There’s the Rub
A new restaurant prompts a writer to rethink his Jewishness
About a year and a half ago, I saw a blurb announcing the opening of Hill Country, a new restaurant in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. First line: “How’d a nice Jewish boy from Bethesda, Maryland, end up opening a Texas-style barbecue joint?” Being myself a Jewish boy from Bethesda, who certainly tries to maintain a sunny disposition, I read on. The restaurateur’s family, I learned, hailed from Texas; his name, it said, is Marc Glosserman. So, he’s a nice Jewish boy from Bethesda named Marc, with a “c.” Given Bethesda’s demographics, we surely aren’t the only two. But it was enough of a coincidence that I told my mom about it. “Marc Glosserman?” she responded. “That’s your cousin.”
I always knew about my Texas cousins—my great-great-grandparents on my father’s mother’s side arrived from the old country via Galveston—but I had never met any of them, and knew none of their names. My only reminder of their existence was the goofy if endearing birthday card I received each year from the Houston-based Pomerantz Cousins’ Club, of which I was apparently an automatic member.
I also knew that any cousins of mine would have to be Jews, and it was this feature that tripped me up. My Judaism has been the topic sentence in the paragraph of my identity for as long as I was sentient enough to craft one. But my brand of Judaism is specifically, and rigidly, northeastern American. I wouldn’t say I felt superior to Texan Jews, but I did feel estranged from them, as though our shared religious and cultural classification was mere historical coincidence.
After a few visits, I brought my dad to Hill Country, and he duly introduced me to Marc, my third cousin once removed. Marc describes Hill Country as “paying tribute to my family’s Texas roots.” He has embraced this self-appointed task with a zeal that has bled even beyond the restaurant; Marc’s son, born on Hill Country’s opening day, is named Austin. Hill Country is modeled after Kreuz Market, the legendary joint in Lockhart, Texas, where Marc’s father grew up. The restaurant’s only inauthentic touches are the result of environmental and safety regulations that don’t permit, for example, a gigantic open fire pit in the back where customers line up, their faces swallowed by smoke, to get their meat sliced, weighed, and wrapped in butcher paper, as they do at Kreuz. Hill Country has the butcher paper, though, to say nothing of the meat: beer-can chicken; sausages, imported weekly from Kreuz Market; moist brisket that, against all odds and known laws of chemistry, really does seems to melt in your mouth.
Marc went well beyond the meat (which, by the way, is smoked over Texas oak) or the Texas soda, beer, wine, and ice cream in his effort to found a sort of Kreuz Market North. What signs weren’t bought straight from central Texas antique stores were designed by the Lockhart establishment’s sign-maker. Cowboy music, from an endless playlist curated by Marc’s father, plays, except when a country band is jamming downstairs. The walls are adorned with black-and-white photographs of Kreuz Market pitmasters and Lockhart sites.
The lengths to which Marc went to recreate his roots can almost make you doubt his claim to them: at times, it seems, he doth attest too much. One doubts that someone born in Texas would be quite as obsessive. But then you spy one of the photos on the wall: “Glosserman Clothiers,” it says along the side of a building. It’s a picture of the Lockhart shop owned by Marc’s grandfather.
Which means it’s a picture of the shop owned by my—stay with me here—first cousin three times removed. Distant? Sure. But I’m not satisfied with stopping there, or with divorcing the fact of these roots from my conception of my specific Jewishness, which would admittedly be convenient.
So what’s Jewish about Hill Country—Jewish in a way that even I can understand and hold onto? I think the answer lies in something I’ve realized while thinking about what Marc has done. One frequently hears the term “rootless” thrown around to clarify the Jews’ condition as perpetual wanderers, especially as it existed in the pre-Zionist world that brought my family to the States, and some of it to Lockhart. But the example of Hill Country makes me realize that a far better term than “rootless” is “many-rooted.” While usually not assimilating fully, Jews frequently adopted the mores of the culture surrounding them, executing a process of replication whose intensity, earnestness, and fidelity to detail would be familiar to anyone who knows about Torah study, or to anyone who has been to Hill Country.
“Had my grandparents been alive when I came up with this idea, they probably would’ve been scratching their heads—‘Why in the world would you wanna do that?’” Glosserman told me. But the proof is in the White Shoepeg Corn Pudding: Bethesdan or not, Jewish or not, these are his roots, as he understands them. “I remember my grandmother would go and she’d just get five pounds of brisket, ten links of sausage, and get this huge piece of butcher paper, and she’d put it on the table for everybody,” Marc remembers of childhood visits to Lockhart, and his expression as he says this, the way his eyes turn upwards as though he is looking backwards in time, tells you what you need to know.
Nothing uniquely Jewish in that: despite how it sometimes feels, ours is not the only food-obsessed culture. But the brashness and audacity required to locate your childhood not where you physically grew up, but where your self-defined heritage is, and then to go to somewhat outrageous lengths to recreate it in a place as culturally far removed from your heart’s home as could be, strikes me as indelibly and unmistakably Jewish. As Jewish as, well, my mother’s brisket.