Thursday, March 5, 2009

RYE, PLEASE

I am a whitebread (actually cornbread, if truth be known) convert, Southern raised and deli-deprived. Though I don't remember any corned beef, any pastrami or lox, there was one close approximation, especially for that Deep South area. There was a little hole-in-the-wall "cafeteria" in an adjoining town, the town where “the” dress store was, for a special occasion which called for store-bought. The small "hot-line" could always be counted on for sauerkraut and some enormous juice-bursting sausages, two per order, with a dainty string-bow holding the little garlicky garland together. Another pan held slumpy stuffed peppers, the beef-and-more-garlic bread stuffing wafting its siren-call up and over the other fragrances in the display.

Scalloped tomatoes, crisp latkes the size of thick saucers, their tiny frill-cups of applesauce and sour cream awaiting your choice, a deep pan of the yellowest noodles I'd ever seen, halves of shiny-brown baked chicken and their roasted potato-wedge accompaniments.


And the first and only "green" green beans of my experience, barely poached, then tossed with oil and onion and peppers. They were a far different breed from the low-cooked snap beans of our table, and had a "beany" tang to them that ours never had---perhaps the long cooking in our kitchen removed all trace of their former lives, imbuing them with the salt and hammy, porky goodness of their additions, making our beans merely the conveyor for all the rich tastes of Southern seasonings.

But way down on the end, after the deep-meringued desserts, the tapioca in little cut-glass dishes, the high-standing squares of kugel with its proud golden crust, stood THE LADY. The lady with a moustache to rival my Uncle Fate’s, the avert-my-eyes-so-as-not-to-stare-at lady, who took our measure, our unused-to-the-fare tenor, our redneckness shining through, and asked, in a charmingly lilting accent, "RRRRRRRoll or conbraid?"

I would draw up my shoulders, nodding knowingly and cloaking myself in all the worldly air assumable by my ten-year-old clunky little self, and say, "Rye, please."

She'd smile conspiratorially in approval, reach beneath the counter, and bring forth two slices------inch-thick grayish-tan, soft, pillowy caraway-studded slices, crusted in gold. Onto a tiny plate they went, slid across the silvery counter to my waiting hand.

I LOVED that bread. It was Dorothy's door after a lifetime of black-and-white Wonderbread movies. It was always freshly made, sometimes still warm, with a lovely silky crumb, a stretch-and-chew to the crust, and a little ping of sour-sharp surprise when you crunched one of the seeds.

I remember that little twelve-foot counter as one of the brightest memories of my restaurant past. And now, when we enter the sanctity of the fluorescent brightness of Shapiro's, with its tantalizing scents and tastes and tables to seat two hundred, I still take up that little plate of rye and bear it to my table with the same child's anticipation.

And it never fails to live up to the memory.

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