HG’s family, like most American families of the time, had very little money during The Great Depression (What should we call what many Americans are going though now—The Mini Depression?). However, the HG family sure wasn’t hungry. For much of HG’s childhood (before Mom, to HG’s sorrow, was converted to health foodism), the cornerstone of the evening meal was meat stewed for a long time with plenty of garlic, onions and potatoes. There was fried fish accompanied by spaghetti doused with canned tomato sauce (sounds strange and awful but it worked for little HG). Favorite vegetable dish was tzimes, a carrot bake featuring carrots, honey, chicken feet and a load of chicken fat to be soaked up by rye bread. (Now, this sounds really terrible–especially the chicken feet–but it was surprisingly tasty}. Lots of other jewish/Eastern European staples: Blintzes, matzo balls, chicken soup, herring (schmaltz, pickled and fried); stuffed cabbage, chopped liver, gefilte fish,etc. Cheap, savory and good. One dessert: Stewed prunes and apricots (salutary for, ahem, regularity). Oh, there was another dessert: Canned peaches and pears. However, this was a dessert governed by chance. That’s because they came from Mystery Cans. Mom, always alert to bargains, would go to the A&P Supermarket and buy Mystery Cans for two cents each. Why Mystery Cans? That’s because the cans had lost their labels. The ingredients were a Mystery. Dinner over, Mom would hold a can to her ear and shake it. She believed she could identify by sound whether the can contained fruit or vegetables. Her batting average was about .400. Sometimes HG had a nice bowl of peaches. But, more often some cold brussel sprouts, or lima beans or asparagus spears were placed before little HG. Protest didn’t work “Eat!! Eat!!,’ shouted Mom. “It’s a vegetable!! It’s good for you.” (Must have been healthy…HG is alive, isn’t he?).
Today, HG noted there are only two bottles of this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau in the wine room. Much has been drunk since some cases of Beaujolais Nouveau arrived in November. A very good year for the wine. Light, fruity, full of flavor. Chill it slightly and it goes with everything—fish, fowl meat, cheese. HG and BSK will drink those last bottles tonight with a spicy platter of Filipino chicken. HG believes that Beaujolais Nouveau has only a three month life. Definitely doesn’t improve with age. The wine varies sharply from year to year, Sometime it’s very good and sometimes it’s undrinkable. HG and BSK visited Paris in November for many years (to celebrate HG’s birthday). Signs on every cafe and bistro would greet them: Le Beaujolais Nouveau Est Arrivee. The New Beaujolais Is Here. Good or bad vintage, the arrival spelled Paris Party Time. Noisy song, music and laughter throughout the night. No Gallic restraint. Beaujolais Noveau is filled with fruit —and treachery. One has a tendency to drink a great deal of it. One has a tendency to get very drunk. One has a tendency to get pissed, sozzled, shit-faced. One has a dreadful hangover. HG makes these observations based upon bitter experience. Exercise caution, my bibulous buddies.
A young (never out of Noo Yawk) HG visited Atlanta in 1947. Went to a downtown Chinese restaurant. Before the shrimp chop suey arrived, the pretty Southern drawling waitress (didn’t call them waitpersons in those backward days) presented HG with a big basket of Wonder bread and margarine. Uh,oh. Even then, HG was a Chinatown veteran. He knew a bad omen when he saw one. The chop suey. Eek! Horrors! Atlanta was a small town then, not the cosmopolitan corporate and transportation hub it has become. But, HG managed to find some good food in that provincial town. Brunswick stew was a staple in the modest diners HG frequented and it soon became a passion. HG hasn’t tasted Brunswick stew in years. The dish doesn’t travel. Strictly regional. If memory serves, it was a stew of chicken, salt pork, giblets, corn, potatoes, onions, lima beans and tomatoes. Real spicy and real good. Made hotter through judicious use of the Louisiana hot sauce on the counter. Cafeterias in Atlanta served some hearty platters featuring pork, meat loaf and chicken. Three “sides” came with the protein. The diner could assemble a trio from mashed potatoes (Idahos or yams); rice; mac-and-cheese; creamed spinach; cabbage; collard greens; carrots-and-peas; lima beans; string beans; okra and lots, lots more. Rib sticking might be a good description. There was a place near Georgia Tech–the Varsity–which served great hot dogs. HG’s faves were the chili dog and the chili cheese dog. Onion rings were super. The drink was Coke, of course. The owner was opposed to smoking (slightly ahead of his time) and he decorated the joint with gory photos of diseased lungs. Didn’t discourage HG from devouring the elaborate tube steaks and enjoying some after-lunch Marlboros. Might have been a good idea if HG had paid less attention to the mustard, relish and fried pies and more to those cautionary photos. Even though The Varsity Hot Dog Czar didn’t exactly specialize in veggies and wheat germ he sure cared about the health of his customers. That’s more than you can say about Arby’s and other purveyors of highway crapola.
