To Err is Human, the Pickle Divine

“Snappy title, no? Now look… you have to help with the score. But we have a ton of possibilities. The opening number is blockbuster stuff… a dance line of the most gorgeous ladies… stacked, long legs, shapely… they have to be shapely, no skinny twigs, no piano legs… long, lean, but shapely. Got it? OK, next… they’re dressed in pickle costumes… right? Wonderfully shaped half sours with those little bumps. Step, step, step, kick left, step, step, step, kick right, bow center, pivot to the rear, shake the tush, turn left, a little bump and grind, pivot front, step front, and again, bow, lift up hands to the sky, shimmy, shimmy, shake. With me, right? OK, enter stage right the Master Pickle wearing a top hat, a monocle, white gloves, spats and sporting a cane. A simple tap number, he winks at the closest pickle, he winks at the audience, tips his hat forward and pats her on the tush, throws his head back and does a scissors kick… got it?”

“Master Pickle sounds like Mr. Peanut. Planters will sue our ass!”

“I’ve thought of that. We’ll put Master Pickle in a Blackwatch Tartan kilt, it will go great on a half sour pickle. Screw Planters! Then, zing-a-zing-zing… he slides across the stage, sizes up another pickle, eyes pop, monocle drops out, rolls his eyes, bangs his cane on the stage, brings it back up, touches his top hat, and sings ‘Let me put my gherkin next to you, next to you… bah-dah dah, bah-dah dah.’”

“Saul… in my mind we still have a problem with Mr. Peanut, kilt or no kilt… that’s one. I don’t think that gherkins are something guys want to be identified with, that’s two. I can’t imagine what the extended story line is, that’s three. And since you’re buyin’, I’ll have another drink.”

“Who said I’m buyin’? We’ll drink later, Manny, listen… I need your help on the love numbers. You’re good at that sappy tender stuff. I have most of the big stage and the catchy-funny numbers down. We’re almost there! Ziegfeld will eat this up! Forget the Peanut! It’s Master Pickle! Next to you, next you… bah-dah da, bah-dah da!’”


Stranger than strange. That’s how I first characterized the location of Rein’s Deli in Vernon, Connecticut. Vernon? Sounds like a can’t-get-there-from-here place, no? Actually, Rein’s is located at 435 Hartford Turnpike, just off I-84 at Exit 65. And it’s location, in truth, is a stroke of genius… a mid-point between Hartford and the UCONN Storrs Campus (which is the original can’t-get-there-from-here place), and it’s also on the route I take to Boston. Find me a better deli between Katz’ on the Lower East Side and Zaftig’s in Brookline, I’ll give you a nickel… OK, maybe a buck.

I was coming back from a early business meeting in Boston, and my Aunt Meggie was coming back from the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst on her way to her home in Chatham. Rein’s was the best place to meet for a late lunch. We both knew that.

My Aunt looked great. “I love your hat! Not too many ladies I know can carry a Greek fishermen’s cap as well as you can!”

“Let’s call it a new tradition.”

I can’t think of a time when I didn’t have to wait to be seated at Rein’s. Talk to folks on line and you hear the same story… always a wait; but it’s never long. I think of it as a time to take in the aromas and get prepped for the food. Dinning foreplay. We were seated.

We get our menus… we get our complimentary dish of pickles… kosher sour and half sour in combination. This is essential. Nothing can proceed without this base element. We each choose our favorite… Meggie full sour and half sour for me.

“I had two cartons of books to donate… Saul’s grandparents’, my grandparents’… just collecting dust and mold… and when I got to the Center, you would have thought that I had returned with gold from sunken Spanish treasure ship!”

“To that Museum, you did!”

Although Rein’s menu includes cheeseburgers, fries and stuff… we are there for the deli. For  me: pastrami on rye with mustard and a double order of coleslaw on the side, chased with a Dr. Brown’s Celray Tonic.  Meggie: tongue, corned beef, pastrami and coleslaw… on rye, and a Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda.

Meggie bit into her pickle, “Here’s a story that you may not know. Before your Uncle Saul traveled to Paris where I met him {I knew this}, he tried to make a go of it in New York {this I didn’t know}. Oh, he loved music {both Meggie and Saul loved music}.  Loved it for how it could raise the spirit. Make you laugh, make you cry. For Saul, music was a premier force in life. He was just a kid really {hard for me to think of Saul being a kid; but everyone is a kid at one time or another… even Uncle Saul}.


“I have written a part for you. This is perfect. The theater owner is a sour green tomato. He’s in his office, light low, sleeves rolled up, sweat pouring from his forehead. Bills, bills, bills all over the place… frazzled, ‘She is such a tramp, but I love her, bah-dah dah.’ He has to work or his children will be consumed in poverty and filth. You are the tomato.”

“I’m the sour tomato? This is my part?”

“Who else? Who else could interpret the feelings of a lonely tomato suffocated by the love of an adoring mother, plagued by a shrew of a wife, and in love with a dancer… who could do it better than you? This part has you written all over it! Just listen… ‘Why do you turn from me? I am your son! Bah-dah dah, bah-dah dah.’

“This is great. Shall I remind you that I am not married and my mother is not suffocating… bah-dah dah, bah-dah dah. And there is no way that you are going to get me into a sour tomato suit!”

“Manny… you have to trust me on this. You come on stage, you’ll be in spats and a kilt, too… you look back stage… we see the pickles changing for their next number, and you sing “She can’t see me, she doesn’t know I exist, I’d give my heart to her but I know mom would be pissed.”

