Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family

Overview

"In a restaurant family, you're never just hungry - you're starving to death. And you're never full - you're stuffed."

Patricia Volk's family is as American (background: Austrian-Jewish) as "Rhapsody in Blue." They came to these shores determined to make their mark; each of them is a piquant morsel of history. Great-grandfather Sussman Volk brought pastrami to the New World. Grandfather Jacob was known as "the Most Destructive Force on Wall Street" and was memorialized by E. B. White as "the greatest wrecker of ...

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Overview

"In a restaurant family, you're never just hungry - you're starving to death. And you're never full - you're stuffed."

Patricia Volk's family is as American (background: Austrian-Jewish) as "Rhapsody in Blue." They came to these shores determined to make their mark; each of them is a piquant morsel of history. Great-grandfather Sussman Volk brought pastrami to the New World. Grandfather Jacob was known as "the Most Destructive Force on Wall Street" and was memorialized by E. B. White as "the greatest wrecker of all time" for his innovative method of demolition. Uncle Albert was the first man to stir scallions into cream cheese. The last of Grandfather Herman Morgen's fourteen restaurants was a famous garment center hangout. One grandmother won the 1916 trophy for "Best Legs in Atlantic City." The other was a three-hundred-pound calendar girl. Ms. Volk's handsome, demanding restaurateur father invented the Six-color Retractable Pen and Pencil Set and the Double-sided Cigarette Lighter (so you never have to worry which end is up). For three generations, just about every Volk and Morgen (with the exception of Uncle Al, who had an eleven-year affair with Aunt Lil and then refused to marry her because she wasn't a virgin) has, no matter what the circumstances, exhibited a terrifyingly positive attitude. With a cosmic disdain for the status quo, all of them - the tyrants, do-gooders, lovers, martyrs, and fakes - lived at full tilt. Stuffed is a wildly funny yet unsparing look at how families work.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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In a restaurant family, you're never hungry; you're starving to death. And you're never full; you're stuffed. When you read Patricia Volk's wonderful memoir about her restaurant family, I can guarantee you won't be bored: You'll just be hungry -- no, starving -- for more.

Full of energy, love, and a few recipes (Mattie's Steak, Morgen's Seasoning Salt, and Mattie's Chocolate Cake with Chocolate Icing), Stuffed portrays the key moments in the lives of the Liebans, the Morgens, and the Volks, a New York Jewish family, from the turn of the century to the present.

An elegant writer, with two short-story collections to her credit, Volk chronicles the life of her family, not in any particular historical order but by family member, with several chapters apiece devoted to her father, mother, and sister. (This structure works so well you want to pass a law requiring all memoirs to do the same.) And how she can write. Here's a taste: "Our hallway was the color of ballpark mustard. The living room was cocoa, my mother's wall-to-wall, iceberg green. The floor of the lobby was maroon-and-white terrazzo like Genoa salami. When our elevator went self-service, the wood was replaced by enameled walls that looked like Russian dressing, the lumpy pink kind our housekeeper, Mattie, made by lightly folding Hellmann's mayonnaise into Heinz ketchup with a fork."

Compared to Volk's full-of-life family, most of our families look a little colorless. Every one of her relatives seemed to have an unusual claim to fame. Consider the following:

  • Great-grandfather Sussman brought pastrami to the New World.
  • Great-uncle Albert was the first man to stir scallions into cream cheese.
  • Grandfather Herman, who went on to have 14 restaurants, was the first man to carve roast beef in a restaurant window.
  • Grandfather Jacob Volk built his house on the land he won in a card game from Mayor Jimmy Walker.
  • Her mother was a look-alike for Lana Turner.
  • And her handsome father actually invented the Six-Color Rectractable Pen and Pencil Set.
Everyone in the family galaxy was a star in some way, including Aunt Gertie who had perfect posture, Uncle Hank who tried to escape the Nazis on skis, and Granny Ethel who "braked with such finesse it was impossible to tell the moment the car went from moving to a stop." Did I forget Aunt Ruthie? She made the front page of the New York Daily News after she was held hostage at gunpoint for seven hours by a maniac who ate all her plums and three nectarines before the police secured her release in exchange for two cigarettes.

The publisher's blurb on this book says that being with this family is "a trip to the spa, a balm to the soul, a double martini." Readers don't always trust blurbs, for good reason, but guess what? This time, it's absolutely right. (Fall 2001 Selection)

