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The Grapes of Wrath, in Three Episodes

Episode One: The International Grape Boycott of 1969

I was born on June 10, 1969.

May 10, 1969, was International Grape Boycott Day.

During her ninth month of pregnancy, my mother was craving grapes.

César Chávez and his National Farm Workers Association (NFWA, later the United Farm Workers) had been supporting boycotts of California table grapes and picketing growers since 1965. Protests aimed at the Schenley Vineyards Corporation in 1965 and Di Giorgio Fruit Corporation in 1966 had drawn national attention (not least for Chávez’s legendary 25-day, 340-mile march from Delano to Sacramento, where he arrived with 10,000 followers) and earned the admiration of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.

But while those early disputes had been resolved by contract negotiations, the 1967 attempt to take on the Giumarra Vineyards Corporation, the largest producer of table grapes in the US, was not going as well. Giumarra turned out to be a truculent adversary, printing fraudulent labels to disguise its grapes as produce from other companies, and using intimidation and violence against the pickets. In 1968, Chávez went on a 25-day hunger strike. The NFWA finally declared International Grape Boycott Day on May 10, 1969. The flow of grapes to the major US and Canadian cities was cut off overnight.

On May 11, 1969, my father went in search of grapes. He found them to be in good supply at the Pioneer supermarket on 75th Street and Columbus Avenue (it’s still there) near our apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. But, the produce manager warned my father, whatever inventory the store had was all that would be available for the foreseeable future. My father sheepishly carried two brown-paper shopping bags full of grapes down the leftist gauntlet of Columbus Avenue, carefully evading detection by packing bunches of carrots on top of the grapes.

Five days later, when my mother had consumed all the grapes, my father went farther afield, first to the A&P in the West 90s and then pushing up into Harlem. Eventually, with two weeks left to go in the pregnancy, the grape supply in Manhattan had been exhausted. Near our country house upstate in Rhinebeck, New York, there were grapes aplenty being grown but the vines would not bear fruit for a couple of more months. The only grapelike fruit available that weekend in the countryside was a bag of frozen elderberries from the previous season, which my mother rejected because she thought they tasted like rhubarb.

Back in Manhattan, my father was dispatched to Chock full o'Nuts. Those who grew up elsewhere in the US know of Chock full o'Nuts as a brand of canned coffee sold in supermarkets. In the New York City of the 1960s and 1970s, however, Chock full o'Nuts cafes were nearly as prevalent as Starbucks stores today. The signature food item at Chock full o'Nuts was a sandwich consisting of cream cheese on date-nut bread. The date component of the bread was raisin-like and raisins are made from grapes, so it took some of the edge off my mother’s craving. My father absolutely hated making these trips to the nearby Chock full o'Nuts, which was frequented by a motley crew of drunkards, fugitives and other marginal characters. But he’d do anything for my mother.

On July 29, 1970, after five years, the protests against the California grape growers officially ended when Giumarra Vineyards Corporation agreed to Chávez’s terms.

Episode Two: The Great Grape Disaster of 1978

Previously, I alluded to our country house in Rhinebeck, New York.

My parents were city kids. They both grew up in Queens. Their rural experiences were limited to beach adventures on Fire Island, where they met as teenagers while employed as counselors at the local summer camp. Like many city folk, they had a certain idealized image of rural life. One day, as married adults, they decided to bring that fantasy to life.

Two teachers’ salaries couldn’t buy much of a country house, even in the 1960s, so they expanded their search farther and farther north from the city (Rhinebeck is about a two-hour drive, if you’re lucky). Every house they’d looked at in their price range was minuscule, but finally in Rhinebeck they stumbled across the mother lode: a rambling old house, formerly a boarding house, with 12 bedrooms, two gigantic institutional kitchens, a barn, a pond and five acres of wooded land. For cheap.

