Later, as we got older, there would be Lefty’s burgers and onion soup, and the veal parmigiana from “Frankie and Johnnies.” There would be the oysters at La Mingotiere, and Bernie’s soft-shell crabs. But in the beginning, when we were young, it was much simpler, and what I remember first were the mella-rolls.
Tillie owned the colony with her husband Charlie, probably not much different than a hundred other couples who owned the various bungalow colonies sprinkled all in and about the foothills of the Catskills. Tillie also ran the colony store, and the ice cream she sold there came from Borden’s, a small, round log, and it was called a mella-roll. I remember vanilla and chocolate, of course. But there was also strawberry, cherry-vanilla, pistachio, butter-pecan, coffee and mint-chip. It came covered in a paper wrapper that was peeled back once inserted into a cone or after being speared with an ice-cream stick. Often it was then rolled in sprinkles-chocolate or rainbow. It was easier to eat and lick around the edges than a traditional scoop ice-cream cone. The texture was velvet-creamy and cold. I think they were twenty cents, maybe a quarter in later summers. The memory ambrosial.
For us city kids who knew nothing about backyards and bar-b-queues, the country was an opportunity to not only run and play with fierce abandon, but to dine el-fresco, and experience delights we’d never known before. On the weekends, after we returned from the pool, exhausted and spent and beet red from the sun, our moms cloaked us in gobs of Noxema while our dads drizzled lighter fluid over a mound of charcoal, then tossed on a match. The grill would ignite with a “whoosh,” the flames dancing and leaping higher as the briquettes caught the heat. The fire smelled of lighter fluid until all the coals had burned, and then there was the deep, smoky scent of the charcoal. Then, his eyes tearing from the smoke, dad cooked burgers and dogs and chicken breasts dipped in a mysterious condiment called “Saucy Susan,” which turned out to be nothing more than a souped-up duck sauce. Sometimes there were skirt steaks with a hint of garlic; other times lamb chops sweet with apricot and peach. It was the same stuff we’d been getting at home, but it tasted different, stoked and smoked over the open coals in the summer air.
After dinner we scavenged for long, thin sticks to skewer through marshmallows. Then we rotated those sticks over the opened grill long and slowly, till the marshmallows took on a deep, golden brown. Or, impatient and anxious, we let the marshmallow catch the flame and char to blackness. Always crisp on the outside, warm and gooey beneath, our mouths round the stick as we pulled the marshmallow free and savored it like a vintage wine.
Mom always was a sucker for fresh fruit, especially in the country, where she was certain all the produce was locally grown, even though it was an even money bet the stuff had moved through the Hunts Point Market in the Bronx. There was always a large earthenware bowl of fruit on the kitchen table. Plums, peaches, and nectarines. Green seedless grapes and huge, sweet Bing cherries. To this day I cannot bite into a peach, soft and juicy and sweet, without my eyes seeing that bowl of fruit on the table, and wishing I could toss the pit into the bushes and get on with another round of stickball.
At bedtime came cookies and milk. There were Oreos, of course, but then there were also those wonderful marshmallow sandwiches from Nabisco–two wafers squashing a marshmallow center. And Mallomars, and sugar wafers, and fresh from Katz’s, if we’d been especially good, a bear claw or a custard donut, although they were usually reserved for weekend breakfast.
Now, there was nothing especially unusual or unique about these foods. Nothing like the special limited distribution of Freihoffers, or the short availability of Lefty’s onion soup. But to a kid in the mountains, these foods belonged to summer, and the country, and somehow, crowded by school and homework and an apartment in the city, they just never tasted nearly the same.
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