In the early 1950′s HG combined his career as a journalist with Broadway press agentry. HG had a part time (three months a year) girl friend, a showgirl at the Copacabana night cub. The young woman liked change. She worked five months of the year in Las Vegas, four months in Paris and the rest of the time at the Copa. When in New York, she lived in a hotel around the corner from Freeman Chum, a Chinese restaurant on Manhattan’s E. 53rd Street and that’s where she and HG drank martinis and nibbled egg rolls and spare ribs before her show. Much taller than HG, she would pat HG on the head and call him, in her inimitable Cockney drawl, “my little ducks.” When not in scanty show biz attire, she favored dowdy, tweedy English countrywoman clothes. Her ambition was to retire in the English countryside and raise beagles. Back to Freeman Chum. Odd for a Chinese restaurant, the martinis were superb, prepared by barman Hoy Wong. HG later learned that Marilyn Monroe came in every Wednesday and had a two martini liquid lunch prepared by Wong. Joe DiMaggio, the great Yankee star, would come to Freeman Chum on Saturday nights, recalled Wong, and spend secluded hours drinking scotch. (Surprisingly, he and Monroe never met there). Judy Garland was another customer and discreet Wong noted she had many drinks. Wong left Freeman Chum in 1963 and became the barman at the Blue Bar in the Algonquin Hotel. Two of his favorite customers were scotch drinkers John Lennon and Henry Kissinger. (Sometimes, this oddly matched duo shared a cocktail table). Wong had a lengthy career. He was still active at the Blue Bar when he was in his 90s. The Algonquin honored Wong on his 90th birthday (when he was there oldest barman in New York) with a cocktail party in the hotel’s Oak Room. Scores of customers were in attendance. Wong was never befuddled by odd drink requests. He said the Duke of Windsor ordered a “House of Lords martini in and out on toast.” A waiter was about to summon the kitchen. Wong stopped him. He knew the Duke wanted a gin martini with lemon peel. The lemon peel was to be burnt with a match before going into the glass. Wong said the Duke liked his version so much he ordered another.
Some years ago HG had public relations offices on New York’s W. 57th Street (between Sixth and Seventh Avenues), a territory that remains embedded in HG’s food focused mind as “sandwich heaven.” A quick walk west brought HG to Carnegie Delicatessen for a pastrami sandwich on authentic rye with Russian dressing, sour pickles, French fries and a Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray beverage. It was a generous plate but nothing like the overstuffed, overpriced parody of a sandwich that Carnegie serves to gullible tourists today. A shorter walk west brought HG to a coffee shop (name not recalled) for a rare roast beef sandwich with raw sliced onion on good pumpernickel bread. Potato salad and an iced coffee completed the fast feast. Sometimes HG ventured east to a deli on Sixth Avenue for smoked Nova Scotia salmon with cream cheese on an onion roll. Hot coffee. When ambitious, HG could venture just a bit further to 58th Street east of Fifth Avenue for the ultimate in sandwich perfection: This was the Reuben sandwich prepared at Reuben’s Restaurant, one of HG’s all time favorite eateries. The sandwich was incomparable. Every element–corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, Russian dressing, rye bread–was perfect and the grilling was impeccable. Closer than Reuben’s was Rumpelmayer’s and the Monte Cristo sandwich (described in a recent post). Of course, HG could have ignored sandwiches and simply walked across the street to the Russian Tea Room for borscht and pirozshki; blini with salmon caviar and sour cream or a simple plate of eggplant orientale. Unfortunately, these dishes cried out for an accompaniment of chilled vodka which HG would not been able to resist. So, disciplined HG saved the Russian Tea Room for dinners and weekend lunches. Every two weeks or so, HG’s pal Charles E., an important advertising copywriter, would lunch with HG. (An odd fact: Charles was Jack Kerouac’s teammate on a Columbia football team.) Charles and HG would indulge in a guilty treat: Combo platters (Shrimp chop suey, egg roll, pork fried rice) served with lots of duck sauce and chinese mustard at a dingy Chinese restaurant on Sixth just north of 58th. Preceded by egg drop soup, finished with an almond cookie. Like an illicit couple, HG and Charles would leave with furtive glances, hoping that no one would note how they had breached culinary values.