It was the Titanic of country houses. The house spent the entire time my family owned it slowly falling apart. But it gave my father the opportunity to do all the country stuff he’d fantasized about: mow the lawn on a mini-tractor, adopt two cats to battle the mice, fix the roof time and again, engage in extreme gardening and get to know our country neighbors.

My father must have had a mental checklist of country things he aspired to do, because one day he announced that we’d be picking grapes and making grape jelly. A great deal of grape jelly. Given the size of our kitchen – either kitchen – we never cooked anything small.

We drove the old blue Chrysler station wagon to a pick-your-own vineyard my father had learned about, likely through a conversation with a local cop or auto mechanic. My older sister and I were each given a metal bucket and instructed to pick grapes.

The temperature was in the 90s, the humidity was in the 100s and the ground was wet from the last night’s rain. The Concord grapes we were picking had unpleasant, leathery skins and their flesh tasted as though it had been rejected by Manischewitz for being too cloying. Each time we filled a bucket, we were given another to fill. At age nine, I didn’t know who César Chávez was, but I sensed I needed his help.

We arrived back at the country house with a station-wagon full of grapes. It was time to make jelly. My mother hauled out two 20-quart stockpots, which we filled with grapes after washing them in freezing-cold water that numbed my hands and then crushing them in a bowl with a potato masher. As the grapes cooked down, we added more. The stockpots seemed to be able to accommodate several times their apparent volume in grapes, and we kept them filled to the very top. The straining operation required the manpower of the Works Progress Administration.

The grapes were already sweet, but the jelly-making instructions we had called for half a cup of sugar per pound of grapes. We had no idea how many pounds of grapes we’d picked, but my father came up with a theory – right or wrong – for estimating it. He went into the pantry to get the sugar and emerged with what looked like a small garbage can full of the stuff. He poured something like 10 pounds in each stockpot, where it was hungrily absorbed by the grape juice. Pectin also came into the picture at some point.

As my mother prepared the jars for canning, my father declared that it was time for us to taste our creation. He distributed spoons full of grapey fluid to me, my sister and himself. We tasted.

We spit it out. It was inedible. It tasted overwhelmingly . . . salty. Forensic investigation by my mother revealed that the white substance my father had retrieved from the pantry was not granulated sugar but iodized salt.

Our day’s labor was poured down the drain, and we stuck with Welch’s from there on in.

Years later, we sold the country house to a family with seven children. When they renovated the house, they made it smaller by removing one kitchen, a dining room and several bedrooms.

Epidode Three: The Hoboken Grape Operation of 2005

Our son, PJ, was born on August 17, 2005.

In her ninth month of pregnancy, my wife was craving grapes.

There must be something about the male genetic makeup in my lineage that triggers grape cravings in expecting mothers, because my wife was at that time completely unaware of my mother’s past pregnancy cravings. The cravings were slightly different: my mother was partial to green seedless table grapes; my wife insisted on seeded red globe grapes exclusively. But it can’t have been coincidental.

Ellen had been eating red globe grapes throughout her pregnancy, but as she came closer to term she became increasingly insistent that grapes always be on the premises. Not just any old red globe grapes would do. They couldn't be too pale (because the pale ones aren’t sweet and flavorful enough) or too deep purple (overripe with tough skins), and with each passing trimester the acceptable color spectrum narrowed to a range barely discernible by the male human eye. They also had to be in about the 90th percentile of size for red globe grapes. She never expected diamonds or other finery, as many women do. All she wanted in return for bearing our firstborn son was those colossal red globe grapes.

In modern times, table grapes are grown at various latitudes, ensuring a steady supply during most of the year. But for some reason, in July of 2005, there was a break in the chain of supply of red globe grapes. There was not a red globe grape to be had in all of Manhattan, not at Fairway, not at any regular supermarket, not even at Dean & DeLuca where they always have everything.

