To you, he was the man behind Woodstock; to me, he was a connoisseur of latkes and matzo balls
My wonderful pal Michael Lang died this past Saturday evening. He was a kind and loving friend, an unstoppable force of nature, and, quite frankly, a legend and icon. At age 24, Michael was the co-creator of the Woodstock ’69 Festival and subsequently, he led festivals under that globally-recognized name. In business and in life, Michael was a mensch in the truest sense of the word. But something that isn’t as well-known is that Michael was also a lover of Jewish food, and often got his fix through me and my cooking. So this is my Michael Lang story.
Just before Christmas, I received what would be a final text from Michael. It began with a one-word question: “Flanken?” I wrote back immediately, “For you? Would be my pleasure. When would you like delivery?” We picked a date and then he typed, “Also need holly breed” which I immediately (and correctly) interpreted as challah bread. I replied, “Flanken and challah to be happily delivered.” We signed off with “love you,” two friends for whom food was a love language, a shorthand and the topic of many, many conversations over the years.
Michael and his love of Jewish food were featured in Aaron Rezny and Jordan Schaps’ 2014 book, “Eating Delancey,” a pictorial and personal essay tour of the celebrated (and disappearing) Jewish foods of New York’s Lower East Side. I served as one of the interviewers, and I told the authors that Michael had a great story about “how pickled herring saved Woodstock.”
What did that mean? Well, certainly pick up the book if you want the whole megillah but here’s the story in a nutshell: Michael had to take what he knew would be a difficult meeting with concert promoter Bill Graham in the spring before Woodstock ’69. Bill was livid; he was sure that the three-day Woodstock Festival would poach ticket sales from him; that no one would want to buy tickets (for $5 or $7 apiece) to see acts at Bill’s Fillmore East venue when they could the same performers (and others!) at Woodstock.
A meeting was arranged and Bill and Michael broke bread at Ratner’s Second Avenue location. As Michael told the story, “Bill ordered pickled herring. I had blintzes. We talked and ate and worked out a solution and while this was business, I always felt that our bond over Jewish food sealed the deal. Pickled herring might have saved Woodstock.”
After I moved up to Woodstock in 2005, Michael and I became fast friends and almost next-door neighbors, Jewish food was a constant source of discussion. I’m a great cook and was happy to indulge Michael’s requests for the foods of his childhood family home whenever possible. I was also one of his “mules,” schlepping back favorites from Manhattan when I went into the city for business.
Once, at our beloved Moishe’s Bakery (located just up the street on Second Avenue from where Bill’s Fillmore East stood), I was chatting with Moishe about my VERY large order, which included Michael’s poppyseed cookies, or mon kichel. Michael and I talked about poppyseed cookies a lot. A very underappreciated cookie, we thought.
Moishe (Orthodox, so he would not shake my hand or greet me with a hug) was in many other ways, a thoroughly modern man. Previously, he had given me his cellphone number so that I could text him with large orders in advance of my arriving at the shop. He instructed me to identify myself on texts as “Abbe Aronson from The Catskills” and he always, ALWAYS wanted to know “who this for?”
I found this amusing since Moishe didn’t know anyone in Woodstock and in fact, was gleefully unaware of who anyone was, celebrity or otherwise (once Moishe told me a story about “a very pretty girl, her father maybe owned Lord & Taylor, she wanted to be an actress,” “Moishe, do you mean Elizabeth Taylor?” I asked. Yes, he did. Apparently, she had a standing challah order up to her death.)
When I was picking up this particular order, I told him the cookies were for Michael. “Michael Lang from Monticello?” he asked. “He’s very fancy. Wait, I put a sticker on the box.”
In my own kitchen, I cooked for Michael on too many occasions to count. There was The New York Times’ “Killer Kugel” recipe from Tina Wasserman, a whopper of a kugel that is almost cheesecake-like and weighs more than an anvil. Michael requested this after knee-replacement surgery. I drove it over to his house and left it on his kitchen counter with a note that read, “Be careful and don’t drop this on the other knee or you’ll need that one done too.”
And then there was what we called the “make-good matzo balls,” or the do-over balls, a big vat of Joan Nathan’s OG recipe, with schmaltz (or seltzer) and salt and pepper and egg and not much else besides the matzo meal itself. These needed to be presented to Michael with haste because earlier that same month, I had prepared and served Michael a newer Joan Nathan matzo ball recipe with some grated ginger and nutmeg in the mix. Michael had not been impressed with those matzo balls. You’d have thought I offered him a pastrami sandwich with mayonnaise.
Over the years, Michael was usually at my house for what we called Latke Fest – a feast of potato pancakes and brisket. I would make between 20 or 30 pounds of latkes, beginning the morning of the Fest, and remind everyone who was attending the party that there was no assigned “lakte bouncer,” so get here early or go hungry (this was a popular party!) Michael would stand elbow-to-elbow with the rest of the crew, dolloping sour cream or applesauce or both, smiling a huge greasy grin. Latke chat, naturally, ultimately led to waxing poetic about gribenes, which Michael loved and deeply craved. After several conversations, I agreed to make him a batch.
Trouble in gribenes paradise began early on the day we were meant to dine when I had car trouble. Specifically, I got a serious flat tire which delayed my getting home in time to render the chicken skins, cool the schmaltz and the make the gribenes with the slow cooked onions. When I realized the repair would make it impossible to make the dish (the tire was ripped to the rim! I swear!), I made Michael one of his other favorites, my lemon chicken a la Marcella Hazan. It’s really one of the best roasted chicken recipes ever.
But when Michael came to dinner — with a bottle of Israeli wine that he thought would be delicious with the gribenes — he was clearly very disappointed by the substitute, although he always ate my food with gusto and this time was no different. So we did what lots of other Jews do – we ate our roasted chicken while planning the next meal when I would deliver on my gribenes, which he called “Jewish caviar.”
When I dropped off the flanken and challah late last month, I breezily told one of Michael’s children that if his appetite held up, I’d be avail for another delivery the following week or over new year’s weekend. We both smiled when I told him to ask Michael if he was craving anything else. “You know him, he loves anything you cook,” said his beautiful son. Not entirely true but true enough. Rest easy, sweet Michael Lang. Surely there’s a Bar Mitzvah-style banquet in your honor, with Jimi, Janis and the rest of your Woodstock mespuchah there to welcome you.
Following a long career in journalism, Abbe Aronson launched the eponymously named Abbe Does It in 2010, an editorially focused PR firm that offers public relations and marketing, event planning, image and design consulting, fundraising and “artful schmoozing” business connections. Abbe has co-authored four books and is working on a memoir about “miraculous middle age.” She is based in Woodstock, New York and Astoria, Queens.