“Shrimpers and rice are very nice. Hold tight. Hold tight. Hold tight. Hold tight. Foo-doo-racka-sacka. I want some seafood Mama.” Yes, the inimitable Fats Waller sang the great Sidney Bechet masterpiece, “Hold Tight (Want Some Seafaood Mama) with brio. There are plenty of great food related songs because, well food and music go together like chicken and rice.
HG’s late, beloved father had a favorite performer on the Yiddish vaudeville and musical stage: Aaron Lebedoff (sometimes spelled “Lebedeff”). He was famous for his rendition of “Roumania, Roumania.” In this bravura piece, Aaron extolls the virtues of mamaliga (a Roumanian version of polenta), karnezelach (cigar shaped hamburgers containing abundant chopped onion and garlic) and Roumanian wine. The singer describes Roumania as “ah lahnd a zeeseh, ah shayneh” (a sweet and beautiful land). Forgotten is the fact that this “sweet” land was the site of the terrible Kishinev pogroms in which scores of Jews were murdered.
HG has always been bemused by the fact that once Jews arrived in the United States (The Goldeneh Medina) they looked back on the blood soaked Old Country with misty eyed nostalgia. “Odessa Mama,” “Beltz, Mein Shtetele Beltz,” are just two of scores of immigrant songs celebrating various Old County cities and villages. Even HG’s normally clear eyed father could go on at length about the splendor of Odessa ice cream and the physical beauty of the Belarus countryside.
When HG accompanied his father to the Lower East Side to purchase little HG’s winter wardrobe of corduroy knickers and a heavy tweed mackinaw they often lunched at restaurants that advertised “Roumanian Broilings” in Yiddish and English signs. HG was (and is) very fond of the karnezelach and chicken fat fried potatoes he devoured there. Inevitably, the restaurant sound track had Lebedoff singing his signature song. There were many Roumanian restaurants on the Lower East Side. Only the schmaltz soaked Sammy’s survives. You can hear Lebedoff singing “Roumania, Roumania” on YouTube. Helluva performer. Helluva song.
If you enjoy HG’s teary-eyed musing about New York of yesteryear, you’ve got to read the masterpiece of this genre. HG refers to Pete Hammil’s 1987 article “The New York We’ve Lost” that appeared in New York Magazine. An amazing bit of writing that weaves an entire history of New York into only a few brilliantly written pages. These are the journalists who wrote well about the uniqueness of New York’s people and places: E.B. White, Joseph Mitchell, Jimmy Breslin, A.J. Liebling, Meyer Berger and Pete Hamill. Of them all, Hamill is HG’s favorite because of his eye for detail and wide range. Who else but Hamill could remember the Bushwicks and House of David baseball teams and the Brownsville gym where Al “Bummy” Davis trained under the eyes of Murder, Inc.?
SJ here. Last week a photograph of mine of a Chesapeake Bay Oyster topped with a slice of hard boiled egg caused HG such a wave of food envy that he was prompted to write a post about it (see An HG Sin: Food Envy) Well, as much as I love HG, I love to fan the embers of his Food Envy into a roaring fire. Soo….let me tell you a little about that oyster…
Last week, myself, my wife — the aptly named Exquisite Maiko — and our son decided to forsake our beloved NYC for a weekend in Baltimore. The drive down took only about 3 hours and along the way we stopped in Wilmington, Delaware at the Charcoal Pit for absolutely great hamburgers and milkshakes.
The Charcoal Pit is a Road Food classic — been there since the 1950s and still as popular as ever. Places like this often become parodies of themselves, existing in the squinty light of nostalgia — but the Pit avoids that trap by neither seeming cutesy nor precious and instead just serving up good, well made classic food at very reasonable prices.
The last time I had been in Baltimore I went to Obryckis in Fells Point for crabs. They were dumped right on the table onto butcher’s paper, and hammer in hand I demolished a number of these wonderful crustaceans steamed in a heady black-pepper seasoning. I was excited to return and excited for Exquisite Maiko to taste such a regional specialty. Alas, Obryckis has closed (note to all restaurants who close and have websites: MAKE BEING CLOSED THE FOCUS OF YOUR WEBSITE!!!) so we had to find an alternative. Now, not being from Baltimore and not really knowing a lot about the city, it can be hard separating out the tourist crap from something both authentic and authentically good. So, reading between the lines of numerous blog postings and Best Of Baltimore lists, we decided on a spot called Canton Dockside who seemed to be the spot for year-round crabs. Well, we got there and guess what…NO CRABS! Why? Because Canton Dockside gets their crabs in the off-season from Louisiana and this being Mardi Gras week all the Louisiana Crabbers were either too drunk to ship crabs or they wanted to keep all crabs within the state for Mardi Gras. Either way, we were thwarted but soothed ourselves with great broiled crab cakes (light on the mayonnaise and breadcrumbs), plump shrimps steamed with Old Bay Seasoning and a rather horrifying pretzel like thing smeared in cheese and crab dip (the less said about that last dish, the better!).