This is not exactly the kind of news you can bring back to a woman who’s nine months pregnant and craving grapes. And given that, in the summer of 2005, we were being treated to a steady diet of news stories about June and July being the hottest on record in cities across the Northeast, I felt it was my husbandly duty to locate grapes. Although I was unaware of the family history with respect to grape cravings – I only learned about that the next summer, while visiting my sister on Cape Cod – every facet of my moral education and my spiritual connection to my late father compelled me to do so.

So I started to work the phones. I called places in Queens. Nothing. The Bronx. Nothing. Finally, in a last-ditch grape-locating effort, I called Han Ah Reum, the Korean mega-market in Hackensack, New Jersey. The first three people I spoke to didn’t have enough English to answer my question, but finally I got “Eddie” on the phone. “Red globe grape? Yeah I got like a million pounds just come in on a BIG TRUCK!”

I bolted out the door. It was 9:15pm. Han Ah Reum was to close at 10pm. Under ideal driving conditions, it’s possible to get from our home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, across Central Park to the West Side Highway, over the George Washington Bridge and out Route 46 to Han Ah Reum in about 35 minutes.

Ideal driving conditions, needless to say, have rarely occurred in the history of New York City. I got to the West Side Highway and there was standstill traffic, so I diverted to Riverside Drive. The upper level of the George Washington Bridge, according to 1010 WINS radio’s “jam cam,” had a tractor-trailer blocking one lane, so I took the lower level. The traffic circle where Route 46 intersects the Bergen Turnpike – the last obstacle on the trip – was a mess. The red and black signage of Han Ah Reum was in view across the traffic circle and I wasn’t moving. I watched the minutes elapse on the dashboard clock.

I finally pulled in to a parking space in the nearly empty Han Ah Reum lot at 9:58pm. I barged into the store past a Korean lady scolding me, insisting that they were closing imminently. Over the loudspeaker an announcement in Korean blared, which I imagine was saying the same thing. I wheeled around the corner into the produce area, almost knocking over a display of Hello Kitty merchandise with my shopping cart, and stopped dead in my tracks.

There, before me, was a mountain of pristine red globe grapes higher than my head. They were the most gorgeous red globe grapes I’d ever seen, each one the size of a small plum and possessing the ideal garnet hue. And they were on sale. I loaded bunch after bunch of the grapes into my shopping cart and made a bee-line for the checkout. Nobody was happy about my late checkout but I was allowed to pay and leave.

By the time I got home and parked, it was 11pm. Ellen was sound asleep.

The next morning, a switch had flipped in Ellen’s brain. She had no interest whatsoever in grapes. The grapes sat, unconsumed, filling most of the available space in the refrigerator for several days until she announced that she would no longer be eating grapes.

For the next week, anybody visiting our apartment was required to take home a pound of grapes.

To be continued . . .

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Steven, I enjoyed your tale 'o the grape very much.

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Good stuff, Steven. My summer of 2005 also had some food-related hijinks as my wife and I had twins that July. Grapes, eh? They seem so ancient and fertile -- maybe this family phenomenon goes back thousands of years.

I'd never heard of César Chávez until a month ago. In the weeks leading up to the Obama inauguration I felt compelled to learn more about big Democrat moments in history, so I finally saw "Bobby" and learned of two great Americans.

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It's that kind of passion for life writing that kept me coming back to Fat-Guy.com from the moment I stumbled upon it, years ago. More, please!


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"Han Ah Reum, the Korean mega-market in Hackensack, New Jersey"

Not to mess with your great story, but technically, it's in Little Ferry*, just north of the Route 46 circle, in case anyone wants to find it on the map. I shop there every Friday/Saturday. It is very crowded, but they only have those delicious freshly flown-in Korean oysters on weekends.

And yes, you can draw a straight line from Steinbeck, to the dust bowl, to California, to César Chávez, to grapes. As an Steinbeck fan and former English major, it is always nice to see allusions to this Great American Novel.

