It wasn’t until prizefighter Jack Dempsey saw me knock a mouthy bastard flat on his ass that I realized my mama, Jennie Abuza, taught me three things: how to cook, how to work hard, and how to land the perfect uppercut.
Jennie Abuza in 1901, age 51.
When I think of my mother, I imagine her stirring a pot of goulash so tall she could hardly see over the lip. Running Abuza’s Family Restaurant meant she delivered the majority of her motherly advice while waving a long wooden spoon in my face. When she wanted a vacation from the sweltering kitchen and from her four screaming brats, she’d retreat upstairs to our sewing room to mend an endless pile of socks and ratty cotton dresses that never quite lost the scent of fried onions. She worked from seven in the morning until well after the rest of us had gone to bed, even on Fridays when other kosher restaurants closed for Shabbos. There were too many hungry Jewish theater actors passing through Hartford, Connecticut to shut down the goulash factory, even for a night. Hanging around all those flamboyant actors, I guess you could say that I got a taste of show business pretty early.
When we Abuza kids weren’t in school, we spent every waking moment working at the restaurant. From the first day we opened in Hartford, my two brothers, my sister and I each had a job to do in order to keep the business running. Phil, the oldest, was the lucky kid in charge of all the heavy lifting. If there were crates to cart down to the root cellar, barrels of pickles to move or garbage to haul, Phil was our man. Moe, my younger brother, was our busboy. He cleared away the empty plates and Mama’s potato peelings so quickly, Hoover should’ve named its first model “The Moe.”
Annie, our littlest sister, was only five years old when Abuza's Family Restaurant opened but no one could slice bread, fill water glasses or serve hot coffee quicker than that little imp. You could barely see her darting between the tables, a cloud of steam from her pitcher of hot black Joe surrounding her little face. She looked like a friendly ghost.
And me? I was the waitress and dishwasher. I handled all fifteen tables and I never dropped so much as a poppy seed on a customer. Old friends from Hartford insist I got my powerful pipes by shouting out orders to my mother all those years, but personally I think the secret is a childhood full of massive doses of schmaltz, which is what we call pure chicken fat. Ask my old friend Caruso. I got him to try it and for the next ten years he ate a dish of mashed potatoes schmeared with dollops of the stuff before every performance.
One may think it’s fitting that a zaftig broad like me grew up inside a restaurant, but I don’t remember snagging even a single errant spaetzle throughout my entire childhood. Come within a foot of the strudel meant for paying customers and you’d get the business end of my mother’s ladle. Moe once tried to swipe the heel of an old loaf of pumpernickel and nearly lost an eye. Still, I had a sweet tooth that begged for babka, so I learned early on to take the long way home after school and schmooze with every shopkeeper along the way.
Until I was six or seven, batting my big brown peepers worked for some penny candy or a small piece of coffee cake. By the time I got a little older—and a little rounder—I knew I had to knock their socks off to earn the top-shelf treats I really wanted. I tried to dance for my delicacies, but I’m about as light on my feet as a plow horse in two sets of iron shoes. Then I remembered that old saying about singing for your supper, so I learned a couple of ditties that seemed to pay off in all the snacks I could stomach.
Some days I would stop at Landi's Bakery and sing something sad for glum old Mrs. Landi. It seemed like she’d give me a piping hot doughnut for every tear that rolled down her wrinkled cheek. Other days, if I felt like sharing with my brothers and sister, I’d swing by and visit my schoolmate John Sudarsky at his family’s pharmacy. I’d stand at the drug counter, right at the front of the line of people waiting to fill their prescriptions, and sweetly sing John's father his favorite Yiddish lullaby. I’d walk home with a pack of Wrigley’s gum and a handful of peppermint sticks. When it got warm, the best stop was at the ice cream parlor. Mrs. Chipanic was a sucker for a love song. I’d sing “I Love You Truly” and she’d go all moony-eyed and waltz around the freezer with her husband. That got me a double scoop of any flavor I wanted.
During hot summer days, when the air in the restaurant was so thick with sweaty bodies and steaming plates that I wanted to lock myself in the icebox, I would try to convince my parents to let me go to Riverside Park. That’s where my classmates spent their summer lazing around on the grass and listening to the brass band that sometimes played in the gazebo. If I was lucky, my mother and father would let Annie and me set up a little table in Riverside to sell corn on the cob and bottles of Coca-Cola from a bucket full of ice. I didn't care if I sold one single bottle of pop; I was just glad to be somewhere I could feel a breeze on my face. Many a day, I would leave little Annie in charge and sneak away with my friend John for a ride in the Sudarsky family rowboat.
One hot Sunday in July when I was twelve, Annie and I were hawking a few last sweaty bottles of Coke before heading back to the restaurant. The band in the gazebo wrapped up an energetic Sousa march with a flourish of cymbals and the bandleader, looking so dapper in his red jacket with tails, announced that the Hartford Ladies’ Auxiliary was going to host a talent show the following Sunday. First prize was five dollars.
