I was distressed by the state of her. I would have needed a heart solid as klops not to be. Her distress was unmissable, her face was white as cream cheese, she seemed as downtrodden as the women in A View From The Bridge, though in her case it was a view from the bridge roll.
She had just received horribly shocking news. For reasons too complicated and harrowing to inflict on readers on what may be Shabbat morning, she feared she might lose her long-serving and unbeatable smoked salmon supplier.
Many of us have dealings with professionals without whom life would be altogether too pain-ful — psychoanalyst, proctologist, mechanic, hairdresser, possibly even rabbi. The prophet Jeremiah asked: “is there no balm in Gilead?”
A question akin to: “Is there no smoked salmon in Golders Green?” If the answer to either were negative, it would be a seriously oy-vey situation. Smoked salmon is, after all, the Jewish national fish – we cannot, nor should we ever, do without it. And we know that of which we speak.
Nobody who adheres to the rudiments of kashrut can understand the full delicious possibilities of meat – something we should freely admit. I don’t believe shechita is an assault on animals but kashering is clearly an “assalt” on meat from which flavour never really recovers. But take all the smokeries in Christendom, with their histories and their subtleties, take all your Fortnum & Mason’s sides of salmon that cost the price of a house, take them elsewhere, thank you very much.
To my mind, and I think on this matter at least, mine is the Jewish mind, they all fail: too subtle, too dry. Smoked salmon should be moist, oily and rich. If you can pick it up without having to wipe your hands afterwards, it isn’t the real thing.
My poor friend knows it and that, for want of a better word, is her beef. Nowadays you can buy something called “smoked salmon” dirt cheap in supermarkets, but the good stuff demands more of you. I was going to say you have to join an orderly queue, but when did Jews understand either “orderly” or “queue”? The regulars at these counters are ruthless, talking across you, pushing in, cutting you up like the fish itself.
When I was a little boy my grandma would have kosher chickens brought to her door by Mr Nathan – Natie the Hen Man – in his little van: “A lovely bird, Mrs Angel, a lovely bird.” Mr Nathan wasn’t subtle in his salesmanship but I suppose it was a serene experience if you didn’t mind having a chicken held up by the feet and swung very close to your face.
But when we went to Annie Rubin’s poultry shop in Leeds, we entered a far more cut-throat world where the first was often last and vice versa. You could be at the front of the queue and still be outgunned by the crowd yelling from the back: “Save me a good boiling fowl, Annie.” If she liked you she’d give you the liver from someone else’s chicken.
And what of my poor friend? As Marie Antoinette might have said: “Let them eat hake.” But that would never be enough.