* Han Ah Reum

260 Bergen Turnpike

Little Ferry, NJ 07643

PS: I've never seen a "Hello Kitty" display there, but it's a nice story detail. :)

Edited by Batard (log)

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You speak the truth. The store is in the borough of Little Ferry. But try telling anybody that. Because access is via the Hackensack exit from 4 or 80, that's how folks think of it. Calling it the Hackensack Han Ah Reum is an eG Forums tradition dating back to 2002. It's no longer called Han Ah Reum either. It's H-Mart now.

Please check for Hello Kitty merchandise next time you go to the Hackensack H-Mart and report back, if you will. I could have sworn they had it all over the place there. It's certainly possible I conflated memories of all the Hello Kitty stuff at other H-Marts, though. One of them, I can't remember which, even has an entire stand-alone Hello Kitty store.

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The Grapes of Wrath, in Three Episodes

I hope this is an excerpt from a new book. :raz: When is it coming out ? :wink:

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Well, probably not a whole book about grapes, but if I ever write a memoir the grape story will certainly be there. In the meantime, I have a few more stories to tell on this topic soon.

I'm interested, though, does anybody have contemporaneous memories of the grape boycott? Needless to say, I wasn't born yet.

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I'm interested, though, does anybody have contemporaneous memories of the grape boycott? Needless to say, I wasn't born yet.

Wow, bringing back memories. I am having some flashbacks. To put it in perspective, these were very politically active and aware years in our history with civil rights, Vietnam, women's rights, free speech, etc. I remember being in awe of the hunger strike. I remember signs in the grocery stores actually at the grape section and lots of publicity. My dad was in a Union and an immigrant so we did not buy grapes. It was a bit confusing living in California and wondering: "What about all the other fruits and vegetables?" You could see pickers hunched over in the fields and you heard people talking about migrant farm workers.

Of course in 2009 I drive past strawberry fields and the field workers are still all hunched over. Yes there are porta-potties in the rows, and maybe there is water and there do not appear to be children out there, but it still gives me a strange feeling.

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I vaguely remember the 1969 grape boycott (I was 14); it was the source of some tension in the household. My father worked for Kroger, and though he was such a leftie that he almost met Barry Goldwater going in the opposite direction, he had misgivings on behalf of the source of his paycheck. Mom, a more traditional liberal, solved the problem by shopping not at Kroger but Alber's. That way, she wasn't boycotting grapes at Kroger, she was boycotting them at a competitor.

Mom grew up in Scarsdale, NY, and carries fond memories of Chock full o' Nuts -- both the coffee and the cafes. During recent visits to NYC (well, Manhattan), I don't recall seeing a single one. Do they still exist?

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On the cafe side, Chock full o'Nuts went into dormancy for a time and of late has returned in a reformulated kiosk incarnation that is pretty lame. There's one right now in Herald Square near Macy's, and there are a bunch in suburban malls and such. It's not really anything like the Chock full o'Nuts cafes of old, though they do still offer the signature sandwich.

On the one hand, speaking from the point of view of nostalgia, I'm glad Chock full o'Nuts was resurrected. On the other hand, I sometimes wish they'd just let some of these brands die rather than let their memories be degraded by lame attempts to squeeze a few more dollars out of brand names.

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I won't tell Mom about the sad fate of Chock full o' Nuts cafes.

What's your theory (I know you have one) for why Han Ah Reum had grapes when no one else did?

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I am in awe at the ability of H-Mart, and the major ethnic markets in general, to develop supply lines that see utterly beyond the reach of mainstream grocers.

I don't know how they do it. I've picked up bits and pieces of information while researching books and talking to people in the food business. There's an issue of volume; there's a customer base that won't accept crap. But in the end I don't have a coherent theory of how all this is possible. Not only do they get dozens of fruits and vegetables in superior condition and quantity, but they sell them for cheap.

A little while back I did an unscientific comparison between a large suburban supermarket and H-Mart. I estimated about a 40% savings, with superior produce obtained in the bargain. I'd like to repeat that experiment with more rigor, but in a head-to-head competition it's not even going to be close. All we'd learn is, more precisely, how superior H-Mart is.

