By Ray Schultz
Now this may not qualify as a Ph.D. thesis, but it’s time someone did a study on the presence of food in Damon Runyon’s stories. Did you ever notice how many of these classic Broadway tales involve eating in some form? Take Butch Minds the Baby.
One evening along about seven o’clock I am sitting in Mindy’s restaurant putting on the gefilte fish, which is a dish I am very fond of, when in come three parties from Brooklyn wearing caps as follows: Harry the Horse, Little Isadore, and Spanish John.
The narrator, a not-particularly warm hearted character who deals with types like these in a friendly but guarded way, never gets to finish his meal. He says:
“It is a nice night.”
“What is nice about it?” asks Harry the Horse, who is a thin man with a sharp face and sharp eyes.
Well, now that it is put up to me in this way, I can see there is nothing so nice about the night, at that, so I try to think of something else jolly to say, while Little Isadore keeps spearing at my gefilte fish with his fingers, and Spanish john nabs one of my potatoes.
In Breach of Promise, the narrator is in Mindy’s enjoying some cold borscht, “a most refreshing matter in hot weather, such as is going on at the time” when he is approached by the same three characters, and “some of my cold borscht goes down the wrong way, and I almost choke to death.”
Not to worry: They seem quite friendly, and in fact Harry the Horse pounds me on the back to keep me from choking, and while he pounds so hard that he almost caves in my spine, I consider it a most courteous action.
In Tobias the Terrible, the narrator is partaking heartily of some Hungarian goulash which comes very nice in Mindy’s, what with the chef being personally somewhat Hungarian himself. In Broadway Complex, he is eating a sturgeon sandwich, which is wonderful brain food.
Mindy’s of course, is the fictional version of the real-life Lindy’s, which Runyon described like this in his Hearst newspaper column:
Breakfast in the old Lindy’s on Broadway near Fiftieth around 1 p.m. is a big deal. It assembles the sporting, theatrical, and musical Broadwayfarers, boxers, bookmakers, actors, agents, ticket brokers, radio fellows, song writers, orchestra leaders, newspapermen, and cops most of them still sleep-groggy but shaved and talcumed and lacking only their java to make them ready for the day.
Mindy’s is not the only place that the narrator eats. On Tuesdays, I always go to Bobby’s Chop House to get myself a beef stew, the beef stews in Bobby’s being very nourishing, indeed, and quite reasonable, he says in Gentleman, the King! And in Undertaker Song, he enjoys a small portion of baked beans and brown bread in the dining car on a train to Boston.
Food is used as a prop in these stories to set up the premise and establish the narrator as someone who (like Runyon himself) sits endlessly in restaurants, picking up gossip and stories. And perhaps it is designed to intrigue out-of-town magazine readers, few of whom would ever set foot in Manhattan or its dining spots.
Typically, the meal leads to some kind of episode. In Butch Minds the Baby, the narrator accompanies the thugs on a safecracking job with a baby in tow. In Broadway Complex, there is a ruckus right there in Mindy’s: Annoyed by a character named Cecil Earl, Nathan Detroit reaches out and picks up an order for ham and eggs, Southern style, that Charley, the waiter, just puts in front of Upstate Red, and taps Cecil on the onion with same.
He goes on:
It is unfortunate for Cecil that Nathan Detroit does not remove the ham and eggs, Southern style, from the platter before tapping Cecil with the order, because it is a very hard platter, and Cecil is knocked as stiff a plank, and maybe stiffer, and it becomes necessary to summon old Doctor Mogg to bring him back to life.
Sometimes, the narrator does not consume the food being described. In The Bloodhounds of Broadway, steaks and hamburgers are fed to a pair of dogs who solve a crime. In Situation Wanted, he says: One night in in the summer of 1936 I am passing in front of Mindy’s restaurant on Broadway when the night manager suddenly opens the door and throws a character in a brown suit at me…
…Naturally, I am greatly vexed, and I am thinking of stepping into Mindy’s and asking the night manager how dare he hurl missiles of this nature at me, when I remember that the night manager does not care for me either, and in fact he hates me from head to foot, and does not permit me in Mindy’s except on Fridays, because of course he does not have the heart to keep me from enjoying my chicken soup with matzoth dumplings once a week.
This fondness for Jewish cuisine has convinced writer Adam Gopnik that the narrator is Jewish—“the steady run of gefilte fish is in there to type him, as corned beef and cabbage might an Irishman,” he writes. But I’ve always assumed the narrator is Runyon himself. He seems to be a person brought up elsewhere (in Runyon’s case, Colorado) who deems Jewish people and Jewish things among the attractions of the Big Town.
