by Elliot B. Braunstein
IT WAS THE LATE SPRING IN 1950 when the great Dimitri Mitropoulos replaced Artur Rodzinski as conductor of the New York Philharmonic. One day, after the orchestra had finished rehearsing, my cousin Arthur Kurtz, an irrepressibly outgoing first bassoonist, casually asked Mitropoulos, "Maestro, how do you like it here in New York?"
Mitropoulos lifted his eyes slowly from his score."I love the city and all its activity," he replied with a smile, "but I am so tired of eating out in all these fancy restaurants. What I would really like is a good, home-cooked meal."
Without the slightest hesitation, Arthur responded, "Maestro, why don't you come to my house? My mother will prepare a great home-cooked meal."
"Arthur, that would be wonderful," the Maestro replied. "Would next Tuesday after rehearsal be convenient? Let's say about 6:30?"
"Oh, that would be fine. Let me write down the address and the directions to my house." Arthur's handwriting was a little shaky, as his offhanded remark had elicited a reply he had never anticipated. Two senior violinists who were standing near the podium looked at Arthur in stunned amazement. Who did he think he was to act like a buddy to this great conductor?
Arthur Kurtz lived with his mother Annie, father Sam, and sister Esther on Thatford Avenue in Brownsville, a rather tough section of Brooklyn. The corner house was home to the mother of Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, the notorious head of "Murder Incorporated." My mother, my aunt Jennie, my great-aunt Channa Leah, and Arthur's aunt Minnie Kurtz also lived on Thatford Avenue. With five interrelated families on one street, it was as close to a Brooklyn ghetto as you could get.
Arthur's mother, Annie Kurtz, the proverbial busy beaver, was perplexed. Whatever possessed her son to make such an offer? Did he forget that Mitropoulos had previously conducted the Paris Philharmonic for three years and was used to eating in the world's greatest restaurants? Not to worry. Annie, an undaunted spirit with a glowing smile, was up to this challenge.
First, of course, she would have to redecorate. Annie crossed the street and paid a visit to my mother. "Helen," she said with a little exasperation, "my son has invited the conductor of the Philharmonic to dinner, and I would love to make a good impression. Could I possibly borrow your brand new credenza for one night only?"
The credenza was my mother's pride and joy and the first piece of furniture she polished every Thursday. "Oh sure," replied my mother, surprised and honored at the request. "But how are you going to move it?"
"Don't worry, the boys will cover it with a blanket and move it," Annie answered as she left my house and went next door to speak to my aunt Jennie.
She carefully explained the situation to Jennie, then said, "You know how sad and worn my sofa looks and how impressive and luxurious yours is. Could I possibly borrow yours for one night?"
"Are you kidding? Of course you can have it," replied Jennie, excited and proud that the great man would be sitting on her sofa.
Minnie Kurtz had a lovely club chair which would perfectly round out Annie's soon-to-be-redecorated apartment. Minnie agreed. Last, but not least, was Tanta Channa Leah, who had two silver candlesticks she had brought from Russia. They would go on the credenza.
The major question and the center of all discussions was the menu. Once again, Annie returned to my mother and pleaded, with a smile, "Helen, you know you make the world's greatest galupses [meat and rice rolled in cabbage], and I would just love to serve them to the Maestro. Would you do it?"
"I could deliver them at 4:30, cooked in my favorite sauce, so all you have to do is reheat them," my mother said, grinning. "Would that be all right?" Then my mother leaned over and kissed Annie on the cheek.
The menu thus began to take shape: Jennie's renowned blintzes, always the hit at our family circle gatherings; Annie's pot roast, with endless vegetab les and spices; Aunt Minnie's sweet potato pie, with prunes and raisins; and Tanta Channa Leah's favorite apple sponge cake, which, I am told, required a dozen eggs, to which Annie would add a dash of whipped cream.
All the houses on Thatford Avenue were two-family structures. The landlords usually lived on the top floors and our clan lived on the ground floors. Every apartment had a glassed-in porch facing the street from which everyone could easily watch what everyone else was doing. On Monday night, all the cousins, brothers, uncles, and fathers became moving men. All the neighbors wondered what on earth was going on as furniture was being moved back and forth across the street, amidst endless moaning and groaning.
"Watch out for the tree!"