Phillip Lopate
This funny, heartbreaking book is good enough to eat. A whole lost world is conjured up here, with a vitality and love of daily life that has no time for sentimentality.
Katharine Weber
Stuffed is a marvelously evocative portrait of a nearly lost New York sensibility. Reading it made me miss my grandmother and the lunch counters of my childhood. Patricia Volk's sharp, personal memoir is a celebration of family characters who could inhabit the fictions of Philip Roth or Saul Bellow. And like the very best sort of novel, Stuffed is both hilarious and deeply moving.
Sidney Offit
What Marcel Proust did for the madeleine, Patricia Volk has achieved for Mattie's chocolate cake, Morgen's seasoning salt, Grandma's chicken fricassee–and Patricia Volk provides the recipes. This inspired journal through family history, as Proust's masterpiece, treats the reader to the re-creation of an era, with brilliantly observed details of dress, menu, manners, commerce and psychological mishigas. Cheers for Stuffed, a four star, gourmet memoir.
Jennifer Belle
A moving feast. Volk's life is an entertaining dinner party with hilarious guests around the table, and for the main course: the most beautiful and passionate account of a woman's love for her father that I have ever read.
Eli Zabar
Had I only known what was for dinner at Patty Volk's house, back when we were classmates at P.S. 9, I surely would have followed her home from school. Stuffed is a hilarious but fearless look at a fascinating family–a funny book that will break your heart.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin
In Patty Volk's inimitable memoir, eccentricity is the norm, food is as abundant as love, and every family member is an adorable lunatic. Stuffed is that perfect literary meal: it leaves you utterly satisfied, yet hungry for more.
Publishers Weekly
In a restaurant family "[y]ou're never full, you're stuffed," says Volk (White Light). But her delightful memoir is not so much about food as about family "your very own living microcosm of humanity, with its heroes and victims and martyrs and failures, beauties and gamblers, hawks and lovers, cowards and fakes, dreamers, its steamrollers, and the people who quietly get the job done." In a series of vignettes remarkable for their humor and insight, she portrays her father's father, Jacob Volk, who invented the wrecking ball and made a fortune in the demolition business; her mother's father, Herman Morgen, who opened a sandwich shop on Broadway and eventually owned 14 restaurants in New York City; and her mother, grandmothers, aunts and uncles. There's plenty of eccentricity Uncle Al slept with Aunt Lil for 11 years, then didn't want to marry her because she wasn't a virgin; Aunt Ruthie gave a burglar who took her hostage in her Bronx apartment a meal and a lecture. But the real charm of the book is in Volk's evocative descriptions of everyday life in a Jewish family in New York. She works magic with such mundane subjects as a visit to Uncle Al the endodontist, dieting, the housekeeper's cleaning habits, her parents' decision to be cremated. A short description of a sleepover at her grandparents' house speaks pages about Herman Morgen and his wife, Polly; Aunt Ruthie's speech patterns are immortalized in a few choice sentences; a disquisition on handkerchiefs and "hankie behavior" is a small masterpiece. This bighearted book will make readers want to look at their own families with fresh eyes. Photos not seen by PW. (Oct.) Forecast: Expect healthy sales, especially with a first serial inO. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Volk comes from a fascinating family: one member created an innovative way of demolishing skyscrapers; another brought pastrami to the United States; and many helped in the restaurant business. Each chapter of this audiobook is named for a specific food related to a family member, or, in the case of chocolate cake, the maid who helped raise Volk and her sister, Joanne. Listeners will be able to see the love and respect the author has for her family and her heritage. Those looking for a tale of the business or for recipes will have to look elsewhere. Reader Barbara Rosenblat starts out slowly but eventually warms to her task. Several things mar this presentation, however: a large chunk of the first and last cassettes contains reviews of the book; the dust jacket description is repeated at the beginning and at the end of the production; instead of having Rosenblat announce the start and end of tapes, there is an annoying female voice that jars; and, finally, the packaging is very flimsy and will not last in the library for more than a few checkouts. That said, this audiobook will find a home in Jewish history, New York history, and biography collections.-Danna Bell-Russel, Library of Congress Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
: “Taut, sharp... Vibrantly textured. . . . Volk has a gift for seeing the world in a grain of salt.” —The New York Times Book Review

“This funny, hearbreaking book is good enough to eat. A whole lost world is conjured up here, with a vitality and love of daily life that has no time for sentimentality.” –Philip Lopate

“My nominee for Book of the Year. . . It’s funny, it’s affecting, it’s wise, it’s New York, it’s close to the bone, it’s wonderfully well-written. Above all, it’s about how a real family functions." –Michael M. Thomas, The New York Observer

"The message of Volk's loopy, generous memoir, Stuffed, is that there is no such thing as too much food or too much feeling. . . . Stuffed is just what a good restaurant meal should be–soaked in atmosphere, full of strong flavors, handsome on the plate." —Los Angeles Times

“Unnervingly delightful. . . . In these gorgeous, generous pages . . . the sweetness never ends. ” –The Miami Herald

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375411069
  • Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/1/1901
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 6.04 (w) x 8.68 (h) x 1.04 (d)

Meet the Author

Patricia Volk is the author of the memoir Stuffed; the novels To My Dearest Friends and White Light; and two collections of short stories, All it Takes and The Yellow Banana. She has published stories, book reviews, and essays in dozens of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, New York, The New Yorker and Playboy. She was a weekly columnist for New York Newsday, and she lives in New York.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

what we ate

Our hallway was the color of ballpark mustard. The living room was cocoa, my mother's wall-to-wall, iceberg green. The floor of the lobby was maroon-and-white terrazzo, like Genoa salami. When our elevator went self-service, the wood was replaced by enameled walls that looked like Russian dressing, the lumpy pink kind our housekeeper, Mattie, made by lightly folding Hellmann's mayonnaise into Heinz ketchup with a fork. Daisies were the fried eggs of flowers, gladioli the asparagus. We were a restaurant family, four generations in a six-block radius. When you opened our fridge, food fell on your feet.

