Sunday, September 16, 2007

Food for the Soul, Sept. 16, 2007

Rosh Hashanah just passed and a belated l'shana tova to all.

Whenever the Jewish holidays roll around, the Remarkable Marcy and I take time to celebrate the people and events that have enriched her side of the family. That led me to write this tribute to her grandfather, Ben Landau, aka Papa. That's Ben with his first wife (whose name has been lost to the ages) in the photo to the right. An educated guess would put the year the photo was taken around 1919.

Ben, was Marcy's mom's father and was the first person I heard refer to my wife as "remarkable", a tag that stuck in my mind ever since. Ben was pretty remarkable himself.

A quiet man with a thick Polish accent, he rarely opened up about his past. But after Rosh Hashanah dinner in 1988, he felt like talking. As luck would have it, I had a tape recorder with me and was able to capture him telling his story. It was, well, remarkable.

Ben was born in a small village outside Krakow, Poland in 1891. He didn't talk about his childhood, but picked up his tale with his journey to the United States.

In 1919 he had just returned home after serving in the Polish army during World War I. Not long after his reunion with his wife and daughter, he learned that Russia was annexing Poland and he was being conscripted into the Russian army. Rather than report for duty, he decided to make his way to America, specifically to Cleveland, where he had family and friends. The plan was to get established in Cleveland, then send for his wife and daughter.

He first made his way to Germany, then to Denmark. In Copenhagen he discovered that he was unable to get a visa to travel to the U.S., but eventually managed to obtain a Canadian visa.

Ben found passage on a ship that sailed from Denmark to Canada. As the boat neared port in Quebec, word spread that if the passengers didn't have $25, they would be sent back to Europe. Having no money and not wanting to return to Copenhagen, Ben and a friend came up with a plan. They took only what they needed from their steamer trunks and filled the pockets of their overcoats. When the ship docked, two gangways were put up, one for passengers leaving the boat, one for passengers boarding the boat. The exit gangway was littered with officials checking the necessary documents and finances. The entry plank, however, was free and clear, save passengers coming on board, and Ben and his friend took that route off the boat without incident.

Ben made his way to Montreal where he worked for three to four months. With cash in hand, he went from Montreal to Toronto, and then to Windsor, where one morning he boarded a ferry with Canadians who were going to Detroit to work in the auto plants. Once in Detroit, he took a train to Cleveland where he located his family and friends.

Unfortunately, the plan to bring over his wife and daughter was never fulfilled. Ben's wife was unable to travel after being diagnosed with cancer. She and the daughter stayed in Poland, ultimately being swallowed up into Nazi concentration camps where they died.

Ben started a new life and new family in Cleveland. He married a woman, Sadie, who had three children of her own. Together they had another child, Rita, who was Marcy's mom. For many years he owned and operated a small but successful produce store in Cleveland.

By the time I met Ben, he was well into his 80s and living with Marcy's folks in Cincinnati. Behind the house he kept a garden, and what a garden it was. Saying he had a green thumb would be a gross understatement. It was more like he had a green hand. I swear you could see his asparagus grow right before your eyes. There were also tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, garlic, onions, dill, and more. What wasn't eaten immediately was canned and stored for use throughout the year.

The picture to the left is Papa holding his great grandson - our son - Courtland in July 1991. Ben was 99, Courtland was two months old. Ben reached his 102nd birthday a few months before he died in the winter of 1994.

Among the least of his legacies are a few of his pickle recipes, one of which I offer below. It's a simple recipe from a man who was quietly complex.

Papa's Pickles

2 lbs cucumber pickles
5 cups water
3 cups vinegar
3 tsp pickling spice
3 tsp kosher salt
3 tsp mustard seed
6 cloves garlic
6 sprigs fresh dill

Wash cucumbers, peel the garlic and fill three quart jars with the veggies. To each jar add 2 sprigs dill, 1 tsp mustard seed, 1 tsp salt, 1 tsp pickling spice.

Mix the water and vinegar, then pour into each jar, filling to within 1/2 inch of the top. An option, if you want a little kick, is to put a dried cayenne pepper into the jar. Seal and refrigerate.



Chef JP said...

A wonderful anecdote of family and food--bravo! chefjp

Susanno said...

Let me try the reciepe first.. anyway.. thx