Given HG’s affection for such things as chicken fat, crispy chicken skin, well marbled steak, non-lean pork chops, brie, butter and a vast panoply of stuff frowned upon by the health police, it may come as a surprise that HG has a considerable affection for greens. Belgian endive is a favorite. HG likes it as a scoop for guacamole, chicken salad and egg salad. HG likes it braised in white wine, garlic and olive oil. (goes nicely with grilled salmon). HG likes to dip endive spears in a mix of hot olive oil, garlic and anchovies. HG likes frisee in a Paris bistro salad. Fry bacon until crisp. Crumble bacon and mix with the frisee (use a small bit of the fat to lightly wilt the greens). Dress with a mustard vinaigrette. Top with a softly poached egg. Enhance it with plenty of freshly ground black pepper and a sprinkle of parmesan. HG likes escarole in BSK’s joyous soup of the braised green leaves, chicken broth, garlic, bacon, cannelloni beans and lots of fruity olive oil. HG likes a simple dinner of lightly sautéed sole or a grilled chicken paillard with a salad of butter lettuce lightly dressed with olive oil, smoked sea salt and black pepper. Romaine spears are good when dressed with HG’s Caesar-like dressing: Grated garlic, raw egg yolk, mustard, olive oil, salt and pepper. Complements a rare steak. (If wary of a raw egg, do the romaine with a roquefort or blue cheese dressing). HG is fond of collard greens done Southern style with a ham hock and hot pepper vinegar. HG ate this dish often with fried catfish in the Harlem of yesteryear. HG emulates Popeye by liking spinach in a great variety of dishes including broth with tofu and ginger. HG looks askance at the current fashion for kale. Have never liked the stuff.
Ah, Rumpelmayer’s!! That’s a name that will provoke a sigh from many older (and not so old) New Yorkers. This was a long closed restaurant/tea room/ice cream parlor in The St. Moritz Hotel (now the Ritz-Carlton) on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Central Park South. The original Rumpelmayer’s was in Vienna (with branches in London and Paris) and the New York version retained a European air (it was a favorite of Marlene Dietrich and many other European expatriates). Its design was vaguely art deco softened by heaps of colorful stuffed animals that adorned the walls and corner tables. The animals were very much liked by young customers (and were sometimes purchased for them by doting parents). A restaurant reviewer of the 1930′s called Rumpelmayer’s “the haunt of New York’s most pampered children.” Well, HG/BSK’s offspring were not pampered but they sure loved Rumpelmayer’s. As part of special occasion outings (known as “treat days”), the youngsters were seated at Rumpelmayer’s marble counter for opulent hot fudge sundaes. The ice cream was super rich. The hot fudge was really thick and warm –the sweetness being off-set by the slight bitterness of the high quality chocolate (Says SJ – Post-Rumpelmayer’s I was always disappointed by chocolate sundaes as the “hot fudge” tasted like chocolate syrup, but recently I had a Sundae at Brooklyn’s Chocolate Room and their hot fudge was of the same quality and the flavor brought me right back to Rumpelemayer’s counter). The ultimate treat. When HG had offices nearby, HG would often visit Rumpelemayer’s for a late breakfast or early lunch. HG’s food choice was a delicacy that has long disappeared from menus: The Monte Cristo Sandwich. This was a sandwich of French toast enclosing sliced ham and melted Gruyere (or Emmenthaler) cheese. Served with a pitcher of warmed maple syrup. HG would eat this lush dish, sip coffee and watch snowflakes descend upon Central Park. Nostalgia, anyone??
