Things I Saw in the Central Valley


We have been spending Thanksgiving weekend with my parents at their home in California’s Central Valley.  These are a few of the things I saw:

imagePalm trees.  Residing in northern California as we do, we tend to forget that tropical foliage predominates in the more southerly parts of our fair state.  With the freezing temperatures we have experienced the last few nights, I have no idea how the palms survive.

imageDonkeys.  Not something we see in Sacramento.  Unfortunately, Eeyore’s companion was camera shy and took off as soon as I pointed a camera in his direction.

imageMy little niece.  She recently turned one year old.  I don’t see her very often and can’t believe how big she’s grown already.

A homeless man in a wheelchair begging for change in front of a McDonald’s in Fresno.  It was freezing out, so we bought him some hot food and coffee.  There, but for the grace of God, go I.

imageMy mother’s Siamese cat.  Taffy is 18 years old and spoiled rotten.  She refuses to eat cat food anymore and gets chicken, turkey and fish.  I think the poor thing has a cold, as she was coughing last night.

imageMacaroni Grill.  Pasta for dinner!  Garlic, mushrooms, who could as for more?

imageThe full moon, playing hide and seek with the clouds.

Here’s hoping all of you are enjoying the holiday weekend!




Well, we made it through Thanksgiving without disaster.  My sister and her son, who were supposed to stay overnight at my parents’ house, instead visited for four hours and left.  This was probably for the best.

My sister showed up more than two hours late and then spent most of her visit griping about working irregular shifts at a hospital, being on call all the time and never getting any sleep.  As if on cue, her cell phone rang and the hospital tried to call her in.  She had to explain that this was not her on call day and, in any event, she was six hours away.

I think it was really rotten of my sister to browbeat my octogenarian parents in preparing an elaborate Thanksgiving dinner when we had planned to go out to a restaurant.  Mom was so tired from cooking.  It’s really unfair and thoughtless.

Thanksgiving is always a time for telling family stories, and my favorite story of the day was told by my mother.  She reminisced about her summer in a rented beach house at Brooklyn’s Coney Island when she was 13 years old.  A large homeless dog adopted her, much to her delight.  She named him Blackie and was disappointed when her parents would not let her keep him.  Still, the dog followed her around all summer, even stealing the ball from boys playing in the street and delivering it to my mother.

Then came the day when her mother gave her money and sent her to a local store to buy a six pack of beet for my Grandpa.  Even in the 1940s, it was illegal to sell beer to minors.

“Who are you buying it for?” asked the merchant accusatorily.  “For my father!” she protested.  The storekeeper took her money and told her to go wait outside.  Stepping outside to a patiently waiting Blackie, my mother soon saw the merchant come out and surreptitiously hand her a bag containing the contraband.

I’ve heard many wonderful family stories from my mother, but this was one of the most delightful.

Meanwhile, here in California’s Central Valley, the temperature has uncharacteristically dropped below freezing, threatening the area’s citrus crops.

I hope all of you had an enjoyable Thanksgiving.  High on my list of the many things I am thankful for are all of you, my faithful readers. A heartfelt thanks to each and every one of you.


15 Things (Other than Shopping) to Do on Black Friday

Many of us have a holiday from work on the day after Thanksgiving. Black Friday may be the biggest shopping day of the year, but what if you’ve finally digested all that food but you’d really rather not stand in endless lines just to be trampled and go into debt? The following are some ideas for alternate uses of this precious day off.

1. Start your holiday baking. What better time to whip up batches of cookies and gingerbread people to pop in the freezer all ready for Christmas giving?

2. Go fly a kite! Bet you haven’t done this since you were a kid. What better time than the holidays to be a kid again?

3. Go take a hike! Fresh air and exercise beats credit card bills any day of the week. (Or take a bike ride, climb a rock wall or start a pickup game of touch football in the yard.)

4. Work on a jigsaw puzzle and drink hot chocolate. If it’s too cold to do much outdoors, why not enjoy the great indoors?

5. Go to the movies. You might not avoid the crowds on this one, but the smell of popcorn and snuggling with your honey makes it definitely worth waiting in line for tickets.