“My mom would be pissed? Falling for someone in the chorus line? What about my wife? SAUL… I’M NOT MARRIED!”

“This is great… I can see that you’re feeling the emotion! Ziegfeld is going to love it! We’re there!”


Once I tried the lean pastrami. It doesn’t work. If you are concerned about frivolous things like salt, health and cholesterol… stay away from a deli. Particularly a good one like Rein’s. Pastrami should be oozing with fat moisture, otherwise it ain’t worth hay! Besides, that is what the Celray Tonic (now called soda) is good for… the peppery spiciness of the beverage is there to offset the salty fattiness of pastrami. Why waste good Brunello, know what I mean?

Meggie looked around. “I love this place. You walk in the door and you know you are ‘home.’ It’s the fragrances. Come in blindfolded and you will know on first whiff… there is corned beef, potato salad, fresh baked rye, cheesecake, halvah and kosher pickles in this place. Of course, it’s the pickles that create the aroma, the rest of the stuff you just have to take on faith.”

I nodded in agreement. When we went to Miami Beach for spring vacations… we’d go to Wolfie Cohen’s on Collins Ave… and it was the same story… sit down and a bucket of kosher pickles and sour green tomatoes would be plunked down for your enjoyment. The briny smell of pickling spices pervaded the place… it would cling to your clothes.

“When I got to Paris, this would have been 1932, your Uncle Saul was already there playing clarinet at clubs on the Rive Gauche... His dream of becoming the next Ziegfeld didn’t go as he had planned. Well, look… he was just a kid really.  A kid with dreams; maybe he thought that his muse could be better found off Broadway. Why Paris I can’t really say…”

I never tired of hearing how Saul and Meggie met.  And it seemed that with each telling, another small detail was added to an already marvelous story.  I took a sip of Celray and waited for the story to unfold.

“I’ll admit it.  I arrived in Paris lonely and a bit scared.  My Mother wanted me to play the violin.  I hated it.  I want to study dance, I said.  And then I blurted out, I want to go to ParisI was just 18 years old… I can’t believe that my Father supported my wish.  He must have had rocks in his head; but support it he did.  Off I was to study Ballet in the City of Light.”

She took a bite of a half sour… the crisp crunch was unmistakable. “I missed home.  I missed the pictures in our parlour, the faces.  I missed the smells. So one rainy afternoon I was walking in the Marais… the Jewish Quarter in Paris, what the Jews called the Pletzl, and I wandered into a small delicatessen on Rue des Rosiers.  For the life of me I can’t remember, its name, just that it was small, and it smelled divine.  I was home.

{A quick aside… I can never understand folks putting their coleslaw in their sandwich.  Meggie must have picked up this trick in New York.  Personally, I think it’s disgusting.}

“I ordered a corned beef on rye with mustard and a pickle.  And a glass of hot tea. I didn’t realize how famished I was… I tore into that sandwich like I had gone days without eating.  Half was gone in a blink… then I noticed my pickle. Hey! What gives? Then, I blurt out loud, ‘You call this a pickle?!'”

“A second or two passed, and I felt a tap on my shoulder, ‘excuse Miss, it’s called a cornichon.’  It was this strange looking guy, dark rimmed glasses, hair combed straight back with the most wonderful dark eyes… cow eyes.  I was a bit startled… this stranger and all, and I’m a stranger, too.  He sensed that I was a bit put off, and that’s when he flipped on that fabulously warm smile and said, ‘My name is Saul… welcome to Par-ree!'”


“Enter the Bottle of Celray Tonic… the leading man. Young, vigorous and sneaky charm. The lady pickle now has three suitors… Master Pickle, the Sour Tomato and the Celray Tonic.”

“You can see the possibilities! But tragedy looms for our ingénue pickle, the Celray Tonic has decided to volunteer for the French Foreign Legion and now realizes that he has made a serious mistake… he is to be sent to the scorching desert of North Africa where his fate will be in the hands of thirst crazed soldiers who will have their way with him! Distraught, he takes the only path he knows, he pulls off his cap and empties his contents into the East River while she sings, ‘Your bubbles were so fragrant, fresh and full of life… bah-dah dah, bah-dah dah.’

“Now I get it… ill-fated lovers gone to Katz’ Deli.  That’s new and different… The Celray Tonic commits suicide… there won’t be a dry eye in the audience… and you think Ziegfeld will love this?  I’ll have that drink now. Bah-dah dah, bah-dah dah.


“So it all began with a pickle?”

Meggie shook her head and smiled. “I felt like I had been caught without my clothes on… do you know what I mean? It was just a moment when I felt a stranger had witnessed something deeply personal, as silly that must seem now… that my ultimate vulnerability had been laid bare. But that marvelous smile cut thru my loneliness and fear.”

“And you knew then that he was the love of your life?”

“Not quite. Although it would be easy to say that I knew it right away; but that’s the stuff of books and movies.” Meggie couldn’t contain a laugh. She examined the remaining portion of her hefty sandwich, re-stacked the meat and repositioned the coleslaw within the rye, “I think I’ll take this home for later. Well… it was certainly the beginning… within six months, I moved into his flat…that was to save on expenses.”

I couldn’t resist a bit of theatrics. I picked up the last of our pickles, “And it all began with a pickle!”

“No. With a cornichon.”

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