Had I never spent a lot of time studying and eating in my grandmother's Jewish delicatessen that has since become the McDonald's on Forbes Avenue in Oakland, I might not have learned to make matzo balls.
Not the hard-as-a-rock kind, but the wonderful, fluffy, big ones that take up most of the bowl and that you devour long before the Passover meal is served. Every so often, my grandma Esther Weinstein would ask me to follow her downstairs into the basement with its vast restaurant kitchen. I could barely see over the industrial-size black gas stove where some kind of meat, roasted vegetables, kasha, barley and soups usually were cooking, so I was probably about 8 or 9 years old.
There I saw a big silver soup pot, easily 12 quarts, but I was too short to see what was inside. "Nevermind," she said. "It's chicken soup." I knew she was right because even amidst all of the other smells, there was no mistaking the aroma of simmering golden chicken broth.
Grandma Esther, who died at the age of 97, wasn't much taller than I was back then. And she was round, with soft beautiful transparent skin, sparkly blue-hazel eyes, strawberry-blonde hair pasted in place with Aqua Net, long fingernails and narrow hands that she used the way most of us use spoons -- to scoop, taste and stir everything. But her diminutive size belied her boisterous manner. She was a balaboosta -- a real Jewish lady and one who got things done, usually her way.
Indeed, attentively waiting in the kitchen, surrounded by large ovens and grills and long tables, I could definitely smell the chicken soup. I eagerly awaited her next instruction.
She showed me a porcelain bowl with some sticky mush in it and told me to take some in my hands. I grimaced. "Not too much!" The secret, she said, was to "have a light touch." In fact, I think what she barked was, "Don't play with it!" To this day, I don't dare make a matzo ball that stays in my hands longer than a few seconds before lowering and quickly releasing the egg-sized ball into boiling broth. That's one of the secrets of keeping them light and fluffy.
Visiting the Oakland Weinstein's was an anticipated part of the week for us -- my brother, sister and me. At the time, my mom, Ruthie -- Grandma's only child -- was what we would now call a single mom. Actually she had been widowed and left with three children. All of us were regularly dropped off at the restaurant after school and told to do our homework or help out. From this perspective, hunched in one of the brown leatherette booths or sitting on top of the red cushioned stool behind the cash register where I sometimes made change, I saw what it took to run a restaurant: Long hours, hard work, a cooperative staff, a husband who didn't drink too much, humor, smiles, more hard work and a knowledge of traditional Jewish cuisine.
When you walked into Weinstein's, the cash register and candy stand were immediately to the left. Next to it was a large glass display case filled with perfectly constructed bakery goods, mostly created by -- who else -- Grandma Esther. Customers could take home a whole cake or some butter cookies that had been carefully filled with apricot or strawberry jam, or unbeatable cornmeal-coated, caraway-seeded rye bread that would always be wrapped and tied in a white box with white string. For a long time, the long wooden dining room table in Grandma Esther's home was where she stretched strudel dough carefully over a white-linen tablecloth. It was quite a sight. A 5-by-10-foot fortune of homemade dough -- with not even one tiny hole! I don't know how she did it, but it took a lot of patience and once again, her mantra: A light touch.
Next to the glass bakery case was the deli counter where "the customers," as she called everyone, could order take-out. Many of them just stared at everything long before making a choice. It held shiny gold smoked fish with protruding eyes, portions of white cod called sable, whitefish salad, tuna salad, bricks of corned beef wrapped in plastic, and turkey breasts. Yet the customers mainly ordered bagels and lox or sandwiches with sour dill pickles to go. Back in the 1960s, a corned beef sandwich on rye filled with a hefty mound of meat was about 75 cents, I'm told. Customers could order it lean or fatty, first or second cut. "Fatty is always better," my grandma said. She was right, and she had the size to prove it.
The deli counter was where you would see the grill cook, Sami, in his clean white apron, when he wasn't searing steaks in the first-floor kitchen in the back. Customers ordered steaks for special occasions. At Weinstein's there was only one cut of steak: Thick. If you ask my brother there also was only one way to cook it: Raw. It may be where the Pittsburgh-black style originated.