Some evocative BSK food memories from BSK’s life in Grandmother’s Canada house: The cool fruit cellar with a smell of apples and potatoes. Climbing the backyard apple tree and sharing green apples (salted) with neighborhood pals. The taste of fresh-from-the-cow vanilla ice cream sold at the corner dairy (BSK would watch the dairymen milk the cows). The women with European accents selling stalks of brussel sprouts and other fresh vegetables at the nearby farmer’s market. The best breakfast: A soft boiled egg in BSK’s personal egg cup (accompanied by “soldiers”–thin strips of toast–for dipping. A lunch in Grandmother’s clean smelling kitchen and a menu of sharp cheddar cheese, celery and carrot sticks (Kate Smith on the radio). Newspaper wrapped, malt vinegar-doused fish and chips under the bridge connecting Sarnia, Ontario with Port Huron, Michigan. Wintry mornings spooning the frozen cream from the top of the milk bottles on the front porch (milk delivered daily by a horse drawn cart). Roasting hot dogs at a Lake Huron beach cookout (a litte sand made them taste even better). And, butter tarts, butter tarts–the best dessert/snack/goody in the world–something like a mini pecan pie (but better) and never encountered in the United States. A sweet secret of The Friendly Neighbor to the North.
Some 26 years ago, HG and BSK left New York and New Jersey for a 100-acre horse ranch on a mountainside (9,000 feet) between Golden and Black Hawk, Colorado (45 minutes from Denver). Not such a radical change for Canada and Midwest-reared BSK. But, for HG? HG was born in The Bronx, educated at CCNY. Lived and worked in Manhattan (except for a Montclair,N.J. interlude). Summered on Fire Island. Didn’t get his driver’s license until age 50 (strictly a taxi and subway guy). Get the picture? Mr.Noo Yawk, Noo Yawk. If you can make it there, etc.,etc.!!! Well. Within a year HG was on a horse five hours a day. HG said: “Howdy!” HG wore cowboy boots. Every Colorado male wore cowboy boots (including lawyers…who wore cowboy boots with their conservative suits). HG occasionally wore a cowboy hat…a large Stetson. It did not enhance HG’s appearance. HG resembled a mushroom, according to BSK. HG fell in love with big skies, barrel cactus, pinon trees, sagebrush, friendly people, neighbors who came to your rescue when you were in trouble, aspen leaves that turned to gold in September, star filled nights and mountain Columbine. Food was a problem (this was before glorious Whole Foods invaded). Supermarket bread, meat, fish (frozen), chicken, cheese. Sub par. Tasteless. The solution was Vietnamese food (scores of Asian markets and restaurants were located on Federal Boulevard in Denver and the pho and fresh fish were New York quality). Also, the Mexican (really Tex-Mex) food was very good. No, there was no Santa Fe green chile or New Mexican posole and menudo but there were plenty of enchiladas and fiery salsas. Chipotle Grill started in Colorado so a giant burrito was always available. And, Pete’s Diner on Colfax Avenue served a breakfast burrito that could sustain a growing boy or HG for a day. Each year Denver’s dining options became better and more diverse (now the city has about a dozen really world class places…Fruition and Bones are among HG’s favorites). Strangers called HG “Pard.” Once, happily, HG was called “Hoss.” Restaurants had no dress code. Dave Barry rightly called Denver “world capital of acid-ashed jeans.” Folks ate early. Breakfast at 7 AM and dinner at 6PM. HG adjusted. Today, HG and BSK live a bit north of Santa Fe, The City Different. Lots of good architecture, art, opera, music, food, stylish people and –in general– left and liberal in politics and cultural outlook. In most cities, older people look like they’re candidates for assisted living (older women are often pastel polyester fashion victims). Not in Santa Fe. Oldsters look good. In addition to handsome people, Santa Fe has great mountains and mesas. Glorious sunsets. New York? Still the center of the universe. Still has an atmosphere that vibrates with energy. Still suffering from the same problem. If there’s something really good to do (see a movie, look at art, eat a great meal) a million people want to do it at the same time. Noo Yawk, Noo Yawk..if you can make it there you can make it, etc. etc.