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(Note: a few hundred words in the middle of this piece are reprinted from my book, “Turning the Tables.” The rest are stories that have never been told, until now.)

Diners and The Men Who Love Them

Part I: My Frenemy, My Ally

Long before the term “frenemy” entered the popular lexicon, I had a frenemy. His name was George.

Of the 180 days in the New York City school year, I probably only attended school 100 days. But I ate at the Ambrosia Restaurant, the diner on First Avenue between 15th and 16th Streets, right around the corner from Stuyvesant High School, on all 100 of those days -- at least once, sometimes twice, and occasionally three times. I even went all the way downtown to eat there on many days when I skipped school. I was an underachiever when it came to academics, but not when it came to eating. George was a waiter at the Ambrosia Restaurant.

I never understood why George was so hostile towards me. I was polite. I tipped appropriately. My girlfriend, Emily, always had a smile for him. But every day, it seemed that George got up out of bed ready to do battle. With me.

When I would walk into the Ambrosia Restaurant, George would greet me with a disappointed grimace, a shake of the head and a sighing proclamation of “You again.” When he came to take my order, it was always “What you want?” After I gave my order he would say, “Yeah, yeah,” turn his back to me and march off. There was not a hint of irony in any of these gestures, as there might be in the studied faux gruffness of the waiters at Peter Luger or Katz's Deli. George was gruff for real. Plates were dropped at the table with percussive force. George never made a mistake with an order, and neither did the chef at Ambrosia, but I can only imagine what would have happened if I’d ever tried to send something back. After paying my check I’d always say “Thank you very much, George,” and he would say, “Yeah, yeah. Go now. Stay away.”

“Why does George hate Steven so much?” was the occasional topic of conversation among my peer group. It’s not that he was loving and tender with everybody else. George was abrasive to the core, no two ways about it. But he seemed to reserve a particular, higher level of scorn for me.

And yet, it was undeniable that I had a special relationship with George. He resented me but at the same time he made occasional, brief gestures that showed he cared. If I missed a day of school, he noticed and upon my return would ask, “You okay?” Once he ascertained that I had been in no danger, he would scold: “You skip school, you wind up like this!” He would spread his arms, bend at his elbows and point inward to his mustard-colored vest as if to say, “If you continue to disappoint me you will be doomed to wear a mustard-colored vest and clip-on bowtie for all eternity, serving turkey clubs to overprivileged students.” Many of the teachers and administrators from the school would dine at Ambrosia, so George always had an ear to the ground. Once in a while he would give me inside information, then promptly revert to hating me: “You getting new dean. What you want?”

In my senior year of high school, with several hundred Ambrosia meals under my belt, I was out of school for six weeks with a nasty illness. My friends would bring me my homework, which I wouldn’t do. Mostly I rented video cassettes from the place on the corner – I must have watched five movies a day, and even now I remain frighteningly conversant with all movies released in 1986. One day Emily arrived bearing a card, addressed to “You” with a return address of “George.” Inside, the card said “Stay away.”

Part II: A Diner for All Seasons

Each major period of my life features a diner. I would never argue that the food at any of these places was objectively great. It’s not about that. The diner is a surrogate for the home, and I’ve built a home in many a diner.

The Cherry Restaurant was on Columbus Avenue, a few blocks uptown from our apartment. My father and I went there every weekend morning, even though there were three diners closer to our home, because we loved to observe the breakfast griddle at the local diner.

We spent countless hours over a period of years watching the griddle man, and all the while my father delivered a ceaseless stream of commentary: “You see, son,” he would say, “he does the home fries the right way: starting with baked potatoes. Now, pay attention while he does that big table’s order. He’s got to have all six dishes ready at the same time. Only the best cooks can do that every time. This man was a plasma physicist back in Russia, you know.”

