What We Ate
hallway was the color of ballpark mustard. The
living room was cocoa, my mother's wall-to-wall,
iceberg green. The floor of the lobby was
maroon-and-white terrazzo, like Genoa salami. When
our elevator went self-service, the wood was
replaced by enameled walls that looked like Russian
dressing, the lumpy pink kind our housekeeper,
Mattie, made by lightly folding Hellmann's
mayonnaise into Heinz ketchup with a fork. Daisies
were the fried eggs of flowers, gladioli the
asparagus. We were a restaurant family, four
generations in a six-block radius. When you opened
our fridge, food fell on your feet.
restaurant was at 141 West Thirty-eighth Street, in
the heart of the garment center.
models, and buyers buzzed in, looked each other
over, and stopped by tables to say, "Hey
there!" or "How long you in town?"
They dressed to show what they were capable of.
"Sir!" Dad said with a military snap,
flaring open your menu. He'd pull your chair and
straighten your salt and pepper shakers whether you
were Pauline TrigÃ¨re or not.
"Gus!" He'd raise a finger. "Ice
water at twenty!" He set a hard party rhythm.
He table-hopped. He had a story for you. On the
floor, because he was so tall, he floated above
hunched diners and waltzing waiters wearing red
weskits he designed.
The garment center was a
ghost town on weekends, so Saturdays Dad worked half
a day. Late in the afternoon he'd come home hoisting
a corrugated carton on his shoulder precision-packed
with two pounds of sliced turkey breast, sliced ham,
sliced Swiss, a side of bacon cut into rashers,
fat-marbled steaks wrapped like presents in waxed
paper, a rack of lamb, round white cardboard
containers filled with number 20 shrimps (twenty to
the pound), almond crescents, strawberry tarts
glazed with strawberry gelatin, brown bags of
Vassilaros Brothers coffee, whole smoked fish the
color of my grandmother's bangle bracelets, and
Danish butter strip sold directly from the store to
Nedick's, the only product Nedick's bought retail.
Melons, string beans, celery like trees, cauliflower
as big as the moon, pigs' feet in aspic, and a glass
jar of pickled green tomatoes. A quart of Russian
dressing, a quart of Roquefort, a pint of cocktail
sauce. A brace of mahogany ducks with a quart
container of Sauce Montmorency. And a quart of my
father's famous Swedish mustard sauce:
equal parts Dusseldorf mustard and
2.Add a little bit of oil and chopped
Those were the
"Are you sick?" my mother
would ask if I left a scrap from a twelve-ounce
Delmonico. You weren't considered fed unless you
were in pain. The more somebody loved you, the more
they wanted you to eat. In a restaurant family,
you're never hungry, you're starving. And you're
never full, you're stuffed. When anyone rose from
the table without a two-handed boost, my grandmother
wailed, "Please, God, don't let him have
I couldn't walk down the
street without running into someone whose
hand-me-downs I wore, or who wore mine, or whose
house I ate at, or someone I was glad to see even if
it was only Nick the Popsicle Man, or Jimmy the old
doorman, or Pat the building driver who chauffeured
us the two blocks to school on days it snowed.
Between Eighty-first Street and Eighty-seventh, from
Riverside Drive to West End Avenue, my aunts and
uncles lived, along with my great-grandparents,
grandparents, friends, and even Benny, the man who
sold penny candy, sunflower seeds, chewable lips,
and tiny wax bottles filled with sugar syrup my
sister told me would automatically fill up again if
I could just touch the bottom of one with a bobby
pin and not break it-an impossible thing to
Morgen's was the restaurant, but we
called it the store. It was the place I was a
princess. Waiters winked at me. They plucked the
white linen napkin from under my fork, twirled it
high in the air, then draped it over my lap. They
nodded when I ordered, admiring my choices. They
told me jokes. And when I asked for a hamburger, my
grandfather would raise his forearm, then smash
through the kitchen in door and grind a steak
himself. On a good week I'd see my father twice:
Saturday afternoon, when he got back from the store.