6. Take the kids to the park, zoo or museum instead of to the mall. Make the day a learning opportunity instead of a lesson in conspicuous consumption.

7. Write Christmas cards. Get it out of the way early. Gives your family and friends plenty of time to send one back!

8. Get organized. Grab a calendar and make lists of what you need to do before Christmas and when you will do each one. A little effort now, a lot less stress in a few weeks.

9. Volunteer. Spend part of the day being of service to your local soup kitchen, animal shelter or church. Do good in your community and feel good about it.

10. Get in the holiday spirit by watching seasonal videos, from It’s a Wonderful Life to Home Alone.

11. Tell your story. Begin writing your memoir. Remember, you can start anywhere, not just at the beginning.

12. Start the holiday season by pampering yourself. Visit a local spa for a massage and facial.

13. Read a book. Remember those? When did you last sit down with a good thriller or juicy romance?

14. Set an example. Perform a random act of kindness.

15. Visit someone lonely who would enjoy a few hours of company and conversation over coffee.

Have a happy and safe Thanksgiving, everyone!

Thanksgiving or Festivus?


Last week, I attended our Thanksgiving luncheon at work, despite my reservations about how it would go with me being a vegan.  Last year, I chose to take the coward’s way out by staying away.  This wasn’t so difficult, as I was still new, wasn’t yet in management and had duties that left me working by myself most of the time.  This year was a bit different since my role has changed so drastically.  Accordingly, I thought it advisable for me to show up.

I brought my own food, with the idea that how much of it I would use would depend on whether there was anything else available that I could eat.  Good thing I did.  I had the idea that there might be salad or plain vegetables, but the only thing for me turned out to be a dinner roll.

As I sat down at a crowded table and spooned out my broccoli onto a plate, I felt a little like I did back in junior high and high school, taking out my yarmulke to eat my lunch in the cafeteria.  It’s strange how, at my age, such things come back to me.

One of my coworkers inquired about what Thanksgiving was like for me.  “Do you have Tofurky?” she asked.

I patiently explained that, while some vegans go that route, we go out to dinner with family so that everyone can order what they want.  I thought I was telling the truth, too.

Then, on Sunday, I called my parents to check in only to discover that plans had changed.  Apparently, my sister, who drives just as far as we do to be with our parents, threw an unholy fit about how if she was coming all that way, at least she should be able to get a traditional turkey dinner at home.  Mom caved in to her demands, as she always does.  The fact that my wife and I have no interest in such a dinner was not even a factor.

In my mother’s favor, she did buy an eggplant to prepare for me.  My wife, who does not enjoy turkey, is not pleased.  My parents are “kosher at home,” meaning that we can’t even bring most of the foods that my wife enjoys.  I am wondering whether we should just stay home and eat what we want.

To make matters worse, we are scheduled to do even more driving, from my parents’ house in the Central Valley to my sister’s house in the Bay Area, to celebrate my father’s birthday.  Supposedly, this is so that my niece can join us and so that my parents can meet her boyfriend, with whom she is now living.

We have a history of really horrible Thanksgivings in my family, going back decades.  Until I was ten years old, we spent most Thanksgivings with my paternal grandparents.  For reasons too complex to get into here, my mother never got along with them.  There were a lot of horrific fights over the years, with my sisters and me usually in the middle.  We loved my grandparents, but felt guilty about doing so when my mother hated them.  (Later, I learned that much of her animosity was warranted.)  Between my parents’ screaming arguments and the ones they had with my grandparents, I was scared to death of marriage for years.  It’s something of a miracle that I ended up with a truly wonderful mother-in-law.  I feel badly that my wife got the raw end of the deal.

I related in this space last year how, the first time I brought my wife to my parents for Thanksgiving (we weren’t even married yet), my sister and my mother had it out in a screaming, cussing match worthy of a telenovela.  I was embarrassed.  She’ll never marry me now, I thought.  I am very, very lucky and blessed that my wife doesn’t give up so easily.

So what will this Thanksgiving bring?  I’m afraid to find out.  While the idea of family getting together over good food is lovely, the fact is that most of us do not live up to the Norman Rockwell ideal.  I believe it is important to recognize when a family is so deeply dysfunctional that it is really better if those involved do not gather in a single location.  This is particularly true when Thanksgiving feels more like Festivus, with its “feats of strength” and “airing of grievances.”