The restaurant was at 141 West Thirty-eighth Street, in the heart of the garment center.

Designers, models, and buyers buzzed in, looked each other over, and stopped by tables to say, "Hey there!" or "How long you in town?" They dressed to show what they were capable of. "Sir!" Dad said with a military snap, flaring open your menu. He'd pull your chair and straighten your salt and pepper shakers whether you were Pauline Trigère or not. "Gus!" He'd raise a finger. "Ice water at twenty!" He set a hard party rhythm. He table-hopped. He had a story for you. On the floor, because he was so tall, he floated above hunched diners and waltzing waiters wearing red weskits he designed.

The garment center was a ghost town on weekends, so Saturdays Dad worked half a day. Late in the afternoon he'd come home hoisting a corrugated carton on his shoulder precision-packed with two pounds of sliced turkey breast, sliced ham, sliced Swiss, a side of bacon cut into rashers, fat-marbledsteaks wrapped like presents in waxed paper, a rack of lamb, round white cardboard containers filled with number 20 shrimps (twenty to the pound), almond crescents, strawberry tarts glazed with strawberry gelatin, brown bags of Vassilaros Brothers coffee, whole smoked fish the color of my grandmother's bangle bracelets, and Danish butter strip sold directly from the store to Nedick's, the only product Nedick's bought retail. Melons, string beans, celery like trees, cauliflower as big as the moon, pigs' feet in aspic, and a glass jar of pickled green tomatoes. A quart of Russian dressing, a quart of Roquefort, a pint of cocktail sauce. A brace of mahogany ducks with a quart container of Sauce Montmorency. And a quart of my father's famous Swedish mustard sauce:

1.Take equal parts Dusseldorf mustard and sugar

2.Add a little bit of oil and chopped chives

Those were the basics.

"Are you sick?" my mother would ask if I left a scrap from a twelve-ounce Delmonico. You weren't considered fed unless you were in pain. The more somebody loved you, the more they wanted you to eat. In a restaurant family, you're never hungry, you're starving. And you're never full, you're stuffed. When anyone rose from the table without a two-handed boost, my grandmother wailed, "Please, God, don't let him have gallbladder!"

I couldn't walk down the street without running into someone whose hand-me-downs I wore, or who wore mine, or whose house I ate at, or someone I was glad to see even if it was only Nick the Popsicle Man, or Jimmy the old doorman, or Pat the building driver who chauffeured us the two blocks to school on days it snowed. Between Eighty-first Street and Eighty-seventh, from Riverside Drive to West End Avenue, my aunts and uncles lived, along with my great-grandparents, grandparents, friends, and even Benny, the man who sold penny candy, sunflower seeds, chewable lips, and tiny wax bottles filled with sugar syrup my sister told me would automatically fill up again if I could just touch the bottom of one with a bobby pin and not break it-an impossible thing to do.

Morgen's was the restaurant, but we called it the store. It was the place I was a princess. Waiters winked at me. They plucked the white linen napkin from under my fork, twirled it high in the air, then draped it over my lap. They nodded when I ordered, admiring my choices. They told me jokes. And when I asked for a hamburger, my grandfather would raise his forearm, then smash through the kitchen in door and grind a steak himself. On a good week I'd see my father twice: Saturday afternoon, when he got back from the store. And Sunday, our day. My sister and I would race to his bed, then snuggle. We'd kiss his cheeks. He'd suck our earlobes, then turn to my mother and say, "Audrey, I think this needs a little salt!" He'd press the soles of his feet against our stomachs and straighten his legs, and we'd be in the air, "Flying Angels." Then Dad would drive us to woods, find a snake, and skin it. Or dissect a chicken in the kitchen and explain how the pebbles in its crop worked. Or we'd take the car to the Coney Island Freak Show and gape at the Walrus Woman, the Leopard Lady, and the Human Bullet, who was bald and had no arms and typed with his toes. We'd eat pink cotton candy on paper cones, then throw it up on the Tilt-a-Whirl. Starving, we'd head for dinner at Charda's, Luchow's, or the Maharajah Room at The Pierre. Before fusion cooking, before Austro-Asian, Afro-Shtetl, and Thai-Inuit hit New York, most restaurants focused on the food of a single country. In fancy places, it was served by people in regional costumes, and you were serenaded with "Oh, Chichorneya," "Allez-vous En," or "The Mexican Hat Dance." You'd have to eat, listen, and smile while someone plinked a balalaika at you. If I misbehaved in the restaurant, my mother would walk me outside to where the car was parked and lock me in until the meal was over. I would breathe against the window and write words in my wet breath: ass, bitch, whore. When I got home, I would take out my Christmas Book, a small spiral notebook with a list of everyone I made presents for. I'd draw a black tree next to my mother's name, which meant one more Christmas she wouldn't get a gift.

"What did I do that was so bad I had to be locked in a car?" I ask my sister.

"You were . . . oppositional," she says, then adds with a voice full of sorrow, "I forgot about that."

At the height of her anger, the apex of her rage, my mother used to say she was sending us to Mrs. Brown's Orphanage.

"I don't believe you," I'd say.

