The death of Cheddar, our rooster this week, triggered me back to a very introspective time. One time of extreme loss for me, and especially close at this time of year. I've been thinking of writing more about my Pennsylvania up-bringing, and though not remarkable in any way except to me, our family's rich connections and disconnections. Many people have written about their childhoods, in powerful ways, and I am looking for a pathway to do so. This path I found is filled with food and a wonderfully odd restaurant of the era that we frequented.
And so the story begins with my brother, Jeremy, and I who mostly, grew up on North Fourth Street in Reading during the Sixties and into the late Seventies.
The center of remembering comes from this Greek-owned restaurant on Penn Street in Reading, Pa. called The Crystal.
The Crystal. Right, don't you just love this name?
At The Crystal, there were gargantuan double birthday celebrations for Jeremy and me, as we were born five days apart. These April parties were held downstairs in the Crystal's French Cafe. I don't know what its official name was; perhaps the banquet area as they had a lot of private parties down there.
Jeremy and Me, maybe we were 8?
I have many memories about The Crystal but most importantly I believe that my appreciation and initial exposure to Restaurant and French Culture along with my love and fascination for kitchens and dining and how it all swirled together began at the Crystal Restaurant, with those very early birthday parties.
Yes, as far back as I can remember The Crystal was our family's place. It began as a average place where my mom took us for lunch. Mom was adamant about being called, Dr. Weiner, and she would pick Jeremy and me up from our Saturday morning dance classes at the Mickey Norton School of Dance on Penn Street and take us to the Crystal. Saturday lunch in the Crystal's dining room, was an experience that I looked forward the whole time I balanced precariously on my pink satin toes shoes while executing my best pirouette moves for Miss Pearl. For lunch, Jeremy always chose Welsh Rarebit and we always giggled when he ordered it. Welsh Rarebit was kind of like our secret, for we knew that the dish should actually be called by its rightful name, Welsh Rabbit, but the adults were too stupid to understand that. I often thought the adults around me were too stupid to understand what was really going on. For lunch I ordered spaghetti and meatballs, and never knew why I loved Italian food so much.
The Crystal developed into an even dearer memory as we grew old enough to enter The Lounge. When we sat down at the round table next to the bar, in The Lounge, my attention got divided between the piano player, the bartender, the waitresses scurrying through a pathway that led to the more sedate dining room (where we had lunch) and the coffee shop, luncheonette area where you entered The Crystal. The Crystal had all experiences covered. And so we enjoyed birthday parties, Saturday lunches, Saturday night dinners and Christmas Eve suppers in various rooms of the Crystal.
For Saturday night dinner, my grandmother, Nana, her friends called her Dot, ordered a Daiquiri no matter how many other choices were presented to her. One time she bent her rule and ordered a Strawberry Daiquiri, if you can believe it. Her favorite treat was the salad bar where they kept the seven sweets and sours. A highlight to her meal. As she got older, Jeremy often would bring her a plate of cottage cheese, cling peach halves, chow chow and spiced apple rings; and whatever else Nana wanted.
It was partly because of our waitress at those Saturday lunches, I believe her name was Marge - that I wanted to be a waitress at The Crystal. It was the summer that I turned eighteen when Mom spoke to her friend, the maître d, Danny, who made it possible. I worked most of the rooms in various split shifts. While my tables were usually laughing, it was more about my style of waitressing, than about my jokes. I enjoyed being on the other side of the table, but I was not experienced with the organization and logic it took to master serving and swerving, among a multitude of laughing crazy people. The night when a birthday cake lit with sparklers slid off the platter onto the birthday boy, I wondered about the wisdom of making waitressing my career. I cried my eyes out to the Puerto Rican salad maker in the kitchen because I was so ashamed, but when I finally returned to the table the birthday boy, who was seventy, sat me on his lap and gave me a big kiss for making him laugh so hard.
One day soon after I had started working, I left work and was crossing Penn Street to go shopping. It was strange to see my neighbor, Mr Hoffman, rushing across the street right towards me. He stopped me in the middle of Penn Street and told me that my dear brother, Jeremy, had just drowned at the Kernsville dam. I collapsed in the middle of Penn Street. After just a few weeks I returned to work, even though I was still in shock but pretended not to be in order to help Nana, and Mom who were weighed down by unbelievable sadness. The Crystal helped me stay afloat. I would go downstairs and sit in the empty room where our birthday parties had been. Danny brought me a plate of Welsh Rarebit but I couldn't eat it. Martha and George Mantis, the owners of the Crystal were exceedingly kind to me.
I don’t know if I ever got to thank them, truly. But without The Crystal that summer of 1974 I would have been even more lost.
Years later, I was heartbroken to learn about a Fire – one that burned down The Crystal. But nothing could char the memories that will live forever in me, along with the graciousness of Danny, Marge, and Martha and George Mantis and the love they all showed their customers, their hospitality, showmanship, and always, of course, their Welsh Rabbit.
And now I will have to find and make Welsh Rabbit. Do you have a great recipe you like?