What I do know is that, high on the list of the many things for which I am thankful will be the fact that my wife and I am able to support ourselves and don’t have to live with family.  At least for now.

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Suburban Food Memories – Part III

The Pizza Place

I drove past Martio’s Ole Time Pizza Parlor every day on the way to work and on the way home for about two years before I set foot in the place.  I no longer remember who or what caused me to try Martio’s.  What I do know is that, after my first meal there, I was hooked.

Much later, I learned that Martio’s had already been a Nanuet, New York institution for decades, the orange and green neon sign on the plate glass a window a magnet for local teens hanging out with friends, young couples on dates and families out for dinner.  I was none the wiser, living over in the next town, where the big deal was Perruna’s downtown or, closer to my own neighborhood, Hillcrest Pizza (and later, Paesano’s, their competitor across the street).

Located on Main Street only a block or so from busy Route 59, parking at Martio’s could be a challenge at times.  The establishment had no parking lot; you had to park parallel on the street or in one of the diagonal spaces around the corner by the firehouse.  I cannot tell you how many times I parked on Prospect Street and, just as I stepped out of my car, “blaaaaaattt!” went the fire horn, causing me to about jump out of my skin.

Once I got started with Martio’s, I’d find myself sitting at their counter at least a couple of times each week, and sometimes quite a bit more often.  They had booths along the wall, which worked great when I brought my parents or a date, but mostly I was in there alone and enjoyed watching all the action from the convenient vantage point of my perch on a stool.

I usually started out by ordering a Coke and a mushroom slice, sometimes the regular Neapolitan, sometimes Sicilian.  I’d chat up the owner, his son and the son’s fiancée while they went about their duties.  Then I’d order dinner, usually manicotti or eggplant parmigiana, occasionally a hero sandwich.  The platters would come out with two pieces of crispy garlic bread.  I’d often order a salad, which was served with cruets of oil and vinegar.  While I ate, I would watch customers come and go and listen to pizzas going into and coming out of the oven that was just out of sight, while staff yelled at each other about what they were cooking or what was 86’d for the evening.

When I finished, I would order a cappuccino and a cannoli and linger over dessert.  Often, I’d order a second coffee, not quite ready to go home yet.

When I advanced to management at my job, one of my minor responsibilities was ordering food for my section’s monthly employee recognition meetings, held in the basement canteen.  One month, I’d order fancy pastries from Pakula’s Bakery (alas, long gone)  — chocolate pudding tarts, cannoli, charlotte russe and tiny replicas of strawberry shortcakes. Pakula’s was a Spring Valley institution at least since the 1950s, when they moved to the suburbs from their original home in The Bronx.  They produced the most amazing desserts, including “yummy rummy cake” (kind of like a firmer pound cake with a hard crust and layers of rum-soaked chocolate cake), “tropical fruit pie” (cake and custard with slices of kiwi, pineapple and strawberry on top), giant brownies slathered in chocolate icing, and all the local Jewish and Italian favorites (hamantashen, rugalach, Napoleons).  It was where my bar mitzvah cake was purchased when I was 13 and where my sisters’ engagement party cakes were purchased 13 years after that.  Back in my hometown, you couldn’t go visit someone without bearing a Pakula’s box tied up in red and white string.

On the alternate months, however, I would order pizzas for work from Martio’s.  My section contained five departments and about a hundred staff, including a lot of big, hungry pressmen, so you can imagine how many pies they had to lug over to the chemical plant.  Sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, cheese, ground beef?  Yes, please.  Give me some of each.  Martio’s made good money from us in those months.  I would bring out a rolling cart and have the Martio’s people load it up in the parking lot.  It would be so heavy that I could barely push it past the assembly lines, through the narrow, winding passageways that led to the canteen in the back of the building.

Sitting at the counter at Martio’s, I could look out the glass in the center of the big red door and watch the cars come and go on Main Street and the time and temperature sign change on the bank across the street.  In the wintertime, it might read -19° F, while in the summer, it might read 105° F.  Seasons came and seasons went, but through it all, the popularity of Martio’s was a constant.

