Have It Your Way
Even though my mother was secular my father was observant, and I grew up in a kosher home. As a child I watched my fair share of television, and desperately wanted to eat what those of us growing up in the Sixties and Seventies were brainwashed to eat. But I couldn’t. Most of those wonderfully-colored, chemically-enhanced, MSG-laden and gelatin-laced yummies were not kosher and therefore never made it over the threshold of the house or on to my tastebuds.
Growing up kosher in New York was easily accomplished in the technical sense. Even back then there were so many kosher products available in the supermarket. In my neighborhood there were two kosher butchers, aisles dedicated to kosher food in the grocery, and Manischewitz wine graced every Jewish home, whether it was a kosher home or not. But culturally, I always felt like I was outside of some amazing party, hands and face up against the window, always looking in but never invited to join.
I never knew what two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun tasted like. I never had the pleasure of ingesting a Twinkie with a radioactive half-life of uranium. In my world, Lucky Charms were magically unkosher. I was never going to have it “my way.”
Or was I?
It was 1977 and I was in the 9th grade. An all-girls, denim-skirt, argyle-sock, religious 9th grade. I was fortunate enough to go to a high school situated in a Jewish neighborhood, so we had all the pizza and felafel we wanted. Heisler’s Bakery was across the street from the pizza shop and we could grab a black-and-white or a Liberty Bell whenever we felt the need for a sugar rush. Baskin Robbins was around the corner, and we could have our choice of 31-derful flavors (except for Rocky Road, we all knew Rocky Road was forbidden because of the mini-marshmallows). But up in the Bronx, you couldn’t find a kosher hamburger outside of your own kitchen. And I was curious about that quintessentially iconic American meal: a cheeseburger with a side of fries and a chocolate milkshake.
So one Sunday in 1977 the devil on my left shoulder beat the crap out of the angel sitting on my right shoulder, and a friend and I took the #15 bus into the bowels of the South Bronx where no one we knew would be passing by. We looked to our right, and then looked to our left, and then sneaked into the local Burger King. I order a Whopper with a side of fries and a large chocolate milkshake. I unwrapped my forbidden treasure and sure enough, on top of the hamburger lay a slice or other-worldly orange cheese. I bit into my Whopper, and it was delicious. My friend and I finished our meal quickly, eating every little crumb, licking the ketchup off our fingers, draining those shakes to the last drop.
I loved it. I loved it so much that 15 minutes later I barfed the whole thing up into a trashcan down the block. It seems that the angel on my shoulder finally regained consciousness, got up bruised and bloodied, crossed over to my left shoulder and beat the burger out of the devil.
Since then I’ve never wanted to come in from the outside and be a part of that specific niche of Americana. I’m happy where I am. I can indulge every now and again in the kosher Burger Kings and Micky Dees of Israel, and to tell you the truth, the thought of cheese on a burger now gives me the heebie jeebies.
Smoked Wurst and Spinach
Another iconic theme in my high school year was a total immersion in reading certain books that took place in the South, specifically Gone with the Wind. I remember a certain scene where the gang at Tara, eking out a life post-Civil War, at something called fatback and collard greens. I asked my mother if we could ever eat something “like” it and she snarled at me and said, “iz nit far oonze” (it’s not for us).
A few years ago I mistakenly bought some smoked wurst at the supermarket and the guy behind the counter forgot to slice it. I can home to find a chunk of meat instead of sandwich fodder. And a recipe was born…
- 400 grams (1 pound) smoked wurst (I use Tirat Tzvi’s salami), bought in one piece
- 2 large onions, coarsely chopped
- 400 grams (1 pound) fresh spinach leaves
- Cut the wurst into small cubes.
- Heat a Dutch oven over high heat, and when hot, add the wurst cubes. Saute for about 5 minutes, until enough of the fat in the cubes covers the bottom of the pot.
- Add the onion and continue sauteing, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, until the onion is soft.
- Wash the spinach and with the water still clinging to the leaves, just dump the whole thing into the pot.
- Turn off the heat.
- Keep stirring the leaves around in the wurst and onions. Let the heat of the food wilt the spinach.
- If you get a good quality wurst you don’t need salt or any other seasoning.
- Serve warm.
By the way, this works well on Pesach too!