My Family Recipe

How Grandpa Unclogged a Toilet with Pie with Katie Workman

Episode Summary

Katie Workman’s Grandpa Bernie was a smart-cookie, a storyteller, and...according to family vignettes, a very slow eater. Katie shares a comedy of errors about her attempts to connect with her grandfather about food. There are stories of pranks, memories of laughter-filled meals, and of course, the legend of how Bernie unclogged a toilet with lemon meringue pie.

Episode Notes

Katie Workman’s Grandpa Bernie was a smart-cookie, a storyteller, and...according to family vignettes, a very slow eater. Katie shares a comedy of errors about her attempts to connect with her grandfather about food. There are stories of pranks, memories of laughter-filled meals, and of course, the legend of how Bernie unclogged a toilet with lemon meringue pie.

If you’re hungry for more of this story, you can read the original essay “How Grandpa Bernie Unclogged a Toilet With Lemon Meringue Pie,” published by Food52. 

My Family Recipe is created by the Food52 Podcast Network and Heritage Radio Network, inspired by the eponymous Food52 column.

Episode Transcription

My Family Recipe: How Grandpa Unclogged a Toilet with Pie with Katie Workman

KATIE WORKMAN : When family came to visit, we’d take him out. 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 fork full of chicken with broccoli to his mouth, almost, and then lower it to finish a point. The same fork full 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 they could please bring some hot food. 

ARATI MENON, HOST: Welcome to My Family Recipe presented by Food52 and Heritage Radio Network. I'm Arati Menon, your host. I'm also the lead editor of the original essay series on Food52. Thank you for joining us as we explore some much loved heirloom recipes and all the delicious stories behind them. Today, I am thrilled to be joined by Katie Workman. Katie is a recipe developer, a food writer and author of The Mom 100 Cookbook. Around these parts, and I mean, the snack-obsessed corridors of Food52, Katie's also affectionately called the grocery whisperer from the best frozen foods you can score at Costco, to the most underrated section at Trader Joe's, she knows it all. Katie published an installment of My Family Recipe back in August 2019, titled “How Grandpa Bernie Unclogged a Toilet with Lemon Meringue Pie.” It's a column with real levity, one that makes you laugh as you read Katie's memories of her beloved grandpa Bernie. Welcome, Katie, I'm so excited to have you here. 

WORKMAN: Thank you so much. I am so thrilled to be talking with you.

MENON: So, Katie, you describe your grandpa as one smart cookie, someone who loved to tell stories and who made you laugh. He was a lifelong New Yorker who lived to be ninety-seven. Tell our listeners who Grandpa Bernie was. Paint a picture for us of his wonderful personality. 

WORKMAN: Well, first of all, I don't think I've ever heard anyone say Grandpa Bernie as beautifully as you do, so I just kind of want to listen to you, say his name in a loop. But he was, he was what, what is, I suppose, now, always known as a character. Born in 1903. He graduated high school in Brooklyn in 1920, didn't go to college because that wasn't much of a thing back then, in the, you know, in his world. And he went to work for his uncle, who was a milliner. And he did that until women did not wear hats anymore, and, sort of, the whole thing came to a slightly screeching halt. But he was such a curious person. He was endlessly curious. He died at ninety-seven and he read The New York Times every day until, you know, the last months. And he was always falling in love with some story. My gosh, he just, like, he would call you and tell you about a gymnast he had seen on the Olympics, but he would act as though he had discovered her, like my grandpa. Like, if she's in the Olympics, like, ‘I think she's going to be somebody.’ I was like, ‘yes, she's got a gold medal and she's at the Olympics.’ So, you know, but everybody, you know, we were all very patient with him because he was an enthusiast. And what an amazing thing to be around a smart, curious enthusiast who was also your, your grandpa. 

MENON: That's so life giving. Did he have a folder full of clippings from all the newspapers that he read that he would pass around? 

