Sunday, August 28, 2022

at last

Several years ago....

(I love to start stories with "several years ago" because I know, as I get older and my perception of time becomes more distorted, that the actual time period that I am imagining is — in reality — much further in the past that I remember. That's why I favor the adjective "several." It's non-specific and I don't spend a lot of time wracking my failing memory over how long ago it really was. That's why I feel pretty safe in using it. My concept of the time period may differ from yours, but we both understand that this incident did not begin yesterday. Now.... if you are still with me.... I'll continue...)

Several years ago, my wife and I accompanied my in-laws to a restaurant in Northeast Philadelphia. This seems pretty insignificant, so let me explain why this was a rare event. My in-laws and my wife (and to a far lesser and more lenient extent — me) keep kosher. Philadelphia is notorious for its lack of certified kosher restaurants considering the size of its Jewish population. It ranks seventh in the United States and boasts 214,600 folks who identify as Jewish. (For goodness sakes, Philadelphia ranks 14th in the world!) Granted a very small faction of those actually adhere to the laws of kashrut. With this in mind, Philadelphia has seen kosher-certified restaurants come and go like flights at an airport. Most have closed for different reasons, but the biggest reason is lack of support. The Jewish community (at least within my community) bitches and complains about the "slim pickins" as far as kosher eateries go, yet, when one opens up, they will rarely patronize the establishment and it will invariably fail....only to lead to more complaints. The other reason for failure is these places are not run by business-minded people. They only exist to fill a void and are opened by folks who have never run a business before, specifically a restaurant... and running a restaurant is particularly difficult. So, these places end up being a mixed-up, unorganized mess. They are usually filthy, overpriced and staffed by rude people. Or as I like to say — "The Triple Threat." So, finding a nearby kosher restaurant that meets my in-law's finnicky standards is difficult. Almost as difficult as getting them to leave their house.

But, we found one.... several years ago. 

No explanation.
I have no qualms about eating in any restaurant. I have been a vegetarian for nearly twenty years, but I would never ask anyone to make special accommodations for me. It will not be the last meal I will ever eat. I'm sure there is something on every restaurant's menu that I can eat (even a Brazilian steakhouse, although I've never had the opportunity to try). My in-laws are a little more discerning. Not only does a restaurant have to have posted kosher certification, but that certification has to come from a mashgiach (certified kosher certifier) whom they respect and with whose practices they agree. (There's an old saying "Five Jews. Six synagogues.") Well, this particular restaurant checked all the correct boxes. It was not an especially appetizing place. It was short on d├ęcor and any sort of ambience. However, based on the price range of their menu, you'd think the owners perceived their establishment among the most elite in the city. As I perused the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern-influenced menu, which was heavy on meat-centric offerings, I spotted something with which I was not familiar. Aside from the consumption of meat, I consider myself a pretty adventurous eater. I'll try anything once (except if it contains coconut). This item of intrigue was listed at the bottom of the "Appetizers" section and it sported a pretty hefty fifteen dollar price tag for an appetizer. It was merely identified as "shakshuka." Unlike some of the other items on the menu that included a brief subheading that described what would be expected when the plate arrived at your place setting should you choose this item, shakshuka sat there unexplained. Boldly undefined. Defiantly enigmatic. You ordering shakshuka? You better damn well know what you're getting, 'cause we ain't fucking telling you.

I continued to read over the menu, scrutinizing everything, including descriptions of chicken shawarma and a plethora of burgers and a whole bunch of other things that I had no intentions of eating. Among the vegetarian options were concoctions of tomatoes and cucumbers and other vegetables of which I am not a fan. There was falafel 
— traditional deep-fried chickpea balls which I have grown to like after initially turning my nose up... so that was an option. But I found myself going back and staring at that one word — shakshuka. Shakshuka. Shakshuka. Suddenly, I found myself absent-mindedly humming the chorus of the 1980 Kate Bush song "Babooshka" under my breath. The cadence fit perfectly and I realized I had just infected myself with an earworm I would carry for hours. (And now, you have been infected, too. You're welcome.) Still performing Kate Bush karaoke to myself, I looked up at a large, hand-written "Specials" board hanging on a wall and decided to order salmon skewers with two vegetables which was listed among the limited-time offerings.  (Yeah, I eat fish. Not all fish. I don't eat fishy fish, like trout, or shellfish, but I'll eat salmon, tuna, mahi mahi, tilapia and other "mild" fish. So, I guess I'm sort of a pescatarian, but that is really none of your business. I'm sure you don't eat some food just because you don't like it.) We all placed our orders and I caught one last glimpse of shakshuka as I closed my menu and handed it to the waitress.