Anyway, the narrator is careful to distance himself from Jewish characters, as he does from just about everybody. In Dancing Dan’s Christmas, he is drinking and singing Christmas carols in Good-Time Charley Bernstein’s speakeasy on Christmas Eve, but personally I always think Good Time Charley Bernstein is a little out of line trying to sing a Jewish hymn on such an occasion, and it almost causes words between us. And he falls easily into using Jewish stereotypes (along with Italian- and African-American stereotypes). For example, there is his description of Izzy Cheesecake, who is called Izzy Cheesecake because he is all the time eating cheesecake around delicatessen joints, although of course this is nothing against him, as cheesecake is very popular in some circles, and goes very good with java.
He adds that this Izzy Cheesecake has another name, which is Morris something, and he is slightly Jewish, and has a large beezer, and is considered a handy man in many respects.
Runyon himself was a prodigious eater of Ashkenazic favorites, typically ordering the following for breakfast at the dairy restaurant Ratner’s, according to biographer Ed Weiner: “Half a grapefruit, a big bowl of vegetables and sour cream, a big slab of boiled white fish, a bowl of kasha, an order of blintzes, a big piece of coffee cake and coffee as fast as you can refill my cup.”
All that said, Runyon’s two food masterpieces are Lonely Heart and A Piece of Pie. In the first, Nicely-Nicely Jones is gorged by his new wife, the Widow Crumb, as she prepares to murder him for insurance, as she has done with several prior husbands. On his first night at the widow’s farm, the new groom is stuffed with round steak hammered flat and fried in a pan, with thick cream gravy, and hot biscuits, and corn on the cob, and turnip greens, and cottage-fried potatoes, and lettuce with hot bacon grease poured over it, and apple pie, and coffee, and I do not know what all else, and Nicely-Nicely almost founders himself.
A Piece of Pie is about an eating contest upstairs at Mindy’s, in which a woman named Violette Shumberger out-eats a championship eater from Boston named Joel Duffle. In this much bet-upon event, they split: Two quarts of ripe olives, twelve bunches of celery, four pounds of shelled nuts, twelve dozen cherry-stone clams, two gallons of Philadelphia pepper-pot soup, two five-pound striped bass (the heads and tails not to count in the eating), a 22-pound roast turkey, two pounds of mashed potatoes with brown gravy, two dozen ears of corn on the cob, two quarts of lima beans, twelve bunches of asparagus cooked in butter, ten pounds of stewed new peas, six pounds of mixed green salad with vinegar and oil dressing, and a pumpkin pie, two feet across and not less than three inches deep. In case of a tie, they are to eat it off immediately of ham and eggs only.
Except for hot dog-eating contests at Coney Island, this type of Olympic-scale gluttony is no longer in style.
Most of Runyon’s classic stories appeared in the early 1930s, during the Depression and Prohibition. Biographers say that his fiction output dried up after that as he concentrated on his column and on getting the existing stories produced as movies, but he wrote at least a few war-era stories, like A Light in France, in which a scamp named Blond Maurice turns up eating blintzes in Mindy’s after it was assumed he had been placed in quicklime by parties who do not wish him well.
…At first I think I am seeing a ghost, but, of course, I know that ghosts never come in Mindy’s, and if they do, they never eat cheese blintzes, so I realize that it is nobody but Maury himself.
Finally, there is Blonde Mink, one of the last two stories Runyon wrote, which starts this way:
Now of course there are many different ways of cooking tripe but personally I prefer it stewed with tomatoes and mushrooms and a bit of garlic, and in fact I am partaking of a portion in this form in Mindy’s restaurant on Broadway when a personality by the name of Julie the Starker sits down and says to me like this:
“Tripe,” he says. “With garlic,” he says. “Why, this is according to the recipe of the late Slats Slavin who obtains it from his old Aunt Margaret in Troy. Waiter,” he says, “bring me an order of this delicious concoction only with more garlic. It is getting colder outside and a guy needs garlic in his system to thicken his blood.”
All this proves that Runyon’s appetite never quit. Neither did his ear, nor the humor and polish he brought to these very entertaining gems, all delivered in the present tense in an argot he alone mastered.
Note: The illustration is the cover of a paperback edition published in 1946. The original hardcover collection, which did not have a food theme, appeared in 1944.