Harry meets Aunt Rhona & Uncle Morris
By Michael Schulman
The summer I started my catering business, a friend in western Massachusetts introduces me to a Nice Jewish Girl who has a thriving, small catering business there. We hit it off immediately, and she asks me to help her with a big job, a Bar Mitzvah spanning two days. I’m happy to help, eager to observe and learn.
Esther, however, is even more high-strung than me. Breathing makes her nervous. Before I leave Boston, my father calls to wish me luck. I tell him, "this has to be the most neurotic person I've ever met."
He says, "No, you mean the second most neurotic," meaning that my mother is the first.
"Dad, this woman makes mom look the Dalai Lama."
I drive directly to the temple and am greeted with the usual mayhem that precedes a catering job. Plus, everything has to be kosher, so we must prepare all the food in the temple's kitchen with their utensils, pans, dishes, etc. as Esther’s equipment has not been kept according to kosher dietary laws. Since milk products can't be served with meat, this will be an all-dairy meal. The temple has two sets of dishes, and even two refrigerators: one for dairy and one for meat. The meat refrigerator and dish cabinets are locked, and only the rabbi has the key, to ensure that there will be no mistakes.
One of our prep cooks isn't Jewish, and she asks "What happens if you get milk on a meat dish?" As Esther starts her spiel, I interrupt: "You have to bury it in a hole in the back yard. Then you have to walk around over the hole every day for a week, chanting. On odd days, you have to walk clockwise, and on even days you have to walk counter-clockwise."
Esther glares at me.
The function is a Bar Mitzvah, and the boy’s mother was made from the same batch of dough as Esther. They escalate (the technical word is utch in Yiddish) each other:
"Don't forget that you can't put any nuts in the tsimmes. My husband is allergic."
“And also mushrooms--"
"Your brother can't eat them. They're bad for his gout—“
“And don't use any more cucumbers than you have to—“
"I know. They give you gas."
This goes on all day.
Esther leaves me in charge of two women, prepping in the kitchen, while she runs out to pick up food and equipment. Every time she comes back she races into the kitchen breathlessly and the first thing she says is, "Did anybody call? Is everything alright?"
Of course no one called, and of course we are still peeling carrots for the tsimmes.
On the fourth time I tell her, with as straight a face as I can: "While you were gone, something terrible happened," and her expression changes to alarm. "These two guys came in wearing ski masks, and they had guns. And they made us put all the food from the milk refrigerator into the meat refrigerator."
As the big day approaches Esther is spending more time in the kitchen, running around like a lunatic, getting more tense and spreading the tension to us like margarine on a bagel. The phone on the wall rings constantly, and although it’s usually someone looking for the custodian, Esther can’t resist the siren call of a ringing phone and feels compelled to interrupt herself to answer it, which wastes time. In her most official voice she says, “Kitchen!” What is this, the White House? It’s just a Bar Mitzvah in a temple in western Massachusetts. So when she rushes to the phone and barks, “Kitchen!” I yell, “Pig Blood Catering! How may I help you?”
Sometimes people are calling for directions to the temple, which is in the town of Athol. So whenever Esther tells them it's in Athol, one of us adds, "It's right next to Anus."
She gets us all into such a frenzy that finally I grab her and say, "Esther, if you don't calm down I’m gonna schmear butter on the brisket, spritz milk on the meat, and put lobster in the latkes.”
During the function we scurry around doing our jobs. The mother and Esther continue to go at each other, competing for the Ms. Most Meshuge title. There is an older son, home from college, who is trying to keep his distance. His mother keeps needing him, and he conveniently disappears whenever she starts looking for him.
"Harry, I need you to get the ice out of Grampa's car."
"Harry, call the florist and see what time they’re coming."
"Harry, bring Uncle Bernie his angina medicine."
Harry is usually out of sight.
A recurring theme for The Mother throughout the day: "Where is Harry? I want him to meet Aunt Rhona and Uncle Morris from Cleveland. He never met them before. Well, he did, once, when he was 14 months old, but he wouldn't remember it was so long ago." Five minutes later: "Where is Harry. I want him to meet Aunt Rhona and Uncle Morris from Cleveland..."
Harry has the awareness of a hunted animal. When he senses his mother is looking for him, he disappears into the crowd. And she comes trailing through the kitchen, with her refrain.
Finally, the event is over. The staff is clearing the tables, walking around saying to each other, “May the Schwarz be with you!” Esther and I are in the kitchen cleaning up. The mother comes in to thank us. "You people were wonderful, all of you. Especially you two. Is he your fiancé?"
“No, a friend.”
"Would you like a drink?"
"No, thank you. We don't drink on the job."
"Well, help yourself to any food that you want," she says magnanimously. (Aside from one staff to another: "As if we wouldn't have eaten anything we wanted while we were slaving over the hot stove.")
“We can’t eat this food,” I say, seriously.
“Why not?” she asks with concern.
Before Esther can stop me I answer, “Because we saw how it was made.”
At least she laughs. "No, seriously. If there's anything you want or need, just ask."
"Well, there is one thing I would like," I say, tentatively.
"Sure, name it."
“I would really like to meet Aunt Rhona and Uncle Morris from Cleveland!"
Michael Schulman has an M.A. in psychology, worked with children, and ran his own catering business, Michaelangelo’s, for 20 years. In 2004 he went to Brazil to start a business teaching English through cooking. His article about Carnival in Brazil (with recipes) was published in the Boston Globe. He still worries about running out of food..
from the October 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine