I believe that scent and taste battle to prevail for prominence of all sensory memories. Certainly sights and sounds, and textures, have their place. Yet it was the simple, sweet taste of a cookie that propelled Proust forward, headfirst into a trove of memory that eventually became the masterwork “Remembrance of Things Past.” And, in the recalling of our summer’s past, eyes closed and mind wandering, I may recreate the grounds of our youth, but the exercise is child’s play compared to the astounding recollections, vivid and valued, engendered by the smell or taste of anything we once held dear.
I have previously paid homage to sacred characters who’d endowed our childhood summers with character, cooking, and culinary creativity: the legendary “Lefty” Herzog, and the late, great, now immortal Ruby the Knishman. And a full essay entitled “A Kid’s Country Foods” explored, examined and lovingly recalled the chaserai our moms forced down our throats, as well as the treats we lovingly devoured at every opportunity. Still, there were places dotted both throughout our past and the true map of Sullivan County, places where we gathered with family and friends to eat, drink, celebrate, and, in the great Jewish tradition of the Catskills, get gorged. They live today in memory as do the memorable instructions of my uncle to a waiter at the Canton in Monticello, “Bring us food every ten minutes till we throw up then bring it every twenty minutes”
In Hurleyville, and in White Lake, there existed, and joyfully, still exist, identical operations: Frankie and Johnnies, and El Monaco, respectfully. Long before Carmines opened its legendary doors in Manhattan, these two establishments were pioneering the concept of “family style” dining. Except, at F&J, and El Monaco, every patron ordered a full helping, heaven forbid they would be sharing an entrée. The portions were just not human. An order of veal parmigiana arrived sizzling hot, covered by a tremendous slab of melting, bubbling mozzarella, on a platter the size of a satellite dish. Servings of other choices—chicken, eggplant, lasagna, ziti, etc.—were just as copious, and an enormous side of pasta, drowned in their famous red sauce, accompanied every order. Garlic reigned supreme, in each dish and slathered on the garlic bread. The rooms were boisterous and filled with laughter and loud conversation. Tables of ten, twelve and up to twenty patrons were the norm. Nobody, and I mean nobody, completed a full meal—salad, bread, entrée, pasta and dessert. Doubtless six Ethiopian families could subsist a month or longer on the contents of the doggie bags distributed on a typical Sunday night. No such luck for the Ethiopians—as leftovers from these restaurants were guarded treasures, immediately stashed safely inside bungalow refrigerators, to be uncovered later that same evening “Have a bite-a little something” or else divided into portions for the next day’s lunch.
In South Fallsburg, hard by the celebrated falls, stood Joey Messina’s Crossways (often mistakenly called “Crossroads”). A plateful of Crossways’ cuisine was certifiably more suited to homo sapiens than either of the aforementioned establishments, but, for my personal tastes, also of a superior fare. The main dining room overlooked the falls, and the massive floor to ceiling windows allowed a fabulous view of madmen and maniacs diving headfirst from the bridge, over the steep, sharp rocks, into the churning waters. The Crossways was, perhaps, the only Italian restaurant in Sullivan County, then, that offered its own very unique, and almost daily, floorshow. My most vivid recollections of this now departed and dearly missed bistro are the young, ruthless and reckless divers, and the extraordinarily scrumptious pizza. The pie was thin crusted, and crisp, the sauce sweet and unobtrusive, the cheese always brown and bubbling. Superior quality New York City pizza in the borscht belt, in the 1950s and 60s—no small accomplishment.
There were many other restaurants sprinkled through the foothills, some whose tastes and textures stand the test of the passing years. Kaplan’s, on Broadway in downtown Monticello, served up authentic Jewish kosher style deli in a long, narrow dining room decorated only by a few thousand college pennants. If Kaplan’s didn’t display the college’s colors, then it is likely it had ceased to exist. What I most vividly recall about this landmark deli was the front counter, where one could purchase a hot dog with mustard and kraut, and a Dr. Brown’s Crème soda, for the total of forty cents—a quarter for the dog, and fifteen for the soda. I am completely convinced that the nation’s current woes would be entirely eradicated by the re-emergence of a good twenty-five cent hot dog.
When in Liberty, and in need of a pastrami fix, one headed for Singer’s. Singer’s was unique to kosher delis in that it served up a complete and varied menu of excellent kosher Chinese food. What I remember from this long standing deli was the fabulous soup, a riff on Young Chow Won-Ton, chock full of chicken, smoky meats, kreplach, the broth both hot and sweet at once.
On a corner lot in the very middle of the once bustling mountain hamlet of South Fallsburg stood an icon of the summer Pop-Ins. Pop-Ins very much resembled an unremarkable coffee shop, but as with much else of life, appearances are deceiving. In reality, Pop-Ins was nothing less than a miracle. From Memorial Day through Labor Day the place was practically 24-7. The staff was mostly inexperienced, fresh faced high school and college kids a mix of locals and kids from surrounding bungalow colonies. They made up for their inexperience with effort, energy and good humor. On a weekend evening, or more accurately, early morning, after midnight, till four, even five AM, it was at least a half hour to be seated, the line of bungalow residents snaking out and around the corner. Still, it was always worth the wait. The roast pork on garlic bread sandwich was a special indulgence, the hero piled high with at least half a pound of the pungent meat. Gerard, the proprietor, cured his own pork, aging it to a smoky sweetness that I’ve yet to find duplicated or equaled anywhere in the past quarter century. The pancakes were feathery light, and fabulous. Omelets were perfect. There was no one item on the menu that did not arrive as it should have—fresh, appealing, and outstandingly delicious. Pop-Ins moved uptown (downtown?) in the late 1980’s, to a new, spiffy building across from the movie theater, complete with an outdoor dining deck and an ample parking lot, but what it gained in convenience was gained at the cost of ambience and a certain yiddishkeit, and soon afterwards they folded down, the building now another vacant ghost from our past, quietly hinting at what once was so vigorous and vital.
For a simple sandwich there has never existed, anywhere on this blessed planet, a finer establishment than GIOVANNIS, on route 42 in Monticello. Originally operated out of a tiny shack that appropriately resembled a bungalow, Giovanni’s first opened in the summer of 1972, the same year Marlon Brando and Al Pacino were a cultural sensation as Vito and Michael Corleone. Thus the owners of this buoyant new business christened their most significant sandwich THE GODFATHER. The Godfather was an assemblage of pepperoni, prosciutto, cappicola, ham, genoa salami, provolone cheese, topped with lettuce, onion, tomato, roasted peppers, salt, pepper, and sprinkled with olive oil and red wine vinegar. The result was a sandwich, over a foot long, that dared to be eaten in one sitting, lest the diner feel as if he’d ingested a small apartment building. If one were to heed to age-old admonition to “eat only where the locals eat,” then Giovanni’s would have been the safest of bets. The cramped shack was often SRO, full of an eclectic mix of local kids, workers on lunch break, bungalow colony golfers fresh from the course, truckers passing through the area who’d diverted a few miles off route to relish a special repast, and always, always, the local cops and State Troopers.
Of course, in addition to their signature sandwich Gio’s offered a full slate of hero combinations—including tuna, turkey, roast beef, bologna, chicken, and anything and everything in between. Over the years the menu expanded to include hot food, a decent pizza, hot subs like veal, chicken and meatball (also available parmaigna), and soggy, not very good tacos. The success enjoyed by the owners was steady and secure, and with the coming of Walmart Giovanni’s relocated to larger, brighter, roomier digs, just a hero’s toss down the road in the spot formerly occupied by the awful “Rocky’s Italian Garden.” The quality survived the move, but, alas, gone are the pinball machines, and the rickety old tables and chairs, and the muddy, tight parking lot. It’s more convenient, sure, but somehow it just isn’t the same. Yet, whenever my kids know I’ll be passing anywhere near Monticello, the supplications begin, and I know I dare not return home sans a bag full of Giovanni’s sandwiches. Still there, still going strong. Leave the gun; take the cannoli.