WORKMAN: He would, he probably did clippings and he was not very proficient with technology, as one would imagine, technology coming up at a time where he was, you know, aging. But he, he would share things. His favorite instrument of sharing was the telephone, though, and he would call. He'd call me, he'd call my sister. He'd call, you know, other family members, and he would also call people that he didn't know with a good idea. Like, I remember literally him saying, like, like, I, ‘this company’s called Apple and I had an idea for them, so I called Apple,’ you know? Yeah. ‘Hello, Apple, this is Bernie Workman from Brooklyn. You know, 

MENON: Have I got an idea for you. 

WORKMAN: Exactly, exactly. And he was, he always, whenever an idea or thought there was always like a finger being held up in the air, like this aha moment was about to drop. Sometimes it was a forefinger and sometimes it was a pinky.The pinky was when it was a question that he wanted to give you the answer to and didn't really care if you knew the answer anyway. And the, and the forefinger was to make a point.

MENON: Yeah. The forefinger was more emphatic. 

WORKMAN: Yes. Yes, it was different appendages for different empathy. 

MENON: So you knew you were being told off if the forefinger came up? 

WORKMAN: Yes. Or just like you were, or just say you should buckle up, it's going to be a little while. 

MENON: So Grandpa Bernie was also a storyteller, and you mentioned this in your reading. He would sometimes talk so much during a meal that he wouldn't have started eating and everyone else would have actually finished. Do you have a favorite story that you loved to hear, even if it was on repeat, or one that sort of sticks out in, in capturing who he was? 

WORKMAN: Well, it's funny because as you well know, we did also extend this type of question to other people in my family. And this is just, it is just shocking how all of our stories involve eating and finishing before him and his food getting cold. So it is a very consistent theme. He, when he was a young man, hung out with a group, you know, of guys and they would go on trips, go on these camping trips. And one of the guys in the pack was this prankster whose name was Milty Sheps. And you cannot, you can't make that name up. I mean, there's, if I met a Milty Sheps today, I would fall over with glee. 

MENON: I love that name.

WORKMAN: I would just, I would melt instantly. But Milty Sheps was like, the leader, you know? The leader of this little pack, kind of the ultimate prankster. So I guess they all took turns on this camping trip, ambushing one another and dragging each other, dragging the one unfortunate person to the lake and throwing him into the lake with all his clothes on. And so by the end of this several day trip, everyone had gotten dragged and dunked, except for Milty Sheps. So finally, they make this plan. And my grandfather makes this plan and all of the guys, they ambush him and they drag him down to the lake and they throw him in the lake and Milty Sheps comes up and he's like, ‘You got me.’ And then he starts taking off his clothes and he's wearing my grandpa's sweater. And this other guy's pants and this other guy's shoes and Milty Sheps was just one step ahead of everyone. And so this is, I guess, a story about Milty Sheps, but it's a story about the people my grandfather chose to hang out with. 

MENON: I love that. Milty Sheps sounds like he should be in a P.G. Woodhouse novel. 

WORKMAN: I'll tell you one more good Milty Sheps story, which is Milty Sheps used to like to heat up quarters with his lighter and then put them on the sidewalk, hide around the corner and wait for some schmuck to walk down the street and pick up the burning hot quarter. This is who my grandfather hung out with. 

MENON: I love it. I love it. So Grandpa Bernie obviously kept charming company and, 


MENON: Chatty and charming himself. 


MENON: Although he could be a little bit hard to please, and you experienced this, among other times, once when you baked him a very elaborate chocolate birthday cake. 

WORKMAN: That is true. 

MENON: And his reactions were, let's say, a little bit taciturn. Tell us about it. 