"Is that so?" She'd pick up the phone and dial a number. My sister and I would listen in on the extension.

"Hello?" a woman's voice said.

"Hello, Mrs. Brown? This is Mrs. Volk, and my terrible daughters are acting up again."

"Oh really, Mrs. Volk?"

"Yes. Can I drop them at the orphanage tomorrow?"

Mrs. Brown would say why certainly, she had two empty beds, she'd be delighted to have us the very next day.

Although my sister was older, she'd burst into tears. She'd promise to be good. I was ready to go to Mrs. Brown's. If my mother didn't want me, I didn't want her. In my sixth-grade autograph book she wrote:

If all your friends desert you

Pray don't look for another

But come to the one who loves you best

Your dearest friend, your mother

Years later she told us her old friend Ruth Kahn had played the part of Mrs. Brown.

We were allowed to stare at freaks on Coney Island because they expected to be stared at. It was how they made a living. Staring at them was good for us. It would reinforce how lucky we were by sensitizing us to chance. But there were people in our neighborhood we had to pretend we didn't see. The Tongue Lady had a green tongue that hung down her chest then rolled up fast as a lizard's. On Broadway, the Glass Man had no legs and made music by tapping a spoon against eight glasses filled with graduated heights of water. One block north, the Organ Grinder seemed normal enough, but you could see every bone on his balding monkey. You gave the man whatever you had so the monkey wouldn't starve. The most terrifying person in the neighborhood was the Black Widow. She ate lunch at Schrafft's every day, a woman the size of a nine-year-old in turn-of-the-century widow's weeds. Her black boots laced above her ankles. Her skin was talcum white. She ate without taking off her broad-brimmed hat and veil. If she caught you staring, the Black Widow would raise the veil and spit at you.

Because it was only one block from my grandmother's apartment, we also ate at the Tip Toe Inn. When World War II was over, the day Uncle Bob got back from four and a half years on Saipan, that's where my grandparents took him for his first civilian meal. Four and a half years my grandmother wouldn't allow flowers in her apartment. Four and a half years my grandfather was retired from the restaurant business, refusing to buy black-market meat while his boy was overseas.

Uncle Bob studied the menu. He ordered turkey with stuffing, then took in the scene. The Tip Toe Inn was busy. People ate there all the time. They came at three in the afternoon for dinner because you could get the same meal at lunchtime prices. It was the kind of place you heard people eat and saw people talk. Uncle Bob looked around. For four and a half years he'd lived in foxholes. And here were people eating and laughing at the Tip Toe Inn. Uncle Bob raised his water glass, then put it down. His shoulders shook. Tears hit the table. Without a word my grandparents rose from their seats, linked their arms through his, and walked him home.

Since my mother knew how to cook only scrambled eggs and bacon, on Mattie's night off we'd eat at her mother's. I'd walk there straight from school and watch Lilly Brebner, the Jamaican housekeeper, singe quills off juicy nine-pound neutered roosters called capons on a gas stove. Seated around Nana's table would be my great-grandparents; my grandfather; Nana's older sister, Aunt Gertie, and Gertie's son, Wally; her younger sister, Aunt Ruthie, and Aunt Ruthie's husband, Uncle Albert; her older brothers, Uncle Jerry and Uncle Al; Uncle Bob and Aunt Barbara; and since somebody had to be at the store, my mother and my sister and me, but not my father.

At these meals my grandmother would force-feed my grandfather: "Eat, Herman, eat!" she'd beg. "Eat for me!" He'd throw his hands up: "No! Not another bite!" But despite his protests-"I can't!" "Polly, you're killing me!" "Gutenyu, I'm dying!"-she would drop another chosen morsel on his plate. The oyster of the capon, a clot of buttered toasted almonds from the string beans, the orphaned strawberry on the shortcake platter, a crimp of piecrust glossy with caramelized apple juice. "Eat! You don't eat enough! A man like you! You work so hard! Just the end piece, darling? For me, Herman, please?"

My grandfather was being fattened. It was painful to watch. I worked up the courage to complain about it. "You don't understand." My mother smiled. "He loves it. He wants that food. He wouldn't eat it if she didn't do that. He would never give himself the best part."

Not too long ago my sister and mother flew into town for the day. We planned to go to the Russian Tea Room for pelmeny (Russia's tiny veal-filled answer to the wonton), then catch a matinee. I made the reservation for noon. When we got to the restaurant, the line was out the door.

"We're never going to make curtain," my mother said.

"I really want that pelmeny," my sister said.

I pushed my way to the maitre d' and explained the situation. I reminded him we had a reservation.

"I'm sorry." He shrugged. "There's nothing I can do."

"You see that woman?" I pointed to my mother. She was wearing a black cape with batwings and a high collar. It was chic, but it threw her gorgeous face into ghoulish shadow and made her neck disappear. "That woman was just released today. Right before we came here. She expected to be seated at noon. I can't vouch for what she'll do if she's not seated now."

The waters parted. We were whisked to a table. Three waiters pulled our chairs. The service was flawless. All of us agreed the pelmeny used to be better. As we were leaving, my mother turned to me and said, "What did you say to the maitre d'?"

"I told him you were just released, Ma."

She laughed, not believing me.