I also made a new friend in the Baltimore beer known as National Bohemian Beer or Natty Boh.
Extremely cold and extremely yummy!
The next day, we woke up early to take in some real touristy stuff (Huge Aquarium! Dolphin Show!) and get hungry in preparation for my focus — The covered markets of Baltimore. Since 1763, Baltimore has maintained a group of municipally owned covered markets that serve specific neighborhoods. There are seven markets remaining in Baltimore and the largest is the Lexington Market located right in the heart of Down Town. I had heard tell of some serious food happening at this Lexington Market so off we went. Well…I absolutely fell in love. Lexington market is an urban institution — while tourists like myself might pass through, the market is unadorned, gritty and absolutely true to itself.
This is the spot for discount groceries, cheap cell phone plans, butchers that specialize in the rough bits (chitterlings, hog maws, ham hocks, pig ears, fat back and more), fish mongers and stall upon stall of prepared foods — many of which hawk the fact that they accept CDC vouchers and food stamps. So what were in these stalls? Well, oddly, the majority seem to have been taken over by Chinese and Koreans who are serving up a mixture of cheap Chinese and soul food staples — beef and broccoli alongside stewed chicken and dumplings not to mention the happy guy I saw munching away on a scoop-full of pork fried rice accompanied by a bowl of Chitterlings doused with hot sauce.
There is no pretensions of regional food-ways purity here at the Lexington. Its cheap and good? Yes! Lots of fried chicken spots with a heavy focus on the livers, backs and gizzards — not something you see at KFC! Many sandwich spots selling (I think) Baltimore produced smoked meats — courtesy of its Polish and German immigrants. And, fruit salad — big containers of very fresh and very cheap fruit salad. Interestingly, I noticed that you could use your food stamps to buy fruit salad, fruit smoothies and groceries, but not a lot of the heavier prepared foods — I am imagining that this was a bid by the Health Department to influence healthier eating standards. And all the way in back — pretty much a separate enclave all to itself is Faidley’s Seafood.
Faidley’s is a working seafood market hawking the rather impressive bounty of the Chesapeake Bay and other southern water-ways, but they also have a raw bar and a simple lunch counter serving up hot foods. Well, I sidled up to the raw bar — packed with working people simply gorging on oysters and clams and plastic cups of Natty Boh — and ordered myself a half dozen “Prime” oysters. The oyster man was astonishing; as fast and precise a shucker as I have ever witnessed even while keeping up a running commentary as to whether or not (based on his emotional speech at her funeral) Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston ever had sex (Yes! we raw bar denizens agreed). I was asked, as the plate of fat, shimmery bivalves appeared before me, if I wanted an egg with my oysters. An egg? Madness!!! Nope. Just hit me with some lemon and a touch of hot sauce and I am good. Well I slurped those six down and they were cold, briny, firm with a touch of cucumber snap that I just love. Ahhh…The joy of a good oyster. Well, as I let out a sated breath I glanced at my neighbor, who was there with his girl, drinking beers and preparing his oysters with a slice of hard-boiled egg!!! Yes! He had a hard-boiled egg slicer and was layering the egg slices on top of his oysters with horseradish and hot sauce. This guy looked like a serious Baltimorean, so I had to ask if the egg was the Baltimore style? Oh yes he said. So, I had to give it a shot — six more with a boiled egg. Well, they brought them over, I peeled the egg, used the slicer and got to work. My new friend guided me — “You got the horse radish first, then you got to hit it with the black pepper…yeah that’s it, don’t be scared of the black pepper! Then squeeze that lemon right on top and lay that egg right right up on there. Yeah! Hit it with the hot sauce now!” — and then I was ready.
Wow! Oh boy was this a good thing. Somehow, the smoothness of a boiled egg blends with the brine of the oyster and the bite of hose-radish to create something unique that doesn’t distract from the very oysterness of the experience. While I probably won’t be putting hard-boiled eggs on my beloved Prince Edward Island oysters, the whole experience, the specificity of the place, the very real connections that you can make with strangers when you express interest in a local specialty put a giant smile on my face and made those oysters amongst the most special I have ever eaten. Exquisite Maiko (very pregnant at this point and simmering with jealousy that she could not eat an oyster) took in some crab cakes from the counter and pronounced them unbeatable.
Faidley's Crab Cake
So, if you ever find yourself in Baltimore, ignore the Yelp and Google and Yahoo reviews that describe the Lexington Market as being scary and sketchy and filled with drug addicts and homeless people and march your way in and have a chilled Chesapeake Bay oyster topped with hard boiled egg on me. Thank me later and tell HG about it as soon as you can!
