Dr. Peter Praeger, the heart surgeon who launched a line of actually delicious veggie burgers, died last week in New Jersey at the age of 65. The cause of death has not been disclosed, but his wife said he had been undergoing treatment for prostate cancer. Yesterday the Times published a fascinating obituary for Praeger, "the story of Praeger’s company—born of two rabbinical prognostications, any number of hairpin turns of fate and the transformative realization that man cannot live by gefilte fish alone — reads like something out of Sholem Aleichem, it began, no less, on a Christmas Eve."
The time was the late 1980s, and Dr. Praeger was then on the staff of Westchester County Medical Center in Valhalla, N.Y. That December night, he was called in with his colleague, Dr. Eric Somberg, to perform emergency surgery. The patient, who had been hit by a drunken driver, had a ruptured aorta, and his life was at risk.
Through the surgeons’ efforts the man’s life was saved, although he was left unable to move his arms and legs. The patient’s brother-in-law, Rubin Ungar, told Dr. Praeger that the family rabbi predicted he would regain the use of his limbs. As a man of science, Dr. Praeger discounted the idea, as did the neurologist he consulted.
The patient regained the use of his limbs. Several years went by. Then one day in the early 1990s, Dr. Praeger received a call from Mr. Ungar, whom he had befriended in the course of treating his brother-in-law. The patient was fine, but Mr. Ungar’s gefilte fish company was in trouble. The family rabbi had made another prediction: Any surgeon smart enough to save his congregant’s life would be smart enough to save his congregant’s brother-in-law’s gefilte fish company.
And so the doctor, who was born in Budapest in 1947 and emigrated with his family to America in 1956, was pulled into the food business "like ‘The Godfather,’" as he put it to New Jersey Monthly in 2007. He bought the company with another doctor in 1994, changing its focus to meatless kosher frozen foods that are low in cholesterol and saturated fat. Asked in 2004 why he'd get involved with a failing gefilte fish company he knew nothing about, Praeger said, “We're cardiac surgeons, and we've done a lot of mitzvahs."
In our experience it's hard to find a good veggie burger, or at least it was until someone introduced Dr. Praeger to our moth-holes. These green delicacies are so packed full of fresh veggie goodness that it's easy to forget that they arrived in your home in the form of a dreary frozen patty. The company's mission is to sell a burger “where you recognize all the ingredients," and their wide-ranging product line (try the Spinach Pancakes!) makes it incredibly easy to be the herbivore at the BBQ. Today we'll be pouring out a plate of California Veggie Balls into our stomachs in memory of the Good Doctor.