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Friday, August 05, 2011

The Pickles from Sammy's

It happened in 2000 or 2001. I had read in a newspaper about a Romanian restaurant in Manhattan. It was Sammy's Roumanian Steakhouse, some place in the Lower East Side. That sounded great to me, I was very curious how a Romanian restaurant would look like there, in New York. A restaurant with a lot of Romanian customers, with all personnel speaking Romanian, with Romanian cuisine, and Romanian music.

So I went there one evening with a friend. We got down from the subway at Grand Street and walked a couple of blocks, The place was in the basement of an old building on Christie Street.

We entered and a young waitress led us to a table. I asked her if she knew Romanian. No, she didn't. Well, I said rather amused, but this is a Romanian restaurant. No, answered the waitress, this is a Jewish restaurant with Romanian cuisine. Romanian and, well, East-European.

I was new in New York by that time and I didn't know that Romanian restaurants were to be found only in Queens. In Manhattan, Romanian restaurant was just kind of a code name, for a Jewish restaurant featuring a cuisine of Romanian style rather than Romanian cuisine: obviously frequented by Jewish people originary from Romania and generally from Eastern Europe.

I looked around, the atmosphere was nice. The customers were at least in their forties, there were two or three family celebrations, everybody was in good spirits. A rather old musician was singing some melodies that were coming from the 1920's or 1930's.

Each table had on it a small plate with pickles and near the table stood an icing bucket with a siphon inside. The whole smelled somehow as Bucharest, rather as a small family restaurant in the Bucharest of the first decades of the twentieth century. Well, it was Bucharest and it wasn't. I would name such a restaurant rather a klezmer place.

I looked at the menu, they had all kind of good stuff that I liked, small sausages for instance, made of garlicky ground beef (they were named in the menu Karnatzlack), or chopped liver made with rendered chicken (Schmaltz in the Lower East Side parlance), garnished with fried onion and radishes, or stuffed cabbage, but their flagship meal so to speak was the Roumainian Tenderloin (it was spelled that way), and Roumainian Tenderloin we ordered, along with a bottle of red wine.

I went to the musician and asked him whether he knew Romanian, at least a tiny bit. He didn't. I observed that I was the only Romanian speaker in that Romanian restaurant. The musician smiled and as I was going back at my table he announced that Sammy's was in that evening truly international: there was even a Romanian guest! Everybody turned to look at me, while the musician started singing a Romanian melody, Sanie cu zurgalai!

It was great that evening at Sammy's and I found today on the Internet a comment about the place: a comment that seems to me very appropriate, it is full of Kitsch, in a great way, a real old-world attitude.

Coming back to the plate with pickles, you know, pickles are an emblem of New York, you find them in many places there. It wasn't always like that. Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe brought them, by the end of the nineteenth century, and as they were naturally trying to keep their identity through pickles and vinegar, the society at large was a bit afraid, as it always happened when a new ethnic group was arriving. It was talk that so much vinegar and so many pickles were bad for your health and could even sharpen some violent instincts!

Years have passed and now everybody in New York likes pickles and uses vinegar as much as needed in the kitchen. And I think that the American society has this unique gift to integrate rapidly immigrants from all over the world: they keep their cuisine trying that way to preserve their identity, while they become fully Americans, and that because the American way is irresistible.

As Jane Ziegelman puts it, in an article in NY Times, we can speak Spanish, eat sushi and still be American: the proof is in the pickle.

(New York, New York)


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