On long Sunday trips in our red convertible, we'd stop at Howard Johnson's, where I had the clam roll. My sister and I sat in the back, but my mother would let me climb over if I said I was carsick. I'd press my feet against my father's thigh and drop my head in her lap, and she'd run her fingers through my short, curly hair, starting at the back of my neck. "My favorite place," she called the hollow there. I'd fall asleep to Lamont Cranston on the radio, the briny smell of tartar sauce on my fingers, and the sound of my mother whispering to my father, "Doesn't she have gorgeous hair?"


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Copyright 2001 by Patricia Volk
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First Chapter

WHAT WE ATE

Our hallway was the color of ballpark mustard. The living room was cocoa, my mother’s wall-to- wall, iceberg green. The floor of the lobby was maroon-and-white terrazzo, like Genoa salami. When our elevator went self-service, the wood was replaced by enameled walls that looked like Russian dressing, the lumpy pink kind our housekeeper, Mattie, made by lightly folding Hellmann’s mayonnaise into Heinz ketchup with a fork. Daisies were the fried eggs of flowers, gladioli the asparagus. We were a restaurant family, four generations in a six-block radius. When you opened our fridge, food fell on your feet.

The restaurant was at 141 West Thirty-eighth Street, in the heart of the garment center. Designers, models, and buyers buzzed in, looked each other over, and stopped by tables to say, “Hey there!” or “How long you in town?” They dressed to show what they were capable of. “Sir!” Dad said with a military snap, flaring open your menu. He’d pull your chair and straighten your salt and pepper shakers whether you were Pauline Trigère or not. “Gus!” He’d raise a finger. “Ice water at twenty!” He set a hard party rhythm. He table-hopped. He had a story for you. On the floor, because he was so tall, he floated above hunched diners and waltzing waiters wearing red weskits he designed.

The garment center was a ghost town on weekends, so Saturdays Dad worked half a day. Late in the afternoon he’d come home hoisting a corrugated carton on his shoulder precision-packed with two pounds of sliced turkey breast, sliced ham, sliced Swiss, a side of bacon cut into rashers, fat-marbled steaks wrapped like presents in waxed paper, a rack of lamb, round white cardboard containers filled with number 20 shrimps (twenty to the pound), almond crescents, strawberry tarts glazed with strawberry gelatin, brown bags of Vassilaros Brothers coffee, whole smoked fish the color of my grandmother’s bangle bracelets, and Danish butter strip sold directly from the store to Nedick’s, the only product Nedick’s bought retail. Melons, string beans, celery like trees, cauliflower as big as the moon, pigs’ feet in aspic, and a glass jar of pickled green tomatoes. A quart of Russian dressing, a quart of Roquefort, a pint of cocktail sauce. A brace of mahogany ducks with a quart container of Sauce Montmorency. And a quart of my father’s famous Swedish mustard sauce:

  1. Take equal parts Düsseldorf mustard and sugar
  2. Add a little bit of oil and chopped chives
Those were the basics.

“Are you sick?” my mother would ask if I left a scrap from a twelve-ounce Delmonico. You weren’t considered fed unless you were in pain. The more somebody loved you, the more they wanted you to eat. In a restaurant family, you’re never hungry, you’re starving. And you’re never full, you’re stuffed. When anyone rose from the table without a two-handed boost, my grandmother wailed, “Please, God, don’t let him have gall-bladder!”

I couldn’t walk down the street without running into someone whose hand-me-downs I wore, or who wore mine, or whose house I ate at, or someone I was glad to see even if it was only Nick the Popsicle Man, or Jimmy the old doorman, or Pat the building driver who chauffeured us the two blocks to school on days it snowed. Between Eighty-first Street and Eighty-seventh, from Riverside Drive to West End Avenue, my aunts and uncles lived, along with my great-grandparents, grandparents, friends, and even Benny, the man who sold penny candy, sunflower seeds, chewable lips, and tiny wax bottles filled with sugar syrup my sister told me would automatically fill up again if I could just touch the bottom of one with a bobby pin and not break it -- an impossible thing to do.

Morgen’s was the restaurant, but we called it the store. It was the place I was a princess. Waiters winked at me. They plucked the white linen napkin from under my fork, twirled it high in the air, then draped it over my lap. They nodded when I ordered, admiring my choices. They told me jokes. And when I asked for a hamburger, my grandfather would raise his forearm, then smash through the kitchen IN door and grind a steak himself. On a good week I’d see my father twice: Saturday afternoon, when he got back from the store. And Sunday, our day. My sister and I would race to his bed, then snuggle. We’d kiss his cheeks. He’d suck our earlobes, then turn to my mother and say, “Audrey, I think this needs a little salt!” He’d press the soles of his feet against our stomachs and straighten his legs, and we’d be in the air, “Flying Angels.” Then Dad would drive us to woods, find a snake, and skin it. Or dissect a chicken in the kitchen and explain how the pebbles in its crop worked. Or we’d take the car to the Coney Island Freak Show and gape at the Walrus Woman, the Leopard Lady, and the Human Bullet, who was bald and had no arms and typed with his toes. We’d eat pink cotton candy on paper cones, then throw it up on the Tilt-a-Whirl. Starving, we’d head for dinner at Charda’s, Luchow’s, or the Maharajah Room at The Pierre. Before fusion cooking, before Austro-Asian, Afro-Shtetl, and Thai-Inuit hit New York, most restaurants focused on the food of a single country. In fancy places, it was served by people in regional costumes, and you were serenaded with “Oh, Chichor neya,” “Allez-vous En,” or “The Mexican Hat Dance.” You’d have to eat, listen, and smile while someone plinked a balalaika at you. If I misbehaved in the restaurant, my mother would walk me outside to where the car was parked and lock me in until the meal was over. I would breathe against the window and write words in my wet breath: ASS, BITCH, WHORE. When I got home, I would take out my Christmas Book, a small spiral notebook with a list of everyone I made presents for. I’d draw a black tree next to my mother’s name, which meant one more Christmas she wouldn’t get a gift.

