There is a deli on Reisterstown Road, just outside Baltimore, where I’m met at the door with the aromas of my childhood. The place is loaded with items you can’t find in a regular supermarket: cheeses from Bulgaria and Greece, Sibiu dry salami and its Hungarian counterpart known to the world as Pick, Hunter sausage, tongue headcheese, pickled cabbage, spicy Russian mustard and horseradish, dark pumpernickel breads, smoked fish of all kinds, chicken liver pate, and, my favorite, Russian caviar, black and red. The people who work in the store speak Russian. English is a foreign language inside this Eastern European food treasure trove.
My wife and I went there the other week. We don’t do it often, but this time it was because we were having eight people over for dinner, an all-Romanian crowd — we are originally from Romania — for the yearly celebration of four birthdays and one wedding anniversary happening within a few days of each other at the end of October.
We have many friends who are not Romanian. After more than forty years of living here, longer than a lifetime for some, we have befriended many Americans, as well as immigrants from other countries, but for this night in particular, we had invited our closest, oldest friends, a group with a shared cultural background and language, to enjoy drinks and foods that remind us of our native places.
We bought one pound of red caviar, several varieties of dry salami, a jar of Romanian zacusca (vegetable spread) and a few other goodies. Served with crusty French baguettes and a dry American bubbly, these would constitute the appetizers. By the time we left the deli, my wife had figured out the rest of the menu as well. Appetizers as described, then a chilled curry soup with a spoonful of chutney added to each bowl, roast pork tenderloins, gourmet garlic petite potatoes and a green bean and grilled red pepper salad for the main dish, followed by three different European cheeses and fruit. And for dessert, a slice ofmille-feuilles or Napoleons, specially ordered from Paul’s Cafe in Tysons Corner (because they know how to make it, if I may say so myself). A crisp white and a vigorous red in addition to sparkling and flat ice water would ensure proper hydration. Cordials to be provided at the end, according to personal choice.
Generally, at these parties we don’t expect surprises. We know our friends well. We went to high school with some of them. Our children grew up together and even though they live in different parts of the country, they still stay in touch. Some of us are more conservative and some are more liberal, and we understand each other’s idiosyncrasies and pet peeves. We know where we stand on gun control, Medicare for all, the Israelis versus the Palestinians and on so many other issues that sometimes divide people. We know what we like to read and what music we listen to (a mixture from the sixties, the seventies and the eighties of French, Italian, South American and American ballads, love songs and rock and roll). We play the same board games and watch the same sports. Even when spirits flare, as they sometimes do maybe incited by too much food and wine, we are clever enough to avoid confrontations. We signal each other to calm down, wink and make faces, and when everything fails, this or that other guest is gently whisked away. “Come, I need your help in the kitchen,” my wife would innocently say.
We love getting together simply for the comfort of being us. For the sake of old times and for the reassurance that we’re still around, still the same. We all need the familiar faces, the warmth of a comfortable house, the unforgettable fragrances, the drinks, the food and the music. It’s just how it is.
At our dinner party, everybody was happy and talkative. We ate and we drank and we laughed a lot. After our friends left, we cleared the table and I did the dishes.
We have all given up smoking over the years, but from time to time, especially with a meal, some still light up. I had set up a smokers’ corner on the deck, with a small round table with two ashtrays and several chairs. It was after midnight when I went outside. There was a light drizzle and the ashtrays were full of water. I held them over the railing and strained the water through my fingers to retain the cigarette buts. The wind blew and I inhaled deeply the fragrance of wet vegetation and the tobacco smell of my ephemeral youth.
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