Certain foods seem inexorably attached to memories of summer—fresh fruit of all kinds, melons and giant peaches, sweet plums and nectarines and huge, dark Bing cherries. Don’t forget the myriad of beverages—Lemonade, Orange Crush, Fanta, Hoffman’s soda. “The prettiest girl I ever saw was drinking Hoffman’s through a straw.” Was anything better than a sleeve of Oreo’s, washed down with an icy, creamy glass of Crowley’s chocolate milk? What of Creamsicles, and Fudgsicles, and mella-rolls? But I do not seek to resurrect the food we enjoyed, but rather the sacred memory of the flavor and texture and sights and sounds and smells of all those places we knew for a special dinner visit, or that supplied us with remarkable treats.
Buddy Hackett once posed this particular conundrum. The Jews count the universe at approximately 5,700 years, while the Chinese record just 4,000. What, he wants to know, were the Jews eating for 1,700 years? It would have been far too optimistic to expect Jews to forego Chinese food over an eight-week hiatus from the city, and to service the Jewish Jones for Cantonese Cuisine, a few enterprising New Yorkers of Chinese decent descended upon the mountains. The Canton and The Lantern serviced the Monticello hub with unremarkable but dependable fare—your typical egg roll, spare rib, fried rice, shrimp and lobster sauce menu. Jewish vacationers flocked to these places in droves, and on a Sunday night waits of an hour before seating were expected and endured. Opening a can of LaChoy just didn’t satisfy the monkey.
Of course, for those who possessed neither the time, the means, nor the inclination to leave the colony grounds, there was Chow-Chow Cup—Chinese food on wheels. The truck pulled onto the colony, heralded by the familiar sing song melody, and proceeded to dispense enough grease to service a full running of the Indy 500. Among the specialties were the “eat it all chow-mein” a generous helping of white rice and bland chicken chow-mein (a great game was playing “find the chicken”) scooped into a dish made of crisp noodles. What it lacked in taste in made up for with novelty. There was also a creation called the “Chinese hot dog,” which was nothing more than a frank encased inside a fried egg roll type wrapper. Eating one of these took time and practice, lest one incur serious injury from hot oil spurting everywhere when one’s teeth finally managed to pierce the surface of the crust.
Let us take a moment to recall the fabulous Catskill’s bakeries of years gone. There was Katz’s, in Liberty and Monticello, Madnick’s of South Fallsburg, Fried’s in Mountaindale.
Katz’s custard donuts were a thing of beauty, and remain a joy, forever. Each donut weighed in at slightly less than George Foreman before a bout with a plate of cheeseburgers, and they were HUGE. Each donut, too, contained enough smooth, sweet yellow custard to refill the colony swimming pool. I believe Katz’s cakes and pastries are likely responsible for more the sale of more Glucophage than any other single factor on the planet. Madnick’s produced a remarkable version of mandel bread—both cinnamon and chocolate—and a memorable raisin challah. Fried’s, in Mountaindale, did everything well, and it was on the steps of that bakery that I sampled my first black and white cookie, condemning me to a battle of the bulge that I fight even to this day. There were, and still are, many fine and good restaurants, bistros and food and ice cream stands that merit mention. Some of the places springing to mind are La Mingotierre, The Old Homestead, Bernie’s, Winnicks, Duke’s, D’s, Gi-Gis, Char-Lou, Spector’s, Dairy Dip, Silver Cup, Marley’s, the Oak Table, the Dodge Inn, Sid’s Shicker Shack, Miss Monticello Diner, the bagel bakery, and, of course, the immortal Lefty’s. Some places still stand, others are shuttered now, closed and condemned to memory of what was then a luxurious indulgence, and now lives only as a sweet and sacred remembrance of taste and texture from somewhere in time.
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