My Aunt Irene used to tell us a story. Bear in mind, Aunt Irene had become a New York sophisticate, by way of Minsk, Brooklyn, and somehow to the upper westside. Shopping at Bendel’s, Bonwits, occasionally Saks, and spending a lot of time doing it. Catching cabs, hanging out at museums and “fabulous” restaurants. Opera tickets, weekends in Westhampton, hair and nails done every Friday. Aunt Irene, the daughter of Sadie and Irving Frankel, had done very well for herself.
One Saturday morning my glamorous aunt visited Russ and Daughters delicatessen. She’d heard about this place for years. You could get six kinds of herring – pickled, pickled with onions, pickled with caraway seeds, salt herring, schmaltz herring, and sour cream herring – each type swimming in its own tray behind the counter. Plain bagels, onion bagels, egg bagels, or bialys. No blueberry or cinnamon or any of that dreck – ach, god forbid. And of course lox, Nova Scotia or regular, and sturgeon that tasted like the Black Sea itself. And then, in the center case, the piece de resistance: a three foot stack of smoked, golden whitefish, redolent of grease and salt, all facing forward, their eyeballs bulging.
Aunt Irene strolled in, wearing leather pants, a wool turtleneck and a small olive green cape and matching hat. Even though she looked insanely different from anyone else in the place, no one paid any particular attention to her. This was New York, everyone had seen everything. What, you think you’re so special?
But one person noticed her, a shriveled woman, hair in a babushka, wearing an old black coat adorned with her own grey hairs. She pulled on Ingrid’s fifty dollar sleeve.
“Dahlink,” she said. “I want to tell you something.” She pointed at the pyramid of the smoked whitefish and tapped her index finger on the glass, using her fingernail so you could hear the tapping. “You see that fish? Not that one, this one, the one in middle. That fish,” she said, “with a glass’ll tay and a good slice of rye bread? Better even than a chicken.”
Aunt Irene bought three whitefish. When she got home, she called her sister, my mother, and told her the story of the old woman, who, she said, reminded her of all the women in their family two generations earlier in Brooklyn who had to work hard to afford a good chicken.
We didn’t see Irene very often, maybe twice a year on holidays or birthdays. But somehow every time we got together at our house she would point to something on the dinner table and say, “Better even than a chicken,” and we’d all laugh. If there were newcomers to the gathering, she’d tell the whole story over again. But most of the time it was just the family, and we all had heard the story many times and all we needed was the punchline. Sometimes even when she wasn’t even there, we’d look at each other and say “better even than a chicken.” Years later after Irene was long gone, I got married and told my wife the story, and she started saying it too. After the kids were born and we moved out to Westchester we would say it around them and laugh, and they would ask what were we talking about and then we would tell them the story, They thought it was the silliest thing they ever heard. They’d run around the house pointing at donuts or hamburgers or whatever, and say “better even than a chicken,” and crack up laughing, even though they’d never met my aunt and had no idea what a smoked whitefish was.