Tygerpen: Gossip and food in one wicked dish

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Fishing was banned two years ago in Israel’s Sea of Galilee because of overfishing, which I was shocked to hear, since I once ate at a popular tourist restaurant there following the Yom Kippur War and sampled the famous St. Peter’s Fish. It wasn’t my fault that I’d unwittingly helped to deplete the stock.

According to the gospels, Jesus told Peter to cast his nets into deep water at the Sea of Galilee and “they caught fish in such large numbers their nets began to break.” So now we know who really was responsible for the depleted fish.

As a result, I have this quandary: Am I violating the Torah’s law against spreading gossip when I tell people the depletion of Galilee fish is the fault of you-know-who, even though it might be true?

Popular restaurants are incubators of great gossip. Growing up in Portland, I’d been captivated by gossip I heard at two restaurants, the famous loci of the Jewish rumor mill. They were the most popular Jewish restaurants in town, not because they served Jewish food or were Jewish-owned, but because members of the Jewish community were expected (i.e., required) to patronize them.

The first was the Republic Café, at 80 years the oldest Chinese restaurant. Paradoxically, while Jews wanted to be seen at the Republic, its nearby Skid Row location and its dark, musty interior and warrens of rooms, nooks and booths provided good places to hide a girlfriend, conduct questionable business dealings or eat barbecued pork strips, especially if you were an upstanding citizen or a rabbi.

My father initially refused to try any Chinese restaurant when we were young. He existed contentedly on a diet of sardines, salmon, orange juice, prune juice and milk chocolate — until he was 93, in fact, and forced to eat the Anti-Longevity Skilled Nursing Facility Diet, except for when he ripped off other residents’ chocolate Ensures.

But long before that larceny, my father relented and our family went to the Republic for the 6 p.m. Jewish seating. Immediately, Dad glommed onto the cautious classic Combination Plate #1 of chow mein, egg foo yung and fried rice. Not for my mother, sister and I: We showed other Jewish families we could be adventurous and order daredevil dishes like sweet and sour chicken  and wontons. Dad, meanwhile, for some duration — over 50 years — ate the same Combination Plate #1 that undoubtedly was reheated and served on the same plate by the staff on successive Sundays.

 The second Jewish restaurant for gossip and great food was Yaw’s, named for the Yaws family or a tropical bacterial skin disease. Until Yaw’s the restaurant expired, it served zillions of outstanding fresh-ground hamburgers, french fries with gravy and incredible desserts. In addition to indoor seating, Yaw’s offered a drive-in with carhops and a Tootsie Roll cop whose job was to maintain order and distribute Tootsie Rolls. Yaws was the place to cruise.

Years later, while on a lunch hour from work, I was refused service at Yaw’s because I’d heedlessly seated myself at the counter in the “For Men Only” section. The counter help kicked me out after I’d waited 45 minutes, standing directly behind two people seated at the counter, looming over them, which was how you secured your seat. That wouldn’t happen today, what with the sitter showing outrage and the stander showing a revolver.

The best gossip I heard at Yaw’s occurred when my mother and I met up with Leo Adler, a bald, portly Jewish man with dark-rimmed glasses who lived in the eastern Oregon desert town of Baker, where he was a prominent and self-made millionaire, philanthropist and beloved community leader. My mother knew him from her work at Universal and MGM film studios, where she helped distribute films in Oregon.

Waiting with us to be seated, Leo giggled, barely containing himself, and finally came out with the delicious story of Clint Eastwood and Jean Seberg on location near Baker for the filming of the 1969 musical “Paint Your Wagon.” By Leo’s account, Seberg’s French husband, Romain Gary, the author and diplomat, arrived unexpectedly at the film site to discover Clint and Jean in a horizontal off-camera closeup.

Leo’s story was surely gossip (though true) but excused under the Jewish Anti-Gossip Law Escape Clause: He told it to people who had a legitimate need for this information. I’ll say.

Trudi York Gardner lives in Walnut Creek and can be reached at [email protected] or via her blog, www.tygerpen.com.