Of Landsman and Cabbage Strudel

July 27, 2012 · 18 comments

lands·man (läntsmn)

n. pl. lands·leit (-lt)

A fellow Jew who comes from the same district or town, especially in Eastern Europe.

[Yiddish, from Middle High German lantsmancountryman : lantland (from Old High German; see lendh- in Indo-European roots) + manman (from Old High German; see man-1in Indo-European roots).]

My father was a Manhattanite — an urbane New Yorker of gin Gibsons and Yma Sumac, who had Mitteleuropish roots and a torrid affair with The Modern Jazz Quartet, pastries, and schlag. This was the 1960s, just twenty years after the War, when it was hip to be a British musician playing in a club in Hamburg, or a Jewish businessman going for an unmolested stroll down the Kartnerstrasse. During those Mad Men days of after-work cocktail parties and three-martini client lunches, my father’s dinner, wherever it was eaten — either near his office in The French Building on Fifth Avenue or at home in Forest Hills — was punctuated by a visit to a tidy little Hungarian bakery on the Upper East Side, called Mrs. Herbst.

There was a certain sense of pride, ownership, and even familial comfort to ending meals there: my father’s mother had come to the United States in 1899, from a pastry-laden land that was decimated during World War II. My father’s uncle had settled in the 1920s in Vienna’s Oberdobling neighborhood, fleeing just before the Anschluss. My mother’s maternal grandparents had come from Budapest in the late 1800s; while I have no recollection of their daughter — my grandmother — ever baking (she was a strict roast chicken and goulash woman), she apparently was such a practiced strudel maker that she could roll out sheets of dough so whisper-thin and wide that they’d drape over the edges of her dining room table, like a linen tablecloth. I never saw her do it because, once she discovered Mrs. Herbst before I was born — thanks to my father — she didn’t have to. People who frequented the bakery were Landsman of a modern sort; they were cut from the same pastry-loving, New York, Mitteleuropish cloth that was wistful, proud, and hungry for a sweet connection to their past.

In truth, there was no love lost between my father and his mother-in-law, but they did have an understanding: if he was going to Mrs. Herbst, he would return home with a long, white pastry box housing a foot-length of still-warm strudel for her. On the nights when my mother and I went with him, he’d park outside my grandmother’s apartment building (which was right across the street from ours) and send me upstairs with it. People in the elevator swooned.

One night, with my father’s Buick idling downstairs, my grandmother opened the box, sliced off a small piece of strudel and handed it to me on a paper napkin.

Elissala, try it

I took a bite while she watched my face.

I was expecting apple. I got cabbage.

I was eleven.

You can imagine my dismay.

Grandma, I choked–this isn’t apple!

I adored her, and she, I. We were very protective of each other, and I didn’t want her eating anything that seemed so dangerously counterintuitive. I was certain that this stuff that we’d brought home for her from the prim Mrs. Herbst was just a huge and terrible gastronomical error. Someone in the kitchen had clearly screwed up. My grandmother just smiled.

“Cabbage strudel is the best thing,” she said, wagging her finger at me. “Nothing better.”

A few years later, Mrs. Herbst closed, and there was no more cabbage strudel in my life, or my grandmother’s. One of the original Herbst bakers opened up a small bakery down the block from us in Forest Hills — Andre’s; it’s still there — but once my grandmother’s ethno-culinary connection to her Hungarian roots closed its doors, that was it: cabbage strudel became nothing more than a memory both for her, and for me. She never talked about it after that, and I never thought about it again. She died suddenly, a few months after I left for college; I boarded the Eastern shuttle at LaGuardia and waved goodbye to her. And just like that, she was gone.

In 2005, I read a New York Times article by Nora Ephron which started with words that chilled me:

Food vanishes. 

Of course, this is true. And if you live long enough in New York, the foods that you take for granted, that you assume will always be there, invariably disappear. Hot chestnuts — the kind cooked over an open flame instead of under a tanning lamp  clipped to a kiosk selling fake Chanel handbags — on Fifth Avenue. Egg creams made by an old man who wouldn’t know a hipster from a dumpster. Ebinger’s blackout cake. Rye bread from Jay-Dee Bakery. A slice of oily, dripping pizza from the tiny pizzeria across the street from my childhood apartment. A potato knish from the original Knish-Nosh, which is now a Starbucks. Date nut bread and cream cheese sandwiches at Chock Full O’Nuts. Holsteiner Schnitzel at Luchow’s. Warm croissants at Dumas. Lee Lum’s lemon chicken, at the original Pearl’s.

Gone. All of them.

Vanished. Just like that.

