Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family by Patricia Volk

242 pages; Black and white, photographs, Paperback
Vintage Books, New York 2001
Reviewed by Catherine Cope Cavalier for Good Cooking, Spring/Summer 2004

This is the type of 'dish' that as a child your parents would forbid you to discuss in public. Patricia Volk exposes the secrets of generations of her family for all of their lovely flaws and idiosyncrasies in Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family. Early on she explains that, "In a restaurant family you're never hungry, you're starving. And you're never full, you're stuffed." There is no middle ground, only extremes exist in this accomplished and eccentric family. Thus, she sets the stage for a very personal drama of growing up in a Jewish family in the restaurant business in 1950's New York City. But this story does not play out at "the store" Morgen's Restaurant on West 38th Street as one might expect, rather it is set at home and food, as a time-honored metaphor for love, is truly apparent.

Each chapter profiles a relative, but is named after a food rather than the person. The chapter entitled "Chocolate Pudding" recounts the story of Volk and her sister Jo Ann (who have been on a combined total of forty-four diets to date) making pudding together as kids. Foreshadowing a revealing anecdote, the remembrance will wend its way towards the food reference in the context of Volk's impressions. Known foremost by the family for their major accomplishment, relatives are vividly described, including an impressive number of notables as well as the recluses and characters. There's Aunt Ruthie, who successfully counseled an intruder in her Bronx apartment into turning himself in, while feeding him Jarlsberg and nectarines; Sussman Volk, who came to New York in 1887 and is credited with bringing pastrami to the New World; and Aunt Lil, who saved mountains of moldy newspaper for the Boy Scouts and displayed an embroidered pillow that said, " I've Never Forgotten A Rotten Thing Anyone Has Done To Me." Volk commits to paper some relatively shocking family tales. Sober stories of illness and indiscretion pepper this loving ode to the Morgens and the Volks and crop up as unexpectedly as such things in life do. She imbues each story, from childhood impressions to poignant adult remembrances, with a deep and abiding respect for the individual. Indeed, one feels that they may be learning more about Volk's family tree than they know about their own. A full genealogy is included in the opening pages of Stuffed, which from the start is easily glossed over, but by the close of the book, becomes a rich mosaic of individuals who worked and loved and ate and leave a lasting impression on both the author and the reader.

Surprisingly, aside from a short ingredient list for Morgen's Seasoned Salt, the only recipes printed in the book (for steak and chocolate cake) are family favorites created by the Volk's longtime African American housekeeper, Mattie Sylvia Lee Myles Weems Watts. In her recollections of Mattie, Volk gracefully comments on the racial politics of the time. Indeed, many aspects of life in the 1950's, from organza and kid gloves to World War II veterans are prominently figured in the book.

While reading Stuffed, you can't help but admire Volk's lineage and at the same time swell with pride for your own. One finishes the book with an intense desire to dig out family albums, hold cherished heirlooms and have long conversations with elder relatives. Volk closes the book where one might expect it to begin, in the kitchen on her last visit to Morgen's with her father in 1988 and cites it as the end of a century when her family "fed New York." But, surely she has found a new way to enhance their legacy by sustaining us with this powerful tribute honoring full lives well lived in a restaurant family.