What’s for Dinnerby Marjory Garrison
Joan Braunstein, 67, born in Brooklyn Harold Braunstein, 76, born in Brooklyn Neighborhood: Brighton Beach Weekly food costs: $140 average per week
What’s for Dinner: Split pea soup; fresh rye bread and butter; homemade chocolate chip cookies or biscotti; green tea.
“They say green tea is good for you,” says Harold. “They say…they say…”
Harold and Joan met in August 1958 and went out every night for a week. Harold’s parents were away, “and not knowing anything about cooking, and never having been left alone at home, I was absolutely ready for the right girl to come along,” he says.
The right girl did come along, and Harold took her on an early date to Brighton Beach, which today the Braunsteins look down on from their 17th-floor balcony.
“We came back to the scene of the crime,” says Joan.
From the Braunsteins’ high-rise ocean view it’s about seven miles to where Harold grew up, in Canarsie. Much of Eastern Brooklyn was Dutch farmland then, and Harold used to chase the ice delivery truck down his dirt road, swinging onto the back bumper with friends to break off chunks of ice.
“Can you imagine? That was a real treat for us,” says Harold. “It was just a different time.”
A “different time” meant sour cream in everything, raw eggs, lamb chops, heavy syrup, four quarts of milk a day—“steaks, when the parents had some money,” he says.
The milk was as thick as the glass bottles on the doorstep—“homogenized” was a peculiar word for a process just invented. Milk bottles were turned upside down and shaken to a consistent thickness. “Skim milk” meant skimming the cream from the top and using it for dessert.
“The food was better then. We didn’t know what ‘cholesterol’ was,” says Harold. “It was a time when these words didn’t even exist.”
“We used to call it supper, I remember,” says Joan.
“Who ate dinner?” asks Harold. “Probably the same people who owned cars.”
Today, what’s for supper at the Braunsteins’ is “old-fashioned food” – basic tomato and onion salads, soups, and fresh baked goods. Joan will make chicken soup once a week, or boiled chicken with matzoth ball soup. She’ll bake fresh salmon with olive oil, garlic and oregano. She clips coupons from the Saturday Times and shops at the nearby Waldbaum’s.
“I love tuna fish salad, egg salad, potato salad—anything that’s a potato,” says Joan. “Potato fries, potato pancakes, knishes. I make meat lasagna, which he doesn’t like—”
“It’s not good for you,” says Harold.
“—and our favorite vegetable is Seabrook Farms creamed spinach,” Joan continues, retrieving the frozen package from the freezer. It comes in a microwavable pouch, but they’re not microwave people. “I don’t have a need for it,” says Joan.
They’re not really “going-to-restaurant people” either, she says, but occasionally on a Friday or Saturday night the couple dines out. Harold orders the same dish every time. At the Chinese place, it’s shrimp and lobster.
“I don’t think you should test your body by trying new foods,” he says. “They say you either live to eat or eat to live. Basically I eat to live.”
Joan is more adventurous. “It’s never going to be the same thing. I eat my way down the menu,” she says. So Mrs. Stahl’s Knishes was a dream for her: a “million varieties of knishes”—cabbage, mushroom, hot dog, spinach, broccoli and cheese—and she never had to order the same thing twice. “That goes back to the grandmothers’ days,” says Joan, when from the corner of Brighton Beach Avenue and Coney Island Avenue, Mrs. Stahl’s served knishes and pletzels (onion pancakes fried and baked into a pretzel twist). A Subway sandwich shop occupies the corner now.
“All the stores that catered to the old Jews have disappeared,” says Harold, remembering when he and Joan’s grandparents lived in the neighborhood.
“The Avenue no longer caters to the senior citizens,” says Joan, who will occasionally go to the butcher on King’s Highway for chicken livers, or to Cuccio’s on Avenue X for pastries, or to Leon’s on Avenue U for Jewish rye. “The bakeries and yarn stores closed, and beautiful food emporiums opened up,” she says.
In the 1980s, Russian immigrants began to fill the stores along Brighton Beach’s vacant commercial strip. Now signs in Russian offer borscht, pickled herring, oysters and caviar, women on the Avenue sell bulochki (buns filled with meat, poppy seeds, and sweet cheese or jam), and supper clubs pour vodka till sunrise. “For the Russians, this is their Manhattan,” says Harold.
Like most of Brighton Beach, the Braunsteins enjoy a good pierogi (stuffed potato dumpling). “Instead of spending two thousand years with the dough like our grandmothers did,” Joan buys Mrs. T’s Potato and Onion Pierogies from Waldbaum’s and keeps them in the freezer.
It’s been 47 years since Joan and Harold were married on Christmas Day in Rockaway Beach. Bohack Supermarket, then the largest, had three aisles, and was the first grocery store in Brooklyn “where the customer picked out his own merchandise,” according to Harold. Fifteen cents would buy a Brooklyn egg cream, a quarter, “a malted,” and it would cost you a nickel to ride the subway “from Brighton Beach all the way to the Bronx,” he says.
But one thing remains the same today: Harold starts each day with “probably the best breakfast you could eat: hot cereal with milk.”
“You can’t beat a good oatmeal,” says Harold.
“I buy old-fashioned Quaker Oats,” adds Joan.