When I read Nora’s piece about my grandmother’s beloved cabbage strudel, I was stunned in the most visceral of ways. I sobbed and read it again; I hadn’t thought about cabbage strudel, or Mrs. Herbst — the place that was so vitally important to my father, to my grandmother, and to us as New Yorkers — for years. And I realized why — though I loved Nora’s work for its pitch-perfection and its timing and its subtle, sad brilliance and hilarious humanity  — I had always felt such a profound connection to her: Nora Ephron was a Landsman.

She would, I was sure, know to always order a round knish, and not a square one. She’d never order her pastrami on white. She loved Mrs. Herbst, and she loved my grandmother’s favorite cabbage strudel. Nobody loved my grandmother’s favorite cabbage strudel. When I read that article, Mrs. Herbst’s bakery was alive again. And so was my grandmother.

Nora was a fixture in the city we shared. She absorbed its humor and pathos and food in one fell swoop. Nora was like the breath that you never have to think about taking, but that you always do, no matter what.

The night that the news of her death officially hit the wires — she would say wires, right? — I was having dinner with my mother in a pseudo-French bistro half a block away from The Apthorp, the mammoth apartment building where Nora lived for so many years until the day she came home and discovered that her rent had gone up to $12,000 a month. Whenever I walk past The Apthorp, I always think of her and the New Yorker article she wrote about living there. It was around 7 pm that night and the crowded restaurant was filled with people like me who were checking their email on their cell phones. My mother was talking loudly about her chicken-under-a-brick. Suddenly, everyone seemed to gasp all at once, and the place went silent.

What? my mother asked, chewing on a roll.

She’s gone–I whispered, looking at my phone.

Who’s gone?

Nora Ephron–

My mother shook her head.

That can’t be right, she said.

But like the things that made my New York my New York — cabbage strudel, Mrs. Herbst, my grandmother — Nora was gone. Vanished.

Just like that.

 

 

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Antonia Allegra July 30, 2012 at 5:15 pm

Nora may vanish, Elissa, but not her words. And even you may vanish, but definitely not your words. I toast a cabbage strudel to you!

2 Rachel Willen July 30, 2012 at 5:28 pm

I grew up in the Bronx, in the late 50s and early 60s when it was a “landsman” territory dotted with bakeries like the one you describe. The poppy seed strudel is the one I yearn to have again…but cannot find….not with the right crust, the one that was buttery and flaky and had amazing texture. Thank you for a beautiful tribute to Nora, your grandmother and vanishing foods…I hope they will circle around again with the latest trend in “artisinal” foods…back then it wasn’t called that…but it was all fresh and handmade and wonderful!

3 alyssa July 30, 2012 at 5:40 pm

this is gorgeous, elissa, as always.

i was in the apthorpe once, a party thrown by a friend of my brother’s. it was unreal, enormous, and i asked for a tour.

find me some *real* seven layer cake and i will be eternally grateful. not the kind with icing in between the layers but a type of pudding. my grandma (miller, not ettinger) used to buy it for me at the butterflake bakery, in teaneck NJ.

4 Veronica July 30, 2012 at 6:26 pm

Hello Elissa, I’ve never heard of Nora (may I be forgiven) but your feelings of loss, and yet too of hope, come through your pages. My commiserations.

I’ve just discovered your site (through Orangette, or The Wednesday Chef perhaps) and have spent the last time reading your site, from beginning to end. Eloquent, interesting, touching and sometimes just damn funny, I love your writing. Your food ain’t half bad, either – :)

SO glad I’ve come across your site. Thank you.

5 Iris July 30, 2012 at 6:48 pm

I grew up in Forest Hills in the fifties. The bakery we frequented EVERY Sunday morning was called Rose Bakery. Nothing could compare to their breads and rolls. I was not attracted to sweets, so I’m sure the cabbage strudel would be MY favorite too. Loved reading your tribute to your grandmother, her strudel and to Nora. I finally (at the age of 69) have attained the wisdom to value my past and cherish it. My heritage is Lithuanian/Russian/Jewish —- not Hungarian — but I consider myself as lantsman, and for that reason, as well as your great recipes, I’ll continue to follow your website. Thank you.

6 Vanessa July 30, 2012 at 6:50 pm

Now you have me longIng for a knish from knish-nosh (grandpa used to buy them for me) and a decent black and white cookie (not the gummy things you find now) but most of all, sharing slices of date nut bread and cream cheese long after my bedtime with my dad. Food, and people, vanish and it can be impossible to explain to others what made them truly special.