BSK gave warning in reference to upcoming trip to Paris: “No raw meat. I am not a savage. I am not a primitive.” This in response to a meal HG, BSK and ravishing granddaughter, Miss A, had at a Ninth Arondissement bistro a few years ago. Main dish was Cote de Boeuf (accompanied by garlic potatoes, watercress, mustard and sauce bearnaise). Yum. Well, not so yum. The huge steak was only minimally singed. It was not rare. It was raw and bloody. HG suggested the meat could use some more time on the fire. Consternation. No, no, no, Monsieur Ignorant Americaine. This is the way the chef does it. He has pride in his craft. He will not desecrate superb meat. Finally, the large hunk of deceased bovine went back on the fire for a moment. HG managed to devour a great deal. BSK and Miss A, out of courtesy, took a nibble and glared at HG. Okay, BSK, no raw meat on this trip and HG will be restrained concerning innards and offal.
El Parasol is a deservedly successful chain of roadside purveyors of down home Northern New Mexican food. Most of the El Parasols are in Santa Fe and its outskirts (there’s also an El Parasol in dreary Espanola). HG’s favorite is the El Parasol on Highway 84/285 (about 15 minutes north of Santa Fe and close to Highway 502 to Los Alamos). If you’re in the area (for skiing, art, opera, etc.) don’t miss it. There are all the usual suspects: Tacos, Burritos, Arroz con Pollo, Tostados, Posole, Menudo, Frito Pie, Tamales, etc. All traditional and full of flavor. But, what makes El Parasol special is its manager, Jose Atencio. He radiates welcome and kindness. El Parasol draws (to understate) a varied clientele. There are a lot of big Latino families with their adorable babies and toddlers. Teen age girls in very snug jeans. Macho high schools guys. Many Sikhs in their striking clothing and headgear (there’s a big ashram in the area). State Police. Tribal police from the Pojoauque and Tesuque Pueblos. Off duty dealers from the Indian casinos. Painters. Potters. Writers. Musicians. (The neighborhood has a long time creative tradition). And, just folks…natives and tourists. Jose is in perpetual motion, making sure the kids have enough water and napkins; getting more salsa and tortillas for the adults; popping into the kitchen to make sure things are going smoothly. Always smiling and always ready with a warm comment for regulars and first timers. If you’re in a foul mood go to El Parasol. Jose banishes the blues. The world would be a better place if the maitres d’, hosts, hostesses and captains at pricey restaurants would emulate that class guy…Jose Atencio.
Followers of Hungry Gerald note that the initials BS (for Beautiful Sharon) has unfortunate associations. True. Henceforth, Madame shall be referred to as BSK (for Beautiful Sharon Kent).
Yesterday,HG and Beautiful Sharon exit for gas and food at Holbrook, Arizona. Peckish. Signs indicate two food choices: Denny’s and Subway. Understandably glum HG and BS head for Subway. Spot a roadside joint that proclaims: Alberto’s–Menudo Served All Day. Hmm! Menudo is a good indicator of soulful Mexican food. Are served some splendid chicken enchiladas (juicy, chunky chicken…not shredded glop). Pleasant red chile sauce. Grated cheese (not cheese “product”). Shredded lettuce. A side of home made guacamole. Tomatillo salsa. Pickled carrot and onion salad (a tasty find..HG never encountered it before). Washed down with really good horchata (Mexican rice drink…much better than it sounds) and fine Mexican pineapple juice drink. A happy meal. Reminds HG and BS of serendipitous meal Famille Freeman had some years ago in Phoenix. Booked for Easter vacation skiing in Colorado, Famille Freeman switched to a Phoenix condo resort when warm weather decimated the Colorado slopes. Ten days of tennis and swimming under the blazing Arizona sun. Nightly dinner was chimichangas and other goodies plus pitchers of margaritas at a Mexican bistro with a long waiting line. Last night in Phoenix. Famished Famille Freeman arrive at the bistro and are informed: Two hour wait for a table. Aargh!! Into the auto and try a steak house, Italian restaurant, Benihana, etc., etc. No room at the inn. Finally BS spots the forlorn Golden Phoenix, a Chinese place with a flaking stucco exterior and few cars in the lot. Bad sign. Hearts sink. But, no choice. HG tells the manager: “We are in your gracious hands. We have been eating in New York’s Chinatown for 50 years. We love real Chinese food. Just serve us a meal of food that you like to eat when the restaurant is empty of tourists. And, lots of ice cold beer, please.” Wow. Coors in frosty glasses. Duck. Shrimp. Pork. Noodles. A really memorable feast. Serendipity, indeed. Kowtow to the Celestial Kingdom
A reason to live in The Bronx: Arthur Avenue. A reason to live in Brooklyn: The Red Hook Fairway. A reason to live in Queens: Flushing. A reason to live in Staten Island: None.