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Wednesday, October 20, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Taste Of The Town

A Trip Home Means Time To Satisfy Old Hunger

Seattle Times Restaurant Critic

So, I took a vacation. If you can call flying back East to visit the relatives a vacation. It was 8 a.m. when we arrived at Philadelphia International Airport and on the way to baggage claim I saw it: Real pizza, hot out of the oven. Thin, sturdy crust, lots of mozzarella, tomato sauce that lives up to the name. I looked longingly at my husband, who had our kid under his arm, and in return got a "Don't be ridiculous!" look. What does he know? He's from Chicago, where pizza comes disguised as a quiche.

Pizza wasn't the only thing I couldn't wait to eat. Rolling along on the Avis shuttle bus I could already taste that dreamy cheesesteak, served on an authentic Italian roll with a mix of sweet and hot pickled cherry peppers.

Stowing bags in the trunk, I was mentally preparing to wash the footlong sandwich down with Frank's Black Cherry Wishniak soda and a TastyKake cherry pie.

It was clear from the minute I got off the plane that, for me, this vacation was not about sun (which there was), or sand (plenty of that too, once we reached the Jersey Shore), or even about showing off the kid to friends and relatives. It was all about assuaging Old Hunger. Which, loosely defined, is the longing for foods that recall who you are and where you're from - the things you miss most when you're years and miles from the place you once called home.

I lasted slightly more than 24 hours post-arrival before heading to Jack's Delicatessen. I went there despite the fact that my sister assured me my memory of Jack's - and its corned-beef specials - would be far better than the reality. What did she know? She's never lived in a town where corned beef comes shrink-wrapped and lean.

Jack's, in the heart of my childhood neighborhood, was slammed. Seated at a cramped booth, my husband and I sat patiently, taking in the scene while delving into a bowl of half-sour pickles - the same pickles I dream of every time I eat a boring kosher dill in Seattle. Eventually our waitress showed up to take an order. She stood before us doing that lick-your-finger-and-turn-the-page thing with her check pad: a routine that would have had me running for the door elsewhere, but proved downright endearing here. We ordered two Jack's Specials and received stunning stacks of marbled corned beef topped with coleslaw and Russian dressing. These came on Jewish rye the likes of which I haven't found on the West Coast 20 years of searching.

When I asked her how long she'd worked here she answered, "28 years," adding (not that I'd asked), "Jack paid for my house, Jack paid for my two sons' bar mitzvahs, and Jack paid for my one son's wedding. I'm still praying he'll pay for my other son's wedding."

"How old is your other son?" I asked. "Fifty-two," she said. I started to cry when she turned away and I'm starting to cry again now knowing how long it'll be before I get to sink my teeth into another Jack's Special.

Next stop: Abe's & Son Appetizers. Here, old men kibitzed behind the counter as they searched out the "schmaltzy" (translation: fatty) piece of kippered salmon my sister begged me to bring home to her in the 'burbs. Now this is stuff you'll never find at Pike Place Market. One old guy sliced me a half-pound of "regular" lox (the seriously salty stuff) directly from a whole side of fish. Another spooned homemade whitefish salad from the tub next to the chopped liver. Right next door to Abe's, as ever, waited Brooklyn Bagels, where the holy ones come hot by-the-dozen. My parents often drove here on Sunday mornings and the bagels (no, they don't have blueberry!) would still be warm by the time we kids got our paws on them. Nothing in Seattle even comes close.

Eventually I got around to eating that cheesesteak, which was everything I'd dreamed of. Had the TastyKake pie, too, but that proved to be the downside of Old Hunger: it doesn't always live up to expectations. Anyway, don't even get me talking about the briny clams on the half-shell that fronted a two-pound lobster dinner sided with sweet Jersey corn. Or the big, fat, barbecued spare ribs slathered with duck sauce that are impossible to find anywhere but on the other coast. But what I would like to talk about is your Old Hunger.

Where are you from, and what do you miss? What can you get there that you can't get here? Call me (206-464-8838). Write me (nleson@seattletimes.com; P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111). We'll discuss it later.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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