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

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ABOUT

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

For The POET By DAY ~ In Response To Children’s author, Joyce Sidman’s Poem : What Do The Trees Know ‘

A thoughtful homage to American poet and writer, Joyce Sidman, by Pakistani poet/writer/artist, Anjum Wasim Dar. Sweet! Anjum Ji has also included an excerpt from one of her novels. Happy weekend. Enjoy!

POETIC OCEANS

 Joyce Sidman

Minnesota

USA

841191a36a84d74e9adc365016b0c427--adventure-novels-forests

 From the  Second Adventure Novel   ‘Pencileeze Forest  Mystery           

What Do The Trees Say

We grow as Nature ordains
never complain and bear the pains
from black to grey, green to brown
one by one we fall to the ground

Our duty done with full obedience
spreading freshness and fragrance
with peaceful quietude we surrender
making space for others in elegance.

This is The Truth This is The Call
This is The Providence of The Fall
Be it Oak, Pine Fir or Kowhai
Sown ‘n Grown, This is The Final Cry’.

Excerpt from the Novel….

Prologue to The Second Adventure of The Multi Colored Lead People
Mystery of the Pencileeze Forest
Never before had anyone ventured so far on the Land of Twisted Trees and found a treasure to keep’ unknown to them at the time, how valuable it would be in…

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The Reign of Claws, A Tale of Two Cats

“I meant,” said Ipslore bitterly, “what is there in this world that truly makes living worthwhile?”
Death thought about it.
Cats, he said eventually. Cats are nice.”

Terry Pratchett, Sourcery: A Novel of DiscWorld



Cats and dogs and other wee creatures are good friends to writers and poets. They keep us company through long solitary days of work.  They force us to get up, move around, walk, use our distance vision … take a break.

After years of nurturing all sorts of animals – we had a variety when my son was little – my docs told me no more birds, cats, rats, goldfish, beta, hamsters, or gerbils.  Dogs, for some reason, seemed okay and I’ve had two in recent years. I adopted Bob Seeger Dedes at the end of September and by October I had to surrender him, my allergies kicked in to the point that my eyes were swollen shut and it was hard to get out of bed. I’m devastated, but Bob was taken into a good home within days of surrender, such is his charm.


In loving memory of all the fish babies and love birds, of Gerry 1 and Gerry 2, Sherlock Holmes the Rat, Priscilla, Tigger, Bubba Cat, Telemachus, Dexter, Feyd, Buddy, Brutus, Skippy the Bush Dog, and The Bax.

My son looked at Pyewacket. “She’s either the smallest Holstein or the biggest cat.” She was big … and reserved. She was a lady of the old school and a contrast to Gypsy, a feline with some distant kinship to Peter Pan. Gypsy didn’t want to grow up. We thought she might be a munchkin, a hyperkinetic one. Where Pyewacket watched the world from behind wide Yoda eyes, Gypsy, like a stranger from another planet, was inclined to place her head in the mouths of huge dogs, bend metal blinds with bare claws, set rivers loose with bounding leaps into water bowls and – disguised as an innocent kitty – create havoc to the disgust of Pyewacket who had Yoda’s eyes but not his stoicism.

Here we are – at the vet – the munchkin and the Holstein – a pair reminiscent of Mr. & Mrs. Sprat of fairytale fame. The recommendations: prescription diets for both, exercise for Pyewacket. “Get something for her to chase.”

That’s when I got Tweety Pie. She lived in the corner of the living room and hung out on a string that was attached to a length of bamboo. She licked her beak at the thought of two cats to outsmart. Back and forth, too and fro, she flew across the room. Pyewacket turned a blind-eye on the indignity of the chase, but Gypsy couldn’t get enough.

Time passed as it is wont to do. Pye stayed her plump and meditative self. Gypsy remained scrawny, endlessly chasing Tweetie Pie and leaping from tabletops and counters. One day I woke up too weak to walk. The docs did their best to repair the damage my deranged immune system had wrecked. Their best was very good indeed. Still, it was difficult to keep up with Gypsy. My world-class son and beautiful daughter-in-law adopted Gypsy.

Pyewacket stayed with me and we took care of one another, though eventually kidney failure – common in cats – had the last word. Pyewacket started her walk to the Rainbow Bridge. Every few steps she turned and looked back, the sadness in her Yoda eyes more profound than ever. Years later Gypsy left. I wasn’t with her but envision Gypsy leaping across the Bridge. True to herself, no backward glances, just on to the next adventure.

The Reign of Paws was filled with smiles and love, but cats don’t live as long as humans. Loss is expected, inevitable, heartbreaking. Still, I regret nothing. Some of our best family memories include our kitties and they’ve inspired more than one story or poem by more than one of us.


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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

“The Match from Hell” by Naomi Baltuck, excerpt from the upcoming September issue of “The BeZine”

Here’s a sample from our next issue of “The BeZine,” which will post on the 15th. It’s the kind of quality and pleasure you can count on from our writers, poets, photographers and others. / J.D.