WORKMAN: Yes, they were underwhelming. He and my father were notoriously hard to please men in the family, and so we were getting ready to celebrate his birthday and it was probably an early 90s birthday, and I had been reading recently about the famous Ebinger’s chocolate cake of the famous Ebinger’s Bakery that was in Brooklyn for many years, closed in 1972 and left behind many bereft Brooklynites who missed their baked goods. In particular, Ebinger’s was famous for their blackout chocolate cake. And so I found the recipe in a cookbook called The New York Cookbook, written by Molly O'Neill, and I decided I would bake it and bring it to my grandfather in Great Neck where he lived. And I baked it and it was, you know, it was a fairly labor intensive cake. There are multiple layers, you had to crumble things for topping, there was a filling, there was icing. So, I was very excited to bring this to my grandfather and we drove it out in the car. And after dinner, we lit candles and we served it. And I was, as, as I often was, waiting for a compliment from him. So finally, he said, ‘You know what I like?’ and I was, my moment had come, I was super excited. I was wondering what he was going to single out, you know, the creamy frosting, or the, the fudgy texture of the cake or, you know, the layers, or the beauty of it. And he said, ‘You know what I like?’ and I said, ‘what?’ Like holding my face in that way where you’re expecting a compliment, but you try not to look too cocky. And he just goes, ‘lemon!’ 

MENON: And that was it. Nothing more was forthcoming. 

WORKMAN: That was it. That was, that was the end of that. And then he probably said, ‘Waiter, the cake is cold,’ and tried to send it back and, who knows. 

MENON: I mean, for listeners who haven't had the, I was going to say guilty pleasure, but no, the absolute pleasure of tasting this cake. I actually, Katie have had a version of it at a bakery that, I want to say it has shut down temporarily, I hope, in the Upper East Side of New York called Two Little Red Hens and they did a version of the Brooklyn blackout. 

WORKMAN: They did. And you know, I actually don't know if they're reopened, and then they're not too far from me. So I-

MENON: Fingers crossed.

WORKMAN: - will do a reconnaissance mission for you. 

MENON: Do a reconnaissance mission for me, because for listeners who haven't tasted this absolute beauty of a cake, it's really, really labor intensive. As Katie says, it's a layer of cake. Then there's, like, a filling or pudding, call it what you will, another layer of pudding, another, and then comes the frosting, and then there's crumbled cake that goes on, on top, isn't it? Isn't that right, Katie? 

WORKMAN: That is exactly right. And you know what else it says at the bottom of the recipe, which I find to be really weird and have broken this rule many times, it says eat within twenty four hours. I've no idea -

MENON: I mean, is that ever a problem, though?

WORKMAN: Well, but if you're like a one, if you're a small family, that's a really, like, that's a very big demand. So, you know, like, like, you have to eat it. And I had Ebinger’s chocolate cake that's two or three days old, and it's fine. So, I don't know where the scare tactic came in. 

MENON: I mean, it's just my husband and me in our household, and we've gone through, we've gone through cake in 24 hours. 

WORKMAN: Well, your more, you're committed, and I'm guessing that it was sort of a full blown like, like ride or die cake moment. 

MENON: So your essay has many moments, like this comedy of errors where you try to connect with your grandpa over food and found the results a little bit different from what you imagined. Another example of this is the kugel that you tried time and again to replicate. I'm going to let you tell us what happened with that. 

WORKMAN: Absolutely. The infamous kugel, when my, when we would go to my grandparents house, when my grandmother was also still alive, she died before he did, one of the, the typical meal they would serve would be bagels and salmon, because it was obviously a meal you could sort of pick up. There might be some scrambled eggs, and tip to anybody out there who wants to entertain but does not love to cook, bagels and salmon, the way to go. Get the good stuff, but, can never fail. People will love you. So, we were there for one of our bagels and salmon brunches, and they always had a kugel, which was sort of, the one prepared food I really feel like I saw in their home other than an occasional piece of -

MENON: Non-bagel treat. 

