Chabon’s shtekeleh

I knew I’d fallen in love with Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union around the time the protagonist, drunkard detective Meyer Landsman, observes about his ex-wife Bina Gelbfish. They’re sharing a tense meal in a sad cafeteria—Meyer’s still in love with Bina, she knows this, and they’re both avoiding the issue—on a blue, snowy night. Meyer’s filled with longing, and Chabon slices to the core of the man’s love:

She spoons up a mouthful of tuna salad. He catches the glint of her gold-rimmed bicuspid and thinks of the day she came home with it, looped on nitrous oxide and inviting him to put his tongue into her mouth and see how it felt. After the first bite of tuna salad, Bina gets serious. She shovels in ten or eleven more spoonfuls, chewing and swallowing with abandon. Her breath comes through her nostrils in avid jets. Her eyes are fixed on the intercourse of her plate and spoon. A girl with a healthy appetite, that was his mother’s first recorded statement on the subject of Bina Gelbfish twenty years ago. Like most of his mother’s compliments, it was convertible to an insult when needed. But Landsman trusts only a woman who eats like a man. When there is nothing left but a mayonnaise slick on the lettuce leaf, Bina wipes her mouth on her napkin and lets out a deep sigh of satiety.

Oh, yum yum yum, and I’m not talking about the tuna salad. Meyer and I are soulmates. Chabon’s prose is propulsive and churning, richly detailed but succinct and darkly, briskly funny. More than anything, though, it’s gustatory, an orgy of culinary smells, food-drenched metaphors, and sharp sentences that evoke the tastebuds and olfactory senses as much—and maybe more—than the eyes. The book’s full of big ideas—about noir, law vs. lawlessness, faith and the lack thereof, the concept of homeland, miracles, chess—but it’s written in the flesh. It’s a pungent, earthy novel.

Still, it’s unnerving how big a role food plays in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Meyer’s emboldened and distracted in equal measures by his ever-present bottle of slivovitz. An establishing meeting between Meyer and the family of his old friend/detective comrade Berko Shemets takes place over breakfast at Shemets’ apartment—the fold and aroma of the waffles lingers in the mind, as does Landsman’s beer (in front of the children, no less). A rebbe gets told of his son’s untimely death by detectives interrupting his Sabbath meal. The most important conversations take place over eats and drinks, in seedy bars and lonely cafeterias. Landsman gets a crucial clue about a man’s murder in a bakery. It’s not just any kind of bakery:

The Filipino-style Chinese donut, or shtekeleh, is the great contribution of the District of Sitka to the food lovers of the world. In its present form, it cannot be found in the Philippines. No Chinese trencherman would recognize it as the fruit of his native fry kettles. Like the storm god Yahweh of Sumeria, the shtekeleh was not invented by the Jews, but the world would sport neither God nor the shtekeleh without Jews and their desires. A panatela of fried dough not quite sweet, not quite salty, rolled in sugar, crisp-skinned, tender inside, and honeycombed with air pockets. You sink it in your paper cup of milky tea and close your eyes, and for ten fat seconds, you seem to glimpse the possibility of finer things.

The shtekeleh is so beautifully described that I was convinced that it was real. It doesn’t exist, of course. Neither does Sitka, Alaska, Chabon’s imagined Jewish district—it’s like Israel, but smaller and without the sovereignty. Nevertheless, Chabon makes it into flesh. It’s telling that, in his vision, one of Jewish culture’s most significant gifts to the world is culinary.

So much contemporary fiction (and older fiction, too) purports to tell us about the world, but doesn’t involve food and drink at all. So much of our lives revolve around food and food preparation—consoling us and aggravating us, both because of the amount of time it takes up—but few of our novels and short stories do. This has always bothered me.

So, I’m a sucker for Chabon’s novel. It’s not just a mystery, a philosophical meditation, or a lament, but also a Yiddish cookbook of sorts. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union makes Jewish food and life sexy, slurpy, and tactile. Like the best of fictions (and, so far, Chabon’s is the best 2007 book I’ve read), it evokes a world we can taste but also directs us inward to our own imagined world and nostalgia-tinged memories.

Unsurprisingly, I found myself thinking of my longstanding attachment to the cuisine of the delicatessen. But Chabon has brought me back even farther than that, to something I’d forgotten that I loved.