“What did I do that was so bad I had to be locked in a car?” I ask my sister.

“You were...oppositional,” she says, then adds with a voice full of sorrow, “I forgot about that.”

At the height of her anger, the apex of her rage, my mother used to say she was sending us to Mrs. Brown’s Orphanage.

“I don’t believe you,” I’d say.

“Is that so?” She’d pick up the phone and dial a number. My sister and I would listen in on the extension.

“Hello?” a woman’s voice said.

“Hello, Mrs. Brown? This is Mrs. Volk, and my terrible daughters are acting up again.”

“Oh really, Mrs. Volk?”

“Yes. Can I drop them at the orphanage tomorrow?”

Mrs. Brown would say why certainly, she had two empty beds, she’d be delighted to have us the very next day. Although my sister was older, she’d burst into tears. She’d promise to be good. I was ready to go to Mrs. Brown’s. If my mother didn’t want me, I didn’t want her. In my sixth-grade autograph book she wrote:

If all your friends desert you
Pray don’t look for another
But come to the one who loves you best
Your dearest friend, your mother
Years later she told us her old friend Ruth Kahn had played the part of Mrs. Brown.

We were allowed to stare at freaks on Coney Island because they expected to be stared at. It was how they made a living. Staring at them was good for us. It would reinforce how lucky we were by sensitizing us to chance. But there were people in our neighborhood we had to pretend we didn’t see. The Tongue Lady had a green tongue that hung down her chest then rolled up fast as a lizard’s. On Broadway, the Glass Man had no legs and made music by tapping a spoon against eight glasses filled with graduated heights of water. One block north, the Organ Grinder seemed normal enough, but you could see every bone on his balding monkey. You gave the man whatever you had so the monkey wouldn’t starve. The most ter-rifying person in the neighborhood was the Black Widow. She ate lunch at Schrafft’s every day, a woman the size of a nine-year-old in turn-of-the-century widow’s weeds. Her black boots laced above her ankles. Her skin was talcum white. She ate without taking off her broad-brimmed hat and veil. If she caught you staring, the Black Widow would raise the veil and spit at you. Because it was only one block from my grandmother’s apartment, we also ate at the Tip Toe Inn. When World War II was over, the day Uncle Bob got back from four and a half years on Saipan, that’s where my grandparents took him for his first civilian meal. Four and a half years my grandmother wouldn’t allow flowers in her apartment. Four and a half years my grandfather was retired from the restaurant business, refusing to buy black-market meat while his boy was overseas.

Uncle Bob studied the menu. He ordered turkey with stuffing, then took in the scene. The Tip Toe Inn was busy. People ate there all the time. They came at three in the afternoon for dinner because you could get the same meal at lunchtime prices. It was the kind of place you heard people eat and saw people talk. Uncle Bob looked around. For four and a half years he’d lived in foxholes. And here were people eating and laughing at the Tip Toe Inn. Uncle Bob raised his water glass, then put it down. His shoulders shook. Without a word my grandparents rose from their seats, linked their arms through his, and walked him home.

Since my mother only knew how to cook scrambled eggs and bacon, on Mattie’s night off we’d eat at her mother’s. I’d walk there straight from school and watch Lilly Brebner, the Jamaican housekeeper, singe quills off juicy nine-pound neutered roosters called capons on a gas stove. Seated around Nana’s table would be my great-grandparents; my grandfather; Nana’s older sister, Aunt Gertie, and Gertie’s son, Wally; her younger sister, Aunt Ruthie, and Aunt Ruthie’s husband, Uncle Albert; her older brothers, Uncle Jerry and Uncle Al; Uncle Bob and Aunt Barbara; and since somebody had to be at the store, my mother and my sister and me, but not my father.

At these meals my grandmother would force-feed my grandfather: “Eat, Herman, eat!” she’d beg. “Eat for me!” He’d throw his hands up: “No! Not another bite!” But despite his protests -- “I can’t!” “Polly, you’re killing me!” “Gutenyu, I’m dying!” -- she would drop another chosen morsel on his plate. The oyster of the capon, a clot of buttered toasted almonds from the string beans, the orphaned strawberry on the shortcake platter, a crimp of piecrust glossy with caramelized apple juice. “Eat! You don’t eat enough! A man like you! You work so hard! Just the end piece, darling? For me, Herman, please?”

