Chicken fingers, fries, and a Coke. That was my standard order at Ben’s, and I was always loyal. I especially loved the fries, with their crinkles and those little bits of potato skin. Being a Ben’s regular, I ordered them often.
Growing up on Long Island, my family would go there every few Saturday nights for dinner. We were booth people, who occasionally sat at a table. Once seated, I was focused on one thing: that very first sip of Coke in one of Ben’s signature tinted, textured plastic glasses. There was something so special about them. I don’t know if I thought Coke tasted better in plastic tinted glass, or if it was that since I rarely had it, Coke was a treat, but I was enraptured.
Thinking about it, childhood is all about identifying fascinating objects. These are usually objects that possess a novel and coolness factor, because we don’t have them in our homes. Ben’s glasses had it; they may have even had a power to them. The power of the glasses was directly associated with how many times my family ate at Ben’s. We were regulars, and there is always something comforting about a ritual behavior. For the Cohen children, each Ben’s meal was one giant coveted family ritual with exciting sub-rituals throughout the evening.
I’m not sure whether I was aware of this childhood ritual as a kid or not, but I certainly knew it was fun and special to have dinner at Ben’s. Instead of seeing it as a ritual, I was probably more aware of the order of the meal, only anticipating the crispy chicken fingers. The glasses, though, happened to be the first poignant element of the evening.
As soon as the waitress brought the coleslaw and pickles over, I knew what was going to happen. My parents could not get enough of the coleslaw, which was followed up with everything from a turkey sandwich, to pastrami, to a hot dog. My older sister was all about the pickles, which she always followed up with matzo ball soup and a hot dog. Like his sister, my younger brother kept his orders to the children’s menu. Food was abundant at the table, and I came to expect that.
At the end of dinner, my siblings and I would fight over who got to look at the check first, one of the highest honors among the Cohen children. It was so exciting to see our order and the amount due. Vying for the check was followed by the next ritual: who got to go to the front to pay the check with our dad. I don’t know of any children that found paying at a restaurant so exciting. We couldn’t get enough of it.
The most exciting part about grabbing the check and paying was that we connected with our father, because he always reviewed the check and paid the bill. Doing either meant more “grown up time” with him. It offered insights into his areas of expertise: numbers. Walking over to pay was a chance to see him in action, and more importantly, to actively participate alongside him in taking care of the family.
Reflecting back, my family had the greatest time at Ben’s. The customary nature of these meals became a truly integral part of my childhood.
The magic may not have been in the glasses, but it was certainly all around them. Every time my family came together in a Ben’s booth, something unforgettable happened, and I will always smile at the thought of those tinted, textured plastic glasses.
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