And Sunday, our day. My sister and I would race to
his bed, then snuggle. We'd kiss his cheeks. He'd
suck our earlobes, then turn to my mother and say,
"Audrey, I think this needs a little
salt!" He'd press the soles of his feet against
our stomachs and straighten his legs, and we'd be in
the air, "Flying Angels." Then Dad would
drive us to woods, find a snake, and skin it. Or
dissect a chicken in the kitchen and explain how the
pebbles in its crop worked. Or we'd take the car to
the Coney Island Freak Show and gape at the Walrus
Woman, the Leopard Lady, and the Human Bullet, who
was bald and had no arms and typed with his toes.
We'd eat pink cotton candy on paper cones, then
throw it up on the Tilt-a-Whirl. Starving, we'd head
for dinner at Charda's, Luchow's, or the Maharajah
Room at The Pierre. Before fusion cooking, before
Austro-Asian, Afro-Shtetl, and Thai-Inuit hit New
York, most restaurants focused on the food of a
single country. In fancy places, it was served by
people in regional costumes, and you were serenaded
with "Oh, Chichorneya," "Allez-vous
En," or "The Mexican Hat Dance."
You'd have to eat, listen, and smile while someone
plinked a balalaika at you. If I misbehaved in the
restaurant, my mother would walk me outside to where
the car was parked and lock me in until the meal was
over. I would breathe against the window and write
words in my wet breath: ass, bitch, whore. When I
got home, I would take out my Christmas Book, a
small spiral notebook with a list of everyone I made
presents for. I'd draw a black tree next to my
mother's name, which meant one more Christmas she
wouldn't get a gift.
"What did I do that
was so bad I had to be locked in a car?" I ask
"You were . . .
oppositional," she says, then adds with a voice
full of sorrow, "I forgot about
At the height of her anger, the
apex of her rage, my mother used to say she was
sending us to Mrs. Brown's Orphanage.
don't believe you," I'd say.
that so?" She'd pick up the phone and dial a
number. My sister and I would listen in on the
"Hello?" a woman's voice
"Hello, Mrs. Brown? This is Mrs.
Volk, and my terrible daughters are acting up
"Oh really, Mrs.
"Yes. Can I drop them at the
Mrs. Brown would
say why certainly, she had two empty beds, she'd be
delighted to have us the very next
Although my sister was older, she'd
burst into tears. She'd promise to be good. I was
ready to go to Mrs. Brown's. If my mother didn't
want me, I didn't want her. In my sixth-grade
autograph book she wrote:
If all your friends
Pray don't look for
But come to the one who loves you
Your dearest friend, your
Years later she told us her old friend
Ruth Kahn had played the part of Mrs.
We were allowed to stare at freaks on
Coney Island because they expected to be stared at.
It was how they made a living. Staring at them was
good for us. It would reinforce how lucky we were by
sensitizing us to chance. But there were people in
our neighborhood we had to pretend we didn't see.
The Tongue Lady had a green tongue that hung down
her chest then rolled up fast as a lizard's. On
Broadway, the Glass Man had no legs and made music
by tapping a spoon against eight glasses filled with
graduated heights of water. One block north, the
Organ Grinder seemed normal enough, but you could
see every bone on his balding monkey. You gave the
man whatever you had so the monkey wouldn't starve.
The most terrifying person in the neighborhood was
the Black Widow. She ate lunch at Schrafft's every
day, a woman the size of a nine-year-old in
turn-of-the-century widow's weeds. Her black boots
laced above her ankles. Her skin was talcum white.
She ate without taking off her broad-brimmed hat and
veil. If she caught you staring, the Black Widow
would raise the veil and spit at you.
it was only one block from my grandmother's
apartment, we also ate at the Tip Toe Inn. When
World War II was over, the day Uncle Bob got back
from four and a half years on Saipan, that's where
my grandparents took him for his first civilian
meal. Four and a half years my grandmother wouldn't
allow flowers in her apartment. Four and a half
years my grandfather was retired from the restaurant
business, refusing to buy black-market meat while
his boy was overseas.