In the years immediately before I moved to California, Martio’s purchased the storefront next door and expanded it.  First, they turned it into an ice cream parlor, featuring Italian gelatos.  Then they installed a brick oven in the annex in addition to the regular oven in the old store.  All of the staff was extended family, and they would use the kitchen to cut back and forth between the two storefronts.  At busy times, the booths in the old store and the tables in the new store would all be full.

I am happy to report that Martio’s remains alive and well and serving its heavenly pizza, heroes and parmigiana dishes.  It is among the finest memories of my youth and one of the things that I sorely miss about New York.  Eating there once more would be near the top of my bucket list.

Tomorrow:  Thanksgiving or Festivus?

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Suburban Food Memories – Part II

The Diner

In the late 1970s, I was in college and my sisters were in high school.  When I was at home, we all liked to relax in the family room and play records (yes, real vinyl 33⅓ rpm ones) on my father’s old phonograph.  Among our favorites, which we played over and over again, was Billy Joel’s The Stranger.  We would muse and hypothesize about what the songs really meant and, in a few cases, what the correct lyrics were.  We particularly loved “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” with its key changes and song-within-a-song.  When Billy Joel sang about Brenda and Eddie always being a hit “at the Parkway Diner,” we knew exactly what he was talking about.

“Plaza,” one of us would say, exchanging knowing glances with the others.

In our neighborhood, when you said “the diner,” it only meant one thing:  Don-Len’s Plaza Diner on Route 59 in Nanuet, right across from the mall.  (It lives on today as the Nanuet Diner.)  There were plenty of diners all over the place, but only the Plaza was the diner.  That’s because it was the gathering place for teens and young adults, while still being popular with families.  You could come in with a date or with your whole crowd.  It was open 24 hours a day and, most of the time, you could count on a cacophony of conversations.  When the movies let out on a Saturday night, you could barely get in the place.  Same thing after the bars closed down at 2 in the morning.  Same thing on Sunday morning, when families came in for brunch.  If you had to wait for a table, you could sit on one of the long vinyl banquettes out in the lobby by the pay phone (remember those?).  The lobby had doors at either end, one facing Nova Lighting and Gaylin’s Housewares, the other leading to the parking lot of the decrepit Rockland Plaza.  Once the county’s shopping epicenter (before the mall came in, it was anchored by W.T. Grant Co. on one end and Grand-Way on the other), by the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the place had deteriorated into a series of vacant storefronts and discount stores that seemed to come and go every month or so.  Eventually, it stabilized a bit when Marshalls and Barnes & Noble came in.  But through all the changes, the Plaza Diner remained the one stalwart soldier, always ready to serve you anything your heart desired, any time of day or night.

The first thing you noticed when you pulled open the interior doors was the pastry case.  There would be strawberry shortcake, mile-high with whipped cream.  There would be a tall seven-layer chocolate cakes.  Then the cheesecakes, perhaps cherry or blueberry or pineapple.  Cannoli, giant chocolate chip cookies.  Chocolate cream and banana cream pies.

The menu was a book.  There wasn’t much missing.  Want a steak?  Pancakes and eggs?  Shrimp scampi?  A salami sandwich?  Spaghetti and meatballs?  Spinach pie?  An ice cream sundae?  They had it.  Greek, Italian, Asian and Jewish specialties, check!  (Who ever heard of Mexican in New York back then?)  There was even a note on the menu to the effect that if you didn’t see what you wanted, you should just ask and they’d make it for you if they could.

My parents took me here as a kid, and seafood was the name of the game.  Dad liked the scallops, Mom liked the whole baby flounder or a fried fish sandwich, and I salivated over broiled bluefish (which, incidentally, I have never seen in California).

On the weekends, a long, gleaming salad bar would be rolled out onto the floor.  It cost extra to get the salad bar with your meal, but I begged my father for it.  I seem to remember that there were plenty of crisp greens and salad makings, but I thumbed my nose at that stuff.  I headed straight for the noodle pudding, the pickled herring in cream sauce and the rigatoni with tuna.

