Wednesday, December 18, 2013
You can't just drive by
It was the morning after Thanksgiving. The feast from the night before was still being digested. Food was the last thing on our minds.
Since the out-of-towners were in for the holiday, it seemed a good moment to dedicate my mother-in-laws gravestone. So we all gathered in the cemetery in Westchester. People snap at honors, but I can't think of a better one than 15 of your closest relatives standing in the foot-stamping, finger-numbing cold, for a solid hour, telling each other what they already know: what a fantastic person you were, how much you are missed.
Finally we ended. "I can't feel my feet," my wife said, signaling the tribute had come to a close. Then we all had to adjourn to Bellwood, it being so close, to see the old house, where my wife and her siblings grew up.
After the house had been sufficiently admired, it was time to go to lunch. But I was driving. So though we had feasted the night before, and though the boys, who didn't know any better, questioned the decision, I had to stop at Victor Lezza, cause really, how often are you in Bellwood?
("No, no," my wife objects, "I had to stop at Victor Lezza's...")
So we both had to stop. Not so much wanted to, though we did. But had to. It would have been an insult otherwise. Because we were there. I went in, shamefaced, to pick out a pound of Italian cookies. As I was doing so, my wife appeared beside me and ordered four cannoli -- for later. Then my two sons came in even though they said they wouldn't. Just to see. Then my sister-in-law and her husband, unexpectedly. And another brother-in-law.
Lezza is one of those Chicago places that you just cannot drive by. It would be a kind of sin, like passing your mother in the street without acknowledging her. Yes, you can get Lezza spumoni in supermarkets -- Sunset carries it in Northbrook —and I do. But to buy the cookies, to see their abundant varieties through the case, all forms and shapes, powdered, sprinkled, scalloped and colorful, to select them one by one, the clerk pausing, awaiting your command, you have to be there. And of course cannoli do not tolerate time or travel well -- you need them fresh. They get soggy. And soggy cannoli; just not the same.
I'm sure everyone has their own list of Chicago places that have some kind of tractor beam, where you just have to stop in, or pull the car over because you are literally unable to drive by. Food mostly. Bennison's Bakery in Evanston. Kaufman's Deli in Skokie. Lots of places on Devon. It feels wrong to pass Tahoora Sweets without going in for piping hot milk tea, for my wife, who loves the tea. And a few of those green trapezoidal pistachio things, for me, since I'm there. The tea is so hot, scalding, that it's still hot when it gets back to Northbrook.
Once I was heading home down Devon Avenue and the car just pulled itself over at Tel Aviv Kosher Bakery. I waited in line, the only secular Jew in a room full of guys in beards and black hats and ladies in long dresses and wigs. I felt like I had stepped back in time. The challahs were fresh and hot from the oven, and, well, without going into self-indicting detail, not nearly as much loaf came out of that car as went into it.
Which is another tradition, the parking lot feast. Yes, at Lezza's, we were heading to lunch, but the cookies were right there. By force of will we each limited ourselves to one -- okay, two. But they were really, really savored and appreciated cookies and, frankly, I consider it an admirable act of restraint that we didn't gobble them all.
If you're wondering whether I realize how, umm, weak and indulgent this is, yeah. What of it? Schopenhauer I'm not. I'm not. Self-disciplined people reap rewards, no doubt, but sometimes the path of the hero is to plunge into life's feast, and save reserve for another day. And while it is wonderful that we can get everything everywhere, scarcity creates value, and there's something rare, magical, about stuff available at one spot and nowhere else, and to indulge when it is fresh and new to the world. My younger son Kent and I once hopped into the front seat, fresh from New York Bagel on Dempster, and helped ourselves from the big brown bag to one warm, doughy bagel apiece. I should be ashamed to say that it was a highlight of my life. But I'm not and it was.