Jonathan Schell, age 70, a brilliant journalist/historian died at his Brooklyn home a few weeks ago. Schell’s work (most of which appeared in The New Yorker and The Nation) aroused emotions in HG, namely anger, fear and sadness. That’s because he wrote about the worst ailments of our time: Global warming, nuclear weaponry, the Vietnam and Iraq wars, the near destruction of the American democracy during the regime of Richard Nixon. Three of his books are essential reading: The Village of Ben Suc (written when Schell was only 24, it sums up the Vietnam madness through one horrifying incident ); The Fate of the Earth, a frightening analysis of the possible end of our planet; The Time of Illusion, the history of the Nixon presidency and its reliance on lies, fear and downright criminality. No, Schell provided little comfort. But, dedicated truth tellers rarely do.
Many, many decades ago young HG was an after school soda jerk at Bonder’s Candy Store on West Kingsbridge Road in The Bronx. The most requested beverage was simple: A Two Cents Plain. What is that? Well, it is a glass of cold seltzer that cost two cents. A very modestly priced thirst quencher. The older Bronx population believed seltzer was an aid to health and digestion. The local tradesmen would pop into the candy store a few times every afternoon, swallow a two cents plain and emit a hearty belch.(A greps in Yiddish). Bronx digestive therapy. A seltzer bottle (siphon) was always on the HG family dining table (along with a nice jar of schmaltz). A delivery service picked up the empties and replaced them with full bottles. The seltzer truck was a familiar sight. There is one last Seltzer delivery service in New York — Brooklyn Seltzer Boys According to HG’s research, other than New York, seltzer in its familiar siphon is still delivered on a daily basis in Vienna, Toronto and some Argentine cities. A nice urban amenity.
Resting under some heavy weights in a corner of the refrigerator is a slab of Nova Scotia farm raised salmon. BSK is making gravlax, Swedish dill-cured salmon, a favorite summer appetizer. HG/BSK were introduced to gravlax some 47 years ago by Bibi, our delightful Swedish au pair. (As a side note, Bibi made the best dessert we never tasted: A 3 layer cake of whipped cream and fruit. Beautiful. Unfortunately, we turned our backs for a moment and our chronically misbehaving pet poodle, Peaches ate the entire masterpiece.) Typically, HG isn’t fond of farm raised salmon but this Nova Scotia variety (purchased at the By the Bay Fish Mart in St. Peters, PEI) is superior. BSK rubs a filet with salt, pepper and a bit of sugar and covers the entire thing with fresh dill. Places it on a plateand then covers it with a board and weighs it down with some big cans of beans and tomatoes. Lets it cure (flipping it over a few times) for a few days. HG makes a dressing of Dijon mustard, sugar, olive oil, vinegar, salt and chopped dill. Thin slices of gravlax topped with the dressing and accompanied by icy vodka or white wine is a nice way to usher in a summer dinner.
Souris (pronounced “Surrey”) is a charming town; a 17-minute drive from HG/BSK’s Cable Head home on Prince Edward Island. Founded in 1727 by Acadians, the town — at some point in its early history — was invaded by field mice. Thus the name: Souris is French for “mouse.” Despite its rodent influenced name, Souris is a lovely place, very scenic and charming. Surrounded by water (Rollo Bay, Colville Bay, Souris River, Northumberland Strait, South Lake), Souris cultivates lots of splendid oysters and its fishers pluck juicy sea scallops out of the waters (plus lobsters, of course, in season). Many potato farms. Souris is also the port where a ferry leaves for Quebec’s Magdalen Islands, windy, beautiful and Francophone. Souris’ most illustrious citizen is Johnny Flynn, the proprietor of Colville Bay Oysters. In HG’s opinion (shared by BSK, SJ and nearly anyone who has tried them), Flynn cultivates the best oysters in the world. They have distinctive slightly green shells and balance brine and sweetness to provide unique sea succulence. You can buy these oysters at The Lobster Shack, a pretty little shop and outdoor dining area perched at the edge of Rollo Bay. You can buy a few dozen for home shucking or eat them there (lobster rolls are also available).
