Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Wednesday, February 09, 2011

When We Ate Real Food

"In recent weeks," writes a culinary columnist, "we’ve seen a big, powerful government agency, a big, powerful person and a big, powerful corporation telling us what to eat." He is critiquing the efforts of the USDA, Oprah and Wal-Mart (partnering with Michelle Obama) to persuade Americans to "Eat Real Food"--more fruit and vegetables, less processed gunk.

A noble goal, but easier said than done in the Supermarket and Fast Food Ages. The dilemma brings back memories of my childhood in the Bronx 75 years ago when we had no such problems.

Our family eating was insular: boiled chicken, mashed and baked potatoes, raw vegetables with farmer cheese and sour cream, fish, at times a broiled lamb chop--and always fresh fruit.

A touch of worldliness intruded with the opening of a small shop down the block. Through the window we saw a man filling wire baskets with chunks of potato and plunging them into boiling oil. My mother, her face scrunched in distaste, told me the oddities were called "potato chips."

Such goings-on convinced her we had moved into too pricey a neighborhood, so she insisted on shopping back on Bathgate Avenue, more than a mile from where we now lived.

Once or twice a week we took empty shopping bags, two for each of us, and hiked down to where butcher shops, bakeries, delicatessens, fruit stands and appetizing stores, repositories of a dozen kinds of smoked fish, crowded one another to dazzle the senses: fresh-baked challah and sweet dark honey cake, bright ripening fruit, briny pickles and peppers, wafts of coffee beans going through the grinder, spicy heat rising from knishes and pastrami, the smoky singe of feather stems being burned off stripped chickens.

The chicken pluckers, heads bent over huge bloody aprons, sat up to their ankles in sawdust, legs splayed to hold a bird in their laps, their hairy arms alive with little white lice, hands flying in a cloud of feathers. They charged a nickel a chicken, and it was only the hardiest of housewives who could resist their services and take home an unplucked fowl. My mother was one of them.

Butchers and bakers kept some wares behind glass but everything else was within reach--in barrels, buckets, casks, big brown sacks and wooden crates--to be smelled, touched and tasted. We inched along a crowded sidewalk between stores on one side and pushcarts lining the curb, prices thickly crayoned on brown paper bags hung on sticks buried in mounds of apples, pears, potatoes and onions.

We scoured the signs for a penny a pound less here, a slightly larger dozen for the same price there. My mother dipped into her purse like a fastidious bird pecking at desirable morsels. By the time we had gone two or three blocks, our shopping bags were filling up with provender pushed at us by unshaven men, their hands moving at the speed of light, their voices breaking the sound barrier to importune potential buyers streaming by behind our backs.

Finally, shopping bags bulging, we emerged from the clamor and color to turn toward home, stopping every few blocks to rest our aching arms and shoulders as we trudged uphill with what would fill our stomachs in the days to come. By the time we got home, we were as exhausted as field hands after bringing in the harvest.

On holidays, all that hauling would be rewarded by something from my mother's small repertoire of baking skills: a deep dish of apple slices crusted with buttery crushed Graham crackers or a "potatonik," an oily pudding best eaten cold and slathered with butter. Oddly, somewhere she had also learned how to make the most delicious fruitcake I would ever taste, sweet and moist mouthfuls of raisins, prunes, apricots and nuts.

In those Depression days, nobody had to tell us to "Eat Real Food,"

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