Papa, Food was Love and Life
At age of two, while doggy paddling from side to side of my grandfather’s small jacuzzi, floaties and all, my older sister Sara happened to get in the small path of my so called “swimming”. As good manners were so newly marinated into my brain at this time I kindly asked my sister to give me room to swim by shyly muttering “scuse me”. My grandfather, better known to the family as Papa, sitting by the jacuzzi, an older man with a belly, a beard, and a whole lot of character exclaimed, “Don’t say excuse me! Tell her to get the hell outta’ your way!”.
Papa at dinner with my sister and I around the time of the jacuzzi story.
My grandfather was born in Bad Kreuznach (pronounced Bachkroytsneck) Germany as Walter Herschel. He was the youngest child, with three brothers and one sister, and like the rest of the Jewish people living in Germany, he and his family were constantly living in fear of the Nazis. His mother was faced with the harsh reality that within days, the Nazis would come and murder their family. When he was just six years old, knowing she would never see him again, Walter’s mother saved her youngest son’s life by putting him on a train whose main mission was to help children escape Nazi Germany. The rescue mission, known as the kindertransport mission, helped around 10,000 children escape from 4 different countries.
With his journey came bewilderment and trauma that no one, especially a young child, should have to endure. For two years, Papa lived with the Quakers in an orphanage in France and learned to speak French. As amazing as it was that he and other children were able to survive the holocaust, there was never enough food to eat at his home in Germany or even in the French orphanage. Both in Germany and France, Walter was hungry, malnourished, and a very skinny child. According to my father, for my grandfather, “ food became a symbol of survival, life, family and love”.
When the Quakers who ran the orphanage asked Walter if he wanted to go to America, he jumped at the opportunity. On a big ship across the Atlantic Ocean, Walter traveled to the US and finally landed in New York at Ellis Island. For the first few months, he lived in a Quaker orphanage in New York. Walter was so terrified to let people know that he was German because of the war with Germany, that he solely spoke French and even got the adopted nickname “Frenchy”.
Eventually, as an adolescent, Walter was adopted by the “Weinshenk” family, a wealthy couple living in Los Angeles. While attending Fairfax high, he met my father’s mother, Marilyn, a Jewish woman whose family, according to her, kept a “Kosher House”. After high school, Marilyn and Walter had children, my father and his brother, and after ten years of marriage, eventually divorced. He married another woman after my grandmother, and eventually divorced her as well.
After two failed marriages, Walter eventually met a woman named Pat, who was a waitress at a restaurant called “Ram’s Horn Restaurant” in Los Angeles County. In the mid 1970s, Walter married for the third time and final time to Pat. Walter eventually became successful and was able to travel the world for months with Pat. At this time, with a love of food and a better understanding of various cultures, he learned to cook. He loved and could make food of all types- German, French, Italian, Jewish, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, and American food. He made strudel, German potatoes, duck, pastas, Matzo Ball soup, chopped liver, pate, chili, tacos, barbequed meats, poultry and fish. The list goes on and on!
Interestingly enough, Pat and Walter’s marriage provided my mother and father the opportunity to meet, fall in love, and have children. To make it more clear, my father, who grew up in Los Angeles is Walter’s son while my mother, who grew up in Queens, New York is Pat’s niece. With the interconnected families, my grandfather truly brought both his family and my mother’s family together, and most of this togetherness was fueled by Walter’s cooking and everyone eating together. The most exciting and favorite appetizer of everyone was Walter’s “rumaki”, the simple yet flavorful taste of bacon-wrapped dates. While I discovered by talking to Pat that true “rumaki” is bacon-wrapped liver, not bacon-wrapped dates, for the Weinshenk family “rumaki” will always be Papa’s version- bacon-wrapped dates.
My mother’s grandmother (Pat’s mother), my mother, and Papa
While I don’t remember swimming back and forth in my grandfather’s jacuzzi it is one that my parents often re-tell when reminiscing about the life of my now deceased grandfather. It seems to capture the essence of his personality- his genuine bluntness, his frank sense of humor, and his rare authenticity. My grandfather was every person that you wanted to know wrapped up into one- he was dynamic, charming, intelligent, witty, and had this energy about him that made you want to know him. The people who knew Papa were moved by his sense of humor and lively personality, his brutal honesty yet caring nature, but most all, his compelling story. He was recognized by his ever-present beard and belly, which I now understand to be a belly with a story. He was a proud man who would do anything for anyone that he knew and when Papa cooked, although you had to get out of his way “or else”, according to my dad, “Papa cooked for those he loved and cared about. Food was love and life.”
Today I want to share Papa’s little treat- rumaki (bacon-wrapped dates)! The easiest, tastiest little appetizer, which has brought my family together for years and will hopefully entice you to cook it yourself for the ones that you love and care about.
-1 package of pitted dates (make sure they are pitted!)
-Bacon (You will cut the bacon in thirds, so multiply the number of bacon in the package by 3 to determine how many pitted dates you should buy.)
Set your oven degrees, and while preheating, cut the bacon into thirds using scissors. Wrap the bacon around the dates, and use toothpicks to hold them together. Toss them into the oven until bacon is cooked and looks crisp. It will take around 15-40 minutes depending on how many you have, so keep checking on them. Eat, share, and love!
Papa, Pat, my sister and I.