People from all over the world know New York City for a number of different aspects: the financial prowess of Wall Street, the outrageous cost of living, some of the best live entertainment you can find, among others. But for many of us, we’ve come to known New York City as the gastronomical delight that it is, and for the 8.4 million of us, it’s home. Garrett Oliver, the Brewmaster of the Brooklyn Brewery, weaves a nostalgic memory of food in his childhood in his foreword to the upcoming book, Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover’s Companion to New York City, edited by Andrew F. Smith.
My father was from New York City, and he made very sure that we were from New York City too. I was born in Queens, and no one in my family ever mentioned the possibility of living anywhere else. Although we were an African American family living in a largely African American neighborhood, when we were kids, we did not eat quite like other Americans.
My mother cooked white rice with sugar and butter, a holdover from our southern ancestors. Other nights we ate our spaghetti with butter, pepper, and a shake of “Parmesan” cheese, a recipe I later saw in my many trips to northern Italy. One night would be chili con carne, the next night “rice and peas.” Our neighbor, Mrs. Stafutti, would show up every Christmas with struffoli, a confection she referred to, somewhat less mellifluously, as “honey balls.” My great-aunt Emma often brought over her homemade “chopped liver,” and there was never even the slightest suggestion that it was Jewish in origin or that our neighbors had probably never heard of the dish. Then again, by my teens I had strong opinions about matzah ball soup and owned two yarmulkes—the “plain one” and the “fancy one”—for different styles of bar mitzvahs.
Aside from pizza, my favorite dish in the world was a concoction called “egg foo yong,” a sort of deep-fried omelet of dubious Chinese ancestry, full of onions and swathed in a glassy brown cornstarch sauce. On the way home from school, waiting for the bus, I would pick up brown paper bags of hot zeppoli covered in powdered sugar. As the oil soaked though the bag in splotches, I would empty the bag before I got home. And on weekends, my father and I would gather our dogs—proud, funny German short-haired pointers—and take them into the fields of Long Island and Westchester, looking for pheasant, quail, and chukar partridge. When we returned triumphant, I would end up cleaning the still warm birds, and then my father, an advertising executive, would mount them in a flawless white wine and cream sauce. I never found out where he learned how to cook like that. Nor did I ever learn where he had met his hunting friends, gruff but friendly guys, a few of whom had lost fingers to the machinery of local canning plants.
We did not think we were strange. We were New Yorkers. When I graduated from junior high school, we put on suits and ate at the swanky Chateau Henri IV at the Hotel Alrae on East Sixty-Fourth Street, a haunt of movie stars and illicit lovers alike. My father wanted us to be suffused with the life of the city, and as much as that meant museums and the arts, it also meant food.
The world abounds with great cities, but when it comes to food, there has never been another like New York City. A century ago, people in their millions did not arrive from far-off foreign lands to make entirely new lives in London, Paris, Rome, Munich, Tokyo, or St. Petersburg. When I moved to London in 1983, London was almost entirely British. Yes, you could find good Indian and Pakistani food, and there was a thin smattering of Caribbean food around if you knew where to look. A few Jewish specialties were on the shelves of Golders Green. But London was British, and what you would largely find was English food, much of it gray. London has recovered nicely, but it is not Gotham. Even today, in a large city like Torino (Turin), Italy, home to 1.7 million people, you will find mostly Italian food—not even “Italian food” (a foreign construct that does not really exist) but Piemontese food. A great Thai restaurant will still be hard to find. More than a century ago, those millions, hailing from dozens of countries, began to stream into Gotham, and they made it the greatest food city on Earth.
In Lower Manhattan, in the late 1800s, you had choices. Was your family from Campania? Were you tired of Campanese food? All you had to do was take a walk, and you could visit parts of China or Germany. Make your way to Brooklyn, and you could eat in Norway and Russia and Sweden too. There were forty-eight breweries in Brooklyn alone, making 10 percent of all the beer in the country, and we had the most diverse beer culture in the world.
As the rest of the United States largely disappeared into the blandified world of highly engineered Frankenfood, a period from which the country is only now recovering, much of New York City held firm. Arthur Avenue did not hold truck with frozen “TV dinners.” Fresh seafood still wriggled in baskets in Chinatown. We ate Ukrainian pirogies at 4:00 a.m. after the East Village clubs closed. There were still a half-dozen places in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where you could order the swift demise of a live chicken for dinner that night. Jamaican jerk seasoning bubbled in pots a few miles away.
It is true: the city has changed, and things have been lost. Only in the mid-1990s, as I got off the L train in Williamsburg every morning, I could smell the smoke. Lenny Liveri, down the block at Joe’s Busy Corner, was smoking the freshly made mozzarella in a small box out on the sidewalk. By lunch, I would order that smoked mozzarella on a sandwich with prosciutto and pesto, while I listened to the little old Italian ladies verbally beat up the cowed, linebacker-sized Liveri brothers who were building epic sandwiches behind the counter. When the new bearded, tattooed kids started hectoring them for cappuccinos, in the afternoon, no less, the Liveris packed up and moved to New Jersey. They could not take it anymore—these kids. Joe’s Busy. Those were the days.
But these are the days too: the days of the Latin American food at Red Hook ball fields, the days of the Arepa Lady, the days of deciding what region of Thailand you want to eat in tonight, the days of great cocktail bars and dozens of breweries. We always had everything, and we still do. Eating in New York City has never been better than it is today, and a lot of the best stuff is not even expensive.
One day, some years back, I drove from Cap-Martin, France, over the Alps, into La Morra, Piemonte, Italy, to eat lunch. Lunch was brilliant, of course, and I was back in Cap-Martin by nightfall. And I would still do that drive today. But in Gotham, you take such trips simply because you enjoy the journey. Here, at the center of the world, a universe of food is at your fingertips and always was. Between these pages are the many stories of our tables, millions strong, vaulting over centuries and into the future. Seek and ye shall find. Perhaps we New Yorkers are strange. Good thing, too.
Headline Image: NY Pretzel. Photo by cezzie901. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.