When I landed my first job out of college, on the night shift, I’d head to the diner after work for cheesecake with my buddy, Bob.  Or I’d drive over there when I woke up around noontime for spanakopita because I knew a certain really cute waitress would be on duty.

I wasn’t faithful, however (to the diner, not the waitress).  In fact, you could say that I was downright promiscuous.  I’d bop over to Janet Hogan’s down in the swamp hollow in West Nyack.  In a hard rain, the whole area would flood and you couldn’t get near the place.  The rest of the time, however, they had great challah bread that was served with every entrée.  Or I’d head south on Route 303 to the Golden Eagle Diner, just across the New Jersey state line in Northvale.

When I started working day shift, I became enamored of the kosher deli in our neighborhood (described yesterday).  After I tired of that, however, I became attached to the Red Eagle Diner (known years before as the Spring Valley Diner and not to be confused with that other color eagle in Bergen County) on the corner of Route 45 and Route 59, one of the busiest intersections in all of Rockland County.  It was located next to an Orthodox Jewish bakery and an Italian barber shop, across from the old Shopper’s Paradise, later Masters, later the flea market.

Sometimes I’d stop in at 6:00 in the morning for oatmeal.  They’d heat the milk so it didn’t make the cereal cold.  The place was staffed by crusty waitresses of the old school who’d actually yell “Whiskey down!” when a customer would order rye toast.

But mostly I’d stop in after work.  They knew me so well that they’d see me walking through the parking lot and have my iced tea with plenty of lemon on the counter before I sat down on a stool.  Someone would be playing Springsteen on the jukebox as I dug into my rice pudding.  You could stay as long as you wanted and chat with the servers.

Years later, when I lived in Connecticut, I experienced pretty much the same thing at a Greek diner in Danbury.  It was more than just food.

It was almost like family.

Tomorrow:  The pizza place

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Suburban Food Memories – Part I

The Kosher Deli

I have been a vegan for only two years.  Prior to that, I was a vegetarian (sort of – I ate fish) for 23 years.  But I was raised as a meat-eater from earliest childhood, and in the halcyon days of my youth, I was a dedicated carnivore.

A few days ago, I found myself tripping merrily down Memory Lane, regaling my wife with stories of my gustatory adventures in my native New York.  As a young man just out of college, I found myself earning decent money, while living at home and having few expenses other than my car.  I didn’t have a serious girlfriend to spend my paychecks on, so I blew my cash on the thing I liked best:  Eating at restaurants.

In later years, when I had girlfriends with expensive tastes, I would leave the suburbs and head into the big city on the weekends, attending concerts and Broadway shows and plunking down piles of cash at restaurants that I really couldn’t afford.  For the first few years, however, I indulged my proclivity for cheap local places where, as on Cheers, everybody knew my name.

I went through a series of phases.  First, it was the kosher deli.  After work, I would plunk myself down at the counter and order iced tea.  Back then, most restaurants in our area served iced tea only in the summertime.  But the deli would mix up a pitcher just for me and start slicing lemons even in January.  They knew I’d drink the whole thing.

In those days, I got off work at 3:30 in the afternoon, so the deli was usually pretty dead.  There might be one or two customers or perhaps a couple enjoying a late lunch.  Often as not, however, I’d be the only paying customer in the establishment.  The manager or the one waitress on the premises would come over to chat.  On nice days, the doors would be propped open and the salamis hanging up front would sway gently in the breeze.

I’d usually start my odyssey of flesh consumption with a big bowl of chicken noodle soup that had a huge matzo ball floating in it.  The pickle bowl (both garlic sours and mild half-sours) and the rye bread with pareve margarine would appear.  While I munched, I’d peruse the menu for dinner ideas.  I might decide on a half roast chicken or sliced turkey or a hamburger (raw onion, please, never fried) or “specials” (giant knockwurst).  Dinners came with two sides, and my favorites were kasha varnishkes (known among deli aficionados as “KV”) and luckschoen kugel.  The former consisted of bow tie pasta with buckwheat groats (a little like rice pilaf, but hard to explain if you’ve never tried it) and brown gravy; the latter was noodle pudding liberally studded with raisins and fruit cocktail.  Vegetables?  Get outta my face!