WORKMAN: Yes, exactly. And so that kugel was actually really good. It was just a delicious kugel. It was dense, but not, not too heavy. And it had like, you know, those perfectly browned edges of the noodles on top and we would eat it. My grandfather would hold up his pinkie, which meant there was a question coming, if you, if you we recall, see pinky above. So he would hold up his pinky and he would say, like, ‘Can you guess what makes this kugel so great?’ And we’d all say ‘orange.’ And he would say ‘orange!’ you know, like we hadn't even answered because, the punch line was his and his alone, and the kugel was great. And so many, many years later, after both my grandmother and my grandfather had passed away, I was trying to replicate, sort of, chase the memory of that kugel, which had a little bit of like a Proustian spot in my brain. And so I, you know, made kugel after kugel aiming for this memory of a kugel. And I finally felt like I got it. And I brought it to my mother and I said, ‘So what do you think? Does this feel like Grandpa and Nana's kugel?’ And she said ‘yes,’ she said, but you know, they never made the kugel, their housekeeper did. So apparently I have been chasing a Proustian memory of my grandfather's housekeeper’s kugel for well over a decade.

MENON: I mean that’s the wonderful thing about some, sort of, standout food memories of, family food memories, because it's kind of funny how, sometimes, something that you hold up in great esteem and it becomes part of family legend. 


MENON: Can have a really simple back story like it came off of a tin,

WORKMAN: Yes. Yes! 

MENON: ...or a blurry origin story. Because no one remembers whose it was. 

WORKMAN: Absolutely, I, on a side note, I remember meeting my husband's great Aunt Lois for the first time and she was sort of the matriarch, and she was, she cooked for weeks leading up to whatever high holiday, Jewish holiday she was hosting. And I finally got up the courage to ask her for a matzo ball recipe and she shoved a box of Manischewitz mix in my hands. And that was that. So I've made them ever since. Good enough for Aunt Lois, good enough for me. 

MENON: So, I mean, these recipes themselves may not have had direct ties to your Grandpa Bernie, but you did share some really great conversations and lots of laughter over brunch, over bagels, or cake. Tell us a little bit about how, for many New York Jewish families, the best stories are often told over a table full of comfort food. And how did this culture that Bernie so beautifully embodied shape you? 

WORKMAN: It's so interesting and everything you said I fully agree with, but I also feel like you could substitute almost every ethnicity in for Jewish-American. You know, it's like, just, there's, so many cultures that have this incredible connection to food and connection with one another over food. And it's just, it's just interesting to hear you put it so beautifully because you also feel like it's a little bit of a mad lib. You can fill in the blank. You know? Well, my family, actually, we have always joked, and I think it was, I think it was pointed out first by my brother-in-law, who is, grew up in a Catholic family that didn't care that much about food. And I think at one point he mentioned to my mother, my sister and I that it was amazing to him that we were constantly talking about what our next meal was going to be while our mouths were still full of the meal we were currently eating. 

MENON: That is 100 percent my family as well, Katie.

WORKMAN: See, it is so, it crosses many cultural lines.

MENON: And while you're enjoying, I don’t know about you, but at a restaurant, you're sitting with your mouth full of a really great meal and the entire family is checking out what every other table has because you're already dreaming of the next, the next time you can come there and enjoy great food and conversation. 

WORKMAN: And yes, I think a slight seasoning of ordering regret is, is, 

MENON: Part of every great meal. So circling back to the title, and in fact, the opening line of the essay, which is, “My Grandfather Once Unclogged the Toilet by Ordering a Piece of Pie.” As one reader comments: ‘First time in the history of words that lemon meringue pie and toilet plunger have been in the same short story.’ Tell us a little bit more about this pie in question. Break the suspense for us. 

