I’ve just returned from a week-long family road trip to Washington, D.C. I need to deep clean my car, wash about three pounds of laundry…and eat tons of gravlox before it rots in my fridge.
Let me explain: En route home from our (sweltering!) nation’s capital, we took a little detour into Manhattan. My devoted husband braved the Lincoln Tunnel on a Friday afternoon solely so that I could drool over chopped liver at the legendary 110-year-old Upper West Side fish emporium Barney Greengrass. This is it: the quintessential hub for Jewish deli food on the East Coast, a place that the late Anthony Bourdain declared had the “best breakfast in the universe” (his go-to was Nova Scotia lox and an egg scramble).
Our visit did not quite go as planned.
We nabbed metered parking easily enough, right on Amsterdam Avenue. Naturally, I wanted to take a photo or two with my kids underneath that iconic green awning, beneath the sign that spelled out “The Sturgeon King!” in old-timey lettering.
My toddler was having none of it. He bucked and squirmed and flapped like a dead herring. My husband captured a few not-ready-for-Instagram shots, and then we went inside.
Oh, happy day! Whitefish! House-cured gravlox! Chopped liver! Pickled herring in cream sauce! I gazed at the delicacies behind the glass, wondering how I could transport my bounty three-plus hours into Massachusetts without giving everyone food poisoning. No problem, a friendly chap behind the counter told me. He gets these requests all the time. He’d put everything on ice, in a jaunty Greengrass plastic tote. I chose a modest amount of whitefish and smoked salmon salad, plus a few precious strips of house-cured gravlox and a loaf of challah.
My kids were not amused. They just wanted black-and-white cookies. Fine.
Then the real trouble began. I decided to hit the Barney’s bathroom before getting back on the road. Why bother with a generic rest stop when one can relieve oneself in the same place that generations of New Yorkers, maybe even my distant relatives, have done the same?
I’ll tell you why: The place has delicious lox…but powerful locks. I tugged on the door. Nothing happened. I jostled the knob this way and that. No luck. I heaved myself against the door. Nope. Oh, God, was I trapped in some kind of Philip Roth satire? Finally, the door gave way, and my older son came barreling in to join me. He, too, needed to use the tiny facilities. Fine.
Just one problem: We’d been in there so long that suddenly a cook burst in on us. (Word to the wise: The bathroom is adjacent to the kitchen.) The scene managed to scare even a hardened New Yorker: He looked mortified and quickly slammed the door shut. We did our business and made haste.
Once we got to our next destination, my husband’s family cottage in the Berkshires, I laid out my bounty and began to feast in earnest. The whitefish was chunky, meaty, salty, divine. Same with the smoked salmon. And the gravlox was silken and supple, sliced paper thin, buttery and aromatic with tantalizing dill.
My kids, however, did not care. I dangled a velvety piece in front of my toddler. He frowned and reached for his yogurt. I twirled another slick, rosy sheet in front of my 7-year-old, wiggling my brows. He frowned and ran away. What is wrong with these children?
I had similar luck with my small tubs of whitefish and salmon. I finally forced my older son to take a tiny bit of the whitefish, and he began to gag and wretch, as though I’d offered him a mayonnaise-soaked rat. Was it the unfamiliar texture? The salt? He ultimately nibbled a teensy bit of challah and grimaced. Oh, well, more for me.
I polished nearly everything off in two days without the help of my ungrateful children and husband. It wasn’t until I began to get sodium-induced heart palpitations on the second day that I acknowledged defeat and pushed aside my prizes. I could eat no more.
I still have my insulated Greengrass tote, though, which will soon contain pedestrian snacks like sun-butter-and-jelly sandwiches on wheat and gloopy yogurt squeezers. Shameful. Someday, my children will eat whitefish. Not today, and maybe not tomorrow. But one day they will pay homage to the sturgeon king. In the meantime, I’ll have to settle for a grainy photo and a sweet, twisted crumb of challah.