Post #72: More Than a Nibble

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THE FIRST FANCY PLACE

I am starched, white gloved and frilled.  Neatly tied into a dress with bows, anklet socks precisely  turned, Mary Jane’s patented and shining.  Lifted to my seat in the restaurant I  am perched on a pedestal of telephone books.  A tiny empress, surveying the gleaming forks and knives and spoons. What is the right thing to do?   I have no idea. Terrified, I sit so still. 

A single question, “Do I like tuna fish?”   I nod carefully. Is “yes” the right answer?  Lunch is ordered.   In a blur a black jacketed waiter flourishes a plate in front of me with the insouciant panache of a bullfighter flicking his red cape. Is this my lunch?  My sandwich is sliced into into beautiful little triangles and stacked three stories high on a mountain of potato chips.  Do I eat it or stare at it?  I don’t know.  Then I spot it at the edge of the plate.   A tiny paper cup filled with mashed potatoes.  At last, something I recognize!  In a rush all at once I squeeze the whole thing into my mouth.

And my eyes brim with tears.

Alas.  Horseradish!

***

MITCH’S

Growing up in the Motor City one’s life is simply guided by cars. We Motor City folk cruise Woodward, glide up and down the hills of Maple, bump over the potholes of Orchard Lake.   We don’t just drive to get places. We drive to drive. We drive the rippling  highways and byways of our state, The Big Mitten, but in truth we are always dreaming of skimming by the shore. It’s not hard to do. Wherever you are in Michigan you are no more than six miles from a lake and no more than 85 miles from one of the Great Ones.   We Michiganders are happily waterlogged.

If the salty Atlantic imparts a certain tang to Eastern Clam Chowder than I’ll argue that being squeezed between Lakes Michigan, Huron, Ontario, Erie and Superior impart a certain freshness to our foodstuffs.

So after lazy Sunday afternoon car rides we invariably would end at Mitch’s on the lake.  Which lake?  I never knew.  But my Dad would slide the gigantic Oldsmobile into parking lot, crank down the windows for those of us sweltering in the back seat, and then disappear into the vast and bustling restaurant.  After a few minutes he would emerge with a wonderfully greasy bag of Mitch’s special soft breadsticks, hot from the oven, dripping with butter,  sprinkled liberally with salt. They were gone by the time we reached our front door.   At the table we ate plate after plate of Mitch’s special salad.  The recipe for the dressing is still a mystery.  But no matter.

Seven o’clock and  time for The Wonderful World of Disney!

***

HOWARD JOHNSON’S

Skip breakfast.  Skip lunch.  Skip dinner. 

Crowd into the hand me down Pinto, the Gremlin, or the Opal Manta. Careen down Lone Pine on the way to the corner of Telegraph and Maple. Spot that gleaming orange roof from a mile away!

Scoot into a booth. Squeeze in tight.  The waitress taps her pencil on her pad. “What’ll it be?”

“FUDGE RIPPLE  with strawberry sauce, extra whipped cream!”

“BUTTERCRUNCH  with butterscotch topping, marshmallow, double cherries!”

PEPPERMINT with hot fudge, pistachios,  pineapple and sprinkles!”

Enormous goblets filled with ice cream and sauce overflowing are placed before each of us. A conspiratorial click of silver spoons and we begin!

Afterwards a plate (or two) of french fries, the perfect palate cleanser,  for all to share. 

***

STEVE’S LUNCH

Really it’s  little more than a slice of a place.  Just enough room to squeeze through the door and pull yourself up to a red counter stool.  Twirl meditatively while checking the menu but really for naught. The order is always going to be the same. 

“Cheese and bean sprout omelet, please.”

The order is taken with a swift nod. Then the counterman swirls the eggs in a bowl and gently spreads them on the grill.   A shovel of hash browns fills the whole of an oblong platter and with a few quick flicks of his wrist the omelet is filled then folded with an origami like precision and placed delicately on top.

Since nothing could possibly ever match this for perfection, no need to eat for a week.

