Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Hawaiian Salad

Two weeks back I was in a cafe and saw a waitress coming out with a salad plate for another diner.  It looked very appetizing. Immediately the words, "Hawaiian Salad" rocketed to my consciousness.

In 1968 I worked in the Borscht belt in South Fallsburg, New York as a bus boy. At the time, the Catskill mountains were dotted with hundreds of hotels that catered to New York summer vacationers.  These resorts were only a few hours drive from the city and its suburbs.  They attracted middle to upper class first generation Jews--the sons and daughters of European immigrants, many of whom who'd had the good fortune to get to America before Hitler took control of Germany.

The Borscht belt was so called because a favorite drink among the vacationers was borscht.  I am an easy eater. There are few things I do not like to eat or drink.  However, I cannot go near borscht and not because the drink brings back recollections of my experience in South Fallsburg.  Borscht is a concoction derived from beets and, well, it just does not send me. However, borscht was a favorite cold drink in summertime for those of my parents' generation.You did not operate a hotel in the Catskills unless you served up borscht.   Hence the region with all the hotels was called the Borscht belt.

The Borscht belt hotels all had pools, athletic fields, night clubs, and cool air that was attractive to people who did not want to dissolve in the humidity that could pulverize New York City in the summer. Beyond the cool air, and pools, and volleyball, and simon sez, and truly top shelf entertainers in the night clubs--the Borscht belt had food. Lots of food. All the time.

If you are not a member of the tribe, you may not know this. But if you are a member of the tribe you know that Jews like to eat.  The dining hall at these hotels was like a horn of plenty.  From 7-11 you could have breakfast. What could you have? Anything you wanted. Eggs, french toast, pancakes, bagels, white fish--whatever.  Then from 11-1 you took a break from eating. At 1, just two or so hours later, lunch was served.  And it was not peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. What could you have?anything you wanted. There were typically five hot entries and five cold ones.  Fish dishes, omelettes, blintzes, pasta, tuna, chicken salad, salad salad, whatever you wanted, and of course, borscht.  When I tell you that there were no fewer than one hundred glasses of borscht pre-poured for a lunch meal, I am not exaggerating. And the borscht glasses evaporated.  After lunch you took four hours off.  Then there was dinner which started at 7 and again was whatever you wanted--ribs, steak, chicken, veal, whatever.

Not only was there whatever you wanted, there was as much as you wanted.  The deal with the Borscht belt hotels was that you paid one price. That price included the room, the facilities, the shows, and all you could eat.  As it relates to the latter, someone could order a steak, and then decide that she wanted the chicken, and then decide that they felt like a pasta dish.  There was no limit on how many main dishes you could have, or how many desserts, or how many salads, or how many anythings.  You would be startled at how much people packed away during a single day in the Borscht belt. (The killer was that after eating thousands of calories, invariably someone not running marathons, would request a dietetic cake with coffee to complete the assault on their intestines),

This all you could eat component was the biggest challenge for those who worked as waiters or bus boys in the mountains.  For those of you who work in conventional restaurants, there is no comparison.  In a restaurant a person orders a meal, maybe a drink, maybe an appetizer, but that is it.  In the borscht belt, you could have five appetizers, seven meals, twelve desserts.

There were a few things that you never wanted diners to ask for in the Borscht belt. One was toasted bagels. I am sure things improved, but at that time there were no dedicated toasters for bagels in the kitchen. If you wanted a bagel toasted you had to put it in an oven and wait for it. If you left it to get something else, a rival waiter would snatch it and you would have to start from scratch. The second was a medium boiled egg. Why? Because if you did not sit there for the x minutes necessary, someone in a hurry could take your egg, or you might misjudge the time and serve up a soft boiled or hard boiled egg, and have to hear a complaint from an entitled patron.

But the worst thing you wanted someone to order was a Hawaiian Salad.

Say ten people are at a table and they order fish, chicken salad, lasagna whatever.  Then someone orders an Hawaiian salad. You were cooked.

You were cooked because these looked so attractive, that you knew, just knew, as soon as you brought out one Hawaiian salad, four diners already busting a gut on whatever they had ordered would ask for one as well. So then you had to go back into the kitchen and get more Hawaiian salads.

It got to the point that if someone asked for a Hawaiian salad, I would get three of them, just because  I knew what would happen.  And bringing back food that had not been ordered was not protocol. You were not supposed to bring out food that had not been ordered. There could be major repercussions if you got caught hauling out extra meals and storing it next to the ajax beneath your server.

So, when I was in the cafe a week back, and saw the salad come out, I smiled at the recollection of what never brought a smile to my face when I was a lad of 18.  And then I heard the diner's table mate say, "Hey that looks nice. I should have ordered that."  I just looked at the waiter and thought, you are damn lucky you never worked in South Fallsburg.

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