June 1, 2006
A Man for All Seasonings
The Rabbi of Chelm was teaching a class,
"Rabbi," a student asked. "Why is the sea so salty?"
"Idiot," the Rabbi intoned. "Because it's full of herring."
Like many baby-boomers today, I sometimes feel older than Keith Richards up a palm tree. So when Irv and Eddie, my better elders, invite me to go out with them, I tag along, if only to combat creepy self-pity.
"I know you wanna start out with creamed herring," says Eddie as we roll into Nate'n Al, a famous Beverly Hills delicatessen where Larry King has breakfast every morning and Eddie and Irv like to kibitz on Saturday night.
Irv's walker goes up against a wall, joining the half-dozen others already parked there.
"Like umbrellas in Seattle," Eddie says. Once seated, the two friends observe an ancient Jewish ritual of the booths: talking about meals they've had in other restaurants. Every place from IHOP to Hop Li is on their carte du jour.
"It's terrible," Irv says about the latter Hop.
"I know," Eddie replies. "You said they threw the food at you."
"It was frightening."
"I wouldn't want to get you frightened."
"The food is excellent," Irv admits.
"They never threw it at me," Eddie says. "So it must have been you!"
I enjoy hanging out with these gentlemen because they're never less than enlightening. Tonight I learn two tablespoons of flaxseed a day can save your heart, and a martini before dinner gets the appetite up. That the Yiddish derision of "MGM" -- where Irv worked for 10 years -- was Louis "Mayer's Gansa Mishpachah."
Eddie knew Marilyn Monroe's psychiatrist, and the doctor who discovered cholesterol. Irv claims the guy claimed credit for discovering cholesterol before anybody else.
"So we'll order one herring," Eddie says.
"And we'll stab at it?" Irv says.
"We'll stab at the herring."
Because of glaucoma, Irv can barely read the menu, so Eddie gives him the entrees.
"Here come the combinations," he says like the track announcer at Hollywood Park. "Turkey mushroom chow mein, fresh chicken livers, turkey blintzes with kasha, stuffed kishka plate, pot roast of beef, sweet and sour boiled beef ... are you interested in chicken?"
"No," Irv replies. "Not tonight." He touches over the table. "Any napkins here?"
"Not yet. Here, want some sauerkraut or pickle?"
"How do you get it?"
"Well you have to know someone."
A short discourse follows on new dill and the pickles Irv made in his basement in Bel Air that Billy Wilder and Gene Kelly enjoyed. I love the loving ease with which they kid each other's explanations of kasha and kippers. The white meat vs. dark. And in the case of baked beans, Heinz vs. Bush, they also are not in agreement. After bandying about how tough some braised short ribs can be, Irv asks: "Did you order the herring?"
"Nobody was here yet, Irving."
"Oh really, Ed? Why don't you order a waiter?"
Eddie has a joke: "I like the table. You got one closer to a waitress?"
"They don't have waiters," Irv comes back. "They got tables."
"I was saying hello to them," Sophia explains when she arrives. She means another couple in another booth. "I known them like 20 years. How you doing?"
"See if you got a table closer to a waitress," Eddie says.
"I think I'm gonna have the chicken," he tells her.
Irv orders the chicken, too: "I used to get the half-a-chicken a lot at Canter's, remember?"
"Each time," Eddie replies, "it's a different adventure."
"Did you order herring?"
"Yes I ordered the herring!"
"Can we have some of the double-baked rye bread?" Irv asks Sophia, calling her "dear."
"And if you get the herring over first," Eddie tells her, "this man will make it through the rest of the meal."
For some reason I order pastrami and a celery soda.
"What did you order?" Irv asks me. "Steak?"
"Pastrami? I don't recommend it here."
"OK," he allows. (Whew.)
Delicatessens from here to Delancey Street come up. The Reuben at the Carnegie on Broadway that Irv says gave his wife an orgasm. The Ratner's toothpick joke Irv insists he first heard from "Broadway Sam" at Leo Lindy's.
"I was born above a delicatessen," Irv says. "My horoscope sign was 'Hebrew National.'"
That's a joke he told for Jan Murray's birthday at the New York Deli in Century City. Irv used to love Langer's on Alvarado Street for their double-baked rye. Froman's on Wilshire Boulevard for the chicken-in-the-pot. Label's on Pico Boulevard for their platters. But Irv doesn't enjoy L.A. delis anymore.
"The real potent garlic you used to be able to detect from 40 feet away?" he says. "Now if you walk in you don't smell anything."
He says it's because all the garlic comes from China and takes weeks to get here by boat. "Consequently the taste of Italian cooking and delicatessen -- anything that uses garlic, a key spice in the pickling of meats -- is lacking in a certain bite."
Irv says a food writer at the L.A. Times confirmed the China potency theory. "The only place you can find old-fashioned garlic," Irv insists, "is at a farmer's market if the guy with the stall grew it himself up in Oxnard. Somebody who would eat real garlic in the old days knew who his friends were, because most people would avoid him."
Eddie doesn't agree.
"Eddie likes every place," Irv says. "But no delicatessen is really good unless an hour after you've eaten, it repeats on you."
Hanging out with nonagenarians, I realize I am not old. I'm middle-aged and have just missed a lot.
The mushroom barley arrives, ahead of the herring plate.
"She's bringing the herring for dessert!" Irv laughs.
"I went through this whole routine," Eddie moans. "'Give him the herring' I said. Get the herring here first before we start." He shakes his head. "I told her all that, and she still didn't bring it."
"Well," Irv says. "This is the best restaurant in the world! Can't you tell?"