As soon as I got home, I "googled" shakshuka. I discovered that it is a centuries-old Northern African dish, popular among Arab cultures. While there are noted variances among ingredients, in its most basic form, shakshuka is eggs poached in a sauce of tomatoes, olive oil, peppers, onion and garlic, most often spiced with cumin, paprika and cayenne pepper. This sounded really good. (Oh, yeah, I eat eggs, too. I am not a vegan. If I was, you would have known by the first sentence of this post.) I told Mrs. Pincus about it and lamented about not ordering it earlier. I promised I would order it the next time we went to this restaurant. Well, we don't go to this restaurant often — or ever — so I would have to look elsewhere for my first sampling of shakshuka

It was briefly mentioned to my neighbor, who is Israeli, and unashamedly proclaimed to be the best producer of shakshuka in the world. Unfortunately, this promise led nowhere, as I was never invited to taste his shakshuka, not that I would have anything to compare it to. After bringing it up enough, my dear, ever accommodating spouse conceded to the following: if I could find a suitable simple recipe for the egg dish in question, she would agree to buy the proper ingredients and attempt to make shakshuka — just for me. So, we bought eggs and tomato sauce and peppers and onions and all the other stuff. I read and re-read the process for making the dish. Plans to prepare shakshuka were made and forgotten and made and forgotten again. And here we are, with a couple of ignored cans of tomato paste in our pantry and peppers that have long been chopped up and tossed in our evening salad and eggs that have since been consumed as part of a celebratory cake. And still I have not tasted shakshuka.

Surprisingly, two-plus years after the world was locked down by a global pandemic, the kosher restaurant in Northeast Philadelphia was still open for business. After so many years, my in-laws have become less mobile and less anxious to venture out into the big bad world. But, they do have to eat. Another relative offered to treat my in-laws to dinner at a restaurant of their choice in honor of their 67th wedding anniversary. With the choices slight, they selected (or perhaps "settled for" is more apropos) the kosher restaurant in Northeast Philadelphia. The plan was my wife would place the order, pick it up and bring it to her parent's house. As long as were were going, we'd place a dinner order for ourselves. And — goddammit! — I was getting shakshuka. All fifteen bucks worth! Still wary of its inclusion in the "Appetizers" section, I ordered some "assemble it yourself" falafel to split with my wife, in case one fifteen dollar order of shakshuka wasn't enough to satisfy my appetite.

Well, the moment of truth arrived. A moment I have played and replayed in my mind for years.... probably more years than I realize. Arriving home, I unpacked a number of nondescript white Styrofoam containers, popping the lid on each to identify the contents. The last one I extracted from the bag, by process of elimination, was my shakshuka.

Holy shit! LOOK AT IT! LOOK AT IT!!!!! Sure, this picture doesn't it do it justice. But you are lucky to get a picture at all! It sure didn't last long! There were four little poached eggs enveloped in a delicious mixture of sweet tomato sauce, spiked with spicy peppers and a blend of piquant spices bringing an amount of zesty heat that I savored. It was delicious! I mean really delicious and well worth the wait! I could have eaten twice... maybe three times... the amount I was given. Was it worth the fifteen bucks? Um... well it was well worth the wait. Isn't that enough?

Will I order it again? Maybe I'll try again to convince Mrs. P to make another attempt. We still have those cans of tomato paste and the expiration date is still a few years away.

Hit it, Kate....

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