Food Matters: Big Apple Picking
October 4, 2017
THE FIRST DAY OF OCTOBER in New York City was storybook pleasant—the kind of golden-hued, cool autumn afternoon that makes a visitor forget about the muggy, Indian summer chokehold on the East Coast just a week earlier. The air smelled of warm asphalt and wide-open possibility, and I was lucky to have a few hours ahead to absorb the electricity before returning north to the sleepy Berkshires and, eventually, Colorado.
So, of course, I missed the train back. Twice.
A chance meeting with a friend I first met in Aspen offered reason enough to push off my original scheduled departure by a few hours. I had no reservations about this; the opportunity to graze on more fantastic food was an obvious bonus. Catching an epicurean buzz from this concrete jungle is what food adventurers living in the Rocky Mountains daydream about. And during a 52-hour, somewhat spur-of-the-moment sojourn, I grazed like a champ. Aside from one lame pizza encounter in Brooklyn (of all places), every bite jigsawed nicely with my mood and cravings. It was a daydream, realized.
At times I found pure pleasure: shrimp and luscious grits with spicy Andouille sausage and slivered garlic in Harlem; a short-but-stout, almost-bloody cheeseburger with little more than flaky sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper in a bougie Chelsea bar; and soufflé-like French toast with blueberries and Vermont maple syrup, eaten mid-afternoon by a flame-filled fireplace in a circa-1900 West Village hotel parlor.
I discovered tastes of place, too. I slurped oysters with pals at a Parisian corner bistro, sampled Spanish chorizo and cheese tapas at a trendy celebrity joint worth every cent, and savored small, luxurious bites from a plate of fresh spinach-ricotta ravioli swimming in delicate lemon-butter cream at Eataly NYC. I sucked on sangria while bobbing along with a boogieing crowd at Marcus Samuelsson's Red Rooster and sipped a coffee-infused negroni cocktail from a dark perch at PDT. (I passed on Crif Dogs, gatekeeper to the hidden speakeasy, but I took a faux food memory with me anyway: griddled-sausage smoke infused my jacket while I waited for the hostess to call from the other side of the secret door.)
I even relished experiences that would have made me mad elsewhere. When I set out in search of espresso one morning, I wasn't annoyed to find a line of would-be customers snaking through the coffeeshop and into a hotel lobby adjacent. I chalked up the Brooklyn pizza disappointment to poor timing and judgment on my part. New York pizza, I still love you!
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Some of these experiences satisfied curiosity, too. I visited Brooklyn's two-year-old Museum of Food—the first establishment of its kind. Here across from a skatepark inside a sleek, white warehouse space I enjoyed a self-guided tour of the current exhibit, "CHOW: Making the Chinese American Restaurant." The display began behind a curtain of 7,250 paper Chinese takeout boxes, strung vertically from the ceiling to create a massive white-and-red curtain. Six more of these curtains would have represented the number of Chinese restaurants in America today (nearly 50,000).
Fun fact: the leak-proof cardboard pails were inspired by Japanese origami and invented in 1894. "The phenomenon of a lone Chinese restaurant in the middle of nowhere dates to the 1890s," noted a sign. Evidence followed: a wall of colorful vintage menus hailing from eateries spanning San Francisco to Miami to Boston to Butte, Montana, home to the longest-operating Chinese restaurant in the country (Pekin Noodle Bar, 1916).
After passing the fortune cookie machine that concludes the exhibit, visitors are encouraged to sit at the tasting station, where a chef in a lab coat steams dumplings and sears pork in a scorching-hot wok while expounding on the science behind Asian cooking techniques. The food nerd in me geeked hard as he described the long-practiced art of "velveting," or using a starchy slurry and extreme heat to protect tender meat from overcooking, even when flambéed.
The trip also stoked nostalgia for a place I've never lived but have visited frequently since middle school. One of my ultimate scent memories from teenagedom is the smell of roasting, sugared nuts sold by push-cart street vendors scattered around the city. My dad and I would smell "the peanut man" from a block away, especially in the theater and garment districts along Broadway and Avenue of the Americas. We'd spot a wonky umbrella and find an old man hunched over a grill slicked with a patina of blackened, caramelized sugar. A few bucks earned us a wax-paper pouch stuffed with still-warm peanuts, almonds, pecans, or coconut chunks, each hardened shell of bubbled sugar revealing a soft, freshly toasted morsel within.
There was food to comfort, too. Zigzag fries smothered in liquid cheese product soothed subway shock after spilling out of a warehouse fête shortly before sunrise. In fact, just seeing a smorgasbord of other humans bustling about at that hour was deeply reassuring. A feast of humanity.
Finally, when I collapsed into a seat on Amtrak train 291 at Penn Station destined for Hudson, N.Y., around 9 p.m., I felt like I might become sick. But I didn't think it was due to my final dinner, after I missed the train a second time: A simple bowl of chunky mashed potatoes at a dimly lit Irish bar nearby. Instead it may have been the familiar flavor of despair. The same feeling that often marks the end of a long-anticipated meal: Not so much about having a full stomach as a heart that burns with realization that it's over.
Yet that's the seasoning of a jaunt to New York: A banquet will always be waiting.
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