The Man Who Came to Dinner


T o me they've always been Arnie and Jean. Well, at least since I was about 10 or so, I think.

Arnold and Jeanie Levine.

In fact, I often took great pleasure in seeing just how appalled their friends could become simply hearing me address my parents by their first names. "No!" Mrs. Berman would scold on mah-jongg night, in the same Jersey Jewish mother drawl they all shared. "That's yaw mu-tha!"

Whenever I tell a story about my mother people always ask, "Is that really how she talks?"

"No," I usually reply. "That's just how I hear her."

So a few weeks ago, while I was back east for the first time in a long time, it seemed only logical to turn my Man Who Came to Dinner eye inward, so to speak, and put the folks in the culinary hot seat.

The Levines still live in the same blue suburban house (Mom's favorite color) in which I was born and raised. I ate my very first dinners there, giving me full license, like virtually every Freudian one of us, to blame my mother for absolutely all that was to follow.

That's right, Mom. I'm a dinner columnist. And who made the Hamburger Helper?

As Mom readied her meal upstairs in the kitchen, I relaxed in the family room listening to Arnie, the ex-councilman and small-town politico, dispense sage analysis on the upcoming presidential primary, NASDAQ ups and downs, and the unmatchable perfection of a Seinfeld rerun. "Shakespeare's comedies," he insisted, "are more idiotic than Three's Company or Laverne & Shirley. They make less sense and are less funny than the two comedies that I consider to be the dumbest shows ever on television. But any three episodes of Barney Miller -- or even Cheers or Seinfeld -- could run on Broadway for years."

My eyes drifted to the wall of shame, where a wonderfully unfortunate portrait of Mom's three boys, taken during her youngest son's most critically awkward stage, hangs. That's me, so, much as I'd love to have you, I'm afraid none of you will be attending a Levine family dinner anytime soon. Heading upstairs I surveyed the more presentable photos: baby picture collages of me and my brothers hanging against the pastel wallpaper -- God, I showed so much promise then -- and the bar mitzvah portraits. What a mensch.

Visiting the house of your youth is like a preview trailer for that movie due to flash in front of your eyes right before you die. The questions come. Have I missed my true calling? Am I wasting my life as a dinner columnist?

Mom's call to my father brought me straight back to grade school. "Arnie! Dinner's ready." I stood and counted to 10 -- just enough time for Arnie to put down the remote, climb the stairs to the kitchen, and call up toward my room, on cue, "Barry! Dinner's ready."

Now, eating one of my mother's dinners, or, more accurately, writing about it, opens up an extra large can of family worms. Of course, I would never dream of suggesting that our evening meals were anything short of spectacular. Spectacularly bland, that is. Now, Mom, look ... well, she's heard it all before. Suffice it to say, Mom lives in a world without flavors. Or more politely: Our tastes diverge. She's not a bad cook; maybe just a minimalist. And I've spent my entire adult life trying to claw my way back up to the land of the seasoned.

To be fair, Jeanie was one of the original working mothers -- first an elementary school teacher, then a travel agency owner -- while always trying to maintain the traditional housewife role, God bless her.

In honor of the press, Jeanie had chosen to prepare a quintessentially Jewish meal. Why, I asked? She never did before, save on the requisite holy days. "Just like a real Jewish family," I remarked sitting down to a table set with gefilte fish appetizers and large bowls of homemade matzo ball soup.

"Just what you don'twant to be," Jeanie beamed, tipping her hand. After watching me reject my faith lo these many years, Mom saw this as a grand opportunity, a chance to force me to declare my Jewishness before all the world.

Matzo balls are always hit or miss. When they're right, it's like eating clouds from heaven. When they're wrong, very little is said throughout the remainder of the meal. Mom hadn't taken any chances this night, preparing the batch days in advance.

Served with blood red horseradish sauce, the gefilte fish had come from a jar. And if you've never tried it, I've found that as long as you avoid reading the list of ingredients, you're in for a pretty tasty treat.

Our main course was brisket, a dish that Mom has prepared weekly, since I was a child, in a big pressure cooker with carrots and potatoes and gravy. On the side she served a cranberry jello mold filled with pineapple and nuts, and an amazing noodle kugel, which is kind of like a sweet cheesy lasagna -- wide noodles baked with layers of cottage cheese and eggs and cream. Yummy.

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