My grandfather was being fattened. It was painful to watch. I worked up the courage to complain about it. “You don’t understand.” My mother smiled. “He loves it. He wants that food. He wouldn’t eat it if she didn’t do that. He would never give himself the best part.”

Not too long ago my sister and mother flew into town for the day. We planned to go to the Russian Tea Room for pelmeny (Russia’s tiny veal-filled answer to the wonton), then catch a matinee. I made the reservation for noon. When we got to the restaurant, the line was out the door.

“We’re never going to make curtain,” my mother said.

“I really want that pelmeny,” my sister said. I pushed my way to the maître d’ and explained the situation. I reminded him we had a reservation.

“I’m sorry.” He shrugged. “There’s nothing I can do.”

“You see that woman?” I pointed to my mother. She was wearing a black cape with batwings and a high collar. It was chic, but it threw her gorgeous face into ghoulish shadow and made her neck disappear. “That woman was just released today. Right before we came here. She expected to be seated at noon. I can’t vouch for what she’ll do if she’s not seated now.”

The waters parted. We were whisked to a table. Three waiters pulled our chairs. The service was flawless. All of us agreed the pelmeny used to be better. As we were leaving, my mother turned to me and said, “What did you say to the maître d’?”

“I told him you were just released, Ma.”

She laughed, not believing me.

On long Sunday trips in our red convertible, we’d stop at Howard Johnson’s, where I had the clam roll. My sister and I sat in the back, but my mother would let me climb over if I said I was carsick. I’d press my feet against my father’s thigh and drop my head in her lap, and she’d run her fingers through my short, curly hair, starting at the back of my neck. “My favorite place,” she called the hollow there. I’d fall asleep to Lamont Cranston on the radio, the briny smell of tartar sauce on my fingers, and the sound of my mother whispering to my father, “Doesn’t she have gorgeous hair?”

Copyright © 2001 by Patricia Volk

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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Patricia Volk, author of Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family

Q: STUFFED is a book about the importance of family. How would you characterize yours?
A:
My family is ferocious. They chomp life like they chomp brisket. STUFFED is their story— the gamblers, the lovers, the divas and bullies, the beauties, do-gooders and fakes. In a restaurant family, everything that happens takes place over food.

Q: The sub-title of this book is Adventures of a Restaurant Family — what does this mean?
A:
The hallmark of my family is a cosmic disdain for the status quo, a kind of productive absence of peace. Nobody sits back. They live at full emotional tilt, wake up hot to wrestle the day. Whether they’re discovering the wrecking ball, inventing the Six-Colored Retractable Pen and Pencil Set, or being the first man to carve meat in a window, they’re jet-propelled.

Q: Do you have a favorite story?
A:
My great-grandfather, Sussman Volk, brought pastrami to the New World. He'd been a miller in Vilna, but in 1887 New York didn't need millers. So Reb Sussel became a tinker, selling pots and pans off his back. One morning, while praying in a stable, he had an epiphany. He tore his hair and said, "My life lacks dignity!" Being a religious man, he knew how to butcher meat. Reb Sussel opened a small butcher shop at 86 1/2 Delancey Street. One day a Roumanian friend came in and asked if he could store a trunk in Reb Sussel's basement.
"If I let you store your trunk," Reb Sussel said. "What will you give me?"
"If you let me store my trunk, I will give youthe recipe for pastrami."
Sussman sold it by the hunk. Then by the slice. Then he put it between two slices of rye. The first New York deli was born. Around this time, Uncle Albert became the first man to stir scallions into cream cheese.

Q: Your family invented a lot of things that changed America. Have you followed in their footsteps?
A:
When I worked in advertising, Hershey's was coming out with a new candy bar. It was strange — puffed rice layered with sticky penuche rolled in caramel dipped in chocolate. What do you call this crazy thingamajig? I named it Whatchamacallit. I also invented a really good recipe for water, a way to recycle pantyhose with runs in them, and the word "Hoovering" for how eight year old boys eat.

Q: How did you come to write STUFFED?
A:
My family struck me as larger than life, bigger than news. Growing up, I'd heard about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, but how could that love story hold a candle to Aunt Lil, who said she'd throw acid in Uncle Al's face if he ever left her? Or my grandfather, who was so thankful to win my grandmother, he forswore the one food in life he couldn't live without?

Q: Your work illustrates how the relationship between food and family can both bind and cause conflict. Do you think that is normally the case?
A:
As I say in this book, in a restaurant family, you're never hungry, you're starving to death. And you're never full, you're stuffed. Every single bite you put in your mouth is open to scrutiny: Is it good? Why isn't it good? Is it as good as Aunt Gertie's? Is it too salty? Not enough salt? You want some more? Put that fork down now! What you choose to put in your mouth is no longer intimate. It’s not an independent decision. Do I think every family works this way? No. I have friends who grew up on frankfurter stew and whipped cream pie. No one spoke at the table. Food was a non-issue, body fuel.

