Gigi before Gigi. I knew it wasn’t true. I’d read in the newspaper that there was a book written in 1944, which would predate me by six years. I was hungry to get my hands on it.

As the adults talked, I mentally replayed scenes from the movie and imagined a woman sitting at her desk writing the story that became the movie. I might have felt smart and pretty and even glamorous and certainly rather grown-up, but I would soon be relieved of my illusions. My mother allowed one of the restaurant patrons – an artist – to do a picture of me. Much to my dismay all he saw and drew was a scrawny olive-skinned kid with a rather gauche hat that sat too far back on her head. Nothing at all approaching the light, elegant, grown-up beauty of Ms. Caron. Then our supposed* distant cousin, Julia, the restaurant owner, worked her special magic.  She told fortunes by reading the sludge left in the cup after drinking Lebanese coffee. Julia would provide this service . . . “reading” coffee grounds . . . for her favorite (i.e., frequent) patrons.

*Note: Honestly, everyone we met from Lebanon was pronounced a cousin, so I’m skeptical.  Cousin in spirit and language, maybe. Blood cousin? Not so sure. 

At Julia’s my special treat was one cup of Lebanese coffee with my baklava. On this day, Mom let Julia do a reading for me. It had none of Julia’s usual romantic niceties: “You are like the sun and the moon. He is the sun that warms your heart. You are the moon that reflects his strength.” Or, “I see a key. Many doors will open for you. And, see there?  There are two bells entwined with a string.  There will be much love shared.”  There was to be no romance like the fictional Gigi’s for me. No. No.  For me there was: “See that, Gigi. Two books. You must keep up your studies. Therein is your happiness.” Maybe Julia did have something of a seer’s eye. I turned out to be better at reading books than reading men and I’m content with that.


“Then, bidding farewell to The Knick-Knack, I went to collect the few personal belongings which, at that time, I held to be invaluable: my cat, my resolve to travel, and my solitude.” Colette, Gigi, Julie de Carneilhan, and Chance Acquaintances: Three Short Novels


As for Sidone-Gabrielle Colette (a.k.a. Colette), the Nobel nominated (1948, Literature) French novelist, actress, and mime, this was my introduction and the beginning of my appreciation for her life and work.

Colette was a prodigious writer of many popular literary works. The Claudine stories were the first. For La Belle Époque, Colette’s writings were racy but – perhaps unfortunately – by today’s often jaded tastes, not so much.  While Colette’s life was too much on the wild side for me, I appreciate her courage and honesty and I do love her writing, so full of an appreciation for life and so rich in perfume, color, and humor, occasionally wry.


Publicity still of Colette for Rêve d’Égypte at the Moulin Rouge.

Quotable Colette

For the romantics among us:

“I am going away with him to an unknown country where I shall have no past and no name, and where I shall be born again with a new face and an untried heart.”


The story of Gigi is about a young Parisian who – in her family’s tradition – is being groomed for a career as courtesan. A handsome, wealthy, and well-placed young man is targeted by her grandmother (Mamita) and aunt for Gigi’s first relationship. For the movie version, the story is sanitized to get by the American censors. It was 1958 after all.


“You will do foolish things, but do them with enthusiasm.”


Colette’s life and work are honored in film, song and story by (among others) The Year I Read Colette (YouTube video) by singer-songwriter Roseanne Cash, The White Rose by Truman Capote (describes his first meeting with Colette), and the movies Colette and Becoming Colette. Les Vrilles de la vigne is number fifty-nine on Le Monde’s 100 Best Books of the [20th] Century. When Colette died, she was denied a religious burial by the Catholic Church because of her divorces but the French people justly honored her literary significance with a state funeral.

If you are reading this post from an email subscription, you’ll likely have to link through to the site to view these trailers from two movies about Colette.

© 2019, words, Jamie Dedes; photo credits – 1.) Colette’s photo, public domain, 2.) Rêve d’Égypte photograph copyright unknown (probably in public domain), 3.) the different types of Arabic coffees with the Hejazi / Najdi golden coffee seen on the left and the Levantine black “qahwah sādah” (plain coffee) on the right 

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“Brooklyn: A Personal Memoir” by Truman Capote with the lost photographs of David Attie … not just for my Brooklyn peeps

Truman Capote (1924 – 1984)

“I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighborhoods.” Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s



by Truman Capote (Author), David Attie (Photographer), George Plimpton (Introduction), Eli Attie (Afterword)

Of the books I read this year, this birthday gift from my son and my daughter-in-law is by far my favorite … and not just because I’m from Brooklyn and it’s a bit of nostalgia and a stellar homage. I’m a Capote fan and a David Attie fan and Brooklyn: A Personal Memoir by Truman Capote With the Lost Photographs of David Attie brings the writer and photographer together in the most delightful way.

