The swank bar was filled with literary hotshots and hopefuls, all of them trying to distinguish themselves from the latter or pass themselves off as the former. I’d already begun sweating. I was nearly 30, but I had yet to publish a book, write for the New York Times, or strike anything off the long list of accomplishments I’d expected to achieve by now.
My eyes landed on a familiar person, an author who specialized in cultish topics. He was wet and alone, just as I was, and we began to chat. He was working on a book about food—a topic I knew I could handle. A half hour later another successful young author joined in, along with a columnist I’d worked with. Soon the host of the event joined the conversation as well and with him, an up-and-coming literary agent. We discussed restaurants and my confidence grew.
“Have you been to ABC Kitchen?”
The agent asked me about the pretzel-dusted calamari and roast suckling pig. I’d had both. He mentioned that he was looking for a great new Italian spot. He liked Scarpetta. I told him I’d had better. The two writers had been to Babbo and Marea—and so had I. The agent countered with some of his favorites. Had I been to Lupa, Momofuku Ko, Dovetail? I’d been to all of these restaurants. Dovetail was right after college. I remembered the succulent black sea bass with peas and turnips and how it was oddly paired with a conversation about why I could never seem to find a Jewish girlfriend.
Because of course as a young, struggling writer, the prices at these swanky Manhattan restaurants were far out of my reach. So, while I was I actively using my experiences eating at these restaurants to keep myself a part of the conversation, I left out one very important detail: I’d only ever been to any of these restaurants with my parents.
This was not the kind of detail I wanted to share at a professional networking event, not something I wanted these authors, agents, and publishers to know. And perhaps, I realized, if this was something I was embarrassed to share, then I needed to make a change. I did not want to be 30 years old and dependent on Mom and Dad when it came to eating well.
Food is part of our collective Jewish history. We’ve kvetched over manna during particularly long stretches of desert roaming. We’ve dined in secret and in quiet while hiding from enemies. Our holidays revolve around meals, around delaying the gratification of meals, around the stories we tell during meals. We take special care to include children in the mealtime narrative, to ask questions. It’s how we learn to socialize. If something of import is to happen, we expect there to be a meal to punctuate that importance—and not always a home-cooked meal.
Many of us grew up with parents who shared financial responsibility. For most of us, having a parent who cooks elaborate and comforting meals wasn’t lost entirely, but eating out also became a built-in part of family bonding. My mother cooks a mean brisket, but she also has a career. For the modern Jewish family with two working parents, “giving Mom a night off” became less a playfully kind gesture, reserved for special events and celebrations, and more a crucial break the sake of familial sanity—another kind of Sabbath.
In a lot of ways we’re an archetypal East Coast Jewish family: two lawyer parents in the suburbs with grown-up kids who live in the city while they’re pursuing careers in the arts. For my mother and father, nice dinners are the currency of success, the way they most enjoy rewarding themselves for hard work, and how we bond as a family. We would go out to celebrate a settled court case or a good grade. We went out after long stretches of Mom and Dad working late. We went out because it was Christmas Eve and everything except Chinese was closed. When I left the predominantly Catholic Italian New Jersey neighborhood I grew up in, I learned that how common this is among East Coast Jewish families: We eat dinner in the city. It’s how we celebrate, how we mourn, even how we convalesce. It’s the forum through which we share our lives.
As kids, my sister and I dreaded staying quiet and keeping our napkins folded on our laps, hoping our parents would pay in cash so we could leave faster. We whined as we waited an extra hour driving into the city to break the Yom Kippur fast at a restaurant mom read about in New York magazine. As a teen, I scoffed because I’d been vegan for two whole months and nothing on the steakhouse menu suited my diet. I resented finding my napkin re-folded on the table when I returned for the bathroom. To me it represented “the system,” everything about society I wanted to reject: the over-abundance, the decadence, the ties. New York City had head shops, tattoo parlors, and CBGB’s, and I was stuck inside Palm Too with a bunch of men in suits.