Uncle Bob studied the
menu. He ordered turkey with stuffing, then took in
the scene. The Tip Toe Inn was busy. People ate
there all the time. They came at three in the
afternoon for dinner because you could get the same
meal at lunchtime prices. It was the kind of place
you heard people eat and saw people talk. Uncle Bob
looked around. For four and a half years he'd lived
in foxholes. And here were people eating and
laughing at the Tip Toe Inn. Uncle Bob raised his
water glass, then put it down. His shoulders shook.
Tears hit the table. Without a word my grandparents
rose from their seats, linked their arms through
his, and walked him home.
Since my mother
knew how to cook only scrambled eggs and bacon, on
Mattie's night off we'd eat at her mother's. I'd
walk there straight from school and watch Lilly
Brebner, the Jamaican housekeeper, singe quills off
juicy nine-pound neutered roosters called capons on
a gas stove. Seated around Nana's table would be my
great-grandparents; my grandfather; Nana's older
sister, Aunt Gertie, and Gertie's son, Wally; her
younger sister, Aunt Ruthie, and Aunt Ruthie's
husband, Uncle Albert; her older brothers, Uncle
Jerry and Uncle Al; Uncle Bob and Aunt Barbara; and
since somebody had to be at the store, my mother and
my sister and me, but not my father.
meals my grandmother would force-feed my
grandfather: "Eat, Herman, eat!" she'd
beg. "Eat for me!" He'd throw his hands
up: "No! Not another bite!" But despite
his protests-"I can't!" "Polly,
you're killing me!" "Gutenyu, I'm
dying!"-she would drop another chosen morsel on
his plate. The oyster of the capon, a clot of
buttered toasted almonds from the string beans, the
orphaned strawberry on the shortcake platter, a
crimp of piecrust glossy with caramelized apple
juice. "Eat! You don't eat enough! A man like
you! You work so hard! Just the end piece, darling?
For me, Herman, please?"
was being fattened. It was painful to watch. I
worked up the courage to complain about it.
"You don't understand." My mother smiled.
"He loves it. He wants that food. He wouldn't
eat it if she didn't do that. He would never give
himself the best part."
Not too long ago
my sister and mother flew into town for the day. We
planned to go to the Russian Tea Room for pelmeny
(Russia's tiny veal-filled answer to the wonton),
then catch a matinee. I made the reservation for
noon. When we got to the restaurant, the line was
out the door.
"We're never going to make
curtain," my mother said.
want that pelmeny," my sister said.
pushed my way to the maitre d' and explained the
situation. I reminded him we had a
"I'm sorry." He
shrugged. "There's nothing I can
"You see that woman?" I
pointed to my mother. She was wearing a black cape
with batwings and a high collar. It was chic, but it
threw her gorgeous face into ghoulish shadow and
made her neck disappear. "That woman was just
released today. Right before we came here. She
expected to be seated at noon. I can't vouch for
what she'll do if she's not seated
The waters parted. We were whisked
to a table. Three waiters pulled our chairs. The
service was flawless. All of us agreed the pelmeny
used to be better. As we were leaving, my mother
turned to me and said, "What did you say to the
"I told him you were
just released, Ma."
She laughed, not
On long Sunday trips in our red
convertible, we'd stop at Howard Johnson's, where I
had the clam roll. My sister and I sat in the back,
but my mother would let me climb over if I said I
was carsick. I'd press my feet against my father's
thigh and drop my head in her lap, and she'd run her
fingers through my short, curly hair, starting at
the back of my neck. "My favorite place,"
she called the hollow there. I'd fall asleep to
Lamont Cranston on the radio, the briny smell of
tartar sauce on my fingers, and the sound of my
mother whispering to my father, "Doesn't she
have gorgeous hair?"
Excerpted from Stuffed by
Copyright 2001 by Patricia Volk. Excerpted by
permission of Knopf,
a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt
may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in
writing from the publisher.