***

CAMMERARI’S BAKERY

You could almost eat the smell. But that isn’t nearly enough.  Walking down the streets of Carroll Gardens, if you are lucky enough to catch the scent, your nose starts twitching like a pup who had caught the aroma of a grilled steak.  Breathe and breathe in deep.  It is invigorating, exhilarating, blissful.   I am swept along the streets of Brooklyn bleary and floating,  then joyously flying through  air like a girl in a Chagall.   And suddenly I am there. Right on Henry Street at the window of Cammerari’s Bakery. 

I press my nose to the glass.  Living paycheck to paycheck, I have only two dollars. But here at Cammerari’s  that’s more than enough. In a moment, crinkled bills are on the counter and soon a whole loaf of warm bread is cradled in my arms.

I sigh happily. Once again,  I will be full.

***

The memory of these—and so many other—wonderful places are still sweet and rich on my tongue.  I savor them. With love especially to all who’ve broken bread or shared a scoop with me.

photograph copyright Edible East Bay Magazine

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THE MANY MADELEINES OF BROOKLYN

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The astounding thing, now that I think about it, is that I actually found myself someplace cool. At least I’m pretty sure it was cool. On a sunny Spring afternoon on Pier 5 in Brooklyn Bridge Park, I descended into one of the Smorgasburgs, about a hundred popup booths selling incredibly wild and creative foods: booze and bakery mashups, beet ketchups, macarons, salt water taffy, schnitzel and chilis. “Ice cream” that’s made without either ice or cream and called “a potion”. Wings and doughnuts. Duck burgers, chickpea burgers, ramen burgers. Fries, fries, fries. And that’s just for appetizers. There wasn’t even a trace of my old Brooklyn, a sleepy and at the same time slightly dangerous place filled with Ioaves of Cammareri’s Italian bread and plastic takeout containers of chicken and broccoli from Me and My Egg Roll.

It was so crowded you could have picked both feet off the ground and still be swept along. Even the air had an especially delicious taste when you breathed in. Thousands of bow-tied and elegantly scarved people, some pushing strollers but all expertly coiffed, knew all the right lines to stand in. The drone of a thousand conversations provided a buzzy background to an exultant melody of sips and chews. All in all, there was the throbbing and happy sound of everyone eating everything. The best and most amazing food ever. Everyone there was sure of it.

Eating is, and always has been, one of the things I do best. But wrapped securely in my trench coat and looking a little like an old movie spy, I felt small and nervous and scared. This was new Brooklyn and although this was a place where I’d felt deeply comfortable and at home, I’d been gone for a long time. I flitted from booth to booth feeling standoffish and uncomfortable. Worst of all, I didn’t feel hungry.

“Tell me what you eat,” said Brillat-Savarin, “and I’ll tell you what you are.” If that quote reflected everyone at Smorgasburg all I could think of were unholy messes of food and thought: towering Dagwood sandwiches and this weird “all you can eat” cafeteria at Cedar Point where you were given a tiny plate the size of a saucer and allowed to go through the line only once. Desserts were conveniently the first offering and then squished in at the bottom beneath layers of lasagna and cole slaw and meatballs and fruited jello. Truly an archeological dig of a dinner.

But really, the reflection isn’t fair.

No one writes like Proust but Proust but of course we all have our own personal madeleines. For some of us it’s a hot sesame seed bagel or a Toasted Almond Good Humor, for others it’s a squashed Milky Way or a bakery sprinkle cookie. Sometimes it’s a crisp Macintosh apple or a mystery drowning in brown sauce, a white carton of Egg Foo Yung.

Suddenly it made sense.  A ramen burger would be someday be someone else’s madeleine just as surely as Cammareri Bakery Italian loaves are one of mine. More importantly, I know I can try a ramen burger anytime should I ever be in the mood. It’s never too late to make new madeleine memories.

Although it’s the previous quote from Brillat-Savarin that’s better known, what follows is the one I love best:

“However, I have lived long enough to know that each generation says the same thing and is inevitably laughed at by the men who live in the next one.”

The Smorgasburg people, the new Brooklynites, weren’t actually laughing at me or at anyone else. They were eating. And while the foods and tastes were different from my time to theirs, the savoring and the excitement are just the same. So is the appreciation for what’s different and delightful and truly memorable. We are more alike than it seems.

Brillat-Savarin was not actually talking about food in the last quote. But then, of course, neither am I.