Kopaigorod, a shtetl in Ukraine.
My father, Simon, grew up there in the early 1900's.
It was a good place to be from.
On a good day, he and his brother, Saul (on the right) looked like this.
In 1924, he was finally able to get his visa to come to the United States.
His two eldest brothers had already traveled to America in search of a new life for their entire family including five boys and two girls. There was really no other choice. There were no jobs for Jews except as cannon fodder in the Russian army. Fortunately, with help from a Jewish organization in the U.S., he andhis family were able to settle in Los Angeles in the 1920’s.
After building a successful career as one of LA’s finest dental technicians –– I was told he made the most beautiful false teeth in the city –– he was forced to close his business because of the Depression and went to work for his brothers at the Friedman Bag Company.
I was born in the early 40's.
From the very beginning, I always looked forward to special times with my father.
He loved taking me to work. It was a treat for me, too. I would go into one of the offices of the bag company and write and draw while he worked in the enormous print shop, printing burlap bags.Thinking back, he must have been proud of me because he would always take me out to lunch to one of his favorite places and introduce me to his friends and coworkers.
At the top of his list was Philippe's, near Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. It opened in1908 and is the home of the Original French Dip Sandwich.
A localfiremanactually “invented”the first French dip sandwich when a piece of his French roll fell into the gravy. The fireman thought it was so good, he came back the next day and asked for another sandwich dipped in gravy! So pretty soon, every policeman, fireman and blue-collar worker like my dad showed up and ordered that “sandwich dipped in gravy.”
The place still feels the same. There are always many lines of customers, waiting to order at all hours of the day and night.
Can you hear me?
Remember phone booths?
In those prehistoric days, I loved getting weighed.
Today, not so much.
I loved being with my mother, too. She was vivacious and, considering her shtetl roots, had a very strong visual sensibility. Even though our family didn't have much money, our home was always filled with beautiful colors, paintings on the walls and lovely furniture. She also managed to dress stylishly and made sure my sisters and I did, too.
We didn't have a babysitter or nanny, so she took me with her almost everywhere. I can still remember riding buses and streetcars from our home on the edge of Hancock Park, along Wilshire Boulevard to downtown Los Angeles and our favorite department store, Bullock's.
But the end of the rainbow for me was lunch at Clifton's Cafeteria. There was no place like it. They opened in 1935 and stayed in business until 2010 when the downtown LA real estate market tumbled. They recently renovated and reopened it, and today it almost feels like the Clifton's I remember. Almost, but not quite.
Too many choices!
My mother and I both had our favorites. Hers was chicken chow mein and mine was jello! I couldn't decide. I couldn't decide.
But downtown meant more to me than a rainbow of jello. A lot of it was also associated with my love for my parents and their love for food. Like many poor immigrants, food was very important to our family becausethere was never enough to eat in their shtetl.
I only recently discovered that Clifford Clinton had his restaurant serve millions of meals for free to needy patrons, as well as to paying ones during the Depression.The restaurant chain was noted for aiding those who could not afford to pay. This approach to business reflected the owner's ethos—he never turned anyone away hungry.In 1946, Clifford and his wife Nelda retired to devote their attention to Meals for Millions, a non-profit charitable organization he founded in the wake of World War II to distribute food to millions of starving and malnourished people throughout the world.
I hope they include jello.