I signed Annie up for the competition even faster than she could fill a water glass. It’s a little known fact, but Annie was the best singer in my family. I might be able to shatter a glass in the bar across the street from one of my sold out engagements, but Annie had the sweetest little soprano voice you’d ever want to hear. She was painfully shy, but five dollars was a lot of money back then. All I had to do was to teach her one measly song and convince her to sing it.
Every single day that week, I drove my sister nuts. In addition to a drug store and a rowboat, the Sudarskys had an old upright piano and a decent selection of popular sheet music. By Wednesday, John helped us settle on “Mama’s Little Baby Loves Shortnin’ Bread.” I showed Annie how to bend her knees and bob up and down each time she sang the word “shortnin’,” which made her giggle a little. Her curls bounced like springs. The whole picture was so sweet it could rot your teeth.
By Saturday, Annie had shortnin' coming out of her ears. Even though I was no Chico Marx on the piano, I had memorized how to pick out some notes with two fingers and figured that was good enough to be my sister's accompanist. When we got to the park, one of the Ladies’ Auxiliary told us we were going to go on after a husband and wife waltz team and before Mr. Schpielvogel and his musical spoons.
I made Moe watch the corn on the cob stand while Annie and I got ready and nervously waited for our turn. When they finally introduced the Abuzas, Annie was as white as a sheet. I sat behind the piano. Annie inched to the front of the small stage like a prisoner walking to the gallows.
I picked out the fifteen note introduction. After an uncomfortable silence, Mama’s little baby wet her pants.
I mean, she opened the floodgates and left a puddle on the stage the size of Lake Titicaca, and then promptly bolted. Old Mr. Schpielvogel took that as his cue to enter, slipped in the pish, and accidentally flung his spoons out into the by then hysterical crowd.
Needless to say, the waltzing couple went home five clams richer.
Though Sophie occasionally posed with a piano,
she never learned to play any better than she did at 13.
Years and years later, after I’d hit the big time, Annie accompanied me to a society party in London. Lady Haverford asked me to sing a few songs, but I told her I was feeling under the weather.
“I have an even bigger treat for you," I announced. "The real talent of the family, Miss Annie Abuza!"
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious what a puddle of pish would look like on the Lady’s priceless Oriental rug. Annie made it through “Mama’s Little Baby” that time, but if looks could kill, I’d have been kaput.
Sophie, age 13.
A couple of years after the disastrous talent show, I got a bee in my bonnet about doing something special for my mother's birthday. Papa let it slip that Mama was turning fifty and the more I thought about it, the more I was convinced I needed to mark the occasion with something monumental.
I feared and idolized Mama in equal parts. She could put your lights out with a red hot spatula if you looked at her cross-eyed, but by the time I was a teenager I could see that same fearsome determination was what held our family together. One of my favorite jobs as a kid was to rub my mother's feet while she did her late-night sewing in the parlor, because once she got to take a load off of her barking dogs, she could almost be sweet. It became sort of a ritual. I would rub and she would lecture.
"Nothing is more important than family," she’d repeat as she stitched up our holey old socks.
“Always look after your brothers and your sister. Especially your sister. God only gave you one.”
"If you have extra—food, money, anything—share it with those less fortunate."
"Find yourself a good husband and have lots of children."
"Sophie! Pay attention!" she’d bark if she noticed me nodding off, poking a knitting needle in my arm. "These things I'm telling you are very important. You think I like all this sewing, or cleaning, or cooking? Of course not. But I do it for the family. It’s the most important thing."
That’s when I got one of my brilliant ideas—the perfect surprise gift for Mama’s birthday.
I recruited my brothers and sister to help raise money through odd jobs, which we worked every day before the dinner rush at the restaurant. Phil lugged logs at the lumber yard and Moe swept up at a local hardware shop. I helped wash the dirty pans and trays at Landi's Bakery (and helpfully ate any leftover danishes) and Annie scurried around the neighborhood collecting empty bottles. Still, after a month we only had a couple of bucks in change.
It was a particularly delicious pot roast sandwich that gave me my next idea. Not one restaurant on all of Front Street opened before lunch, yet crowds of men had to pass by Abuza’s darkened windows on their way to work. I begged my parents’ permission to try selling boxed lunches in the morning before school and they, suspicious of my sudden interest in the family business but unwilling to look a gift horse in the mouth, said yes. Every morning at 4:30, Phil, Moe, Annie and I hopped out of bed and slapped together meals to sell at the front counter. After the news spread, the line was out the door by dawn and we were selling more than a hundred sandwiches a day.
The key to my plan was a big empty mayonnaise jar I plopped on the counter right next to Annie. I stuck a sign on it that said, “If you like Mama Abuza’s eats, donate to her birthday fund!” The one-two combination of a hot meatloaf sandwich and Annie’s big eyes peering up over the counter made it rain nickels and dimes. Mama never suspected a thing since we were finished and off to school before she came downstairs to start chopping the day’s onions.
