IN THE BEGINNING, there was schmaltz. From out of this primordial goo emerged an Eastern European Jewish cuisine that gave the world such delights as the latke, the more mysterious derma, and chopped chicken livers. Back in the winter of 1989, 13 of my Amherst friends and I went along with our worldly-wise NYC friend Bart to dinner at Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse, at the corner of Chrystie and Delancey on the Lower East Side. Whether members of the Tribe or not, we were enchanted by the David Lee Roth-MCs-a-Bar-Mitzvah vibe, the hora dancing beneath a dingy ceiling filled with business cards and photos of a beaming Ed Koch, and the schmaltz-laden food that is surely the finest of its kind–besides your grandma’s. Bottles of vodka frozen in blocks of ice start the evening, and egg creams made with Yoohoo poured from a great height into glasses of milk and then spritzered complete it. Amen.
Every January since then, at least a few of the original posse, along with family and other Amherst and work friends who must number now into the hundreds, have gone out for dinner at Sammy’s. It’s a lot harder to get a minyan these days now that those of us that all used to live in greater NYC have scattered to other cities and continents. But the spirit of Sammy’s has persisted as a very meaningful way for us to stay connected with each other and with our more youthful, drunken and less-bald selves.
The food at Sammy’s really is pretty amazing, and consistent through the years, once you get through the initial perceptual alteration of seeing a diner-style syrup dispenser full of rendered chicken fat (schmaltz) as an essential condiment for every dish rather than an instant heart attack. Typically the starters are the big fan favorites, in particular the chopped chicken livers prepared tableside [see video above] with braised onions and schmaltz mixed in liberally, hopefully excluding the flop sweat of one’s appalling waiter. After the drama and sheer satisfaction of the liver, the garlic sausage (it’s amazing anyone ever hooked up after going to Sammy’s), and the derma
(seen by some as a lingering coelocanth-like relic of an ancient starfaring race that once dwelt on the Lower East Side), the vodka shots really start to kick in, and it is a wonder that anyone can ever touch the massive “flapper steaks” that extend over the slides of a plate like a giant squid’s tentacles over the sides of a fishing boat. Don’t forget the creamed garlic to mush in on top! After all that, or perhaps a Fred Flintstone-like veal chop, it’s rugelach and egg creams for everyone and a brisk walk along the Sarah Roosevelt Park towards whatever poor tavern is about to receive our merry group.
But actually the food is just the delightful stage on which the real play of Sammy’s takes place: the revelry, dancing and singing that unite Jews and goyim alike in bliss. I have the song “Two Jews for Every Goy” stuck in my head, just one of the many kosher and/or offensive bar mitzvah tunes that a succession of Hammond organists have blasted out over the years to get the people off the wall and out of their chairs. The Amherst crew has numbered up to a max of about 35 and always brings the noise, peaking I think in the mid-90s when most of the core group from 89 still lived in the New York area. There was the anti-Sammy’s one year when for some reason we went to a Lebanese joint in midtown…the Sammy’s-in-exile the year of the massive blizzard when Sammy’s was closed but some fancy Japanese place was open…plus my bachelor party and other non-Amherst outings with the family contra all medical advice.
The stories I could tell…but not in this space. Suffice it to say that Sammy’s has been an amazing excuse for our group of friends to get together in totally uninhibited fashion and a convenient, if occasionally gross, venue for introducing girlfriends, parents, wives, and now kids (!) to our little community. If you have read this far, probably you are no stranger to Sammy’s or to the concept, and you are cordially invited to contact me about The Twenty-Fifth Annual Visit in January 2013. Start exercising now. Peace.