by Janet Forman
Reprinted with permission from The Toronto Globe and Mail
March 15, 2008
My first experience with gastronomic pairing was matzo ball soup and Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda in the sprawling prep kitchen of my grandparents’ Catskills Mountains hotel. While this cacophonous staging area for a 140-seat dining room may not seem conducive to a contemplative tasting experience, every flavor and aroma I experienced during those years is etched into my memory. As in many cultures, food was the emotional lynchpin of the ‘Jewish Alps,’ and a hunk of sweet noodle pudding or raisin-crammed rugelach was the currency with which to express love.
The commanding presence of my grandmother, Ida Forman, was synonymous with that legendary Borscht Belt cuisine, for me as well as for three generations of guests at Harry Forman’s Manor. In her paprika smeared chef’s apron, straps gathered in an enormous safety pin to accommodate her 4’9″ 80 pound frame, Ida ran her kitchen with the panache of a Barnum and Bailey ringmaster. But even while folding dough for blintzes and barking at some hapless waiter to pick up another few plates of lox, she could always find a moment to dispatch an extra pile of ‘lukshen’ – Yiddish for noodles – for my soup or send over a chewy Toll House cookie studded with hunks of chocolate.
My grandparents were renowned in the Catskills for setting a bountiful table. Ida’s opulent spin on Eastern European dishes plumped up by America’s abundant agriculture – roast chicken shimmering with paprika gravy or the cold sorrel scented potato soup known as shav – kept Forman’s Manor packed for almost forty years. We were a family of pioneers, I’d always been told, as my grandparents were among the first Jewish immigrants to open a hotel in the Catskills. Arriving in America at the dawn of the 20th century, they were hungry to own land, a privilege that had been denied to Jews in Russia. So around 1920, with a little cash and even less experience, but possessed of a fearsome will to succeed in this new world, they bought a chicken farm 100 miles north of New York’s Lower East Side.
A few years later, they snatched a better opportunity: hosting the rush of city dwellers that came to Sullivan Country seeking a breath of country air. While other farmers ran ‘kuchalayns’ – sparse rooms with kitchen privileges – my grandmother knew her way around a boiled brisket and was one of the first to offer three copious feeds a day; dishes like hefty mounds of roughly cut chicken liver studded with globules of ‘schmaltz’ (rendered chicken fat) and the rosy beet soup that gave the ‘Borscht Belt’ its name. So even as their guests demanded American style amenities like tennis courts and an “Olympic Sized” swimming pool, whose cumbersome filtration system anointed bathers in a summer-long eau de chlorine, it was food like Ida’s tzimmes – an almost medieval-style sweet beef stew which might include sweet potatoes, prunes, carrots and cinnamon – that provided the sentimental touchstone they craved.
The 1950’s was the Borscht Belt’s heyday, a time when the immigrants who fled the Russian pogroms as children finally secured a toehold in America’s middle class. And it was my grandmother’s culinary largess – the way she blanketed plump chunks of pickled herring with cupfuls of silken cream and crowded soup plates with so many meat-filled kreplach it was hard to find the liquid – that was a symbol of just how far they had come. This generation was ferociously determined to make their mark on America, and in place of formal education or family pedigree, they developed a brutal work ethic that was evident in any Catskill hotel kitchen, even to a small child like me. “We hardly ever had a break,” acknowledges my cousin, 68-year-old Arnie Rosenblum, a retired electronics engineer who worked as a busboy at Forman’s Manor from age 14. (“Your grandparents hid me when the inspectors came,” he confides.) “Between meals we were lifeguards at the pool, served milk and cookies to the children, and in the evening we were the entertainment,” he recalls, “putting on skits in the casino.”
But to me the hotel kitchen was a thrill ride, a place where silverware thundered from sink to drying bin, where the industrial sized mixer churned a mountain of strudel dough, and where waiters hoisted trays heavily laden with delicacies like gefilte fish, jelly omelets, or the unexpectedly flavorsome boiled meat known as ‘flanken’ precariously over the cooks’ heads. With my privileged status as the owner’s granddaughter, I roamed this hectic workplace as self-importantly as if I’d been granted an All Access pass to a Rolling Stones concert. And while I’m sure my help laying forks in the dining room was invaluable, I was better known as a three-foot high traffic hazard, once causing the entire kitchen staff to skip a collective heartbeat as I raced between the legs of a waiter carrying a tray loaded with scalding soup.
While the service at Forman’s Manor was swift and accommodating, a room full of self-made businessmen who had scrapped their way to a comfortable clearing in the garment business or the pickle business or to a rarified oasis pedaling furs, was a demanding crowd. I recall the car salesman who claimed he could spot substandard smoked salmon from across the room, and every rag trade entrepreneur considered himself a chicken soup sommelier. Still, my grandparents managed to create an atmosphere that was part extended family table, part boot camp – “One of my jobs was to play records over the loudspeaker at 6 AM to wake people up,” my cousin Arnie recalls – that produced a return rate any Four Seasons would envy.
Still, even the most trying guests agreed that my grandmother was the keystone of the hotel’s delicate chemistry. With the stamina of an Olympian, she rose at 3 AM to stoke the ovens and pack coffee into the industrial size percolator, along with a few raw eggs to clarify the brew. And by the time I arrived at breakfast she was already behind the long metal work counter basting a battalion of chickens for dinner and reminding every perspiring waiter and butterfingered busboy that while they might be esteemed scholars for nine months of the year, right now they’d better focus on the pickled herring.
The staff must have managed a few free hours a week, however, as I remember endless boasts of “Dirty Dancing” style capers such as grabbing late night trysts behind the old chicken coops that served as waiters’ barracks, or gnawing a 3 AM pastrami sandwich at Kaplan’s deli in Monticello. The good news was that if hauling trays at 6 AM after a night of carousing was tough, it probably made a medical intern’s 100-hour workweek feel like a nap.
By the mid 50’s, however, the vicious pace took its toll on my grandfather’s health and Ida and Harry retired. On the surface, they had accomplished everything they sought: My father’s dental practice was flourishing and he was a founding father of the split-level suburbs. By the time I came of age in the 60’s I was no different from every other affluent American teenager, ready to throw off the yolk of ‘bourgeois middle class values’ my grandparents had struggled to achieve.
But Ida never could find her place in this new order. The concept of gardening or leafing through a magazine or taking in a movie for pleasure alone seemed quite mad to someone who had run a good-sized business all her life. Ida never understood how to cook for a family of four, only for a dining room of more than a hundred; and while she couldn’t balance a checkbook, she appeared to have kept the hotel’s entire accounting system in her head. So perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised when in her later years Ida’s mind bobbed back to the time she inspired awe by turning out a thousand plates of food a day. For years after my grandfather died and the grandchildren went off to college, Ida could still be found in front of her stove churning out stuffed chickens, boiling cauldrons of soup and filling blintzes for the ghostly cadres still hungry for a piece of the shtetl.