"Careful by the curb, don't trip!"
"Whose idea was this anyway?"
"Scratch the credenza and my wife will arrange for your funeral!"
"He better not come back for another meal!"
"If he does, I am leaving town for sure!"
And so it went on for over three hours until the moving was finally completed, and peace and quiet returned to Thatford Avenue.
On Tuesday, between 3:30 and 4:30 in the afternoon, the food parade began, with aunts, cousins, and sisters-in-law carrying their creations to Annie's kitchen. At 6:30, our entire clan took up positions on their respective porches, anxiously awaiting the grand event. Jennie commanded the best view because she appropriated my uncle Willie's binoculars, which she would not share. At 6:40, a chauffeur-driven black Packard arrived, and out stepped the Maestro in a simple black suit. Everyone was expecting to see him in a long black cape, but this was not his way; he preferred a Spartan lifestyle.
Mitropoulos was a tall man, and all the Kurtz's were short. Arthur and his father Sam, 5'3", greeted this towering yet lean guest as if he were the lord of the manor inspecting his subjects. Soon the Maestro passed through the long hallway and entered the large kitchen dinette area, where Annie stood in anticipation.
Annie reached out to shake his hand, whereupon the Maestro gently took it in his own and kissed it in a courtly manner. "I want to thank you for inviting me to dinner in your home, for I truly appreciate this," he said, a warm smile animating his drawn and craggy face. Annie just melted. Then he handed her a lovely bouquet of flowers. The last time she had received a gift of flowers was on her 20th anniversary almost ten years ago. Sam, she thought, should pay attention.
Sam, Arthur, and Arthur's sister Esther escorted the Maestro into the living room, whereupon Sam motioned the conductor to sit in Minnie's club chair. "Oh I couldn't sit there," he said, "I am sure it must be your favorite."
"Not really," said Sam with a smile. "Why don't you just make yourself comfortable."
The conductor sat down very carefully and said, "When I was a boy, my father had a chair just like this, and I was never allowed to sit in it when he was in town. He was in the merchant marine, and only if he was at sea was I permitted to sit in his chair. After dinner, he would sit in it and my mother would serve him coffee with ouzo. As a boy, I thought: this is as good as life gets."
While he sat in the club chair, Annie brought out Jennie's blintzes. "I have always been thin," the Maestro remarked, "and maybe it is because I exercise so much while conducting. However, during the four years I lived in Paris, crepes were unquestionably my weakness."
"These are a bit similar to crepes," Annie replied. "It is a Russian dish which I serve with a strawberry sour cream sauce. Do you like it?"
"It is wonderful, just what I was hoping for."
"Excuse me, Maestro," asked Sam, "but you seem to be staring at the credenza. Is something wrong?"
"No, not at all," laughed Mitropoulos. "In my home in Athens, we had a credenza adorned with two silver candle holders. However, instead of the mirror, which you have in the center, we had a large Byzantine mosaic of the Madonna with a golden halo. In the late afternoon, when the sunlight would come in, the mosaic tile would glow as if it were on fire."
"It's time for dinner," Annie announced, and everyone got up and entered the dinette. Normally, Annie would serve dinner wearing an apron, but not on this night, even if it meant she might stain her favorite floral dress.
The kitchen area was quite warm, and Sam asked the Maestro, "Would you like to take off your jacket? It's getting a bit warm in here." Mitropoulos paused and smiled, handed Esther his jacket, and then sat down as a very comfortable man, suspenders and all, to a home-cooked meal.
The meal began with chicken soup and piroshki (meat dumplings), followed by pot roast, sweet potatoes, galupses, dessert...and a complete loosening of all belts.
The only wine the Kurtzes ever drank was Shapiro's Kosher Malaga, with its almost unbearable sweetness. Arthur rebelled and bought a French Merlot, which he and the conductor thoroughly enjoyed. The rest of the family thought it was unbearably dry. Such was life in Brownsville.
After the meal, they adjourned to the living room, where once again the Maestro sat in Minnie's chair. Annie served the conductor coffee on the armrest. Everyone had become quite relaxed except for Arthur, who worried that someone would commit a faux pas.
At about 9:00 o'clock, Esther telephoned all the relatives to alert them that Mitropoulos was preparing to leave. Once again, the viewing began. This time, however, my mother had the binoculars. She had, after all, furnished her brand new credenza.
