Planning a Thanksgiving menu in America has me already imagining the delicious scent of the roasting turkey. And all the trimmings. Soon I will don my apron and get to work bringing the meal to fruition.
Thanksgiving, when I was growing up in Newark’s Weequahic section, was always a memorable day. I gave scant thought to my mother and all the labor intensive cooking she was up to. My thoughts were about the football game between the two arch rivals: Weequahic and Hillside. Weequahic, being a mostly all Jewish school in those days, usually had an uninspiring football team. But the fans would never miss the final game of the season, dressed warmly and ready to cheer our team on to the inevitable defeat (except for 1951!).
Walking to Untermann Field with the straggling autumn leaves blowing in our midst, crunching underfoot, we felt the chill of imminent winter upon us. The game would be our last outdoor activity of the season and we’d all gather to cheer, no matter what the obvious outcome. And we all knew what awaited us on our return home. Guests would be arriving, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, friends. The fragrance at home would be overwhelming. Hard to resist a peek into the pots and oven. The menu pretty much the same each year. The Americanism of it all doesn’t escape me. This was, and remains, the one holiday where we eat what our non-Jewish neighbors eat. Maybe modifications here and there but it’s always cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, stuffing and the ubiquitous turkey. Not a matzah in sight and not even a challah.
Is that Jew food? Well, we start with Thursday morning brunch. Bagels of course. Coming from Newark, which really has always produced the world’s best bagels, no brunch could begin without them. As an aside, I consider myself to be a world class bagel maven. And I can tell you quite honestly that much of what passes for bagels today, in disparate places, are just imitations, rolls with holes. In Israel we have something called Holy Bagels. Each one weighs at least a pound. Those are not bagels. They are soft, pillowy, masses of non-boiled dough. Feeble imitations. Even in the self proclaimed bagel capital of the world, New York City, the bagels are enormous and sweet. If I wanted a donut I wouldn’t buy a bagel!
My strangest bagel story was when I wasn’t even looking for bagels at all. We were in Bialystok, Poland, actually searching for authentic bialys. Opening our eyes in the morning, we saw that our hotel was situated directly across the street from New York Bagels. They were criminal! And not a bialy in the entire city!
Oh and then there are the famous Montreal bagels. Having a grandson at McGill we quickly learned that it was imperative to make a huge detour, spending at least an extra hour before we departed for New Jersey, to load up on some really mediocre bagels. Definitely not worth a trip from anywhere and not even from McGill.
Every supermarket has packages of what they call bagels. Horrors! I’d rather have Wonder Bread. The cottony bagels in their cellophane packages with expiration dates as long as ten days hence, are loaded with preservatives and an insult to us all.
So what are the good and truly Jewish bagels? They’re hard to find these days, even when you know where to look. Those of us who remember Watson Bagels on Clinton Place in Newark remember the best, the very best of bagels. I seem to remember that they were open 24 hours a day and that it was possible to go out to the movies and end the evening with piping hot bagels, boiled, and then baked to give them the appropriate heft. No cinnamon raisin, no cranberry or chocolate chip. Maybe some salt. But mainly plain. And not huge. Definitely not. Bagels do not improve with size. The reverse is true. Smaller is better than bigger and fresher is better than packaged. Way better.
I’ve got a couple of good places which I’m not sharing so if you thought I’d give you my secrets, just forget it. None of them really compare to Watson anyway. But, if you find a place, feel free to include it on the comments. I’ll check it out.
Now, if your family is like mine, the traditional dinner has to yield to the demands of the vegetarians. Yes. The vegetarians that we all share. When I was a kid I never knew a vegetarian. Now I’ve got three, grandchildren all, in my very own family. So we go through all the hoops of the turkey and trimmings and then figure out the rice and beans, or whatever has never walked the earth.
And oops, and then there’s my son who worked on a kibbutz, a kibbutz that processed turkeys. This was many years ago but he maintains that he still cannot eat a turkey. Ah yes!
But, hey, Thanksgiving isn’t only about the food, is it? It’s a chance to say that America has been good to us; and to say lots of prayers that it will remain that way. Not only for us but for all who raise their families and live their lives under spacious skies from sea to shining sea.