My father told me many years ago that when he was a boy he often dreamed of being trapped overnight in a Manhattan delicatessen rather than, like most children, in a candy store. This somewhat explains the other night at dinner, when my 5-year-old son said, “Dad, for dessert I want pickles.”
The other theory might be that Teak’s choice of the wrinkled gherkin over Double Chocolate Milanos – on which his two brothers were more than willing to take up the slack – could have been more about drama than Epicureanism. The more exotic he can act, the more attention he garners, the more delight he creates, the better in his mind. This, too, points, back to Dad. For his 76th birthday, my wife Karen and I bought him a smoked eel from the Lower East Side, and my artistic bride proceeded to tie a red bow around its dried head, its eyes fixed ahead unblinkingly despite its gauche appearance, so that when Dad opened up the present, out popped an Anguilliforme whose expression was as startled as octogenarian watching Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. I don’t doubt that Dad enjoyed telling the story of the eel more than he savored eating it, and he did so love eel.
My brother, Jim, two years my younger, was the Fickle One growing up. His main food stuff was carrot strips with ketchup, and my older cousin Berta had to tell him every new food “tasted like potato chips” for him to give it a try. Now, he is a victuals virtuoso, living down the block from Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue, where he is a regular at Sahadi’s.
Our family’s eating idiosyncrasies affected our dining-out behavior, insofar as generally acceptable social etiquette goes. The unwritten rule was that none of us could order the same thing. (Perhaps this is more common than I’m given to understand, but it was especially frowned upon in my family, almost to the point of audible tsk’s from Mom.) So when Karen and I, Jim and his wife Rachel, and my parents would go to a restaurant and open the menus, there was secretly a pole position jockeying that would ensue. Who’s ordering the bouillabaisse first, several of us might have thought. The stuffed sole sounds good. But is the waitress going to start on my left and go around the other way, or on my right with Howard, who I think I can convince to order the chicken fingers, and then come to me? Karen, deep from the heart of Texas, would often order the beef, and was safe from Order Elimination, as most others went more unconventional.
When the meal was finishing, Freeman clan behavior was no less aberrant. At a Murray Hill Greek restaurant, where many of us had seafood, my father once collected all the fish bones from everyone’s plates to take home and make into soup. The waiter had to assist in the en masse effort. At the summer lobster party at Point O’ Woods on Fire Island, where people were scattered across a dozen and a half picnic tables in front of the yacht club, Dad would often hunt for crustacean carcasses, his family’s or others’ – perhaps those even of houseguests of neighbors… “Hello, my name is Frank Freeman. And you are?… I’d like your lobster shell.” – to take home and make, yes, soup. Soup was always a good excuse for foraging among the discarded. And growing up during the Depression in Babylon, Long Island, with oily, hollowed-out men knocking on the kitchen door looking for a piece of bread and cup of coffee was also a good reason.
Recently, my cousin Berkley sent me a photo album with pictures of my dad and his dad taken eighty years ago. There was my dad playing dress up, posing for the camera at age…nine? A pirate, a clown, a prince. There was also a shot of him at age three. This would have been in 1924. He wore what looked like a sailor suit. White shirt with wide, dark lapels. Blonde curls, shaped like those of a Hassidic Jew, sprouted from his temples and hung past his ears like harvest-ready vines. His eyes invited the camera, but behind them there seemed to be sadness. Or maybe it wasn’t behind them; maybe it was in front: an unaware and foreboding look into the future that ended one May 1998 afternoon, or evening, or morning, or whatever time of day it was when he made it end.
Teak leans over to me as I eat my Caesar salad. He opens his mouth as a prompt. I fork a manageable piece of romaine lettuce with dressing and a morsel of grilled chicken and put the bite into his mouth. I wait. He chews and smiles at me. He hums approval.
I look into his eyes, and he looks into mine.