Thursday, August 24, 2006

Schmaltz Monger signs in with today's installment

Slinging Hash in the Borscht Belt

All the other college kids had fancy-schmancy jobs working on Wall Street or at Uncle Mordechai's furrier. Me, I waited tables in the Borscht Belt.

Waiters would crowd into the "bimmy" quarters--rooms that the hotels set aside for summer waitstaff and were only marginally nicer than a cinderblock dorm room. But hey--bimmy rooms were free, leaving us to save our wages on more prudent purchases such as school tuition, drunken nightclub excursions and Sunday night pizza at Crossroads. When I had a good station, I could rake in $350 to $500 a week in cash tips. Mind you, this was thirty years ago, so those were some pretty serious shekels.

Catskills Characters

We had our share of charactes in every station: kvetchy diners, alter-kockers who had downed too much schnapps, comedians. One I'll never forget was Death Grip Granny. Kind old Granny bemoaned her arthritis and her lack of strength, but G-d help the waiter who tried to clear Granny's plate before she was finished. Granny would grab your forearm with a grip that could crush a coconut and smile, "I'm not done with that yet, Sweetie!" Once you dropped her plate, she released her grip and you would scamper away with an arm that looked like it had a run-in with a meat tenderizer.

Comedians such as Henny Youngman and Buddy Hackett were headliners in the hotels, but some of the wildest entertainment came from the waiters themselves. One "bimmy" would retire to his room to enjoy a baked potato with butter. But he didn't actually eat them together. He would take a bite of the potato in one hand and then take a bite of a stick of butter he wielded in his other hand. Potato bite, butter bite. Potato bite, butter bite. It was like watching the cast of "Young Frankenstein" break for lunch.

After a couple months of this, all the bimmies would hanker for Labor Day Weekend, when the resort season was almost over and the blood-curdling cries of, "Where's my kreplach??" would soon cease. Of course, we came back during the High Holidays and school breaks to earn money and nosh on chopped liver in the hotel kitchens.

So maybe it wasn't Wall Street. But it was a blast. High finance? Gimme high cholesterol anytime.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Can I hold up my pants with a Borscht Belt?

Maybe, if you top it with some sour cream.

O.K., wisenheimers, it's time for an explanation. The Borscht Belt is not what you wear when you can't find your Borscht Suspenders. Nestled in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, the Borscht Belt is a resort town where Jews from the 1940's forward schlepped to escape sweltering summer heat and enjoy comedy schtick, camaraderie, and yes, the Russian soup known as "borscht." Hence the name.

Borscht is a soup made from beets and spices, often served cold and topped with a dollop of sour cream. In fact, the only thing better than a bowl of borscht is the herring that's served alongside it. Fish and dairy meals were popular mealtime fare in the Borscht Belt, where comedians such as Henny Youngman, Jack Benny, Milton Berle and others plied their schtick.

A thousand miles from Iowa

Here in the Borscht Belt, you'll find more corn than in the Midwestern grain fields. This corn grows onstage in the form of corny jokes. "Take my wife. Please!" was the famous refrain of Borscht Belt regular Henny Youngman. Or this gem, "Honey, this food is fit for a king. Here, King! Here, King!" Typically, the jokes centered on the wife's (or the mother's) cooking, which, if not for a plate of schmaltz Herring served up at Grossinger's, the patrons would be probably kvetching over instead.

Like the stench from leftover fish, Borscht Belt comedy stays with us today. For proof of this, look no further than the TV show "Seinfeld and the quartet of characters who, while individually annoying, throw up some serious schtick--more often than not, when congregated over food.

Skinny-as-a-bird Jerry stocks his shelves with myriad cereal boxes to sate Kramer, who barges in to schnorr a snack whenever the mood strikes. "Just make yourself at home, Kramer!" Jerry sneers at Kramer, who needs no invitation. And then there's the prototypical nebbish George Costanza, who craves food so much that he gets the mid-coitus munchies and reaches for a pastrami sandwich while shtupping his girlfriend. "Oh, George! Oh, George!" his girlfriend wails while Georgie Boy peers out from the sheets in search of his rye bread fix.

I'm sure the Borscht Belt comedy was just as ribald, if not more so--Schmaltz Monger will have to chime in on this subject, as he used to wait tables in the Borscht Belt's heyday. He's got some real megillahs to tell us.

This Soup Isn't Funny

Nu, so you want a taste now? O.K., here we go...

Mr. Finkelman goes into his favorite Lower East Side restaurant and sits down at the counter. A waiter comes over and sets down a bowl of soup in front of Finkelman.

Finkelman peers disapprovingly at the soup and beckons to the waiter. "Waiter! Taste this soup."

"Sir, is there a problem?" the waiter asks.

"Taste the soup." Finkelman insists.

"But what's the problem?"

"Taste the soup!!" Finkelman repeats.

"But Mr. Finkelman, " the waiter wails. "You've been eating here for thirty years! Has there ever been a problem with the soup?"

"TASTE THE SOUP!!!" Finkelman blurts.

"O.K., all right already," the waiter says. "Where's the spoon?"

Finkelman shoults triumphantly "Ah-ha!!!"

Oh, I forgot to tell you--they served a lot of schmaltz there too.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

We combine a love of food with a keen sense of the absurd. Stay tuned...