Q: How is STUFFED a different sort of family memoir than most stories we see on the bookshelves today?
A:
There's no way you can generalize. Maybe it's best to answer by saying what STUFFED is not. It's not about evening the score. It's not about victimization. It's not about hard won wisdom gained via pain. I disagree with Tolstoy only about one thing: Every family, happy or not, is one of a kind. I wrote STUFFED partly out of a fear that family is vanishing. Once we were four generations living in a five-block radius. Now those people are in Honolulu, Arizona and Boca Raton. If I wanted my family around me at dinner, the table would have to be 4,968 miles long. Everything we first know of the world comes from family. How can we learn from people who aren't there?
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Reading Group Guide

1. What is the effect of the contents page? Why does Patricia Volk choose to organize the story of her family history around food? How has growing up in the restaurant business shaped her consciousness?

2. How does Volk’s approach to food differ from that of professional food writers or chefs whose memoirs you might have read? How does this book invite the reader to reflect on his or her own family’s history through its culinary habits? Might it be said that every family has its own unique gastronomic history and identity?

3. Judging from the recipes Volk presents in the book, how would you characterize the foods of her youth? See the restaurant menu on pages 165—66 or the recipes she makes while trying to learn to cook. Is there anything remarkable about these menus and recipes? How does the food appear in light of the last few decades’ emphasis on fresh produce and low-fat meals?

4. What are some of the less appealing aspects of Volk’s family life? How does she learn to be tolerant of people’s habits or defects of character? Does Volk come across as an unusually tolerant and loving person?

5. Can the traits and habits of the extended Volk and Morgen families–extensive connectedness and conversation, regular get-togethers, card-playing evenings, etc., –be found in present-day American families, or does Stuffed describe a way of life that has largely vanished?

6. What role does food play in the author’s relationship with Mattie? How relevant is Mattie’s race to her place in the Volk family, particularly in Patricia Volk’s emotional development?

7. In the chapter called“Hersheyettes, ” Volk reflects upon her relationship with her sister and upon their shared obsession with dieting. Dieting presumes an ideal; what is the ideal to which the sisters feel beholden? Why does Volk decide that if she ever has a daughter, she’ll make sure her daughter isn’t “tyrannized by beauty” [p. 152]?

8. In what ways is Stuffed a book about Jewish life, and how important is the fact that Volk’s family was not religiously observant? How is Jewish identity defined in this memoir? What objects, clothing, and places contribute to a sense of Jewishness for Volk’s family?

9. To what degree does Stuffed express a sense of nostalgia for childhood, for a sheltered existence, and for an earlier time? How realistically does Volk recall the atmosphere of middle-class family life in the middle decades of the twentieth century?

10. See the discussion of the word “piquant, ” or the description of Granny’s V-8 carrot salad [p. 149]. How does Volk reproduce the sensation of eating? What are the challenges inherent in writing about eating?

11. Why, towards the end of the book, does the restaurant close, and what does this say about what has changed in New York City? What might the objects that Volk saves symbolize for her?

12. Why has Volk chosen “Stuffed” as her title? What does it mean to be stuffed? What is the relationship between being satiated and being stuffed? Is there a fine line between being comfortably satisfied and feeling dangerously overindulged?

13. Comment on the book’s structure. What is the time frame, and how often does Volk break with a simple chronological presentation of events? Why does Volk often break the flow of her narrative, or seem to change the subject? What effect does her approach to structure have on the reading experience?

14. Volk reflects, “In a family you don’t come from nowhere. You enter the world already a part of something. . . . Knowing so much about them, how open-hearted can you bear to be? You are born with the chance to love them. You might as well. They’re yours” [pp. 230—31]. How valuable is this piece of advice? How accurately does it sum up Volk’s approach to her own family?

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Sort by: Showing all of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 23, 2006

    Better on Tape

    I had heard snippets of the book on our local library's television station and thought that it was hilarious. I purchased and read the book. I must say that reading the book was okay but not not overly exciting. The hearing it on tape was much better.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2004

    Perfection

    Loved this book. Not only the food and the people but the interesting facts about NYC. Made me hungry for more.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 20, 2004

    DON'T WASTE YOUR MONEY

    this is a rehash of material that others have done much better. Read Ruth Reichl, Laurie Colwin, even Teresa Lust's 'Pass the Polenta.' I love food books and this gives the genre a bad name. A real disappointment.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 19, 2001

    Delicious

    This book is a great read. I was delighted to find that many of her childhood memories are similar to my own. So many of the props were familiar. My father was also an observer of other people's manners, but mostly in the Luby's cafeteria line. I learned more about human behavior in that line every Sunday at noon than at any other time in my life. I didn't want the book to end.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 1, 2001

    a literary must

    Volk dazzles! It is hard after reading such a perfect book to adequately sum up its thorough brilliance my own words. In Stuffed, you will glean lasting images of characters you grow to care about with deep tenderness. And this fondness grows exponentially with each page as Volk introduces you to all the wonderfully complex characters who sit around her dining room table. Through the aperture of food and family, Volk's endearing vibrant words resonate even when you're not reading and make you smile. Life is that much richer after knowing the beauty, love, loyalty, and wild idiosyncrasies that bind her family. I loved with them, I laughed with them, I cried with them, I wanted to know them. It's the kind of book I want my friends to read so they can know them too. Other than praise for the author, all I am left saying is, 'Patricia Volk, can I have seconds?'

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    Posted August 10, 2011

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