WORKMAN: I will definitely do that for you, and I will add that when I did pitch this to, at the time, my editor at Food52, Eric Kim, I pitched it solely with that title. And I knew that was the title, and he sort of wrote back like, ‘I'm intrigued,’ like, ‘Go on,’ I, how could you not be? It was, it was a little, it was, it was a cheap trick on my part. But, but I'll own it. I'll own it. So my grandfather, quite old at this point, living with a series of rotating aides, he was, you know, in his final, final couple of years his, my grandmother had died several years before, and one day the toilet was clogged and he didn't have a toilet plunger. So instead of doing the, six or seven things that probably you or I might do at that point, he thought to himself, ‘How can I solve this?’ And he called up a diner that he used to go to and sometimes order in from, that was local. 

MENON: Right.

WORKMAN: And he called them up and it was called Scobies. And he said, ‘Hello, this is Bernie Workman. I would like to order a piece of lemon meringue pie to be delivered.’ This is how I imagine he said it, but I know I'm pretty close ‘to being delivered. And oh, can you have your delivery guy also bring the toilet plunger?’  So, you know, the man was a problem solver. What can you say? 

MENON: I have to - did they send the toilet plunger, though?

WORKMAN: Absolutely, absolutely.

MENON: So it worked. Grandpa Bernie was actually on to something. 

WORKMAN: He was completely on to something. I mean, I do believe they knew who he was because I don't know that that would work for somebody calling a random diner as a first time customer. So I suggest to all of us, we become regulars at places with toilet plungers as a preventative measure. 

MENON: I love that. So we'll be right back with even more stories about the fabulous Grandpa Bernie from Katie and her family. 


MENON: Welcome back to My Family Recipe. We're going to hear a few vignettes about Grandpa Bernie from Katie's family members. Turns out they all ended up with a common thread. First, we'll share a recording from Katie's sister Elizabeth. 

ELIZABETH WORKMAN: One of my favorite memories connected to my grandfather was of eating brunch at his apartment. Almost every time we went to visit, we would eat brunch in his dining room, which had a large, round, glass table and a large glass chandelier above. And it was a traditional Jewish brunch with bagels, and lox, and kugels, and scrambled eggs, whitefish, the works. While my sister and I would scarf down the food and we would go for a seconds and then thirds, we would look over at my grandfather, who would, as if in slow motion, have just picked up his half bagel, slowly pulled out the bread part from the bagel, methodically spread cream cheese, gently layered on the lox, and then placed thin slices of red onion on top. It was an art form. We were not allowed to leave the table until everyone had finished, so our brunches often ran just painfully long. And the only thing to do while my grandfather made his way to his second half of the bagel was to slouch down in the chair and look upwards to the large chandelier, where every centimeter was covered with wishbones from chickens and turkeys over probably 20 or 30 years worth of meals. And I usually would get to counting only about 100, 150 before Grandpa finished his bagel and we were finally excused from the table. 

MENON: Now, here’s Katie's husband, Gary. 

GARY FREILICH: I was lucky enough to know Grandpa Bernie Workman for four years after marrying his granddaughter. My fondest memory of Bernie was when Katie and I would go out there on Sunday nights and have dinner at the Chinese food restaurant near his apartment. And he loved to tell stories, and he would go really long and detailed into jokes. Bernie would collect a spoonful of soup while he was telling the story, and he would go on and on raising the spoon to his mouth as if he was going to finally take the spoonful into his mouth. But he would have one more line to say. And so the spoon would never get slurped and it would go up and down as he would tell the story. And this would go on for several minutes until, you know, the punch line was finally delivered. And then he would look at Katie and I and wait for our reaction to the, to the joke. And after we laughed, then Bernie would take a sip of his soup and scrunch his face as if to say, you know, 'why is my soup so cold?' And that in and of itself had Katie and I laughing over and over again, and Bernie, and Bernie thought we were laughing at his jokes only, but we are also laughing at the fact that his soup would go cold because he'd wait so long to, to eat it while he was telling his stories.

MENON: And finally, here's Katie's mother and Bernie's daughter in law, Carolan. 