We were rolling right along toward buying the big gift when a sudden spring thaw caused the Connecticut River to overflow its banks and completely flood Front Street, leaving all our customers on the other side of the road with no way to get to us. Come rain, come hail, come three feet of brown water on our stoop, the Abuza children would not be stopped. Remember the Sudarsky’s rowboat? John met Phil at the Riverside Park boathouse and they rowed back down Front Street together. The next morning we made an assortment of sandwiches, crossed the river in John’s boat, and sold as many sandwiches to our hungry customers as we could fit in the U.S.S. Lunch Pail. Our tip jar was so heavy on the trip back that John was afraid it would sink us.
Every girl should have a pal like John. Sure, I think he might’ve been a little sweet on me, but he was the first one to recognize that singing was what really made me happy. Back then, in the Dark Ages before radio and television, I’d go over to John’s house and listen to him play the sheet music his parents brought home from the local music shop. We would share the piano bench, John playing a new song again and again until I could sing it without looking at the words. A lot of people think I fell in love with music watching Vaudeville shows at Poli's Theater in Hartford. That's just not true. It was all because of John and the hours we spent sitting at the ivories.
After the river subsided it was back to business as usual, but according to Phil’s bookkeeping we were still going to fall a couple of smackers short. Thank God I was humming one of John’s newest tunes when I put down a plate in front of one of our regular customers, a widower named Mr. Woodstein. He asked what I was humming.
“It’s a new one called ‘Sidewalks of New York,’ Mr. Woodstein."
"Sounds catchy. How about you sing it for me?"
So began my first ever café appearance. It wasn’t a great gig—I was holding a baked potato for another table—but Mr. Woodstein flipped me a fat quarter after I finished. This was the answer to my prayers. For the rest of that night I served every meal with a different ditty and almost everyone left me some extra change, which I deposited right in the mayonnaise jar.
A few days shy of Mama’s big day, Phil did an audit and reported we were still short five dollars and little Annie, eager to help, pointed out that there was going to be another talent show in Riverside Park. We were flabbergasted that she wanted to take another crack at the spotlight, but Annie seemed so keen on helping we couldn’t turn her down. It seemed that Mama’s little baby got shortnin’ brave.
When the big day came we were all convinced Annie was going to come through this time. She strode right up on the stage, I played the intro and she sang the whole song, knee bends and all. The problem? Nobody could hear her tiny voice. In those years before microphones, Annie sounded great in the parlor but she never stood a chance in the middle of a bustling park. I was dejected. At the end of our number, I got up from the piano and stood next to my sister to bow like we’d practiced.
"Let's hear the fat girl sing!" bellowed a voice at the back of the crowd. I still have no idea whether it was a school chum or a restaurant customer or even a heckler bent on embarrassing me, but I was desperate for that five dollar prize and under no delusion that I was svelte.
"Oh yeah? Whaddaya wanna hear?" I yelled back.
"Whatever your sister just sang!"
I grabbed my sister's hand and together we did an encore of “Shortnin’ Bread.” I don’t know whether the crowd was more impressed with my volume or my chutzpah, but I went home five dollars richer and in love with the stage.
My mother's birthday was a great success. After the candles were blown out, the cake was gone, and we were all tucked in, I heard Mama singing. I quietly tiptoed down the hall and peeked in from the doorway of the parlor. There she was, humming just like me with a big smile on her face. As I watched my mother that evening, her feet didn't seem to be in any pain as she worked the pedal of her new Singer sewing machine.
Singer sewing machine circa 1900
“Mama’s Little Baby Loves Shortnin’ Bread” was written by James Whitcomb Riley and is often considered a traditional plantation song. Shortening bread is a fried batter, the ingredients of which include corn meal, flour, hot water, eggs, baking powder, milk and shortening. The song stayed in circulation long after the recipe went out of fashion.
“I Love You Truly,” the tune Sophie sang to Mrs. Chipinac for an ice cream cone, was written in 1901 by Carrie Jacobs-Bond. It can be heard about a minute into this clip of the timeless Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life starring James Stewart and Donna Reed.
If you’ve ever seen a high school marching band or a Fourth of July fireworks display, you know John Philips Sousa. Sousa was a nineteenth century American composer so well known for his military and patriotic marches, he became known as “The March King.” This is his best-known march, "The Stars and Stripes Forever", which is the National March of the United States of America.
Leonard "Chico" Marx was the member of the Marx Brothers who sported a curly wig, Tyrolean hat and Italian accent. Though he played a dim-witted con artist, he was actually a gifted pianist, as demonstrated in this excerpt from Go West.
“The Sidewalks of New York” was written by Charles B. Lawlor and James W. Blake in 1894 and has historically been considered a New York City anthem. Governor Al Smith of New York used it as his rally song for an unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1928.