Most people loathe the smell of cigar smoke, but for me a whiff transports me to a long forgotten time of my youth. I can picture it. A festive Saturday evening party at my parent’s house with relatives and friends gathered for dinner. Guaranteed this was no pot luck as my mother did all the cooking. They have just finished the sumptuous buffet of four kinds of cold cuts, potato salad (or kartoffel salat if you want to be correct); fresh beet salad with slivers of onions; finely cut cole slaw with parsley and grated carrots; stuffed eggs dusted with paprika and carefully garnished with pimento; two different jello molds (yes people really ate them in the 1950’s, and mounds of delectable brown rice.
The brown rice, cooked in a large shiny pot, had broken pieces of vermicelli noodles and sautéed brown mushrooms. I haven’t been able to duplicate it no matter how many times I’ve tried, even starting with the prerequisite made-from-scratch chicken broth and following her recipe to the letter. It never approaches my mother’s legendary dish.
After the meal, the women segregated themselves in the living room for the serious gossip. The sated men moved to the Formica kitchen table. Cards came out and my father passed around cigars from a cardboard box with the drawing of an Indian on the cover. We coveted those cardboard boxes to store prized “treasures.” The men lit up and smelly cigars hung rakishly out of their mouths. The air filled with a bluish smoky haze, and ashtrays were scattered about for the falling ash. Then my father filled shot glasses with schnapps, whiskey.
My sister and I hid in the hall observing the raucous men. When they saw us we’d get teased and run away but sneak back and to spy on their mysterious practices. The men played a game remembered from their youth as they were German immigrants having fled Hitler. When they got their hand, they shouted in German then slammed down the cards, loud and laughing. They all had stories of survival and loss, but at that moment in time that pain was forgotten and they were having a ball. My sister and I wanted to play the card game too but of course it was only for the men. I liked Mr. Kaiser, the joker of the group, with slick backed black hair, red suspenders and a white shirt rolled up at the sleeves. He looked like a serious card player and never stopped telling stories.
After the card game, the men joined the wives now gathered in the dining room for dessert of never less than five different choices. My mother was a master baker and dessert was serious business in our house. She served a dense applesauce cake; zwetschen kuchen (plum cake in a yeast dough); glazed cherry tarts, an apple cake and chocolate chip cookies which were hard and crispy and so delectable you never stopped at one. These chocolate chip cookies were a huge favorite in our family and she made them for most holidays keeping them in big glass jars and sending them to friends and neighbors on special occasions.
Everyone heaped their plates with slivers of the different desserts so as not to miss anything. After more good natured schmoozing, my sister and I fell into bed ready to pass out having stayed up way past our bedtime. The smell of cigar smoke still fills me with sweet memories of those years.