Six years later, my younger sister and I had finished college and were both living in New York City. She was on her way to a career as a casting agent, and I was learning that “being a writer” wasn’t as easy a career path as I’d hoped. Living in Brooklyn in a shared loft with seven roommates and selling concessions at a movie theater, I changed my attitude about dinners with my family.
I came to covet these meals, and for obvious reasons: I was hungry! My palate had developed enough to appreciate the creamy appeal of a nice burrata, but my bank account hadn’t matured as quickly. Meeting the folks for dinner rescued me from my un-heated, un-air-conditioned apartment for a few hours. Sitting across from my mom at Maialino, sucking down carbonara, provided an escape.
But those free dinners came with a price. I remember looking over the menu at Dovetail, trying to choose between a rich pork dish and the black sea bass. It was a rare moment of contentment. With a few articles published, I seemed finally to be on the right track professionally. Then the conversation shifted to a wedding announcement in that day’s paper about a kid I went to Solomon Shechter with. He was marrying a nice Jewish girl and had a steady job at Goldman Sachs. My mom suddenly suggested I consider using J-Date. The word “grandchildren” was muttered. I skipped dessert.
As I got older, I worried about how much I’d yet to achieve, and how much these meals re-enforced my self-doubt. Three years ago at Tailor, even as the black-garlic chicken entranced my tongue with notes of coffee and sugar cane, I found myself looking over at the swank bar, scared I might see an editor sitting there having drinks as I waited for my mom to pick up the check.
Then, in the midst of my pity party, my mother told my sister and me why she had taken us out to this dinner: to tell us that she had breast cancer.
Over the next few months, as my mom underwent chemotherapy, dinners were rare. The fear of losing her, of not knowing how to help, made me feel more like a child than I could remember feeling. My mom beat the cancer, but the time she took off of work to heal, combined with the recession, hit my parents harder then I realized, and the worst had yet to come. In near domino succession, my mother lost her father and sister to cancer and soon after, her mother became sick as well. She’d been a rock for my sister and me, helping us become adults. Being there for her now was our chance to show her that it had taken hold.
In the year leading up to my 30th birthday, we rarely had dinners out as a family. I tried to be home as much as possible, to help out any way I could. Professionally I’d had ups and downs. The paper I’d been writing for regularly ended its 20-year run, and freelance work was drying up, but I’d finished writing my first novel, and, thanks to the party where I’d finally successfully networked, I now had an agent, the same one with whom I’d spent the evening talking restaurants. But I was still concerned. How could I be almost 30 and unable to afford to go out to a nice restaurant on my own?
Improving the quality of the meals I did pay for represented to me my own slow but sure growth. Springing for a great burger at Dumont Burger instead of McDonald’s after getting a paycheck became my own personal point of pride. My small steps in the right direction were manifesting themselves on the plate.
We went out to dinner at ABC Kitchen as a family for my birthday. During dessert, over a popcorn-and-caramel sundae, my mom made a speech. She said she was proud of me for pursuing a goal that was hard won, for taking the less-traveled path. She said she’d seen me grow over the past few years and that she’d worried for me, but that I was exactly where I needed to be.
If the room were filled with every high-powered agent and editor in the city, it wouldn’t have mattered. This was the place where we got honest. We weren’t a super-affectionate family that hugged wildly, kissed faces, and made big emotional gestures. We didn’t check in each day. This was the place where we were ourselves. I could fake it everywhere else in the world, but not here. Not over a family dinner.
The agent called later that night. In the three months since the networking event, he’d become a friend, and talking about food had become our regular opener. He asked about the meal at ABC Kitchen. Maybe it was the wine or ice-cream buzz, but something left me with the feeling that I didn’t have to fake it anymore.
“To be honest, all the nice restaurants I’ve been to,” I confessed, “I’ve never gone to any of them without my parents. I’m too broke.”
He laughed and said, “In this city, who can afford it?” Then he added, “Let’s grab dinner next week and talk about your book.”
I asked where we’d go.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Nothing fancy.”
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