Piece of Cake

At a family reunion, young and old alike take to stashing dessert "for later"

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“Hey!” my sister nudged me with her elbow. “Do you see what she’s doing?” I looked in the direction where she was pointing and saw a grandmotherly woman carefully wrapping a slice of cake in paper napkins and slipping it into her pocketbook. Lunch was just ending and the dozens of large, round tables spread across the expanse of dining room were piled with small dessert plates, many proffering an untouched wedge of layer cake or a large cookie, among the dregs of the meal. We started laughing at the absurdity of taking cake back to one’s room, wondering who in the world could still be hungry after such a copious lunch as the one we had just eaten, who could possibly be hungry before the next meal? As we were chuckling, we looked around the room and, much to our surprise and amusement, saw one, two, several other older women doing the same, wrapping paper napkins or Kleenex around slices of cake and putting them in their handbags or clutching them to their breasts, unnoticed amid the bustle of the wait staff as they began the after-meal cleanup and the exodus of fellow diners pushing their way out of the dining room.

We were at one of those immense family resorts in the Catskills; after spending several years researching my genealogy and contacting cousins as I discovered their existence, I wanted to bring my newly found family together and I organized a reunion. This was the second and, unlike the first one held at a family resort in the Pocono Mountains two years earlier, I decided that we would head to the Catskills and a Jewish resort, seeing as we were a Jewish family, a vacation reminiscent of Catskills’ summer holidays taken by my mother, her friends and family back in the 1940’s. Fifty of us, from three months to 100 years old (my grandpa’s cousin) gathered together to discover and rediscover a family.

The differences between the two family resorts was minimal, if you discount the Shabbat services and the Borscht Belt comedy entertainment at one and the bears, deer and shuffle board at the other. But the contrast between the two venues was nowhere more evident than in the dining room. The Pocono resort had something very grade-school-cafeteria-circa-1968 about it, something rather Puritan in the comfortable amount of personal space between the tables and in the calm that reigned; diners filed in and sat quietly at their table while gray-haired waitresses evocative of lunchroom ladies dressed in proper white blouses and skirts the color of overcooked liver exposing nylon-stockinged legs sticking out of sensible, crepe-soled shoes silently glided from table to table taking orders and placing plates of food in front of each of us. The food, delicious and filling, was reminiscent of church socials, eggs, sausages, flapjacks and hash browns for breakfast, fried chicken and green-bean casserole for lunch, roast beef with mashed potatoes and gravy for dinner. Vanilla pudding and blueberry pie eaten, there were no seconds, no encores. The meal finished, we all filed back out of the dining room and onto other activities, canoeing, ping-pong, archery or hiking in the stunning landscape that spread out and away from the hotel.

The Catskills lived up to its Borscht Belt reputation in the bustling, crowded dining room, tables pushed together as close as they could sensibly be, forcing us to shimmy sideways to reach our chairs, almost like being in a Miami Beach Wolfie’s, the constant the ebb and flow of guests and waiters even when all of the tables seemed to be filled, the rambunctious noise and laughter, the omnipresent bowl of pickles, sauerkraut and bread rolls the size of my head. The fleet of graying lunchroom lady waitresses of the Poconos was instead a brigade of young Puerto Rican men and women dressed in cinnamon colored uniforms who might just as well have been trained by a team of proverbial Jewish mothers in their unceremonious and enthusiastic praising of the food, the zealous encouragement to eat, their warm familiarity. I would squeeze into place at one of the dozens of tables, usually elbow to elbow with my sister on one side, my brother to my left, surrounded by our children and cousins, to find an oversized menu of heavy cream-colored paper with the list of choices lying in front of me: five courses, a selection of five, eight or ten dishes to choose from in each. Our waiter, the same at every meal for our week-long stay, would lean over my should between my sister and me and point out his favorites and then, as he observed us hemming and hawing, suggest, “If you can’t decide, you should each choose something different and share!” And so we would.

To say that the food was abundant would be a misconception. Meals were Gargantuan. Our waiter would place our plates, the portions generous, in front of us and as soon as everyone at the table had been served, he would disappear only to reappear a few minutes later hoisting a huge platter on his shoulder, weighed down by a bounty of overlapping dishes. “I knew that you wanted to try the knishes/bagels/latkes/salmon so go ahead and taste!” he would announce as he pushed another plate in between my sister and I, forced more food on us as only the best Jewish Mother could. Every few minutes he would show up again with another plate, more food, finding a space for it close enough to my own meal that I wouldn’t have to stand up and reach over anyone else to get to the food. Which, of course, I did. We all did.

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