Don’t Hide the Salami
In my college-dorm bed, I came upon this passage while first reading Vanity Fair. I was fascinated, puzzled:
“Isn’t it a good salmi?” she said; “I made it for you, I can make you better dishes than that: and will when you come to see me.”
Becky Sharp was trying to woo the dull Sir Pitt, even though she was already married. But woo with a homemade, quaintly spelled salami? I read on …
Besides the salmi, which was made of Lord Steyne’s pheasants …
Does pheasant go with garlic? Did she make the mustard too? Later, much later, I discovered that salmi and salami had no relation, salmi being a well-seasoned game stew served in what I have heard called a “luxurious” wine sauce. Would I ever taste a salmi? Yes. Did I prefer it to my familiar salami? Not on your life. Salami had been branded into my eating brain when I was nine years old and would not be displaced.
My father was a better cook than my mother, but that’s probably because he wasn’t responsible for putting food on the table every single day. It was clear that, unlike his wife, he enjoyed what he ate, although he never discussed the flavor of anything — well, maybe once, when he told his two boys what clam broth was and why it was rarely what it should be; this as he alternated dipping buttered biscuits into a bowl of Lundy’s broth and pulling steamers out of a zinc bucket to dislodge and suck them down. He must have talked a lot — he was a car salesman — but it’s odd that I can’t remember the sound of his voice.
Harry Weinstein made extraordinary messes when he cooked us an occasional weekend breakfast or made something as simple as a tuna salad for lunch. Unlike Mom’s, his salad was punctuated with chopped olives — not good olives, because at that time nobody in Brooklyn had good olives, but the green bottled kind stuffed with red pimento. “A pimento to remember you by,” I said over and over, expecting someone to laugh. What an annoying child.
One of his favorite dishes was salami and eggs. He’d bring back a 12-ounce Hebrew National Beef Salami from the kosher butcher, along with a few pounds of ground chuck and two or four fat, broad steaks. My mother groaned: “Your father spends twice as much on his meat than I do every week at Waldbaum’s.”
At his side, I’d watch as he cut off the tip (“Like a mohel”), slit the plastic wrapper, and start to slice the tube. I couldn’t get my eyes off the gnarled, un-Jewish stub that the meat paste makes when forced into the twisted end of the casing: proof to me now that erotic identity consolidates its hold even on hungry little boys. “Who wants the end?” he’d say. Me, I want the end.
Then he’d ask, “slices or chunks?” which is just what waiters in decent delis do. If slices, I’d volunteer to strip the plastic off the side of each piece one by one and make a pile of red strings, a task I enjoy even now. Then he’d heat the pan, throw in the meat — and the kitchen would fill with an aroma that nothing else matched. Nonetheless, no rippling emotion attached itself to this fragrance; the smell was too assertive and already complete. We’ll have to look for our kosher madeleine elsewhere.
While the salami was leaking fat and beginning to brown, he had broken eggs into a bowl and fork-whipped them with a little milk. When he poured them into the hot pan, a whoosh came up and the kitchen got quiet. He let the mass sit and solidify into what I’d now call a frittata, turn it, cut it into wedges, then plate and serve.
We were friends at the time with a family down the block: two girls, Barbara and Linda, a bright small boy whose name I forget, and the parents, Irene and Irving. They were all really wonderful. We spent a lot of time together after school, playing board games, listening to records. It made no difference to me, but it was clear from what I overheard at their house and ours that they were “on a budget” because of money difficulties. Irene sometimes looked tired and exasperated; my mother, on the other hand, chain-smoked, prepared whiskey sours in her blender, and wore a noisy gold charm-bracelet that made everything else around her seem rich and frivolous. Later I discovered that we had money problems as well, but my parents wouldn’t admit any such thing until it was too late. That’s why there were problems.
I’m leaving out something significant. Two years before, I was diagnosed as diabetic. I had to be extremely careful about what and when I ate, yet the insulin my mother or I injected every morning made me ravenous.
Irving ran a small candy store/coffee shop in Manhattan, and one day he gave my dad a glass quart-bottle containing a mysterious brown liquid — Coca-Cola syrup, the kind that soda fountains used. Coke was an excellent antidote to low blood sugar, the dangerous result of too much insulin, exercise, or anxiety. Sure, Brooklyn boys with Clairol mothers and happy-go-lucky fathers may overdose on anxious. I decanted the elixir into a small bottle I could carry in my pocket, so much better than Life-Savers or Charms and mesmerizing to my classmates.
You see, Irving was a nice guy. He found out that I loved salami and eggs. “Come to the store and I’ll make you some,” he told me. “I make them all the time.”
Now, I don’t mean to offend anyone’s memory, but Irving was not a handsome or charming man. I admit that I do not possess a photo-accurate sense of how he looked, but I know he was balding, had a belly and maybe what used to be called rheumy eyes. He stayed in the background.
Yet I fell in love with Irving when he offered to cook a dish for me that only my father had cooked before.
Mom, when can we go to Irving’s?
I asked once and again, but didn’t nag or whine. She was the one who had to drive us into the city in our Buick Special (Dad sold Buicks after Packard collapsed). After all, before she was married, she worked in the cosmetics department at Macy’s on 34th Street and was a short-skirt pilgrim in the Thanksgiving Day Parade. In a reverse of The Women, she had sold scent to Joan Crawford.
One Friday morning before school, Mom told me that we wouldn’t ever be going to Irving’s to have salami and eggs. “I was in the place,” she said. “It’s dirty. I don’t want you eating there.”
Why would she have gone without me?
Soon after, we were asked not to walk over to visit. A year later, we heard that they had moved from our Midwood block to a cheaper apartment somewhere else.
This could have been my first sentence, but last week I bought a huge, two-pound Hebrew National salami at a Brooklyn Costco for $8.51. It looks identical, but bigger.
Alone at home, I snip off the foreskin, peel and pop it into my mouth. The treat chews just as it always has, gritty and slick. My pleasure is immediate, yet retrospective.
I take three vegetable-fed eggs from the fridge, deliberately slice a few inches from the tube, collect my Hebrew National ribbons and heat the nonstick pan.
Salami floods our kitchen. I break the eggs and whip them.
Irving, pan in hand, stands waiting.
My Salami and Eggs (With Respects to Harry)
3 quarter-inch slices of Hebrew National Beef Salami
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon sweet butter
Slice salami into rounds, then cut slices into eighths. Make certain you’ve stripped the plastic rind. Whisk eggs with a fork but stop short of thorough blending, so some white and yolk are still separate. Heat a cast iron or nonstick frying pan to low-medium, add salami, then stir occasionally until aroma blooms and meat just begins to brown. Turn pieces so both sides cook.
Remove salami to small dish and wipe fat from pan with a paper towel. Add butter, and when it bubbles, pour in egg mixture and cook very slowly, until the bottom begins to harden on the pan as for an omelet. Add salami. Slowly and gently turn egg curds and salami onto themselves and continue until all is steaming-hot and almost solid. The creamy mix should never lose its sheen.
Scoop onto a warm plate.
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