“The Dr. Watson” Sandwich Combo
Sometimes Doc Watson stayed with me when he played at the Ash Grove, which was the top folk music club in L.A. in the ‘Sixties. That’s where you’d play if you were a marquis folk act or were just starting to make it, and Doc was just starting to make it. He had records out and was starting to be hero-worshiped by folkies and serious musicians, like myself. I think the pressure of that caused the ulcer which he had the second time he stayed with me.
It didn’t help matters that I took him to a taqueria after our visit to Travel Town (q.v., at this site), making him violate his upper-G.I. doctor’s trust and causing him to have a Tex-Mex attack and almost miss a couple sets at the Grove. After that, he vowed to stay on an ulcer diet, and made me his wingman for that job. So now I was diet watchdog as well blind-musician leadboy, which, by the way, is an exalted job in guitar-playing tradition. It’s a way lots of guitarists got their start. It turned out to be mine.
One of the main places we’d go to eat after gigs at the Ash Grove was Canter’s (pictured here), on Fairfax Avenue, a few blocks away from the Grove.
I wondered if Doc’s ulcer would make the fare there a problem, but he said no, not to worry, we shouldn’t change our routine for him, he’d figure something out.
So, about the second or third nite of his gig, we all went to Canter’s, which, like the Ash Grove, was right in the middle of the main Jewish section of Los Angeles. We all got whatever it was we usually ordered−me, probably chopped liver, Dave Cohen probably corned beef with potato latkes or something like that, Ed Pearl probably something healthy, his brother, Bernie, something like a burger and fries−but Doc didn’t have a clue, the menu being almost totally dominated by what I call Jew food.
Now, most people who, accidentally, because maybe they’re Gentiles and think they’re going into a regular restaurant, find themselves seated at a booth in Canter’s are confused by the menu, which consists mainly of ethnic dishes or unrecognizable versions of what they thought they’d be getting: chicken with varnishkes (kasha and noodles), brisket with kishkes (stuffed intestines), gedempte brust (a roast cooked in its own juices) , you know, Jew food.
I said, “Look, Doc, tell us what you can’t eat, and maybe we can figure out something that will work.”
Doc said, “Well, I can’t eat things like tuna or chicken salad sandwiches, or any salads, or anything greasy or deep fried or with gravy or made with fat [bye bye matzo ball soup, which was going to be my suggestion] or fatty meat, or most things that I love. Damn.”
“Well, Doc,” I said, “what can you eat? What kinds of things?”
“Well,” he said, ” the doctor said I should stick to lean meat and dairy.”
“Hmmm,” I thought, wondering what they had at a place famous for people dying at the table from cholesterol-poisoning that could fill that bill. I informed the waitress of our dilemma. “What do you have that could make Doc’s doctor happy and still give him a taste of something he is probably never going to get in a million years in Deep Gap, North Carolina?”
“Well, there’s Novi and cream cheese,” she said. “You will find fish in lots of ulcer diets, and the cream cheese, there’s your dairy.”
“Doc, what do you think?” I said.
“What’s Novi?” he said.
“It’s short for Nova Scotia lox,” I said.
“What’s lox?” he said.
“Doc,” I said, “I thought you said you’d been to New York.”
“I have. What’s lox?” he repeated.
“Smoked salmon,” I said.
“Nothin’ smoked,” he said. “Not cigarettes, not food, the sumbitch said,” reminding himself of his doctor’s dicta.
“Hmm,” I hmmmed. “Whatabout steamed meat?”
“For example?” he said.
“For example, like pastrami, say,” I said. “No, no, wait a minute, that’s going to be too spicy. But what about corned beef? That might be digestible, if you cut the fat away.” I had no idea what I was talking about.
“That might be okay,” Doc said. “So, I’d get a corned beef and cream cheese sandwich, right?”
The rest of the table, as well as the waitress, went silent.
Orthodox Jews are not allowed to mix flaishik (meat) and milechik (dairy) in the same meal. Actually, at the same table. There is a prohibition against “seething a lamb in its mother’s milk.” And although Canter’s was not a kosher restaurant, didn’t abide by those rules, and could serve a malted milk to someone eating at the same table as a brisket of beefeater, still, actually shmearing cream cheese on top of a heap of steaming corned beef seemed a little over the top. Like we’d be dissing our grandparents or something.
