Amid the assorted tchotchkes on my office desk – a miniature wooden camel from Israel, a faux antique typewriter pencil sharpener, a Popeye bendy toy – rests a jagged, weathered shard of mirror.
No one ever asks me much about this random sliver of reflective glass. But there’s a story behind it that, in my mind, qualifies this oddity as an authentic relic of Baltimore Jewish history, as well as a statement about food’s strong grasp on our lives.
On a slow July afternoon in 2009, I was sitting at my desk when receiving a call that the Suburban House restaurant, at 911 Reisterstown Road, was ablaze. Anyone with even a modicum of knowledge about Jewish Baltimore knows this bistro — celebrated for its matzoh ball soup and large portions, as well as its kitschy décor — was (and remains) a local landmark. How many family dinners and simchahs, not to mention political meet-ups and mahjong tournaments, were enjoyed upon its hallowed ground?
I sped over to the parking lot in front of the Suburban House, where I found onlookers gathered. Smoke was billowing from the building, and there were reports of flames in the back and firetrucks on the way. Suddenly, I noticed a curious sight. Customers — most of them older folks — were casually walking out of the restaurant’s front door. None of them appeared to be particularly concerned about the blaze nor moving at a rapid clip, and some carried plates brimming with food. Some even had the presence of mind to bring silverware and beverages.
I asked one nearby restaurant employee if I was really seeing people stroll out of a burning building with meals intact. She nodded, nonplussed. We watched as the customers stood around and ate their food while taking in the fire scene.
Perhaps Erma Bombeck was right when advising, “Seize the moment — remember all those women on the Titanic who waved off the dessert cart.” Obviously,the folks at the Suburban House would agree with Erma.
I’m not trying to make light of that horrific day, and I’ll never forget the pain and anguish in the eyes of the restaurant’s owners and employees while watching all of their hard work go up in smoke. Thankfully, the Suburban House — quirky Yiddish placemats and all — reopened about a year later at 1700 Reisterstown Road and remains a popular Pikesville culinary destination.
But what struck me were those diners and how even in the face of impending doom, they refused to deny their appetites or relinquish their meals. After all, what’s a three-alarm blaze next to a good corned beef sandwich, kreplach or a homemade coddie? It made me think about the strong gravitational pull of food in our lives, how it’s such a touchstone in terms of identity, community, culture and sense of purpose.
A couple of days after the fire, I returned to the old Suburban House property and noticed a stream of discarded, empty plates and bowls dotting the streetscape. I walked up to the eatery’s charred remains, picked up a singed piece of glass (presumably from its ceiling-to-floor mirrored walls) and slipped it into my pocket.
A souvenir from the dessert cart.
In November’s issue of Jmore, we offer a series of articles and essays exploring the universally loved subject of food. We hope you find it tasteful, nourishing and thoroughly satisfying.
Alan Feiler, Editor-in-Chief
Top photo: Suburban House placemat (downloaded from suburbanhousedeli.com)
Tasty Times in Charm City, by Randi Rom
Baltimore-Area Chefs Share Their Favorite Recipes, by Randi Rom
From Gefilte Fish to Guacamole, by Jill Yesko
The Deli as a Symbol of the American Jewish Experience, by Richard Gorelick
A Farm-to-Table Thanksgiving Feast, by Joshua Rosenstein
Don’t Forget the Sides!, by Huppit Bartov Miller
The Siren Song of Shakshuka, by Amanda Krotki
Food, Glorious Food!, by Alan Feiler
Two Decades of Dinners, by Dana Hemelt
Baltimore Hunger Project Strives for Full Bellies, by Lynne B. Kahn
Choosing Sides, by The Classic Catering People
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