Monday, July 1, 2013

You Say Po-tay-to and I Say Po-tot-oh

When you lived in Los Angeles, there were at least two delicatessens you could visit for the delicious combination of comfort food and comfort atmosphere.  The most favored of these, Linny's in Beverly Hills, was the most homelike of all, thanks to the owner's awareness that his daughter, now in law school, was a classmate of two of your friends who, dissatisfied with their career choices, decided to give The Law a try.

The owner, a Viennese, tended to favor a style of cooking a few turns of the cultural screw away from the preferences in which you were grounded, thus an ongoing discussion about such matters as what constitutes the true matzoh ball, famed from matzoh ball soup, and what is the cabbage soup most approaching the ideal cabbage soup.  Both you and Max Krauthammer had differing ideals in mind when speaking of either. 

In such matters as preparation of brisket or short ribs, there was a collegial accord which extended to most of the items in the sandwich menu.  Although you tended to favor Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray Tonic to wash down corned beef or pastrami sandwiches and Max touted the Dr. Brown's Cream Soda, this was no serious matter of contention.  

When you were of a more composed frame of being, you'd tend to order the brisket, even the potato latkes with applesauce, and "Keep the Cel-Ray tonics coming."  When you were in a more contentious mood, you'd order either the cabbage or matzoh ball soup.

From your father and his mother, you saw the received standard matzoh ball as something which, as your father put it, "would break the plate, should it fall from your spoon or fork."  From Max's cultural POV, a matzoh ball is a light, fluffy consistency on a par with sponge cake.

While we're on the subject, your father's mother, who became your last word on the subject, made a cabbage soup that had tartness at its essence to the point where she would secure a quart or so of sauerkraut, wring it dry of its brine, then place it lovingly in a stock made from simmering of plump tomatoes and fresh, crisp cabbage.  Max, true to his own visions of how a cabbage soup should greet the palate, spoke fondly of the discreet amount of brown sugar, the presence of yellow raisins, and only enough lemon juice to, as he put it, "wake up" the cabbage.

On occasion, when you were in a more benign mood--benign-but-hungry--Max would have a tasting cup of the cabbage soup or a small matzoh ball adrift in a dram or so of chicken stock.

Another feature of Linny's deli was the presence of your favored waitress, Belle, who was the epitome of a delicatessen waitress, concerned, edgy, opinionated.  Belle knew what was going on in the kitchen, which is to say, she saw which of the specials and available options were fresh, savory, worth eating.  "Manny has made a remarkable noodle kiegel,"  she'd advise you.  Had she opted for the more neutral noodle pudding, she would not have been Belle.  

"Kugle," you'd say.  "Oh," she'd say.  "I keep forgetting that about you.  Your people are from the kugle side of Europe," her accent of the word for pudding on a par with a racial epithet.  And yes, she was the sort of waitress who, after you'd given your order, say a pastrami on rye with an extra side of Cole slaw, she'd feel free to say, "You have something against the stuffed derma, maybe?"

The only Los Angeles deli you visit these days is Art's, where some of the waitresses have an edge, but there is almost complete accord with the various presentations of the various dishes you have ordered.

There is no such cultural draw for you in Santa Barbara, but the Italian Deli on De La Guerra at Laguna frequently calls out to you when you are in the neighborhood, causing you, as it did today, to make an improvised move into the parking lot, your taste buds beginning to slather for the super deluxe torpedo with everything.

The trouble today was unexpected and delightful, beginning with your order of the turkey super deluxe and the server wanting to know why today of all days you'd decided to switch from your normal order of the full deli option, particularly when she'd begun piling salami cotto and copa on the bun.  "I suppose you're going to switch to the orange cheese."

Whereupon another of the servers jumped in with, "I wanna see the day he takes orange cheese."

You enjoyed a full five minutes of animated conversations about such choices as mustard?  Deli mustard?  Peppers?  "Thirty years, he's coming here and you have to ask that?"  

Such thoughts are weaving connections among themselves when, a bit later in the afternoon, you take yourself, computer and note pad, to your favorite coffee shop, thrilled at its relative emptiness.  Your order placed, you make your way to your favorite table, mercifully unoccupied at this time of day, and are able to connect your laptop to your favorite extension cord.

Coffee and ice water delivered, you ponder the process of how fiction helps remove randomness from narrative and gives the appearance of a more orderly, structured universe with nearly all of its inhabitants somehow united in the mutual quest for survival and, thus, a community of agenda in which story seems to hover.

Within moments after the first round of such thoughts, you are set upon by two middle-aged men who inform you that you, a complete stranger to them, are needed for your objectivity, whereupon the three of you move from conversation to heated discussion about the nature of objectivity, the relative impossibility of objectivity, and the particular vulnerability of objectivity in a city the size of Santa Barbara.

Which in its labyrinthine way brings you back to the chaos of reality when measured against the determinism of fiction.  This last comparison earned for you an accusation that you were either a professor of philosophy or of sociology, which devolved into more small town determinism when the barista, who has a master's degree in sociology, informed the men your field was literature and that the newest customer to enter was in fact a professor of sociology.

You'd come to the coffee shop in the first place because of the two-hour window of no parking in place on your side of the street and you with no place to park.  By this time, you could and did leave the coffee shop with reasonable expectations of finding a convenient place to park at home.  Thus you never did discover what the matter was where you were to be an objective judge.

There is a good chance you'd have recused yourself on the grounds of needing such objectivity as you're able to define and muster to cope with internal issues of your own.


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