CAROLAN WORKMAN: So, Bernie and food, let's just say he was a slow eater, which frankly, is a blatant understatement. He ate very slowly, very slowly, interminably slowly. Bernie was the king of slow eating. In a race, molasses would win hands down. And because he ate so slowly, he had plenty of time to talk at the table. His fork in his hand, poking it in the air, pointing it at one or the other of us, waving it like a baton as he conducted his own narrative. This fork was his instrument of emphasis and punctuation and I miss him. Oh God, I wonder what stories my kids will tell about me. 

MENON: Katie, you yourself have remarked how funny it was that Bernie's slow eating habits seem to have cemented themselves in your entire family's memory. Was this kind of representative of a certain, let's call it, savoring approach that he had to life? 

WORKMAN: I think is representative of the fact that he really liked talking. I really think that he just especially, you know, in the later years when he lived by himself. He was, when he had an audience that, that food took a back seat at that point. So in a weird way, it was a little bit of the opposite of savoring. It was more like I had the platform and you people have your mouths full and now, I'm going to go right ahead 

MENON: I love that. He seized the moment.

WORKMAN: And, yes, he definitely did. Absolutely. And my father took took after his father and, and was also, he actually also, they did actually eat slowly. I mean, it wasn't just the talking thing. But I think the driving thing for my grandfather was sort of having, having the floor and, but, and my father also ate slowly and he was often still having turkey while people were finishing pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. That was, we all have memories of that, and he definitely, my father was a huge savorer. He loved food so much. And I remember about him, one time he was at, I wasn't even there, but the story became slightly legendary. He was at Old Town Tavern, classic New York institution. He was with my mother and a couple of, another couple. And they finished their burgers and fries, and then he asked for a dessert menu or what they had for dessert, and they said, ‘Oh, sorry, we don't have dessert.’ And he looked so disappointed, and then he ordered a grilled cheese sandwich. So not, not one to give up.

MENON: Not one to give up. What do you think, Katie, that you have inherited from Grandpa Bernie? 

WORKMAN: I like to talk too, you might have noticed. 

MENON: I didn’t want to be the one to say that. 

WORKMAN: Yeah. You know, a lot of storytelling kind of stuff going on and, and appreciation for humor. And hopefully, you know that level of curiosity, I think that, that sort of love of learning and love of, sort of, you know, extending oneself to have new experiences, you know, indefinitely and not becoming, I hope, sort of closed to, to learning and experiencing new things. I mean, I haven't ever thought about it quite this way. Thank you for the therapy. This is very nice.

MENON: I think that's, I think that's a beautiful part of his legacy to uphold. 

WORKMAN: And also constantly trying to please people through food just never goes away. I can't help it. 

MENON: You can’t go wrong with that. What about, what about a love for citrus, Katie? 

WORKMAN: I do love citrus. Actually, that's really interesting. I use citrus zest or juice in, every single day. Every day I use citrus zest or juice in something, 

MENON: Love citrus, love Grandpa Bernie. Thank you, Katie, for this wonderful chat. I feel like we could sit here and go on forever about Grandpa Bernie, and none of us would be, sort of, in any hurry to leave the chat. 

WORKMAN: Well, hopefully you and I will go one day and over lemon meringue pie, we can tell eachother more stories.

MENON: I would love that. You bring the pie, I'll bring the plunger. 

WORKMAN: Oh, there's a sentence that's never been uttered before. 

MENON: Thank you for listening to My Family Recipe. If you've enjoyed this episode as much as we have, please subscribe to the show. And don't forget to leave us a rating and review to let us know what you think of our fabulous guests and their delicious stories. Special thanks for this episode to Katie Workman. You can find links to her essay in the show notes below. My Family Recipe is produced by Dylan Heuer and Hannah Fordin. Our Julia Child Foundation fellow is Kelly Spivey, and our audio engineer is Matt Patterson. Coral Lee is Food52 Podcast Network's producer. Our theme song is Bittoral by Aeronaut. This show is a collaboration between Food52 and Heritage Radio Network. There's so much more to read and listen to. Find even more stories at and



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