Jerry Tucker refused Gourmet Magazine his recipe for chopped chicken liver.
"There are some secrets I'll keep," the 84-year-old historian of Baltimore's delis said recently.
Tucker retired several years ago from the now-defunct Pimlico Hotel. The former deli counterman seems to know about every platter of white fish and corned beef sold in Baltimore in the last 60 years.
He worked at the great Jewish delicatessens. He knew the owners, their personalities and the people who patronized them. He also knows good food and isn't afraid to make his opinions known.
Tucker, whose first name is Jerome but who is known universally as Jerry, grew up in Worcester, Mass., and started work as a boy at his father's successful ice cream shop and soda fountain. "I had to stand on a box to reach the counter," he said.
He arrived in Baltimore about 1924.
Tucker was a good worker and before long he was a partner (49 percent) in a deli at Franklin Street and Park Avenue, in later years the Cove Restaurant, and, more recently, the location of Our Daily Bread soup kitchen.
When this business venture didn't pan out, he tried again with Jerry's Delicatessen and Luncheonette at 214 E. Lexington St. Then the Depression did him in. He lost his business so he decided to go to work for other people.
He credits his time spent at Leon Lapides' delicatessen as earning his advanced degree in pickles, sandwiches and slaw. The shop faced Park Circle, a convergence point where busy streetcar lines served Park Heights Avenue and Reisterstown Road.
"I worked a double shift and slept in the apartment upstairs," Tucker said.
His next move was downtown, to Howard and Clay streets, to Awrach and Perl's, a delicatessen with five floors and a thriving clientele of shoppers who also liked the place's grocery line of fancy foods. Unusual for delicatessens, it also had a liquor license.
"I used to wait on H.L. Mencken. He came in for his imported German Christmas cookies. We got them by the barrel. . . . It was wild on Thursdays and Saturdays, the big shopping days. The hot dogs really sold here. It was like Coney Island," Tucker said.
"What food there was in downtown Baltimore then. It was at its peak. There was Baum's Restaurant on Saratoga Street, Schellhase's, the Virginia Dare, the Lord Baltimore [Hotel's] Oak Room, the Southern Hotel and Miller Brothers. Miller's was the place for food.
"And there were just eight tables at Maxim's, on Howard near Centre. It was very continental," he said.
By World War II, Tucker was working long shifts at Sussman and Lev's, a Kosher deli and bakery in the 900 block of E. Baltimore St.
"I didn't have a car then and I was living in Forest Park. That made for a long streetcar ride. I couldn't take it. I was making $70 a week but decided to got to Nate's and Leon's, where they offered me $55 at first."
By that time, Nate's and Leon's, which was establishing itself as Baltimore's premiere delicatessen, was "always awake." It remained open around the clock.
"They threw the key away," Tucker said.
This social institution, in the 800 block of W. North Ave. near Linden Avenue, bustled with chattering patrons who congregated at all hours of the day and night. It was bedlam with corned beef on the side.
"It was the liveliest place in town, the crossroads of Baltimore," Tucker said. "People, big shots, politicians, doctors, entertainers, the elite who lived in the apartments overlooking Druid Lake. [Department store owner] Max Hochschild came down in his car for his white fish.
"Nate's and Leon's was modeled after Leon and Eddie's in New York. Leon Shavitz was the brains behind the operation. He was one of the smartest restaurant people I ever knew. He was a real deli man," Tucker said.
Nate's and Leon's had its own bakery, presided over by a German named Henry Hoefges. His strawberry short cake, layered with whipped cream, cake and berries, was legendary as were his Napoleons and eclairs.
The rye bread served here was from the Pariser Bakery on Pennsylvania Avenue. The big sellers were the corned beef and the sturgeon, if you could afford it.
Tucker was one of the original workers at Nate's and Leon's who was drafted to open the Pimlico Hotel (Park Heights Avenue, near the race track) as a restaurant. He made all the salads, the Russian, green goddess and Bleu cheese dressings and the cocktail sauce. He could also skin and bone a white fish faster than you can say Jerry Tucker.
He also devised his own chopped chicken liver, one of the many house specialties at the Pimlico. Its fame spread.
"Gourmet Magazine wanted my recipe. I asked what it paid and I was told nothing. I didn't give up the recipe," Tucker said.
Only a stroke stopped Tucker's work at the Pimlico.
As for his energy, he credited the one food item he ate in the kitchen: "Two scoops of vanilla ice cream, one scoop of coffee, a raw egg, some milk, a banana and a squirt of chocolate syrup, all in the milk shaker. I ate it for lunch and breakfast. I'll be 85 soon."