“I live in Brooklyn by choice.”

If you’re a Capote fan, you’ll learn about his life in Brooklyn and just why he loved it. There are two photographs of a young Truman that some fans might find worth the price of admission. One is on the book cover (above) the other is included in the video below. The photographic collection in this book was originally commissioned to use as a promo for Capote after the publication of his novella, Breakfast At Tiffany‘s (1958).

Capote captures the essential Brooklyn in his writing, the singular gentility of the time and place, the grittiness of certain quarters, and the ways in which it could be excentric. Attie’s  photos – taken in 1959 – document the tenor of a time now alive only in the memory of a generation that is slowly passing.

David Attie’s photographs were never published and thought to be lost. When Attie’s son Eli found them, he merged them together with Capote’s narrative and they were published at last, a visual feast, engaging for Brooklynites, Capote fans, literary history and photography buffs.

Photo credit: Jack Mitchell under CC BY-SA 4.0; signature is public domain.

The short video below gives a brief overview of the book and includes many of David Attie’s photographs. If you are reading this post from an email subscription, you’ll likely have to link through to the site to view the video.



What would you find pleasant or helpful on The Poet by Day in 2019?  What have you found helpful to date? Link HERE to let me know.




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Poet and writer, I was once columnist and associate editor of a regional employment publication. I currently run this site, The Poet by Day, an information hub for poets and writers. I am the managing editor of The BeZine published by The Bardo Group Beguines (originally The Bardo Group), a virtual arts collective I founded.  I am a weekly contributor to Beguine Again, a site showcasing spiritual writers. My work is featured in a variety of publications and on sites, including: Levure littéraure, Ramingo’s PorchVita Brevis Literature,Compass Rose, Connotation PressThe Bar None GroupSalamander CoveSecond LightI Am Not a Silent PoetMeta / Phor(e) /Play, and California Woman. My poetry was recently read by Northern California actor Richard Lingua for Poetry Woodshed, Belfast Community Radio. I was featured in a lengthy interview on the Creative Nexus Radio Show where I was dubbed “Poetry Champion.”


The BeZine: Waging the Peace, An Interfaith Exploration featuring Fr. Daniel Sormani, Rev. Benjamin Meyers, and the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi among others

“What if our religion was each other. If our practice was our life. If prayer, our words. What if the temple was the Earth. If forests were our church. If holy water–the rivers, lakes, and ocean. What if meditation was our relationships. If the teacher was life. If wisdom was self-knowledge. If love was the center of our being.” Ganga White, teacher and exponent of Yoga and founder of White Lotus, a Yoga center and retreat house in Santa Barbara, CA

“Every pair of eyes facing you has probably experienced something you could not endure.” Lucille Clifton

 

Summer in the City, a poem

IMG_4576

“Even so, there were times I saw freshness and beauty. I could smell the air, and I really loved rock ‘n’ roll. Tears were warm, and girls were beautiful, like dreams. I liked movie theaters, the darkness and intimacy, and I liked the deep, sad summer nights.” Haruki Murakami, Dance Dance Dance



The warmth and longer days now in Northern California bring to mind summers in the City of Ultimate Bliss.

The heat rose that summer, as it did every year,
in thick nauseating sooty waves from red bricked
buildings, black asphalt and gray sidewalks,
the unrelenting humidity trapping us in sweat.
Brooklyn it seemed, that younger heaven,
had slipped into the Hudson and found its way
out to the great Atlantic and on to some tropic.
We so yearned for an air-conditioned escape,
cold sodas and chilled bowls of ice cream.
Cool back then could be had for the purchase of
two red tickets, one for my mom and one for me.
Only fifty-cents each for air-conditioned movie seats,
heart-throbbing honey-dreams and sugared
drops of sultry lives and deftly stirred emotions.

© 2016, Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved


ABOUT

Poet and writer, I was once columnist and associate editor of a regional employment publication. Currently I run this site, The Poet by Day, an information hub for poets and writers. I am the managing editor of The BeZine published by The Bardo Group Beguines (originally The Bardo Group), a virtual arts collective I founded.  I am a weekly contributor to Beguine Again, a site showcasing spiritual writing.

My work is featured in a variety of publications and on sites, including: Levure littéraure, Ramingo’s PorchVita Brevis Literature,Compass Rose, Connotation PressThe Bar None GroupSalamander CoveSecond LightI Am Not a Silent PoetMeta / Phor(e) /Play, and California Woman.