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Book Review

A Family Whose Plate Is Deliciously Full



Adventures of a Restaurant Family

By Patricia Volk

Alfred A. Knopf

$23, 242 Pages


As a kid, I used to dream about opening a restaurant, and my father, who sold restaurant equipment, always had the same advice. "Just make sure I'm the first guy you call," he would say, "so I can talk you out of it." Restaurants were a precarious line of work; we ate at plenty of places for free because they owed my father money. They were the reckless haven of people who knew they had to make a living but could not quite handle a 9-to-5 existence. Restaurant people were dreamers, romantics, performers. They were immigrants with a single marketable or translatable skill--the ability to make a home-cooked meal.

They were people who understood that a truly great restaurant had not a theme or a concept but a heart, and that excess was a virtue. Four generations of Patricia Volk's family owned a series of Manhattan restaurants, long enough for rampant idiosyncrasy to feel like its more stolid cousin, tradition. Her relatives were not eccentric. The message of Volk's loopy, generous memoir, "Stuffed," is that there is no such thing as too much food or too much feeling.

The smug or pious among us might consider some of her relatives to be dysfunctional, but they would likely regard tuna and mayo on Wonder Bread as a decent sandwich. They might have an easier time of it than Volk's relatives, but never, ever could they have so full a life.

Volk's family story begins with great-grandfather Sussman Volk, who introduced pastrami to the New World. On the other side of Patricia's family, the Morgens owned 14 restaurants, over time, including a temple to continental cuisine located in the heart of the garment district. That was where Patricia's beloved father worked; that was what the family called "the store," where they sold swank satisfaction to their customers.

Volk rattles off a list of food her father brought home from the store every Saturday, and in the real world it would be nothing more than a list. But she rolls the words out with inebriated glee, the "number 20 shrimps," the "cauliflower as big as the moon." What the Volks and Morgens really sold was happiness at mealtime, an exaggeration of a meal, complete with fancier dishes than people made at home, obsequious service--and no cleanup.

Not that life was always sunny offstage. Volk drops little bombshells into her prose with the precision of a pastry chef piping frosting flowerets: Her grandfather beat her father; her mother mandated clean plates and raised two sequential dieters; one husband died and left his wife without money; one uncle intimidated Patricia. Even her beloved parents were capable of the kind of misstep that makes us wince. Dad had a string of objectionable epithets that he hauled out whenever Patricia moved too slowly on the tennis court or when her posture astride a horse was off. Mom found so much to fret about, all in the name of love, that it was hard not to worry along with her.

"Stuffed" is as good as it is because Volk knows how to maintain just the right level of tension: never too much schmaltz, never too much Sturm und Drang . It is easy to imagine her relatives' stories recast in the sepia fuzzy focus of sentimentality or as a bet-settling screed, a hardcover alternative to years on the analyst's couch. In fact, the most poignant passage is a marvel of emotional balance. When beloved Uncle Bob comes home from World War II, his doting parents express their joy in the one way that has always worked. They take him out to dinner and then have to take him home again before they even order: A room full of happy people is too much for his bruised soul.

I wish, a little bit, that some of the material had been organized differently. Volk tends to devote separate chapters to individual relatives, and the overlapping stories and shifts in time can be slightly confusing. But it's a quibble. "Stuffed" is just what a good restaurant meal should be--soaked in atmosphere, full of strong flavors, handsome on the plate.


Karen Stabiner is the author with Piero Selvaggio of "The Valentino Cookbook."

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