Monday, April 13, 2015

Food Memories of a Brooklyn Childhood

Dedicated to my Mother, Helen; my Grandma Ann; Minnie, our Italian American neighbor, and especially to my Uncle Irwin, who fixed me spaghetti and meat sauce for breakfast when I requested it. Tradition should be honored, but never be a barrier to enjoyment.
I was born in Brooklyn, NY and spent the first seven years of my childhood there. We were in the Bensonhurst neighborhood. We lived in the attic apartment of a three family dwelling on 83rd Street. After we moved to Montreal, Canada in 1949, we made fairly frequent visits back to the old home place, where we'd stay in my maternal grandparents' second floor apartment on busy commercial 86th Street, facing the EL tracks.

Alas! I have no photographs to share, so I will have to depend on word pictures.

There are many food memories of Brooklyn, which to this day undoubtedly have had profound influences on my tastes. Some foods were a challenge, even slightly hazardous to eat. But they were fun, and I like to believe helped develop a sense of adventure in eating.

Among the earliest influences were our Italian neighbors, originating in either Napoli or Sicily. Wife and mother Minnie would cook deeply satisfying pastas and calamares and more, all redolent of sharp cheese, olive oil, garlic, herbs, economical but delicious seasoned breadcrumb toppings; served up hot, and accompanied by jugs of inexpensive red wine. (Which, of course, mi amici and I didn't partake.) Their ground floor apartment was infused with the aroma of hearty and savory food.

Close by my grandparents' apartment were numerous food attractions. One, that I have written about before was Hy Tulip's Deli, to which I would be dispatched from the apartment to buy hot dogs for take out, topped with steaming sauerkraut, and for me, a leaden potato knish with the appearance of an anti personnel mine. What a delight it was to open the steaming bag, deploy its contents on the scrubbed wooden kitchen table, and squirt spicy brown mustard from its brown paper cone onto the hot dog.

Sunday mornings at my grandparents' occasionally featured smoked fish from the "appetizing store", a narrow emporium jammed with every sort of pickled olives, pickled and smoked fish imaginable.

Our Sunday "brunch" (although that word had probably not been invented yet.) consisted of lox, smoked whitefish and/or carp; the latter garlicky, paprika dusted, oily and bony, but a delight to winkle out lush morsels through the bone barriers.

Equal importance must be given to the breads, baked in the Jewish bakery a few doors away. Besides dense, chewy, hand made bagels, there were even denser bialys, dusted with flour and carrying a small bit of chopped onions and poppy seeds. The bialys were so tough as to give your jaws a workout. Yet it was good and enjoyable exercise.

The kaiser rolls, real hand pleated ones, crusts were so crisp that they shattered into delightfully sharp flinders, our mouths soothed by generous applications of sweet butter.

Rye bread, its shiny crust speckled with caraway seeds, was every day fare, but no less valued for that.

In the late '40s. Pizza was for us an exotic, even forbidden dish. But my mother bravely took us to an Italian restaurant a few blocks away on 86th Street. At that time, as far as we knew, pizza was made and served in Italian restaurants, not in pizzerias. Definitely not in chain restaurants. It had a statue of an "obviously" Italian pizza chef holding up a pizza.

Pizza chef statue of those days
Out of fear of tref (non kosher) ingredients, we probably ordered a cheese pizza. In those days, the mozzarella on pizzas formed long, elastic strings when you ate it. You had to be careful that the hot strings didn't lash your chin, or drop on your shirt. That was part of the fun of eating pizza. Sadly, the strings seem to have vanished.

In later years, an inexpensive pizza by the slice store opened on 86th Street, where we could get a slice of tomato pie for 15¢, or a small fried cheese filled calzone. Or zeppole, nothing more than browned bubbly balls of fried dough, dusted with powdered sugar. A Brooklyn beignet.

Another exotic locale was a Cantonese restaurant, located on the second floor of a building overlooking 86th Street and the EL. It had the obligatory red color decor theme and somewhat tacky chinoiserie, and the food was basically "Slop Gooey", but great fun and a special treat for this kid. Of special note was the thin, watery egg drop soup, of which my mother facetiously claimed was made by running a pulley line over the soup pot and skimming the chicken over the boiling water. Thus, one chicken could supposedly be made to serve customers over several days.

Doubtlessly, not knowing anything different, we ate Chop Suey and Chow Mein, with lashings of soy sauce and hot mustard, washed down with nearly endless cups of weak tea.

The waiters were especially kind to well behaved children, and I would be rewarded with an almond cookie for cleaning my plate. Back then, the Chinese immigrant population was very small.(I think.) Now, this has changed.

Less pleasant food memories include the trek to the Kosher Chicken Store with my mother, who pushed a baby carriage with me in it . Feh! The store smelled musty, and it was staffed by these guys with long beards and curly sideburns. The idea was to select a chicken, and the employee would take it to the back and do it in. A little later, it would emerge, still warm, free of gross feathers, feet included. Then Mom would pay and we would make the long walk home.

One of the least pleasant aspects is when she took the bird to the gas range and burnt off the pin feathers. The smell made me gag. If I recall correctly, she'd then coat it with Kosher salt to "purify" it.

After a singe and purification, she'd boil it a while with onion, carrot, parsley, etc. When it was cooked, she'd look for the coveted unborn eggs and snack on this delicacy.  (Or maybe those were cooked separately. I don't know.)

Then there were the creepy, gnarled feet, which were fun to nibble. At least the toenails had been cut and tossed away.

This unquestionably nutritious, economical chicken dish can be duplicated by us lucky folks living in México, although most chickens I've seen for sale here have already been killed and plucked. (A neighbor lady until recently kept live chickens at the ready for a pot of caldo de pollo.)

It's fun to look back with fond food memories, but we live in the reality of the present day. The food adventures of childhood enable me to try different, even strange foods here on México.

Don Cuevas


Steve Cotton said...

Thank you for the tale. I can imagine how those seeds planted in the bakery blossomed into your career as a baker.

DonCuevas said...

You got it, Steve. Of course, baking was only one part of the experience.

Don Cuevas

DonCuevas said...

Calypso, you got it wrong! I'm a Brooklyn, not a Bronx boy. My cousin, K, lived in the Bronx, so I have no animosity. :-)

Besides, there's the famous Zoo and Botanical Gardens.

Don Cuevas

jennifer rose said...

I think you may have started a blog post challenge with this one. My first food memory was also my first restaurant memory: Karpiç's Restaurant in Ankara, where the waiter would place an orange, wrapped in tissue, on front of my plate. And if I was good, he would peel it in a single, looping spiral. And there was an orchestra, and people danced there in the daytime. It seemed like we ate there all the time. And then there was walking along a tree-lined cadessi, uphill in one direction and downhill in the other, carrying a freshly baked loaf of French bread back to our 2nd-floor walk-up apartment.

DonCuevas said...

I figured something like that.


Marisa Raniolo Wilkins said...

Love it!