7 Stacy July 31, 2012 at 3:22 am

So many of my recipes include stories about my grandmother’s and the food we loved to make – and eat. Your story touched me. Nora knew our hearts and minds. You know those and our food. Food does indeed vanish, but the people and memories live on and you are doing your best to keep them alive. I salute you!

8 Victoria July 31, 2012 at 6:57 am

It took me a minute. When I looked at the NYTimes computer screen, I thought it was an article about Nora. Then I realized it had dates, and the second one was 2012. That’s when I gasped.

This is beautiful and particularly resonates with me. My best friend’s mother was from Budapest. She and her husband emigrated to the U.S., and both their children were born in New York. Gizi was a spectacular cook. When she was 80, I spent a weekend with her, learning how to make chicken paprikash, goulash, and nockerli. And I have heard Walter and his sister Margaret singing the praises, and lamenting the end, of Mrs. Herbst’s cabbage strudel for years.

I still miss those cream cheese sandwiches.

9 Sarah July 31, 2012 at 9:56 am

Her words are remain, though. This makes me want to write like the dickens, E, so I can “preserve” what I can before it vanishes.
Like you’re doing, here. xx

10 Laura H July 31, 2012 at 11:36 am

Tears to my eyes, literally. While I am not a native New Yorker, nor Jewish (wasp from Cleveland, of all places), I can relate. My mother grew up in a small town in southeastern Ohio, which had primarily Scots/Irish/English population. One of the bakeries there made Eccles cakes. At every holiday, my granny bought boxes of them, as did my aunt. Then there were Fly Biscuits (shortbread with currents), which my grandfather adored. All these disappeared when the bakery closed (Millers, in East Liverpool, OH.)

Of course, one can find recipes, but they’re not the same, no matter how I slave over the pastry. They can even be found via mail order, and while they do (a bit) invoke the memories of my past with my grandparents, it’s not the same, they’re gone forever…

One thing I am doing, is taking all my Granny V’s recipes and putting them into a blog, mostly to preserve them for my children and nieces and cousins. http://peacockwithstuffing.wordpress.com/

Thank you for writing this. Very moving indeed.

11 Jennifer P July 31, 2012 at 12:28 pm

News of Nora’s death struck me in the same way as hearing of the death of Julia Child did several years ago. Someone who I never met yet identified with on an almost intimate level. Both left legacies that will continue to touch us forevr.

12 Laura August 1, 2012 at 8:57 am

So where’s the recipe. Sounds great, never had it. I make a wicked lemon chicken, next time you come down it’s yours. It’s why Joey stays with me. : )
Laura

13 Rocky Mountain Woman August 1, 2012 at 5:50 pm

She is gone, but her words are still here to comfort us and challenge us and make us think. What a legacy! lovely lovely tribute, I’ll bet she would have been pleased by it..

14 Mary Braun August 1, 2012 at 11:27 pm

Is not impermanence the very fragrace of our days.–Rilke

Lovely post.

15 Deb August 3, 2012 at 5:16 pm

I am a native Californian, visitor of New York. My mother, also a native Californian, learned to make strudel when we lived in Austria. I can still recall her buttered fingertips gently stretching the dough until it hung over the sides of the kitchen table. For fear of tearing the dough, I was only allowed to watch, never help. Her favorite was apple, then cherry. (I have no food memory of cabbage filled strudel.) As a child, apple strudel was always my favorite dessert. Until her fingers were crippled with arthritis my birthday would bring a gift of apple strudel. Your post evoked strong sensory memories. Food memories can be so intense, evoking a time and place almost as clearly as if we could travel there one again.

16 Lee August 10, 2012 at 5:43 am

I have opened this post several times in my google reader only to become distracted and click away but I kept coming back to it instead of marking it as read. Finally, tonight, unable to sleep I finished reading and and realized why.
When Nora died, I thought “She’s the same age as my Dad”. You see, my Dad had a stroke in May. When she died, things were looking good. He was recovering. Things took a turn for the worse and he died on July 29th. I was reading her books from the library and in I Remember Nothing, it ends with a list of things she would miss when she died. The last thing on the list was pie and I sobbed thinking of a story my Mom had just told me about the daughter of Dad’s roommate in the hospital bringing him a piece a pie from blueberries she had grown herself. I was so grateful to this woman I didn’t know. I so wanted to be her- to bring my Dad pie- but I am so grateful that he got that last piece of delicious pie. Thanks so much for sharing this.

17 Patti December 29, 2013 at 1:08 am

I can remember my grandmother making her strudel (retés) on her kitchen table with the dough stretched so very thin. There was always poppyseed, apple, walnut and cabbage. I managed to make kifles this year for Christmas, but nothing tastes as good as what my grandmother and mother made. I miss them. I miss Nora too.

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