How Grandpa Bernie Unclogged a Toilet With Lemon Meringue Pie

How Grandpa Bernie Unclogged a Toilet With Lemon Meringue Pie

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Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that’s meaningful to them and their loved ones.


My grandfather once unclogged the toilet by ordering a piece of pie.

A little background first. My father’s father, Bernard Workman (Bernie for short) was born and raised in Brooklyn. He was the son of Bessie (née Cohen) and Israel, brother to Julius. He didn’t go to college—not many children of immigrants did in 1920, the year he graduated from high school. Instead he went to work at his uncle’s millinery business, ultimately taking over the company. He made hats for women to wear, until women didn’t wear hats anymore.

Bernie was a smart cookie. He lived to be almost 97 and, until the very last year of his life, was mobile and pretty darn sharp, although quite hard of hearing. I remember he’d make calls to various companies (like Apple), usually with a helpful suggestion for how they could improve their business. “Hello. My name is Bernie Workman,” he’d say. “I can’t hear very well, so please speak clearly and loudly.”

Bernie’s wife, otherwise known as Nana to us or Jean to everyone else, died about 8 years before he did. He continued to live in their apartment in Great Neck, Long Island with a rotating cast of aides. Even though he really never cooked, somehow many of my memories of him revolve around food. I think that may say more about me than it does about him, but there you have it.


Ebinger’s was a beloved bakery in Brooklyn from 1898 to 1972. The most popular item was their Blackout Cake, a magical chocolate monument that Brooklynites lived and died by. I had read about Ebinger’s Blackout Cake in a wonderful cookbook by the admired food writer Molly O’Neill called The New York Cookbook and knew I had to make it for my grandfather’s birthday. He was then in his 80s and had grown up in Brooklyn during the heyday of Ebinger’s, so I was sure he would remember it.

I made the cake. Ebinger’s Blackout Cake is not a small undertaking. All parts are involved—the cake, the filling, the frosting, the horizontal slicing, the crumbling, and the assembly. At one point, 12 tablespoons of butter are added one tablespoon at a time while whisking. A total of 25 ingredients.

My dad drove, and I carried the finished cake to my grandfather’s, holding it gingerly on my lap. After dinner, I lit the candles and presented the cake, excitedly explaining that it was in fact THE Ebinger’s Blackout Cake of his youth. The very one people reminisced about, dreamed about. Brooklyn Blackout Cake. And here it was. That very cake. Right here, for his own birthday.

The men in my father’s family are not overly prone to effusive praise, so at some point I was consigned to asking Bernie directly, “Grandpa, how do you like it?”

“Do you know what I like?” he said, holding his fork aloft.

“What?” I asked, wondering what he would single out first: The flavor? The texture? The wonderful layering of components?

“Lemon,” he declared.

Recipe: Blackout Cake


For years I’ve had very deep, fond memories of my grandparents’ noodle kugel. It was my Proustian madeleine, an involuntary link to them whenever I ate anything remotely resembling it. It’d take me back to all those years when my grandfather would hold up his pinky and ask us, “Can you guess what’s in here that makes it special?”

“Orange,” we’d sigh. We had been down this road before.

“Orange!” he’d say triumphantly, finger poking into the air. He never seemed to notice our lack of proper admiration for this smart addition to a plain old kugel. But really, it was a terrific kugel.

As an adult, I spent months chasing my memory of that noodle casserole, trying to replicate its dense, sweet, springiness. When I made it for my mother—after feeling like I had finally nailed it—she said to me, “You know your grandparents never made that kugel? Their housekeeper did.”

For years I’ve had very deep, fond memories of my grandparents’ housekeeper‘s noodle kugel, then.

Recipe: Noodle Kugel


One day when he was in his 90s, Grandpa called to tell me about a wonderful discovery he had made in the kitchen. It seemed, he realized, that underneath the stove, there was a drawer. And that if you turned the oven knob all the way up, this drawer would get hot. So hot, in fact, that a piece of fish could cook in 5 minutes. 5 minutes! And so delicious, all it needed was a lemon wedge to go with it (see: lemon, above).

After listening to him go on about this enchanted drawer, I gently said to him, “Gramps, I think you have found your broiler.”

In the later years, Grandpa’s aides usually made him dinner (see: broiler, above). But when family came to visit, we’d take him out.

For a casual dinner, there were a couple of options. At the American Chinese food joint, my grandfather would order a bunch of dishes and inevitably be in the middle of a long and detailed story as the food was served. He’d lift his forkful of chicken with broccoli to his mouth … almost … and then lower it to finish a point. The same forkful of food could go up and down several times, as he completed his thoughts. It was not uncommon for everyone else at the table to finish eating before he had even started his meal. Finally he would take a bite—shocked that it was, in fact, cold—and then promptly call the waiter over to ask if could they please bring some hot food.

The other most commonly frequented restaurant was a diner called Scobees, now closed. He also ordered takeout from here on occasion. Well, on one of my visits, he told me that earlier in the day his toilet had become clogged, and that he didn’t have a toilet plunger. So he picked up the phone and called Scobees to order a piece of lemon meringue pie (again, see: lemon, above). And added, “Oh, by the way, can you have the delivery guy bring up your toilet plunger?”

Bernie Workman, one smart cookie.


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