Of course, the most soulful sole is Dover sole. But, this should only be eaten — at a great price — in London (even though HG once had some splendid Dover sole at Legal Seafoods in Boston). Folks in the northeast can enjoy firm fleshed Atlantic Flounder filets. In Vancouver, HG developed a taste for sauteed brill, a sole-like Pacific flatfish. But, the closest thing to authentic Dover sole is Petrale sole from the waters off northern California. HG first had Petrale sole at the venerable Tadich Grill in San Francisco’s financial district. HG preceded the beautifully cooked fish with a few sloe gin fizzes, a delightful house specialty.
Petrale sole makes an occasional appearance at the Whole Foods fish counter. When that happens, HG pounces upon it. A quick dusting in flour. Swift saute. A generous topping of melted butter, capers and lemon juice. Finny perfection.
Great fun last night Chez HG/BSK. Two Colorado friends came to dinner bearing (as is their happy custom) two bottles of splendid Pinot Noir. Meal started with sliced Kumato Tomatoes and a heavenly Burrata (a mozzarella filled with cream). Washed it down with chilled Italian Lambrusco (slightly sweet, semi-sparkling red). Then the meal got serious. Brisket time. BSK had consulted our pal Stevie Pierson’s invaluable new book: The Brisket Book: A Love Story With Recipes. (Run, don’t walk, and go buy it immediately so you will be a culinary hero just in time for Passover!). BSK selected cookbook author Joan Nathan’s brisket recipe (pg. 105), a classic Jewish recipe. Three hours in the oven. A nice rest to let things cool down (and skim off the fat). A half hour of reheating. The result: Tender, juicy meat filled with flavor (from onions,garlic,wine, etc.). The abundant robust sauce was a killer. BSK flanked the meat and sauce with smashed (not mashed or pureed) potatoes. BSK’s touch is to smash the spuds with free range chicken broth and very good olive oil. There was a refreshing salad of sliced fennel and radishes, hearts of palm and Italian parsley. A bottle of old vine Zinfandel made an appearance after the Pinots were demolished. A bottle of fruity Malbec was opened to accompany dessert (Yes, five bottles of wine for four persons and one drank very moderately so HG had a lot of ground to cover). The dessert: Trader Joe’s New York Deli Cheese Cake. A nice surprise. Real Big Apple Taste. Encore tonight since (Oh,Joy!!) there were plenty of brisket and sauce left overs. Noodles will replace the spuds (all devoured).
It occurs to HG that HG possesses an intrinsically noble nature. However, even saintly HG is susceptible to a sin: Food envy. Yes, HG is wildly covetous of other people’s food adventures and experiences — HG’s own children and even his grandchildren are not immune from the focus of HG’s envious thoughts.
Two examples: SJ recently sent HG photos of succulent Chesapeake Bay oysters topped with slices of hard boiled egg that SJ ate at Baltimore’s Lexington Market. SJ said they were delicious. Oh, the injustice! HG has visited Baltimore many times and thought he sampled all of its crab and oyster delicacies but this dish eluded him. While drowning in bitter reflections about SJ and oysters, HG received a communication from Gifted Daughter Lesley R. who was weekending with her daughter SR in Paris. The duo were dining at a modest bistro, Le Comptoir Marguery, and Lesley R. reported that SR ate “the biggest Ile Flottante you ever saw.” Fury and envy, regrettably, filled HG’s being. Another injustice. Ile Flottante is HG’s favorite dessert, enjoyed many times at Stella and Le Vaudeville, two delightful Paris brasseries. Oddly, it is a desert item rarely seen on American menus. An Ile Flottante (floating island) is a simple affair: a meringue of softly whipped egg whites floating atop creme anglaise (cream custard) and decorated with a drizzle of caramelized sugar. The dessert (aslo known as “oeufs a la neige” or “eggs in snow”) is sublime. It is both light and sumptuous, the perfect conclusion to a meal. Of course, HG loves his children and grandchildren. But…..
HG was delighted to see the wedding pictures of Saveur editor-in-chief James Oseland and his partner Carlos Daniel Dos Santos in the current issue of the magazine. Typical of Oseland’s sophisticated (but unpretentious) style is the fact that the wedding feast was held at the Excellent Pork Chop House, a seemingly simple but very good Taiwanese restaurant in New York’s Chinatown. Oseland, in his comparatively short time leading the magazine, has made Saveur the best food magazine in the world. Gourmet was getting good with Ruth Reichl at the helm but Oseland has taken Saveur to another level.
