When I was a boy in Brooklyn, the words “Labor Day” carried much weight, but they meant different things to different members of my family. To my father’s socially conscious, intellectually curious, working immigrant parents, it was the day to be thankful for the unions, to stand and march with all working people. It was my mother’s slang for Monday. Every Sunday night, after my brother and I had watched Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town” on CBS with his guests — Helen Traubel, Senor Wences, Tony Martin, Sam Levinson or those European acrobats who perched, legs aloft amid the klieg lights, one hand gripping a chair precariously balanced on another chair that teetered atop a table, while spinning a service of dinner plates at the ends of wands held only by the performers’ chins — it was: “Okay boys, off to bed, tomorrow is labor day,” meaning work for the grown-ups and school for us.
To her mother, my grandmother Rose, a transplanted potato farmer from a Russian shtetl who rose to become the top chef at a Catskills resort, a woman who passionately embraced her new country, if not its language, it was something else entirely. In Yiddish, the only tongue in which she would communicate (out of stubbornness, and in solidarity with her ancestors) leber meant liver, as in her popular chopped liver — gehakde leber — whose coveted recipe, along with all the others, resided only in her memory and imagination. Devoted to her own rituals, yet skeptical of others’, she was amused, sometimes bemused, by the American custom that every September, one day would be set aside here for this delicacy; just one indication, to her mind, of the perplexity of our strange culture.
Food meant everything to her — survival, primarily; through the pogroms, during the arduous trek across Europe, and in the belly of the heaving New Caledonia, the liner in which she, like so many others in the early decades of the last century, had fled oppression. Food was also her livelihood, and her joy to prepare and serve to her large family.
She carefully selected the chicken livers from the butcher shop herself, chopped them to perfect consistency, added just enough mayonnaise, onions, celery, eggs and peppers, along with elements from her own palette of herbs and spices. She never learned the word “cholesterol” during her long life, and would have scorned it if she had.
Before dinner on the first Monday after the first Sunday of each September, as on other occasions of her own choosing throughout the year, we would shovel it, as an appetizer, onto shards of matzo, or Saltines or Ritz Crackers. The following day we would spread it into sandwiches with lettuce and tomato to have for lunch on the first day of school, with a cream soda or a Dr Pepper.
To this day, the coming of September calls my eye to the autumnal migration of the sun to the southern sky, my ears to resurgent city traffic, my nose to the memorized scents of schoolroom paste and fresh Levi’s, my fingers to the feel of flannel and corduroy, and my taste buds to the atavistic flavor of her prized “Leber Day” treat. I will not know its unique and extraordinary taste again.
Daniel Meltzer teaches journalism and drama at New York University.