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6th Annual Conference:

"Kitchen Lit"


by Martha Mendelsohn
The Jewish Week: September 1, 2000
The "mountains" evoke marathon meals rather than literary salons, but writers whose books are set in the borscht belt served up verbal schmaltz spiked with cynicism at Kutsher's Country Club last weekend.

Sidney Offit, author of the 1959 novel "He Had It Made," hoped to do comedy shtick when he reported for work at his mother-in-law's Catskill resort, the Aladdin Hotel, almost 50 summers ago. "An hour-and-a-half later I was in the kitchen."

When Offit, the new food steward, failed to order enough "specials" (jumbo frankfurters), a deprived guest went wild. "There was nothing to prepare me for the savagery we were attacked with when we ran out of things," Offit told the audience at the sixth annual History of the Catskills Conference.

The first draft of his novel about a scheming waiter, reissued by Beckam Publications last year, lacked a key ingredient: a love interest. Offit added an affair with the boss's daughter. (In real life, Offit had eloped with the daughter of the proprietor of the Aladdin Hotel the year before.) Offit's book remains "the best account of dining room and kitchen life ever written," said the conference organizer, Phil Brown, author of "Catskill Culture: A Mountain Rat's Memories of the Great Jewish Resort Area" and a sociology professor at Brown University, whose mother was a hotel chef.

Terry Kay, author of "Shadow Song," a 1994 novel about a Georgia farmboy-turned-busboy who falls for a Jewish guest during the summer of '55, experienced "only one kiss in three years" of waiting tables in the mountains, but he fell in love with the food. He used some of his earnings to fly his mother up for a meal.

At lunch, Norma Bernstock, 54, a conference participant and photographer from New Jersey, dug into the kasha varnishkes. She spent childhood summers at a Monticello bungalow colony. "I had to eat in the children's dining room," she groaned, as hotel guests, from old-timers with walkers and first-timers in strollers, descended on Kutsher's massive dining room.

Out of respect for her family, Tania Grossinger refrained from dishing all the dirt when she wrote her 1975 memoir, "Growing Up at Grossinger's." Had the book been either a straight "puff piece" or "the inside story," it might have been a best-seller, she said.

"Never straddle the fence!" cautioned Grossinger, who just wrote a novel, "Magda's Daughter," which is partly set in the Catskills.

And don't skimp on the "specials."