When I first came to Jackson, in August 1995, I had trouble finding good, cheap food. I wouldn’t discover Little Tokyo’s exquisite, glistening sushi until the Spring of 1996. (In fact, I had never tasted sushi until going to Little Tokyo; it’s spoiled me.) I’d weaned myself off of fast food. Mississippi barbecue eluded my tastebuds. College friends would make Thai House one of my favorite haunts, but this wouldn’t happen for another six months. Even Best Wok—that bastion of greasy-slick Chinese takeout—wouldn’t find its way to me for another two years.

Somehow, my dad and I ended up at Old Tyme Deli, at the corner of the I-55 North frontage road and Northside Drive, during one of his visits. I don’t know how we ended up there. It doesn’t matter. Smack-dab in the middle of what I figured was the most Southern Baptist town on Earth, there was an unassuming, genuine, truly great Jewish delicatessen with genuine seltzers, nose-curling mustards, and the most tender, flavorful, kosher sandwiches I’d ever seen.

The light was dim. The tables were rickety, and cramped together. The walls behind you held chicory coffee, chocolates, kosher cookbooks, exotic candies that I still never see in Kroger, pickled tomatoes and cucumbers. Sour creams, pastrami, smoked salmon, baklava, herring salad, and spanokopita sat in or on the glassed-in, refrigerated counter. It was a grocery and a restaurant all at once, and I loved watching the customers come and go, buying things in bulk that I had never even heard of (lox, knishes).

I know the Old Tyme Deli made concessions to the area—I’m pretty sure no self-respecting Hassidic Jew has eaten a sandwich called the Millsaps Major, or a pastrami with melted Swiss cheese—but, in retrospect, it was mostly kosher. The sandwiches were stacked high, juicy, spicy, with interesting, hard breads that my tongue adored. The Old Tyme Deli quickly became a regular haunt. Every time Dad rolled into town, we made a trip to the deli.

And then, in early 2000, the rumor started going around. The restaurant’s owner was retiring, and selling the place. Would the restaurant be preserved by the new owners, or would a new place usurp it?

You know the answer. I suppose I did, too, though I didn’t want to believe it. Sure enough, the New Time Deli opened in early 2001. Glossy tables, brick-oven-baked pizzas, overpriced drinks, and exposed brick columns filled the artificially cheery air. Traveling Tom and I walked in during its first week, took a look at the menu and the bad imitations of Abstract Expressionist painting, and walked right out. In retrospect, I feel sorry for the poor maitre d’, looking forlornly at our backs and just trying to do her job.

Eventually, I did get around to eating there. The food wasn’t good, and the flaccid attempts to retain part of the old menu were too ironic by half. The place was gone in a year.

Now, the location holds Julep, a relatively upscale bar with a decent gourmet brunch menu. It’s fine, I guess, but I haven’t been there in three years. Gradually, the Old Tyme Deli receded in my memory—its smells, its outstanding sandwiches and pickles, its grunge, its clank-and-clatter of the kitchen that any customer could glimpse because the restaurant sure as hell wasn’t airy.

For a place that held me so much in sway, I sure forgot it fast. Shame on me. But The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, a novel I’m halfway through, has brought it all rushing back to my nose and fingertips and tongue. For that alone, the book deserves my thanks.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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3 Responses to Chabon’s shtekeleh

  1. Maybe Chabon is Japanese? There’s food porn on every channel; even the tourism-promotion shows are food porn exotica….

  2. OutOfContext says:

    Mabel speared a thick, red square of steak and held it before her face. “My daddy, in his whole life, never had a piece of meat like this. He was a coal miner, you know. He died in a huge mine blast with 243 other men and boys when I was six. It destroyed my Mother. She couldn’t let him go. Every day for the next nine years she walked down to the shaft with a wagon and carried back a pile of coal. She was looking for a trace of Daddy, I guess–A ring, his watch, I don’t know. She sifted through buckets and buckets of coal. She never found anything. When she died, I gave the coal to the church. It must have lasted them a year. I didn’t stay around to find out. I went to live with my Aunt in California. My uncle grows oranges.”
    Paul looked watched her pull the meat off an artichoke heart with her teeth and marveled at her feeding skills. He was quick and efficient with his meal, but she combined a voracious appetite with a simian dexterity. Paul made use of several napkins during the meal, impatiently reaching to an empty table for an extra setting when no waiter was in sight. Mabel did not waste butter on insensate cloth but licked it cleanly from her fingers and only then made use of her napkin. She was not ill-mannered, she was simply engaged absolutely with her meal.

    Hooray For What

  3. Laura says:

    And don’t forget the breakfasts at Old Tyme – giant beautiful pancakes that you could smother in butter and syrup… and their cheesecakes… oh, God, I’m missing me some Old Tyme.

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