Some afternoons I’d really go to town and order an appetizer in between the matzo ball soup and the entrée.  My favorite forschpeis was tongue polonaise, which is thinly sliced beef tongue smothered in sautéed cabbage, raisins and tomato sauce.  I also favored stuffed cabbage, and occasionally I’d go wild and have chicken fricassee or stuffed derma (a type of sausage — take my word for it, you don’t want to know).  The only appetizers I stayed away from were chopped liver and liverwurst.  Sorry, pâté lovers, but I found the flavor to be extremely bile, oops, I mean vile!

There were plenty of days that I stayed away from hot food (other than my beloved matzo ball soup) and went right for a sandwich.  I’d have them create whatever concoction sounded good to me.  It might be turkey, tongue and salami or roast beef, brisket and rolled beef (similar to, but not the same as, what Montréal natives know as “smoked meat”). Surprisingly, I was never particularly fond of pastrami or corned beef, perhaps the two items that most represent the essence of the New York deli.

How could I possibly have room for dessert after all that?  I’d make room.  I was a veritable bottomless pit.  Most often, I’d have a cup of hot tea with lemon and whatever pastry I could get my hands on.  My favorite was sacher torte, which is a chocolate and raspberry cake.  The deli didn’t always have it on hand, but they always had fresh apple strudel, topped with chopped walnuts and cinnamon.  It was heavenly and I seldom waddled out of there without a second slice.

I spent so much time and money in that deli that, eventually, the manager asked if I wanted to run a tab.  “No, I’d rather pay as I go,” I immediately blurted out.  Flattered as I was, I was horrified at the notion of going into debt and maybe not being able to pay my bill.  As it was, my employer paid me on a weekly basis and I always had a pocket full of cash.  Let’s keep it simple, folks.

I had a history with that deli, as it had been around since the early 1960s.  As a kid, my parents would take my sisters and me out to dinner there once in a while.  While Dad munched away on “His Majesty’s Twins” (two small sandwiches on mini Kaiser rolls, one pastrami and one corned beef), a Dr. Brown’s cream soda and apple strudel, the kids had exactly two choices:  A hot dog or a hamburger.  I always went for the Beefburger Deluxe, as it was much larger than just a hot dog (and it came with steak fries!).  That may be part of the reason that the longtime manager asked me whether I wanted to run a tab.  He knew me back in the day when I was still in school, my parents wouldn’t allow us to have soda, and Dad recited Kipling’s “Gunga Din” because I was the designated water boy for the table.  (“You’re not going to make that waitress keep running over here to get us more water!”)  I would take our glasses over to the little spigot and feel put upon for being required to get up off my butt.

I made up for it after I started working.  I would darn well have whatever I wanted whenever I wanted it!  Oh, but that’s not even the best part.  Want to know what a disgusting fresser (glutton) I was?  After spending a couple of hours at the deli, I’d drag myself home and take a nap until my parents showed up after work.  They were tired and often went out to dinner.  They would invite me and I would go!  I would never admit that I’d already eaten enough for a small army.

If my parents wanted to go to the deli, I’d beg them to drive to the deli in the next town “so we can have cabbage and raisin soup.”  They generally obliged.  Whew!  I didn’t want to show up in my deli a second time in a single day!  Who knows whether the staff would keep my secret or not?

A few years later, things changed at the deli.  The excellent cook, who loved food even more than I did, had ballooned to more than 400 pounds and had to “go away.”  This was long before bariatric surgery was as common as a nose job.  They told me he went to a special clinic at Princeton University.  Thereafter, my parents regularly threatened me with the same fate if I did not lose weight.

Then the deli manager and his father purchased the cabbage-and-raisin-soup kosher deli in the next town.  Out of loyalty to them, I transferred my eating binges over there.  By then, however, my deli orgies had become less frequent than my former daily romps through cholesterol heaven.  Some other local joints had captured my attention.

Over time, the ethnic composition of the neighborhood changed from predominantly Jewish and Italian to mostly Dominican and Haitian.  It’s been almost a quarter of a century now since my favorite kosher deli passed into history.

Tomorrow:  Diners I have known and loved

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