May 26th, 2012 - Jeffrey Feingold
Ahead of me—far ahead—I saw my salvation: a blinking white neon light, its flashing rays stabbing into the darkness. M-O-T-E-L … M-O-T-E-L … M-O-T-E-L. I was driving to nowhere, from nowhere. From one mindless meeting to the next, selling something, I don’t remember what. I had been driving all day and was lost. No GPS and no maps. Drenching rain poured down on my rental car, a gray Ford something-or-other, rain pouring so hard it was hard to see down the road. All day, I’d seen nothing but cornfields. I was tired in my bones. Maybe it’s a Motel 6, I thought, and with their “we’ll leave the light on for you” slogan in my head, I pulled into the empty parking lot of the motel.
In my tiny room there was a bed, a nightstand, and a small television with rabbit ear antenna. The yellow light from the lamp cast dimly on the dingy mustard-colored walls. I sat on the edge of the bed, a thin mattress resting atop a creaky box spring, and turned the TV power switch on. Is this it, I wondered? Is this my whole life? Trudging through nondescript towns, year after mundane year, selling something to someone. Bad food, creaky hotel mattresses … drudgery. For years, I’d been moving forward, focused only on getting ahead in life. My family had a long history of moving forward. My grandparents escaped persecution in Ukraine. They fled west, to America. A perilous journey. They never talked to me about what they left behind. Perhaps it’s why they never kept things. Certainly not things from the old country. They were always looking ahead, never behind. History, after all, was a nightmare from which my forebears had struggled to awaken. They were mostly gone now, my forebears, dead these many years. So long ago. I hardly ever thought of them. I, too, was moving forward.
I flicked the TV remote through a few channels. And then it happened. The Frugal Gourmet show appeared on screen. Jeff Smith, the Frugal Gourmet, was Scandinavian, as white as a ghost, with a white beard, a white shirt, and a plate full of white food. He was whiter than the Ghost of Christmas Past. And little did I know that, as the Christmas ghost had for frugal Scrooge, the Frugal ghost was about to take me on a strange journey.
Standing next to the Gourmet was the greatest violinist of our generation, Itzhak Perlman. The theme of the rerun episode that day was foods from their youth. Jeff Smith made Lutefisk, a whitefish soaked in lye, and cauliflower with white sauce, and of course white bread. He held a plate of white at an angle for the camera to see. A white-shirted, white-bearded pale ghost with a plate of white. Then it was Itzhak’s turn. Itzhak had a huge crop of curly black hair, bushy black sideburns, big glasses, a broad face, a booming baritone voice, and a beaming smile. He was as colorful—in every way—as the Gourmet was white.
“Today, I am going to make a dish I grew up with,” he said. “Salami and eggs! First, I drizzle a little of this schmalz in the pan. Schmaltz is chicken fat. It’s been a part of traditional Ashkenazi Jewish cooking for centuries.”
He poured some of the fat into the pan and it sizzled. I watched intently.
“Now, I’m going to add the salami slices,” Itzhak said.
As he added the thin slices to the frying pan, the pan sizzled loudly, and I was struck by a bolt of lightning. I literally couldn’t move. I smelled right through the TV a scent I’d forgotten so long ago, as acrid and as real as if I were there standing next to Itzhak. My father loved salami and eggs. When I was a boy, he made it on weekends. Its pungent umami scent was so overpowering it filled my parents’ entire house. It smelled to me then like earth, farm animals, barns, pogroms, Mother Ukraine, and like the nightmare of history. And besides, I thought when I was nine or ten, as my dad fried the noxious stuff in our kitchen, it was just so … grody.
But now, sitting alone on the edge of a bed in some cheap motel, I closed my eyes as Itzhak fried. I was transported to my parents’ house. The frying salami had carried me back fifty years through time. With my eyes still closed, I saw myself, there with my extended family, gathered around the Passover supper table, laughing and drinking. Somber Jewish melodies from my grandfather’s cello filled the dining room, the seder candles flickered in the day’s dying light, there were prayers and whispers and jokes in Yiddish and Russian. Aunts and uncles, grandparents and great grandparents, sisters, cousins, and family friends sat around the enormous rectangular Seder table as all ate and drank and laughed. Bowls full of matzo ball soup, and plates full of roast chicken were passed along the table from one smiling relative to another. Aunt Millie threw her arms around me and planted a big wet smooch on my cheek. “Come, sit, I’ll make you a plate of chopped liver. Look at you, little one, too thin, eat, eat!” I walked over to my grandfather. He stopped playing cello and looked up at me. His eyes were soulful but bright.
“Where have you been, child?” he asked.
“Nowhere,” I replied.
That Frugal Gourmet episode was ten years ago. Today, I host Passover at my house each spring. Relatives and friends join. My daughter, Hannah Grace, and my sister’s daughter, Emily, are there, shining, and beautiful and bright. Although I’m secular, and a vegetarian, all the traditional foods are on the table. We light Seder candles. I put a record with Itzhak Perlman on the record player. We pray and eat and laugh and tell stories, including stories of our ancestors. Sometimes I close my eyes for a few moments. My grandfather is there. He holds his bow still for a moment and asks where I have been.
“I’m right here,” I say. “I never left.”
Jeffrey Feingold is a writer in Boston. His essays have been published by the Wilderness House Literary Review, The Bark, Inspired Magazine, The Ravens Perch Literary Review, Schyulkill Valley Journal and elsewhere. Jeffrey's stories about family, Russian adoption, and adventures in the movie business reveal a sense of absurdity informed by a love of people's quirky ways. Jeffrey encourages you to check out the ADL: Anti-Defamation League.