Sami is not to be confused with my grandfather, Sam Weinstein, the owner of the Oakland Weinstein's. There were four Weinstein brothers, and at one time or another they all were in the restaurant business. The first place, more of a bar, was on "the Hill," I was told, and it had one of the first televisions that locals ever saw.
Later, my grandfather opened the one in Oakland and his younger brother, Ben Weinstein, opened the one in Squirrel Hill at Beacon Street and Murray Avenue. What I remember most about Uncle Benny's was that my great-grandmother, Rachel, whom we all called Bubby, often sat outside perched on a newspaper box collecting for Hadassah. When she was close to 90, she received an award for her efforts. Today you might think she was a homeless person. What most customers remember was menu item No. 10, or maybe it was No. 12 -- corned beef, Russian dressing and cole slaw on rye.
At the Oakland restaurant, Grandpa Sam had to spend a lot of time in his upstairs off ice. The steps to the top were narrow, steep and scary, and whenever we ventured up there some adult would warn us to be careful that we didn't fall. The room had a faint whiskey smell and was a good place to go to get out of the way of the bustle that could ensue after a Pirates game.
As I sat doing my homework, I'd see groups of people rolling in for lunch or dinner or brunch. While they were shuffling menus, clinking silverware, pulling half sour pickles and pickled green peppers from bowls on each table, Grandma Esther was paying close attention to the waitresses dressed smartly in stiff black uniforms and starched white aprons. Their task was to suggest ideas for what to order and make sure to smile and indulge the customer's every wish. Esther and Sam were greeters also. My grandparents had the gift of gab and could talk to anyone. Weinstein's was popular because of it.
The menu at the restaurant was extensive and in addition to the corned beef, pickles and brisket, I most remember indulging in Grandma's inspired chocolate cake with thick sour-cream icing, the sublime apple strudel, rugelach or some kind of scratch-made sweet sugar- or cinnamon-nut cookies.
I have a memento: A "Weinstein's Civic Center Finest Restaurant" guest check with my Grandma's writing on it that I have deciphered as her original recipe for chocolate cake. It has her loopy, hard-to-read cursive, calling for no less than a half-pound of butter and three cups of sugar. What do I learn from this? I learn to remember another of her mantras: "If you put in good, you get out good." With all that butter and sugar, she would say, "What can be bad?"
The recipe also reveals that she didn't just estimate the amount of ingredients that went into making something. During the last years of her life, when I would try to get her to tell me how to make something, she often would describe the ingredients in vague, imprecise ways -- "a bissel" or "a little of this."
Some people thought of Weinstein's as a place to celebrate a special occasion, but for others it was part of their daily routine, such as the men who would go for coffee, coffeecake, or kuchen and cigars. I think that for many of them it was the 1950s version of Starbucks.
For Passover, I already have begun to make and freeze my matzo ball soup. I simmer a good chicken, an onion, two or three carrots, two stalks of celery, one tablespoon of salt and ¼ teaspoon of pepper in a big pot of water until the chicken is cooked. I chill it overnight and then remove the layer of fat. I remove the chicken pieces and place the pot on the stove.
The matzo ball mush is easy. I beat two eggs until very light. Add one tablespoon of vegetable oil, ½ cup of fine matzo meal and 1/4 teaspoon of salt and a pinch of pepper. Stirring it as little as possible, fold in the matzo meal until it is combined into a sticky paste. Set the mixture into the refrigerator for about half an hour. Then form the mush into egg-size balls (or larger if you like) and drop very quickly and carefully into the soup broth that you have brought to a rapid boil. Place the lid over the soup and cook it for about 15 minutes on a medium fire.
Often, before I freeze it for later or serve it for the meal, I bite into one of those fluffy, light balls. The familiar taste takes me back to Pittsburgh and Grandma Esther.
Sherry Weissman Schweitzer blogs at seasonalspoon.com and lives near Washington, D.C.: firstname.lastname@example.org.