Those memories of dining with my father at diners set the tone for my whole attitude toward and passion for restaurants. My father taught me, by example, that dining isn’t only about food – it’s about people, about ideas, and especially about building an inventory of inside jokes. Once, a little old lady came into the Cherry Restaurant and asked for liver and onions. “Cut it up in little pieces,” she demanded. “Cut it up in little pieces,” the Russian physicist/griddle man replied, with a bow. “Cut it up in little pieces,” added my father, gratuitously, from the other end of the counter.

“Cut it up in little pieces,” became an inside joke for us that lasted twenty years. Even as my father lay exhausted on his deathbed, in the final round of his decade-long fight against heart disease, I was able to elicit a smile from him by whispering, “Cut it up in little pieces.”

As he did with respect to all areas of human endeavor, my father had more than his fair share of theories about restaurants. “You can’t get good service in an empty restaurant,” he used to say, since vitality is crucial to a restaurant’s performance. A literature professor, he analyzed menus with the same intellectual rigor he applied to the great books and, through such analysis, was unfailing in his ability to select the best dishes. He was fond of saying, “I’d rather have the Stage Deli name a sandwich after me than win the Nobel Prize.” Even when eating a hamburger at midnight at the American Restaurant on the corner (now the Westside Restaurant), an indulgence he permitted himself once a month, my father could be overheard quoting Shakespeare and Melville in his conversation with the fry cook. Waiters at the neighborhood diners called him “The Professor.”

They would seek his advice on marital problems and ask him questions about the nature of being. My father treated the lowliest bathroom-mopper as an intellectual equal. I used to stare at him incredulously when he would try to explain Dostoyevsky to the Greek ex-con dishwasher at the American Restaurant. “This man,” my father would patiently explain to me, “may very well be a descendant of Aristotle (or Confucius, or Leonardo da Vinci). Can you and I claim such honorable ancestry?” (My father often spoke like he was reading from a book.)

At holiday time, he and I would walk around the neighborhood and, with great ceremony, he would present a crisp twenty-dollar bill to his favorite waiters at each of his regular haunts. The waiters would grasp the bills as though they were the crown jewels. It wasn’t the money they were reacting to – it was the thought, the fanfare, the connection to a different era and attitude. He always called waiters by name and he always asked a million questions about their homes, their families, and their heritage. And he remembered every answer, because every answer was important to him.

My father never managed to get a sandwich named after him at the Stage Deli, and he never won the Nobel Prize. Years after his death, however, a diner on Columbus Avenue still offers “The Professor Salad,” and you can still order “Professor’s Special Lobster Cantonese” at a local Chinese restaurant. And I like to think that, somewhere out there, the Russian grill man is teaching physics at a prestigious university but still remembers how to make “Eggs Professor.”

Part III: The Fourth Guy

The most recent diner in my life has been the Three Guys diner on 96th Street and Madison Avenue, right near Mount Sinai Hospital. I stopped in at Three Guys for breakfast once in a while, but I lived in the neighborhood for 14 years without developing a relationship with the Three Guys. It took childbirth to change all that.

After giving birth to our son, PJ, my wife was hungry. But Ellen also had narrowly focused appetites. She only wanted to eat poached eggs. So I walked over to Three Guys and ordered three poached eggs, no toast, no potatoes, no nothing. They packed the eggs in a blue-and-white paper coffee cup decorated with a Parthenon motif. Three poached eggs in a cup became my standing order at Three Guys several times a day for the five days Ellen and PJ were in the hospital. I had merely to set foot in the door before the guy at the counter -- I always referred to him as "Guy Number Three" -- would say, "Three poached eggs in a cup?"

During labor, Ellen had spiked a fever, so after the delivery both she and PJ had to be placed on intravenous antibiotics for several days while tests were run to determine the cause of the fever. In the end, nobody ever figured it out. It may have just been dehydration. But for those days there was a lot of stress, as anybody who has had a baby incarcerated in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit can testify.

