AAK: STUFFED is a book about the importance of
family. How would you characterize
PV: My family is ferocious.
They chomp life like they chomp brisket. STUFFED
is their story— the gamblers, the lovers, the
divas and bullies, the beauties, do-gooders and
fakes. In a restaurant family, everything that
happens takes place over food.
sub-title of this book is Adventures of a
Restaurant Family — what does this mean?
PV: The hallmark of my family is a
cosmic disdain for the status quo, a kind of
productive absence of peace. Nobody sits back. They
live at full emotional tilt, wake up hot to wrestle
the day. Whether they’re discovering the
wrecking ball, inventing the Six-Colored
Retractable Pen and Pencil Set, or being the first
man to carve meat in a window, they’re
AAK: Do you have a favorite
PV: My great-grandfather,
Sussman Volk, brought pastrami to the New World.
He'd been a miller in Vilna, but in 1887 New York
didn't need millers. So Reb Sussel became a tinker,
selling pots and pans off his back. One morning,
while praying in a stable, he had an epiphany. He
tore his hair and said, "My life lacks
dignity!" Being a religious man, he knew how
to butcher meat. Reb Sussel opened a small butcher
shop at 86 1/2 Delancey Street. One day a Roumanian
friend came in and asked if he could store a trunk
in Reb Sussel's basement.
"If I let you
store your trunk," Reb Sussel said. "What
will you give me?"
"If you let me
store my trunk, I will give you the recipe for
Sussman sold it by the hunk.
Then by the slice. Then he put it between two slices
of rye. The first New York deli was born. Around
this time, Uncle Albert became the first man to stir
scallions into cream cheese.
family invented a lot of things that changed
America. Have you followed in their footsteps?
PV: When I worked in advertising,
Hershey's was coming out with a new candy bar. It
was strange — puffed rice layered with sticky
penuche rolled in caramel dipped in chocolate. What
do you call this crazy thingamajig? I named it
Whatchamacallit. I also invented a really good
recipe for water, a way to recycle pantyhose with
runs in them, and the word "Hoovering" for
how eight year old boys eat.
AAK: How did
you come to write STUFFED?
family struck me as larger than life, bigger than
news. Growing up, I'd heard about the Duke and
Duchess of Windsor, but how could that love story
hold a candle to Aunt Lil, who said she'd throw acid
in Uncle Al's face if he ever left her? Or my
grandfather, who was so thankful to win my
grandmother, he forswore the one food in life he
couldn't live without?
AAK: Your work
illustrates how the relationship between food and
family can both bind and cause conflict. Do you
think that is normally the case?
As I say in this book, in a restaurant family,
you're never hungry, you're starving to death. And
you're never full, you're stuffed. Every single bite
you put in your mouth is open to scrutiny: Is it
good? Why isn't it good? Is it as good as Aunt
Gertie's? Is it too salty? Not enough salt? You want
some more? Put that fork down now! What you choose
to put in your mouth is no longer intimate.
It’s not an independent decision. Do I think
every family works this way? No. I have friends who
grew up on frankfurter stew and whipped cream pie.
No one spoke at the table. Food was a non-issue,
AAK: How is STUFFED a different
sort of family memoir than most stories we see on
the bookshelves today?
no way you can generalize. Maybe it's best to answer
by saying what STUFFED is not. It's not about
evening the score. It's not about victimization.
It's not about hard won wisdom gained via pain. I
disagree with Tolstoy only about one thing: Every
family, happy or not, is one of a kind. I wrote
STUFFED partly out of a fear that family is
vanishing. Once we were four generations living in a
five-block radius. Now those people are in Honolulu,
Arizona and Boca Raton. If I wanted my family around
me at dinner, the table would have to be 4,968 miles
long. Everything we first know of the world comes
from family. How can we learn from people who