When I was twelve, I remember settling in for dinner with the typical thin blue haze hovering through our kitchen. I didn't like it but its negative presence was ingrained into my psyche. So with nothing to compare it with, it seemed natural. Mindlessly, I dug into my half grapefruit as my nose sorted through the stale tobacco stench and sniffed-out the sweet scent of onions rolls coming out of the oven. It was at that moment I thought life's calm was about to end. Instead it was a defining and wonderful moment in my family history.
My fourteen year-old sister waved her hand defiantly over the two ashtrays we had misguidedly made at camp. Her symbolic gesture cleared enough poison away to safely say, "Is it okay if you don't smoke while we eat?" My jaw dropped. There was a dead silence. Sis, the little rebel was certainly going to get it. In an awkward pause, my folks looked at each other. They didn't get pissed-off. They didn't even use their common answer to questions they were unprepared for...we'll see.
In the lull she added, "The cigarettes make the food taste bad, it hurts my eyes and makes my throat scratchy." When my parents remained mute she continued, "Steve, you don't like the smoke either...right?"
I was a choirboy. I never made demands or tried to change policies but I was backed into a corner. All six eyes were trained on me. I avoided eye contact and stared at the forgotten nub of a Kent cigarette smoldering in the mis-shaped yellow ashtray, (with the green dot in the middle), that I so proudly hand-crafted for my mother. Dad impatiently huffed, mom set down the bread basket and looked down at me as my sister said, "Well?" I looked at all three of them. I was nervous as I tried to piece together an impromptu response. I focused on my nodding sister as my voice cracked, "I...I mean...we...don't like the smoke when we eat."
As strange as it seems, this act was immediately passed into law. The bigger picture was the kitchen table turned into an open forum for the next eleven years until I moved out. The good, the bad, the funny, the sad, the dreams and disillusionment, the rumors, gossip and all of life's nonsense were shared through these "open-mike" sessions.
On a larger scale, we averaged eating-out close to twice a week. Just about every Saturday was Italian food, Sundays were Chinese, and delicatessens, diners and other places were mixed in throughout the year. Therefore these car rides throughout Brooklyn extended the boundaries of our chats. These opportunities improved on special occasions because we would venture further to favorite spots like, "THE TOP OF SIXES," in Manhattan or "ANNA'S HARBOR," on City Island in the Bronx.
I remember some of my friends would poke fun of our travels. They couldn't understand why anyone go so far and frequently...just to eat. Especially in such exotic locales as a Spanish, Greek, German, French or even Czech restaurant. I doubt I ever explained myself properly at the time but these were outings...not just getting something to eat. My sister and I learned the subtleties of other cultures while this excursions strengthened the backbone of our togetherness.
Some of those friends of mine never left the neighbor to eat...I even had one who was welcome to join his family but HAD TO PAY his own way. That's one way to get your kid to think twice about ordering a second soda...or tagging along at all.
Our road trips frequently took us to New Jersey. The most adventurous trip was the two-plus hours to Atlantic City...more specifically to Mays Landing to a place called ZABERER'S. It was a dark old-fashioned restaurant that featured continental cuisine. As if we weren't starving enough, the line to get in was so long that we always had an hour wait in the bar. While mom and pop were getting "Zaberized," hors d'oeuvres were provided. I was partial to the cut-up salami chunks. My parents...to placate me...pretended that they weren't for kids and would "smuggle" me an occasional piece as if it was against the rules...thus avoiding the spoiling of my appetite on crap. Zaberer's only other attempt to cater to kids was a treasure chest of goodies...like tiny toys and miniature candies...which when you had a small mind like me, kept me quiet and wanting to return.
THE INTERNET DID NOT HAVE ANY IMAGES OF ZABERER'S. INSTEAD, THIS POSTCARD IS FROM THE SIMILAR BUT INFERIOR ED ZABERER'S IN WILDWOOD.
A lot closer (an hour from home), was "LARISON'S TURKEY FARM," in Chester, NJ. They served a Thanksgiving feast every day of the year. Part of their gimmick was everything they served was grown on the attached farm. You could even drop by a few days a head of time and select your specific turkey, (victim).
The restaurant was a huge 200-year old house. The grand dining room had gigantic tables and the meals were served family-style...so if you didn't have your own mega-party, you were seated with strangers.I ONLY REMEMBER ROUND TABLES. THIS PHOTO IS FROM 1962.
To kill time while waiting for a table, the Turkey Farm had a visitors loop out back. You could see demonstrations in the barn on baking bread and pies or see how the potatoes and other vegetables are harvested and prepared for your dinner plate. Also, like a small zoo, you could see their collection of livestock; like cows, sheep, pigs...but mostly turkeys.
My favorite road trip restaurant was the middle distance one. "PETERSON'S SUNSET CABIN," was a steakhouse in Lakewood. They featured a large dining room with a tremendous grilling station perched upon a pedestal. I was fascinated by the shooting flames, crackling sizzle and delicious aroma. My folks gravitated to the other more intimate rooms but our unsaid agreement was simply...first available table.
The steaks were memorable. Their salad divine, (it was a quarter head of lettuce that I slathered in Russian dressing), and their tasty little dinner rolls were to die for. Bundle it together and Peterson's was my go-to place. But the one episode that we never stopped talking about had nothing to do with food.
One time, a drunken couple were seriously groping each other in a booth near our table. My mom and sister didn't mind but my dad was embarrassed. And for pre-pubescent me...it was an age of self-discovery.PETERSON'S IS LONG GONE. SURPRISINGLY, I COULDN'T FIND ANY PICTURES FROM ITS HEY DAY. ABOVE IS A REAL ESTATE PHOTO OF THE BUILDING'S ABANDONED SHELL.
At home, one of our kitchen round-table discussion staples had to do with our car breaking down on the way to Peterson's. In the town of Sayreville (1968), Dad drove too fast through a puddle and we stalled. He was convinced that the wires would dry and that we'd be on our way. In the near distance, the golden arches of McDonald's beckoned. At that time, for whatever reason, Mickey D's had no franchises within the New York, city limits. Therefore to us McNovices, it was forbidden fruit. Despite my sister and I whining...we starved. Mom wanted a steak dinner and was adamant that we had to wait for Peterson's.
Dad was a afraid to flood the engine so his attempts to start the car were well spaced. We were hungry and freezing for nearly an hour when mom suggested calling for help. Dad would have nothing of it and said, "We'll wait twenty more minutes and try the car one last time. Then I'll call for a tow truck." I chimed in, "So we can walk to McDonald's and be back..." Mom interrupted, "No!"
Twenty minutes later, the car started right up. But it was still a long way to Lakewood and it was getting late. That's when mom spotted a big barn-shaped steakhouse called, "KENNY ACRES."
Kenny Acres would become a punchline of millions of bad food jokes...for decades. Compared to Peterson's and its charming rustic log cabin motif, Kenny Acres was as much a barn on the inside as out. The service was horrible, the steaks were salty, the rest of the food was bad and the prices were expensive. Even the restroom stall in the filthy men's room had no door. When our disaster was over, mom agreed that that was the time to try out McDonald's.
Today is mom's day. So whenever possible, let her have her way. You never know...in the rare moment that something turns out so bad...that you'll talk about it fondly...forever...and it'll turn out to be another great memory of her.