Finally, the waitress shrugs and says, “I guess it’s your call, but I think I’m going to double check with the manager, in case it’s a real no-no to make that kind of sandwich at the counter [where sandwiches at Canter’s are made], and we might really piss someone off, you know.”
She went away, and I explained to Doc what was going on. He was appropriately respectful of the stricture. “Listen, don’t get Abraham all up in arms for me. I can eat the corned beef or the cream cheese, the one without the other, and it’ll be okay. Don’t worry.”
I thought about that, and then I said, “OK, Doc, that’ll be our fallback position, but in the meantime, I want to see what the manager has to say. He’s a Jew, too, you know, and we’re a people that’re supposed to have a sense of humor.
In a couple minutes a thin, slightly stooped young man with early male-pattern baldness came over to the table–rushed over is more like it. He was obviously harried, as most of the wait staff at Canter’s usually was and was all business when he said, “OK, tell me what’s going on here?” It wasn’t hostile, just maybe that he didn’t quite understand what the waitress had told him.
“Look,” I said. “We don’t want to make trouble. I just want to know if there’s any way you could make a cream cheese and corned beef sandwich for this famous musician with an ulcer and still be able to count on being buried in a Jewish cemetery.
“What’s his name?” the manager said. “He is obviously not Jewish.”
“Arthel,” Doc offered, breaking into the conversation with his real first name. “Arthel Watson. Now, listen here, son,” he said facing up in the direction the manager’s voice was coming from, “I’m no trouble-maker. I know a lot of perfectly nice Jewish folks, and we even have a Jewish man in Deep Gap who owns the ladies’ and menswear shop. Sol is his name. Actually, he says it’s Schlomo, but he says nobody there could handle that, so just to call him Sol. “
“Look,“ the manager says, “I understand what’s going on, but I don’t know what to tell the counterman. He’d look at me like I was meshuggeh– or worse. It’s sacrilege, you know, altho’ I, for one, couldn’t care less. But the counterman…whose name is Sol, by the way…I dunno….”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Listen: tell Sol the sandwich man that it’s for ‘Doc Watson.’ Don’t say “Arthel” or anything about him being a musician or anything else. Just say it’s for ‘Doc Watson.’ For his ulcer.”
“Why?” the manager said. He seemed a little slow that night.
“Just try it,” I said. “All he can do is say ‘no.’”
We watched as the manager walked over to the counter, leaned in over a customer who was munching a sample piece of lox and talked to the counterman. The counterman raised his eyebrows, but didn’t jump back in horror, a good sign. He looked over at our table, seemed to study it a minute, then turned back to the manager and said something to him that was more than a yes or no. The manager shook his head up and down, and came back to us.
“You called it,” he said to me. “He said as long as it’s for a medical professional, who’s he, a sandwich maker, to ask questions? How long are you in town, Doc?” the manager said to Doc.
“I think another six days, right, Al? ” Doc said.
“And nights,” I said. I always liked to make sure everyone remembered Doc was staying with me.
“Good,” the manager said. “The counterman says we’ll call it the “Dr. Watson” and run it as a special for a week. If it goes over big, we may put it on the menu. If we hear from the B’nai B’rith or the Anti-Defamation League we’ll pull it. Have a nice day.” Or something like that.
So that’s what Doc ordered for the next six days, and that’s what the waitresses served him, whether they wanted to or not. Once he even asked for it to go, when he was hungry before a show and didn’t have enough time to eat at the restaurant. The managers and waitresses later told us that no one else asked for it from the daily Specials, so the “Dr. Watson” did not go the way of the “Jack Benny,” George Burns” or “Milton Berle.” Doc and we didn’t go to any more taquerias while he was in town, and he never had another attack.
I wonder what would have happened if he’d tried to order a “Dr. Watson” in Deep Gap, NC.
Trying to answer this kind of question is what flat-picking Talmudic scholars must accept as their sacred duty.