HG was a charter subscriber to Saveur when Dorothy Kalins, an outstanding journalist/editor, launched the publication with the scintillating Bobbi Schlesinger of Freeman Public Relations — HG’s successor firm — being the magazine’s effective publicist. HG had been concerned about Saveur’s future as Metropolitan Home, Gourmet, House and Garden and other excellent magazines have not been able to weather these difficult economic times. Saveur is, in fact, thriving. And, that’s good news for anyone who loves to eat and cook. James and Carlos, HG wishes you many, many happy years.
A few days after Valentine’s Day, HG was engaged in finishing the last of dinner’s cabernet with some chocolate truffles (both Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s carry these goodies that go so nicely with red wine). As appropriate in the weeks that surround the Day of Amorous Pursuit, HG’s thoughts turned to the changes brought to courtship by our digital age. Namely, the proliferation of online dating services that promise happy relationships, future mates, etc. And, this led HG to recall Irving Fields, a very old fashioned, eccentric matchmaker in the traditional old country Jewish style. Irving (not to be confused with the pianist of same name) called my public relations office (this was sometime in the 70’s) and told my receptionist that he needed a publicist and HG was highly recommended. Cut to the chase. HG went to Irving’s office on W. 42nd Street. Sign on the door said: “Irving Fields, Matchmaker. Enjoy Matrimonial Happiness.” A helluva consumer promise, thought HG. The office smelled of a vile, flowery scent and was bedecked with nasty artificial flowers. There were numerous wedding photos on the wall.
Irving himself was a beguiling visual. A small man with a thin (obviously dyed) black moustache and a head covered with what first seemed to be a patch of (obviously) dyed black hair. But, what was most astounding was that instead of dyed hair or a toupee, Irving had simply painted his skull with India ink. He was a voluble fellow with a very thick Yiddish accent and he referred to himself in the third person as “Oiving Filds.” He set HG straight about his business: “Oiving Filds brings heppiness — merridge heppiness to good pipple who udderwise would be sed and lonely. A grown man comes to Oiving Fields and wants a lady to fool around wit — I trow him out. Feh!”
HG was impressed by his business scruples. Irving said that a good matchmaker — “like Oiving Fields” — was the key to marital happainess. “You dunt find the right poysin in dentz halls and night clubs.”
Needless to say, HG was richly amused and agreed to conduct a one-month publicity campaign for this odd fellow (HG thought Fields would provide some laughs and a funny story for some of New York’s feature writers—and HG was right. Using a PR expression, Irving got some ink).
Irving was a gentleman. He paid HG is advance and “in cesh.” HG remembers Irving’s parting statement: “If Merilyn Monroe would hev come to Oiving Filds, beliv me, she’d be alive today.”
Dan Fields - Irving Field's Nephew Who Now Runs The Business
When HG is not wallowing in old fogey nostalgia about New York food way back when, he happens to be a guy on the culinary cutting edge. This fact was borne out this week when New York Magazine did an article about the Reuben sandwich just days after HG reported on this much-mishandled treat. New York reported a Reuben now costs $15-18. Wow, that is a meaty escalation. The article was illustrated with photos of some fairly traditional Reubens. But, there were some aberrations: a turkey Reuben and a short ribs Reuben. Pleasant sandwiches indeed — but not, as HG has emphatically stated, Reubens.
Brodetto means “little soup” in Italian. Strange. That’s because there’s nothing small about this Italian fish soup in flavor or the number of sea ingredients that usually go into the dish. It is HG and BSK’s favorite fish soup. Among those who share their brodetto obsession is famed food wrier Mimi Sheraton. She recently did an article for the New Yorker about her search in Italy for the perfect brodetto. A brodetto can be simple or complex. It can contain a multitude of fresh fish, mussels, clams, squid, shrimp, etc. — or a single fish. BSK believes the best brodetto she ever had was at Little Italy’s Luna Restaurant (long gone) many decades ago. It was Brodetto di Merluzzo — brodetto with filets of delicate whiting. BSK recalls the fish broth was intense with sea flavor heightened by garlic, onions and vinegar. No tomatoes (unusual in a Neapolitan restaurant). There are many brodetto recipes online. Experiment. You will be rewarded with a wonderful soup.
A final note on Luna: It was one of “Crazy Joe” Gallo’s Manhattan hangouts. No liquor license. But, you tipped your waiter and he brought you a bottle of rough and ready chianti in a paper bag. You drank it out of a water glass.Other than the brodetto, the gangsters and the paper-bag Chianti the best thing about the Luna was its mural of the Bay of Naples. This type of primitive — yet bravura — mural was standard in many New York Italian restaurants and pizzerias. Must have given employment to many immigrant artists. But, what made the Luna mural memorable was the fact that the artist had pierced the canvas and backed it with lights giving the effect of twinkling stars over the Bay. Waiters proudly pointed out the effect if a hungry customer hadn’t noticed it.