As you may have noticed, I haven’t been writing columns as regularly as usual this fall. In part, that’s because I have been traveling a lot, and have not been able to hit deadlines. But mostly I’ve just been having a hard time finding the humorous side of life to report in this column.
I really thought my amazing dad would live forever, and continue providing laughs and stories and interesting crackpot theories well into his second century, but it was not to be. His brain was as young and sharp as ever, but his 99-year-old heart gave out on him a few weeks ago.
Even though he was ready to go, it was still a shock to lose him. I miss him terribly, and know my sisters and I will continue to do so for years to come.
But while I am sad, I admit I am mostly smiling and laughing when I think of him because he left us with an enormous gift, one that is much more valuable than any financial legacy: A trove of funny stories, both ones he told and ones we tell in which he starred. I know he won’t really be gone as long as we are telling and retelling them.
If you enjoy this column, credit him. I learned the art of storytelling from him as we sat around the dinner table. My sisters and I never tired of hearing his stories of practical jokes he played on fellow reporters during his years as a newspaperman.
The time he sent a reporter haring off to the wilds of south Jersey chasing a tip about a black-and-white television that had suddenly started broadcasting in color. The time he called and tried to convince a storekeeper that the colleague who had gone out to buy ice cream for the staff was a deadbeat who had just pulled a scam on a shop down the street. (That one was stymied by the colleague himself, who had helped the storekeeper by answering the phone at the store.)
The most famous, the “Fluffy Pugh” story, was a true classic. It was almost an initiation rite in our family: Anytime one of us brought a friend home for dinner, we would call on dad to tell it.
I can’t do it justice here, as it really must be related in a haughty, upper-crust Philadelphia Main Line accent (other than a few words of high school German, dad couldn’t wrap his tongue or brain around foreign words, but his ability to mimic the accents he grew up with was nothing short of Oscar-worthy), but I’ll summarize.
It involved calling in a phony death notice to a reporter who was nervously spending his first day on the obituary desk.
As the story develops, with dad offering the obituary in a grief-stricken voice while the reporter tries to sympathize and be professional, it turns out the departed is named Fluffy Pugh. The surname, pronounced Pew, of course causes the reporter to sit up and listen, as the Pews are a wealthy old Philadelphia family.
But no, “Not P-E-W,” dad says, in the most condescending tone possible. “They’re lovely people, live right down the road. We spell it the old-fashioned way, P-U-G-H.”
The deceased is just 8 years old, eliciting even greater interest and sympathy from the reporter.
Until, after much sighing and hand-wringing, it becomes clear that the dearly departed had come to the Pughs eight years ago “as a tiny ball of fur,” and is a dog.
The story ends with the reporter finally figuring out who is behind the call, putting it on hold and coming to dad’s desk to threaten bodily harm.
It turns out, the story was legendary not just in our house, but in the newspaper world. In the 1990s, I met a former reporter whose first year at the paper had overlapped with dad’s last few months, nearly 20 years earlier, just before my father retired in 1977.
When I asked him if he remembered Ozzie Teller, he lit up and said yes — then immediately launched into a letter-perfect retelling of Fluffy Pugh. He got the voices right. He even had details I had forgotten. Twenty years after he had heard dad tell it.
Now that’s immortality.
From “The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen” by Amelia Saltsman.
In talking about dad’s cooking adventures in the past, I think I have told you about his tendency to add salsa to the strange mixtures he concocted. If he had instead had the amazing Israeli tomato/hot pepper condiment matboucha, I suspect his cooking would have soared to even greater heights of inventiveness.
I recently attended a book party celebrating the launch of Amelia Saltsman’s brilliant new book “The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen,” which contains a recipe for matboucha, along with one of the classic ways to use it in shakshuka, a Middle Eastern breakfast dish. After he moved to Florida five years ago, dad was proud that he never once used the stove in his apartment. But I think this dish might have almost been enough to persuade him to turn on one of the burners.
By the way, you don’t have to be Jewish to buy and love this cookbook. The delicious blintz souffle recipe alone (which is a bit too long to reproduce here) will convert you — to the food at least!
2 cups matboucha (see recipe below)
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
Greek yogurt or labneh and country-style bread for serving
In a 12-inch skillet, thin the matboucha with water to the consistency of thick spaghetti sauce. Stir in the olive oil and set the pan over medium heat until the sauce is bubbling, then reduce heat to medium-low.
With the back of spoon, make an indention in the sauce at the 12 o’clock position and crack an egg into the depression. Repeat at evenly spaced intervals around the pan with the remaining eggs.
Cook until the eggs are set to your liking (7 minutes should get you to over easy). Season with salt and shower with parsley. Serve directly from the pan to individual shallow bowls, accompanied by a dollop of Greek yogurt or labneh and a thick slice of toasted bread.
1 can (28 ounces) crushed tomatoes
2 ounces (2 to 4) fresh hot chilies (jalapeno, serrano or habanero), minced (with or without seeds, depending on how hot you want it)
8 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp. sweet paprika
1½ tsp. hot paprika, or to taste
1/4 cup grapeseed or canola oil
Place tomatoes in a wide pot or deep saute pan. Stir in the chilies, garlic and both kinds of paprika, then pour the oil over the top. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture comes to a boil, then reduce the heat to keep it boiling gently but not burning.
Cook for about an hour, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is very thick and glossy.
Remove from the heat and season to taste with about a teaspoon each of salt and sugar. Let cook, and store in tightly lidded jars in the refrigerator or freezer.