The coffee shop is a New York institution, a basic eating place for generations of busy New Yorkers. A place to meet. A place to wait for a movie to start. A place to finish a date over some chocolate cake. No, HG is not talking about the espresso cafes in Greenwich Village frequented by voluble intellectuals, pseudo and genuine. HG is talking about that blend of diner, restaurant, fast food dispenser and “greasy spoon” (an unfair description) unique to New York. HG doesn’t know whether they should be written about in the present or past tense since so many have been the victims of the real estate plague where neighborhood landmarks have been replaced by banks or retail chains. In any case, the coffee shops vivid in HG’s memory were owned by Jews or Greeks. If owned by Jews you could linger over coffee with a bialy, cream cheese, the Times and the News (plus a pack of Marlboros, of course). Greek places had excellent soups, superior hamburgers sizzled on the griddle and some Greek specialties (HG remembers with fondness platters of fried chicken livers and onions served over pilaf). Coffee shops served breakfast all day. BLT’s and tunafish sandwiches were staples. Coffee shops did not strive to scale culinary heights. Their emphasis was on speed and efficiency. Those cooks working behind the long counter could get a lunchtime crowd in and out in a hurry. Home made food, no pretensions, no minimum charge — a boon to New Yorkers through the decades.
Although HG is a born and bred urbanite, oblivious to much of the beauty of nature and its infinite variety, HG has oddly found that observing seabirds is a source of unending pleasure. HG/BSK’s Prince Edward Island home, perched directly above the sea, is the ideal theater for enjoying seabirds. The Heron, of course, is the most graceful bird. Statuesque in repose. Poetic in flight, a streamlined Art Deco vision. Cormorants provide comic relief. The least graceful of fliers, flap-flap-flap go their wings in a manic pattern as they progress across the sky. Crows are graceful but unpleasantly noisy and untidy in their excretory habits (they target HG/BSK’s decks). Gulls of all kind soar through the air with the greatest of ease, seemingly mocking the clumsy Cormorants. Harrier Hawks do, in the words of the song, “make lazy circles in the sky.” Every now and then a mighty eagle soars into view and all of the birds scatter. Among the smaller shore birds, HG derives particular pleasure from colorful Meadow Larks and quick-stepping Sandpipers and Piping Plovers (the latter, alas, is an endangered species that PEI naturalists are making an effort to preserve). But, HG’s favorite sea bird is that mighty fisher, the Osprey. They are feathered dive-bombers. Ospreys fly a few yards above the sea, ever alert to the possibility of a meal. Then they spot a fish. The Osprey comes to an abrupt halt and does a swift, vertical dive. There’s a big splash when the bird hits the water. It is one of nature’s most diverting spectacles.
Yesterday, HG picked up a big box of first-of-season strawberries at a roadside stand on Prince Edward Island. Took a big breath and inhaled sheer magical goodness. Out of season strawberries (imports from Mexico, Chile, etc.) are tasteless with a cottony texture. These local strawberries, grown in the good red earth of PEI, are a world apart, full of juice, flavor and fragrance. A favorite dessert is a bowl of these berries sprinkled with a bit of sugar and covered with sweet cream. Very nice macerated with a bit of kirschwasser. BSK is planning a compote of rhubarb and strawberries. When HG was a little fellow enjoying summers is Rockaway, Italian truck farmers would arrive and shout: “Stromberry!!” That shout announced that strawberry season had arrived and for days and nights HG would enjoy big bowls topped with sour cream. In the kitchen of HG’s Mom, almost everything edible received the inevitable (and delicious) dollop of sour cream. In the here and now, HG/BSK are breakfasting on the berries with Greek yogurt, walnuts and honey. In a few weeks, heaven will get a new dimension. That’s when the local raspberries and blueberries appear. HG/BSK and famille pick them every day from the bushes surrounding the HG/BSK home. Salt spray from the sea seems to give them another delightful dimension.