When Esther handed Mitropoulos his jacket to leave, he went directly to the kitchen where Annie was drying the dishes. She looked up, a bit surprised.
"Annie, I have been a bachelor all my life, and it seems like I have been traveling endlessly." The Maestro's strong, raspy voice became very soft. "The wonderful warmth of your home," he paused, "reminds me so much of my own mother's house." He bent down and kissed Annie on the forehead. "Thank you so much for this very special evening."
The rest of the family walked him to the porch and his waiting Packard, while Annie stayed in the kitchen, glowing.
The following day, Annie Kurtz paid a visit to each family member who contributed to her worthy cause. To every cook she carefully detailed how the renowned conductor, who was accustomed to the best food in Paris, could not get over each particular dish. Not only that, he also had a very keen eye for furniture.
That Wednesday evening, furniture once again moved back and forth across Thatford Avenue, to the great perplexity of the neighborhood. They didn't know that it takes five families to prepare a meal fit for a Maestro.
Elliott B. Braunstein, a member of Temple Beth El of Great Neck, NY, is a writer of short stories and plays.
* * *
Helen, Jennie, and Annie's Best Dishes
Note: All the recipes that follow are B.C.--that is, Before Cholesterol. But they will warm your heart.
Helen's Stuffed Cabbage Rolls
2 cans tomato sauce (fine)
1 cup brown sugar
5 or 6 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon ginger
7 crushed ginger snaps
2 lbs. chopped meat
1/2 cup uncooked rice
2 grated onions
2 grated carrots
2 teaspoons or less of salt and pepper
1/2 teaspoon ginger
Precooked (steamed) large head of cabbage (cabbage leaves should be pliable)
Combine the sauce ingredients and simmer over low heat for about 15 minutes. Thoroughly blend the meat with the filling ingredients. Onto a cabbage leaf, spoon approximately 2 to 4 tbsps. of the mixture (depending on the size of the leaf) and wrap it around the filling, tucking in the ends and forming a roll. Continue making rolls with the remaining filling. Place the cabbage rolls in a roaster pan, pour the sauce over them, cover, and bake in a 350° oven for 30 minutes, turning once, until the rolls are brown. Reduce the heat to 200° and let simmer for another 20 minutes. Makes approximately 18 medium-sized rolls.
Jennie's Cheese Blintzes
1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 cup milk
1 tablespoon melted butter
Beat the egg well, add the dry ingredients, and mix thoroughly. Add the milk to thin the batter; then add the melted butter and stir again. Drop 1 tbsp. of batter on a hot greased pan and fry until brown on one side. Turn the covers (bletlach) out on paper towels, with the fried side up, letting each bletle cool 2 minutes before stacking. Continue making covers until all the batter is used.
1 lb. cottage cheese
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 saltine crackers, crushed
Mash the cottage cheese well or put through a sieve. Beat in the egg, sugar, and salt. Add the crushed saltines and mix thoroughly. Place 2 heaping tbsps. of cheese filling in the center of each cover. Roll up, folding the ends in, and brush with a beaten egg. Place on a greased pan in a preheated oven at 350° for approximately 30 minutes, or until each side is slightly browned. Serve hot with cold sour cream mixed with a refined strawberry sauce. Yield: about 18 blintzes.
Annie's Pot Roast
4 lbs. lean brisket
2 large onions
1 green pepper
4 cloves garlic
1 can condensed tomato soup
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
3 cloves (whole)
2 bay leaves
1 bunch carrots
1/4 lb. mushrooms
salt and pepper to taste
Slice and sauté the onions, garlic, and green pepper until the onions have a glossy look. Salt and pepper the meat, rub it with garlic, and cover it with flour. Quickly brown the meat in a small amount of oil over a high flame, turning until all sides are seared. Pour the tomato soup and an equivalent amount of water over the meat. Add the sautéed onions, garlic, and peppers, then the bay leaves, peppercorns, caraway seeds, and cloves. Simmer approximately 3 hours, adding more water as the liquid cooks down. After 2 hours, when the meat is still a little tough (test with a knife), cut the carrots into 2-inch slices, slice the mushrooms, and add both to the pot. Serves 6 to 8.
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