The first — that illicit thing going on between the very married Mr. Goldfarb and the divorcée who had moved in next door. (Apparently she called on him whenever she needed her refrigerator defrosted. That is, until the Sisterhood at the synagogue took the matter into its own hands, buying her a blow dryer and buying him and his wife a weekend away in the Catskills, where, hopefully, a few hours of dirty dancing lessons à la Johnny Castle and Baby would defrost their marriage. It worked — Mr. Goldfarb never looked at the divorcée again. And she, it turns out, began an affair with the refrigerator repairman. Also married but, thankfully, not a member of the synagogue. Oy.)
The other meaning of “affair” was a wedding reception held in one of the region’s numerous cookie-cutter catering halls. In the days when “destination wedding” meant you had to drive to get to the event, these venues offered “fabulous” (read formulaic) wedding packages — ceremony, cocktail hour, dinner, wedding cake — literally, everything from soup to nuts. To wit:
No sooner would the groom crush the glass to cries of “Mazel tov!” than guests joined the crush into the next room for a pre-dinner hour of tray-passed tidbits like cocktail franks, mini potato knishes, chopped liver on toast points, and “mock” shrimp canapés (the “mock” because Uncle Sol was kosher). Guests would mingle and boast about either their sons, the doctors, or their daughters, the beauties. (“My Melanie is getting her BA degree from Boston University, but, of course, she won’t be needing it because we hope she’ll have her MRS degree first!”) Keep in mind that this was a very different time. With a very different idea of what qualified as fine food.
Next, on to dinner in the ballroom, where each table was adorned with an impossible-to-see-over floral centerpiece (back then, more was more). And my favorite part: the bandleader (yes, there was always a band) would break the ice by asking for the oldest person at each table to stand (if they could — Great-Grandma Frieda was given a pass because she had arthritis in her knees). Each was then awarded that table’s centerpiece to take home. It happened every single time. At every single affair. And everyone always acted surprised.
There was a choice for dinner — usually prime rib, sole, or chicken (vegetarians didn’t exist back then). Each entrée was accompanied by “duchess potatoes” (do duchesses eat swirled mashed potatoes?) and stuffed derma (the latter being something you probably wouldn’t eat if you knew what it was — and no, I won’t tell you; trust me on this one).
As if all of that food wasn’t enough, there was dessert. Wedding cake, of course, but why stop there? It was time for the Viennese table, so called because it aspired to rival the legendary desserts of Vienna. (No, I am not making this up.) It was an enormous buffet of decadent desserts — cakes and pastries, parfaits and mousse, chocolate and more chocolate — with nary a piece of fresh fruit in sight. It was over indulgent and over the top — but everyone was over the moon about it.
That was the thing about those affairs. In traditional Jewish culture, food is love — and preparing, offering, and serving it is an expression of warmth and welcome. From that very first little knish hors d’oeuvre to that last piece of seven-layer cake, these affairs were just that — a way to wrap everyone you knew in a big hug.
But not too tight. We just ate.
ⓒ 2018 Claudia Grossman