We made it through this difficult time thanks to the amazing NICU nurses and, in large part, thanks to an father-and-son team of pediatricians, incredible in their assurances. The son (though, curiously, not the assimilated father) was an observant Jew sporting a beard and a yarmulke. A couple of times each day, one or the other of them would visit us in Ellen’s room, deliver a briefing and patiently answer all our questions – then offer to answer more questions.

The last day Ellen was in the hospital I brought her the usual poached eggs and, for myself, a Swiss cheese and bacon omelette with home fries, buttered toast and, in addition to the bacon in the omelette, a double side order of extra-crispy bacon. I had barely eaten in days and desperately needed an infusion of salty, fatty goodness. Not on account of inherent greatness, but due to the circumstances leading up to its consumption, that breakfast was one of the most satisfying meals I’ve ever eaten.

The bacon aroma was pervasive. By the time I was four bites into my feast, the entire hospital room had filled with the scent of bacon. An orderly popped his head in: "What you got in there? It smells good!"

It was at that moment that our Orthodox Jewish doctor walked in for the morning briefing. He did a double take as he ran into the aromatic wall of bacon, but tried valiantly to pretend he didn't notice. I awkwardly repositioned the paper lid to recover the round foil take-out container that held my omelette. The doctor made that day's presentation in the distracted manner of a person answering questions while trying to watch the Superbowl. It's not that he was offended; he didn't strike me as a sheltered type. But the redolence in that room that day would have been challenging even for a card-carrying Bacon of the Month Club member. Perhaps it had nothing to do with the bacon, but at the end of our talk he announced that he was discharging us a day early.

After a couple of weeks at home with our newborn son, never straying farther than the stoop out front of our building, we were getting stir-crazy. So we started talking about where we might go out for a meal. It was three blocks to Three Guys, and just getting off the block seemed a nearly insurmountable obstacle. But we went, with my mother, her boyfriend and several tote bags full of baby gear in tow. Guy Number Three, behind the counter, saw Ellen and the infant PJ walk in with me, put it all together in his mind, gestured wildly at Ellen and proclaimed, "Three poached eggs in a cup!"

Though he didn't eat any of the food and wasn't awake (he would later spend approximately three consecutive years awake, but at this point we were still enjoying nature's grace period and he slept a lot), it was PJ's first meal in a restaurant. Every member of the restaurant's staff came by the table to pay respects. We saved the check for PJ's scrapbook.

On the way out, Guy Number Three at the counter asked, "What his name?"

"PJ," we answered.

He walked over to the stroller and gazed down. "PJ," he said, "We make you honorary fourth guy!”

Part IV: They Don’t Call it The Cosmic Coffee Shop for Nothing

Nobody is entirely clear on how I got into law school. I was reminded of this state of affairs just this past year, when I signed on to teach a writing course at the International Culinary Center (the entity that comprises the French Culinary Institute and Italian Culinary Academy). In order to teach, I needed to get licensed by the New York State Education Department Bureau of Proprietary School Supervision Licensing Unit. In New York State, you can’t just get up and teach a class. You have to go through a process that includes documenting that you’re a high-school graduate.

I may or may not have graduated from high school. In addition to my poor overall attendance, I had a conflicted relationship to gym class, failing it seven times -- a record for my school and perhaps the world. In my last semester of high school, I needed to take three hours a day of gym in order to get caught up – a requirement I fulfilled by working in the gym office. They all loved me because I was the only person in the office smart enough to execute, without errors, each day’s lunch order from the local deli.

It remains unclear whether or not I earned enough credits to graduate, but the University of Vermont wasn’t all that thorough about checking. So I went to college. I remained an underachiever in college, but a clever underachiever can game the college system pretty well, especially when that college allows “individually designed majors” composed entirely of classes with sympathetic professors. And I was always a whiz at standardized tests like the LSAT. So, absurdly, I wound up at Fordham Law School in New York City. Much to the surprise of everybody who had known me my entire life, I did pretty well there. I reached deep within myself and found the motivation to achieve for one year, my first year of law school, the only year that matters.