Are you familiar with The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Anderson?  It’s a tragic tale about a child trapped in a world of poverty and abuse, hunger and homelessness…

On New Year’s Eve, someone steals her ill-fitting shoes, so the little girl wanders barefoot through the snow, trying to sell matches to uncaring people hurrying home to warm houses and holiday feasts.  No one has a farthing or even a second glance for the unfortunate waif.  If she goes home having sold no matches, her father will beat her.  To keep the cold at bay, she huddles against a wall and strikes her matches, one at a time. In each tiny flame she sees visions: a warm stove, an elegant feast, a Christmas tree lit by candles…  

Then her dead grandmother, the only person who ever treated her with kindness, appears to the shivering child, and carries her soul off to Heaven. The next morning, the strangers who walked past her the night before discover the little match girl’s icy corpse, clutching the burnt-out matches in her frozen fingers.  Too late they feel a twinge of pity.  The end.

As a child, I hated that story.  I was appalled that grownups could look away from a child’s suffering, without lifting a finger to help.  Why would anyone invent such a depressing story, and who would want to hear it?

As an adult, I still hate that story, and even more now, because I realize that when Anderson wrote The Little Match Girl in 1845, except for the bit about the grandmother, he was fictionalizing a deplorable reality he himself was witnessing. He wrote during the Industrial Revolution, when the poor were miserable and overcrowded.  Pollution from the unregulated burning of coal poisoned the air, and factories were dumping metals, chemicals, raw sewage, and other toxins into the lakes and rivers that people depended upon for drinking water.

Wages were so low that the working class toiled 12 to 16 hours a day, yet still couldn’t earn a living wage.  On the brink of starvation, they sent their children to work in factories and mines.  Many were separated from their families, left to the ‘mercy’ of strangers, working ungodly hours for only a place to sleep and the food they ate.

In 1832 it was reported, “…workers are abandoned from the moment an accident occurs; their wages are stopped, no medical attendance is provided, and whatever the extent of the injury, no compensation is afforded.”  

The wealthy were given free reign to exploit the poor. When the Industrial Revolution sparked disputes over inhumane working conditions, the government introduced measures to prevent labor from organizing. The rich got richer, the poor remained poor, and children, who were forced to work all day or starve, couldn’t get an education to help them rise from poverty.

In the USA, industrialization occurred mostly in the North, with an influx of immigrants serving as factory fodder to keep up with attrition and demand. The South had its own foul history of systemic oppression, with its agrarian economy dependent upon human slavery.

Over time, Americans have fought and died for the cause of social justice.  They organized labor unions, which brought an end to child labor, shortened the work week, and ushered in workman’s compensation for on-the-job-injuries. They are still trying to negotiate a living wage.  Public education, Social Security, Medicare, Affordable Healthcare have all helped to even the playing field and a provide a social safety net.  Civil rights, women’s suffrage, Affirmative Action, environmental protection have, too.

We still had a long way to go to overcome class, gender, religious, and racial discrimination, such as the legacy of Jim Crow that still exists.  Yet we saw the middle class grow, the standard of living rise, and each generation doing better than the preceding one, until the 1970s.  What in Hell happened?  Ronald Reagan, and his trickle down economics, for starters.  It has been a downhill slide since then, snowballing since the Trump administration took power.

Today there is a little match girl on every street corner.  Our democratic republic has degenerated into an oligarchy, bought and run by big business, with puppet strings being yanked all the way from Russia.  International treaties have been broken, environmental protections scrapped to increase company profit, families torn apart by inhumane ICE policies, cruelly punishing the innocent children of undocumented immigrants. Affordable Healthcare, Social Security and Medicare are in the administration’s crosshairs.  The three richest men in America own more than half of this country’s wealth.  Our society has regressed two hundred years to become a near perfect match for the one that inspired Hans Christian Anderson to write The Little Match Girl.  A match made in Hell.

I will always hate that story.  But we need to keep telling it, until we can pound out a new ending.  We need to keep telling it, until we never need to tell it again.

©2018 Naomi Baltuck


(c) Naomi Baltuck

NAOMI BALTUCK (Writing Between the Lines)~ is a Contributing Editor and Resident Storyteller at The BeZine.  She is a world-traveler and an award-winning writer, photographer, and story-teller whose works of fiction and nonfiction are available through Amazon HERE.

Naomi presents her wonderful photo-stories – always interesting and rich with meaning and humor – at Writing Between the Lines, Life from the Writer’s POV (her personal blog) as well as on The B Zine.

Naomi conducts workshops such as Peace Porridge (multicultural stories to promote cooperation, goodwill, and peaceful coexistence), Whispers in the Graveyard (a spellbinding array of haunting and mysterious stories), Tandem Tales, Traveling Light Around the World, and others. For more on her programs visit Naomi Baltuck.com.

Naomi says, “When not actually writing, I am researching the world with my long-suffering husband and our two kids, or outside editing my garden. My novel, The Keeper of the Crystal Spring (Viking Penguin), can be read in English, German, Spanish, and Italian. My storytelling anthology, Apples From Heaven, garnered four national awards, including the Anne Izard Storytellers’ Choice. I am currently working on a contemporary women’s novel.”


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 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.