If you visit New York City and want to try the restaurant of the moment, your best chance of getting seated is at lunchtime. So we picked a slow Monday and arrived after the early rush. Even so, we had to wait ten minutes for a table at Russ & Daughters Café, one of the hot new restaurants specializing in foods of our Eastern European and German Jewish ancestors. David and I went with Kevin Young, in town from Decatur, Georgia, where he lives with his wife, the writer Kate Tuttle, and their son Mack. In between writing and editing, Kevin teaches at Emory University and curates the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library. He had flown in to participate in the Poets’ House annual walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and to read from his latest collection, The Book of Hours, just out from Knopf .
I know from our visits to Decatur that Kevin is an adventurous eater. He’s also something of an afficianado of Southern food and cooking (he’s been active in the Southern Foodways Alliance). The foods of Kevin’s childhood inform some of my favorite of his poems (see “Ode to Pork” and “Ode to Gumbo”). Like the best food writing, these poems evoke memories and arouse feelings of love, grief, and intimacy without being saccharine or sounding overly sentimental.
How would Kevin feel about our food? As it turned out, and should have come as no surprise, Kevin was familiar with much of what was on the Russ & Daughters menu. We settled on cocktails--“Schmoozers” for David and Kevin, (Rye, Aquavit, sugar, Bitters and Herbsaint rinse), “Break-Fast Martini” for me (Gin, jam, lemon juice, egg white, Pernod Absinth, Bitters)--and an assortment of small plates or “Noshes.” Kevin was particularly impressed by the pickled herring trio (“exquisite”) and the latkes. I favored the “Super Heebster,” an open-faced sandwich of whitefish and baked salmon salad, wasabi-infused fish-roe, and horseradish dill cream cheese on bagel. “This I never had as a kid,” I said, helping myself to a second piece. To round out our feast we added potato latkes, pastrami-style cured salmon, pickled vegetables, and kasha varnishkas (a favorite of mine, owing to a goodly amount of caramelized onions) and new to Kevin. “An acquired taste,” said David. The prices were standard Manhattan, nicht billig.
Our conversation ricocheted between food and drink and matters of poetry and academe. What is the best bourbon for a Manhattan? (Kevin favors Dickel or Michters, with Cocchi vermouth.) How do you make a perfect Old-Fashioned (by slowly stirring the sugar and sans cherry or orange). How do you make brisket (me: slow braise, lots of onions, Kevin: smoked). At the mention of brisket Kevin recalled his Auntie’s, which held its flavor and texture even after being transported from Louisiana to Cambridge, Massachusetts and reheated.
After reminiscing about the year they worked together on The Best American Poetry 2011, David and Kevin took turns recommending heist films. Kevin touted The Heist and The Bank Job, David plugged Rififi, and the two of them waxed eloquent about Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing and Sterling Hayden’s parting shot at film’s end.
How do we account for the resurgence of Jewish food? Begin with nostalgia, a curiosity about our roots, and the belief that Jewish food is as worthy of attention as any other regional or ethnic food. But Talmudists could spend many an hour on the question with no prospect of resolving it. Is there as much interest in Southern food? Not in the same way, says Kevin. Unlike the eager-to-assimilate Jews, Southerners have largely held on to their traditions. They never lost the taste for regional foods like beans, greens, and field peas. There isn’t the same need to bring back foods that never fell out of favor.
By then our cocktails were long gone. Should we have another round? What we need is a “suppressor,” says Kevin, a low-alcohol drink that one sips before ordering something more potent. Instead he and David test the bartender with Old-Fashioneds. These, they agree, are nearly perfect.
I wish I could say the same for the two additional dishes we ordered. Thumbs down on the Matzo Brei, a dish which Kevin first tasted in Kansas and is David’s Passover specialty. R&D’s was a dry and flavorless disc, as if they hadn’t bothered to hydrate the matzo before cooking. The blintzes were, well, meh, though in all fairness the bar was set high by my grandmother’s, which were truly superb, light pillows of farmer cheese wrapped in delicate nearly translucent crepes. Eating Russ & Daughters’ I was reminded of what Turkish chef Musa Dağdeviren said the first time he had a traditional dish prepared by someone other than his mother: “When I tasted it, that’s when I realized that my mother was dead.”
I picked Russ & Daughters Café because it has a great heritage that I knew would not be lost on Kevin. The parent store on Houston Street has been in business since immigrant days when Yiddish was still common in many households. You can imagine such a café--with its roomy booths, and soda fountain where the bar is--existing side-by-side with other now defunct establishments that emerged to serve the growing Jewish population. Russ & Daughters, store and restaurant, are reminders that delicacy and deli can go hand in hand. They can even inspire poetry:
Three Flights Down the Stairs by Harvey Shapiro
Three flights down the stairs,
south one block to Houston
cross the street and maybe a half-block
west to Russ & Daughters.
Take a number—why is that woman
buying all that sturgeon?—for black
Russian bread, 3 smoked fish, farmer
cheese (the bulk kind) and nova.
Retrace the route, up the stairs,
and she’s just getting out of the tub
right by the kitchen sink, pink
thighs slowly rising so you can get
the whole flavor of it, water
streaming from the red muff thick
as bread. That was Sunday.
from How Charlie Savers Died and Other Poems, Wesleyan University Press, 2001