But am I a high-school graduate? When the licensing procedure came up I asked my mother if she had a copy of my high-school diploma. In roughly sixty seconds she located a file of my high-school-era documents, which included report cards and forged absence notes for gym, but there was no diploma. Given that Stuyvesant High School relocated a while back, I can’t imagine ever getting to the bottom of this.

My solution to the licensing puzzle was to submit my law school transcript, because even if I didn’t graduate from law school, I have a document that says I did. So I’m sticking to the argument “If I graduated from law school, I must have graduated from high school.” So far the New York State Education Department Bureau of Proprietary School Supervision Licensing Unit has gone along with it.

Around the corner from Fordham Law School was a diner, the Cosmic Coffee Shop, but I didn’t frequent the place. I lived on the East Side and my round trips to Fordham, combined with my new-found work ethic, didn’t leave time for hanging out at the diner. So it was not until late in my third year of law school, when I’d already secured a job at a firm and was a firmly retrenched attendance underachiever, that my friend Larry and I decided one day to get a late lunch at the Cosmic Coffee Shop.

We sat in a black-vinyl-covered booth and perused the menus. I was arriving at the decision to order a cheeseburger when a shadow fell across the table. An exasperated voice announced, “You again.” I looked up. It was George.

“What you want?” I ordered a cheeseburger. Larry ordered a roast-beef sandwich. “Yeah, yeah,” said George as he stormed off to place our order. “Why does that guy hate you so much?” Larry wondered aloud.

George occasionally refilled our water or cleared a plate, all without comment. At the end of the meal, when presenting our check, George asked, “Where you been?” I explained to George that I had gone to college and was now about to graduate from law school. For the first and last time, I saw a hint of a smile on George’s face.

George brought our change and I commented to him that it was an interesting coincidence that I had gone to Fordham and he had taken a job at the coffee shop around the corner. “Yeah, yeah,” said George. “Go now. Stay away.”

I returned to the Cosmic Coffee Shop the next day, prepared to do battle with George. He wasn’t there. I asked the manager if George was there, and his response was “George who? Nobody named George works here.” I never saw George again. Larry has no memory of the incident, nor does he remember the Cosmic Coffee Shop. From Larry when I emailed to confirm my memories: "I don't remember. Sorry. (Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry)." Keara, another close friend from law school, thinks the diner was called the Olympic, or the Flame, or maybe the Olympic Flame.

There are two theories.

Theory number one: George was not George’s real name. He had an unpronounceable, probably Albanian, name and George was just a nickname. At his new place of employment, he went by a different nickname. In addition, I dined at the restaurant, the name of which I've remembered incorrectly, on George’s last day of work.

Theory number two: George was a guardian angel of sorts. All his studied gruffness, his apparent hatred, had really been unconditional love tempered with profound disappointment. He was always looking out for me, willing me with every fiber of his being to succeed. And once he ascertained that I was on the path towards law-school graduation, he knew his work at the Cosmic Coffee Shop was done so he dematerialized, along with the Cosmic Coffee Shop, and moved on to his next assignment.

Take your pick.

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A most enjoyable read. Thank you.

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I'll take my pick, and it's neither number one nor two.

It's the grapes that done you in.

Please continue, I love it. And say hello to PJ, remember he called as you and I had our Pastrami Sandwich at Katz's and he wanted to know if I were Jewish.

There are times I wish I was, and would have more fun like you do.

Keep up this work for me to enjoy. Thanks

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"Take With Food" has been selected for inclusion in the anthology Best Food Writing 2009. Congratulations, Steven!

This is the third year in a row that the Daily Gullet has placed articles in BFW, and the second time in three years for multiple inclusions. Read the official announcement here.

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