Years ago,squab, a dish HG much enjoyed, was found on the menus of many good New York restaurants. Rarely found anymore (except in New York’s various Chinatowns in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens). A squab is a very young pigeon, four weeks old or less. It is a lush little bird with meat that tastes like the very best dark meat of a chicken or turkey. HG recalls eating squab prepared in many delectable ways, usually roasted: stuffed with wild rice; roasted with fresh figs; wrapped in bacon and accompanied with juicy roast grapes. As noted, squab can be found in butcher shops in Chinese neighborhoods and on Chinese restaurant menus. The squab is usually butterflied and fried. The glazed skin turns very brown and its crackling texture goes nicely with the rich flesh. Forget Chinese tea. The best accompaniment is a good red Bordeaux or Cabernet Sauvignon. The best Chinese prepared squab in North America can be found at the excellent Sun Sui Wah restaurant in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood of Vancouver, B.C.. HG’s dining companions at the restaurant were often disconcerted when HG bit off the little bird’s head and crunched the tasty little morsel. HG has no sentimentality when it comes to dining.
At some good Paris restaurants and bistros there’s a nice beau geste at the end of a meal: A little tray of bon bons and chocolates served with coffee or a liqueur. James Salter, that excellent writer who constructs sentences as exquisitely balanced as a crystal glass of Chateau Margaux, notes in his book “Life Is Meals” that he and his wife often serve sweets at the end of a dinner party. The discerning Salters favor Enstrom’s Butter Crunch (manufactured in Grand Junction, CO.). They state unequivocally (and HG agrees) that this is the best candy in the world. When HG/BSK are out of this delectable they serve dark chocolate and Belgian Butter Cookies. Excellent peanut brittle also delights guests. The nutty goody was discovered at the Latino-centric Pojoauque Super Market, a short drive from the HG/BSK New Mexico home.
Dave Frishberg, the witty pianist and songwriter, wrote a funny tune: “Do You Miss New York?” The song’s conclusion is affirmative. Well, HG doesn’t miss today’s New York which seems to be dominated by oligarchs and their sycophant lackeys. What HG does miss are the long departed pleasures of an older New York. HG misses the old telephone numbers (no area codes) with their lovely exchange names: MUrrray Hill, TRafalgar, GRamercy, AUdubon, KIngsbridge, BUtterfield (John O’Hara wrote an ode to this exchange in his novel “Butterfield 8). HG misses career cabdrivers named Moe, Vito and Pat who knew every nook and cranny of the city and (sometimes) were entertaining conversationalists. HG misses the pro football players who had tough guy names. Tufffy Leemans of the Giants. Bruiser Kinard and Ace Parker of the Brooklyn Dodgers (yes, youngsters, the Brooklyn Dodgers were also an NFL team). HG misses baseball players with funny, euphonious names like Van Lingle Mungo and Kirby Higbe (the lyrics to Frishberg’s song “Van Lingle Mungo” consists solely of baseball player names). HG misses trolley cars with their yellow straw seats and leisurely pace. HG misses double decker Fifth Avenue buses with their open air seating atop. HG misses the Third Avenue El. HG misses the secondhand bookstores on Fourth Avenue (later gentrified to Park Avenue South like Sixth Avenue to Avenue of the Americas). Perhaps HG just misses being young.
Last night, HG/BSK’s neighbor Karen K., The Dessert Queen (also a talented film producer/director), provided one of her delicious, organic, locally sourced, healthy desserts. Some months ago, dubious HG (who likes rich, unhealthy desserts) tasted Karen’s goat milk ice cream. HG was blown away on a cloud of flavor. So, HG was looking forward to her Apple Pan Dowdy. Equally delicious. Made HG recall the lyric to an old time tune: “Shoofly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy makes your eyes light up and your stomach say ‘Howdy.’ ” And this led to musing about food in song. “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.” “Mama’s little baby loves shortnin’ bread.” Fats Waller declaimed: “Shrimpers and rice. That’s very nice.” HG recalls (sung by whom?) a favorable song mention of New Orleans Jambalya. Harry Belafonte sang of bananas and there was a silly 1920′s novelty tune, “Yes, we have no bananas.” The Yiddish music hall hit, “Romania,Romania”, is HG’s favorite food tune since it mentions (with enthusiasm) three great dishes: Mamaliga (polenta); Karnazelach (a cigar shaped lamb burger–the lamb is mixed with chopped onions, garlic, parsley and grilled or barbecued); Pastrameleh (Pastrami). Of course, if one should eat these three treats to excess (as HG is apt to) the only song to listen to is “Agita” as sung by the Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte) character in the great Woody Allen film “Broadway Danny Rose.”