Eileen Ford, the grande dame of model agencies, died this week and received a rather reverential front page obituary in the New York Times. The obit did mention, however, that the lady could be nasty and imperious with would-be models. She sure was with young BSK in l963. BSK met with Ford in hopes of doing some part time modeling (the HG/BSK bank balance needed some augmentation). Ford, clad in a proper skirt and sweater twin set, disapproved of BSK’s clothes: A stylish Tuffin and Foale maroon melton pants suit. Pants were not appropriate for wear in a city, said Ford. Ford suggested BSK lose 16 pounds and get a nose job if she wanted a modeling career. BSK did not take Ford’s counsel. BSK continued to eat sensibly, wear pants and breathe through an unaltered nose, a distinguished mark of BSK’s Norman ancestry. Two years later, BSK (and baby daughter Lesley) were featured in a photo layout in the New York Herald Tribune (the newspaper that harbored Jimmy Breslin, Tom Wolfe and other outstanding journalists while giving birth to what became today’s New York Magazine). The article was about BSK’s way with fashion (the writer/editor Eugenia Sheppard called BSK “a pants addict”). Ms. Sheppard found BSK to be elegantly svelte and dubbed her “a hipless hippie.” An interesting piece of observation since BSK was neither “hipless” nor a “hippie.” Oh, well. The years have rolled by. Fashion and much else has changed radically. BSK remains a constant. Still a beautiful pants addict.
Fifty years ago, ratatouille was a fashionable dish. It was a mark of culinary sophistication to pronounce the word properly: Rat-a-too-ee. Then it disappeared from the dinner tables of the fashionable and the menus of chic restaurants. HG is pleased that BSK, a culinary classicist, keeps it alive. One of HG’s favorite luncheon dishes is a bowl of room temperature ratatouille topped with three or four anchovy fillets and a few black kalamata olives. Somehow it evokes summer. It should. Its origin is Provence, southern France. Its birthplace is Nice. In fact, the full name of the dish is “ratatouille nicoise.” BSK’s version of the dish is delicious. Each ingredient (olive oil, garlic, onion, eggplant, zucchini, red bell pepper, tomato, parsley, basil, thyme) is top quality ans treated as such. BSK cooks the vegetables in a sequence BSK has devised (tomatoes go in last). This means all the flavors merge but each retains an individual vibrancy. Keeps well in the refrigerator. Gets better with time. HG has never fancied ratatouille as a side dish with fish or meat. It’s a stand alone treat.
Was it Lucius Beebe (or Oscar Wilde) who said (and HG paraphrases): “My tastes are simple. I like only the very best.” ? HG agrees (in part). HG deplores over elaborate, over sauced, fussed over food. Through the years HG dined at many temples of high cuisine (Le Pavillon, Lutece, La Cote Basque, Le Bernardin in New York; Connaught Restaurant and Savoy Grill in London; the once glorious Laperouse in Paris). Even in these vaunted places, HG ordered simple dishes (mixed grill at the Connaught; grilled sole at the Savoy and roast duck with turnips at Pavillon). HG may be accused of favoritism and family pride, but HG’s ideal of dining is Cookshop, the restaurant run by HG’s daughter, Victoria Freeman,and her husband, chef Marc Meyer. It is located on Tenth Avenue in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood and is always filled with a lively, good looking crowd. The restaurant has been in the forefront of the farm-to-table, locavore movement. Meyer treats his superior ingredients with restraint and imagination. A tip from HG. Settle down with a glass of chilled rose (from Slovenia, surprisingly). Have some radishes with herbed butter and sea salt. Follow with roasted asparagus (sauce gribiche). Then, share a Hudson Valley Chicken Breast Salad. This is not the usual mayonnaise-drenched mess. The menu describes it this way: “Chicken, arugula, cucumbers, sliced carrots, radish, spiced walnut, golden raisin, sherry vinaigrette.” Crunchy with summery flavors and hints of salt and sweetness. HG shrugs off charges of nepotism. Can one imagine a better summer lunch? (An afterthought: Alexander Lobrano, the Paris-based food writer for the New York Times and many other publications and the author of the best guide to Paris dining, Hungry For Paris, dined at Cookshop while visiting New York. He expressed a wish that Paris should have more restaurants like Cookshop).