HG/BSK have been watching the Ken Burns documentary “The Roosevelts.” HG has been pleased that the documentary stresses the originality, political smarts and racially progressive attitudes of one of the great women of our time, Eleanor Roosevelt, an HG heroine. Some writers have criticized the food at the Roosevelt White House, calling it “tasteless.” In Mrs. Roosevelt’s defense, HG cites her favorite White House supper, scrambled eggs cooked into delicate curds in a chafing dish (When was the last time you saw a chafing dish?). The secret of the comforting eggs was plenty of butter and sweet cream. Toast, sliced ham (and a few other cold cuts) completed the meal. It was preceded by FDR’s deftly mixed Martinis. The meal gets the HG seal of approval. Another wonderful woman who knows the right way to cook scrambled eggs is BSK. HG’s life companion learned how to do it on a hot plate provided by a veteran actor when BSK was a young actress in a repertory company. An electric hot plate was part of the indispensable gear of a peripatetic thespian. Today, BSK uses her favorite Paderno saucepan, uses plentiful butter but substitutes milk for the cream. HG likes these eggs topped with sour cream and red salmon caviar (from New York’s Zabar’s). In Barcelona, scrambled eggs are made table side in a Cazuela (an earthen ware casserole) and topped with various savory ingredients. Bobby Flay, the chef and TV food star, loves this Barcelona classic and has introduced it in his New York restaurant. The dish is made in the kitchen (not at table side) and waiters rush it to the table before the eggs cool and harden. Flay’s version has Spanish Romesco sauce, olives and chopped Marcona almonds. Sounds good.
The morning started with HG in a fury. Once more the Nobel Prize committee rejected Philip Roth, HG’s favorite author. Sheer injustice. There is no living author who has produced a body of work to match Roth’s. Yet year after year the Nobel officials reject Roth for the literature prize. SJ has suggested that there is the whiff of antisemitism in the rejection, a sense that enough Jewish authors have won. Maybe? In HG’s youth, HG confronted injustice with direct action on the picket line and in physical confrontation. Now, as a member of the “golden years” population, HG seeks solace in food, wine, strong spirits, New Mexico sun and vistas. And, of course, HG’s good fortune in having BSK, a loving family and a recent addition– Toby, The Wonder Dog. Tonight, HG will hope for better literary judgement in the future and soothe HG’s abraded feelings with Craig Claiborne’s Mississippi smothered chicken. The late Claiborne was a pioneering restaurant critic with the New York Times and author of some very good cookbooks. Claiborne’s chicken recipe calls for a three-pound chicken to be spatchcocked (backbone removed). The flattened chicken is placed skin side down in cast iron pan with sizzling butter. Weighted down with a plate and a five pound object (brick, tomato cans, etc.) so the skin is in direct contact with the pan. Chicken is removed and a roux is made with flour, pan juices and fat, chicken broth. Chicken is put back in the roux and cooked some more until tender. (Check here for a precise recipe). HG does not favor roux. Instead, HG will use white wine, mustard, pan juices, a squeeze of lemon, a few capers and 1/2 teaspoon of corn starch (as a modest thickener). Reduce it all. Enjoy it with BSK’s smashed potatoes, sugar snap peas, ripe heirloom tomato salad, A robust red wine. Fury will subside. Pleasure will rule.