For many years the Good Humor ice cream truck was omnipresent in the United States; the jingle of its bells the un-official sign that Summer had begun (no matter if it were only April!). The trucks dispensed super ice cream bars (Burnt Almond and Coconut were HG’s favorites) and their appearance on hot city streets was an occasion for joy. In New York, Bungalow Bar was a competitor. The Bungalow Bar truck played a cheery tune to announce its appearance. However, their bars were inferior. During the Great Depression of the 30’s Good Humor trucks operated six months of the year and created employment opportunities. Working for a commission on what they sold, some Good Humor drivers made as much as $100 a week (a huge sum in those days). For some reason Ice cream bars were known in the industry as “novelties.” HG enjoyed a good number of “novelties” in his youth. In particular, HG loved the Creamsicle — orange ice enclosing creamy vanilla. Other faves: the classic Popsicle, the Chocolate Fudgesicle and the delicious Eskimo Pie. Simple summer pleasures that still exist today. One does not however. And it was the greatest, the king of all ice cream novelties. HG is speaking of the extinct Melorol — an ice cream shaped like a pipe that fitted into a special cone….Perhaps, when HG passes and heads to Heaven (where else would he go?), Melorols will still be served along with all the other treats of a disappeared and delicious past.
Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink, is an anthology from the pages of New Yorker Magazine and edited by David Remnick. In HG’s opinion, it is the best food book ever created. There are articles that will make you hungry (A.J. Liebling on the Paris restaurants of his youth; Joseph Mitchell on the old New York steak dinner or “beefsteak”; Joseph Wechsberg on French chef Fernand Point). Some will make you think (Adam Gopnik on French cuisine). Some will make you laugh (Calvin Trillin, Ogden Nash, Steve Martin, Dorothy Parker, Woody Allen and S.J. Perelman). Some may make you weep (Alice McDermott’s bittersweet fiction, “Enough,” on the varieties of appetite and desire). And, there’s one that may make you queasy. HG refers to “A Rat In My Soup” by Peter Hessler. The intrepid author visits Luogang, China, where two restaurants, The Highest Ranking Wild Flavor Restaurant and the New Eight Sceneries Wild Flavor Food City specialize in rat (yes, some tasty cat and snake dishes are also available). Hessler dines on Simmered Mountain Rat With Black Beans and Spicy and Salty Mountain Rat. He discovers, no surprise, that rat really isn’t very tasty. Anyway, “Secret Ingredients” is savory fare, indeed
When HG utters the word “tripe’, A certain high percentage of HG’s listeners respond to HG with a grimace of disgust and a collective: “Ech-h-h!!”. Unfair. But, understandable. Years ago, HG was in the glorious Italian city of Firenze. HG went to the wicker market where at lunch every day a truck pulled up and a grizzled old guy dispensed tripe sandwiches. These were famous throughout the city and there was a long line waiting for the delicacy. HG took one bite of his sandwich. Spat. Threw the sandwich to the ground. The Florentine tripe lovers turned to HG with anger. HG heard the word “Americano” whispered and everyone quickly calmed down. Of course, the crowd reasoned, HG was an American. This excused HG’s behavior since all Americans are crazy and know nothing about food.
HG overcame his anti-tripe prejudice three years ago when HG and BSK moved to New Mexico. HG became an obsessive lover of New Mexican tripe — menudo — as it is prepared at El Parasol in Pojauque. HG limits himself to one bowl a week since menudo is mega-rich in cholesterol. HG remembers a mournful essay by M.F.K. Fisher, the late, great food writer. Living in a small California town, Fisher could find no one who would share a tripe meal with her and cooking tripe for a solitary meal seemed too arduous and too sad.
That’s a question HG often puts to himself. HG is referring to drinking habits in the 50s and for most of the 60s. In those halcyon days, HG lunched daily in Manhattan restaurants with journalists, pals or HG’s public relations clients. Typical lunch at the Blue Ribbon, very good German restaurant on W. 45th (convenient for journalists from Times, Herald-Tribune, Newsweek and Business Week): Two dry martinis with Rollmops Appetizer (Bismarck herring rolled around a dill pickle); steak tartare or bratwurst or Kassler Rippchen (smoked pork chop) washed down with two large, dark beers. Cognac and a cup of black coffee to finish. At Russian Tea Room, HG drank chilled vodka throughout a lunch of Eggplant Oriental, Borscht with Pirozhki (flaky meat pastries) or Siberian Pelmeni (tiny Russian ravioli in a rich chicken consomme infused with generous quantities of chopped dill, sour cream and strong mustard). Wine, of course, accompanied the food at Sardi’s, Four Seasons, Gino’s. Patsy’s, Charles, Christ Cella, etc. But, two martinis always jump started the lunch. After lunch, an energetic HG was back at work. Focused. Productive. HG was not alone. Men (and women) drank cocktails at lunch — Martinis, Manhattans or Whiskey Sours. How could we function with so much lunchtime booze? We did. And, it was fun.
HG has written before about HG’s favorite “go to” eatery in New Mexico– the delightful El Parasol. There are a number of El Parasols throughout New Mexico but HG’s hangout is the location on Highway 285/84 in Pojoaque (some 15 minutes north of Santa Fe). This one is under the gracious and efficient stewardship of Jose Atencio. Eat in or take out. You place your order at the cash register and it’s delivered to your table in a flash — with a smile. Place is clean, hospitable and friendly. A good time is guaranteed. Usually, HG has menudo (a tripe stew) with posole and green chile. Blows the socks off tripe in the style of Caen or any other tripe HG has had in Paris. Recently, however, HG ignored the menduo and ordered a roast pork and guacamole burrito smothered in green chile. This dish would win the World Wide Ultimate Burrito Olympics if
such a worthwhile event could be organized. Big, juicy hunks of roast pork. Green chile sauce that had a kick but didn’t numb HG’s mouth. Cold shredded iceberg lettuce and chopped tomato on the side for a nice texture contrast. A giant plate of heaven for only seven bucks.
HG was shopping at Whole Foods a few days ago when hunger pangs struck. Big time. Since HG was at the fish counter he rummaged about the adjacent soup bar. HG inspected the New England Clam Chowder. Thought the amount of potatoes overwhelmed the clams. Lobster Bisque. Too much cream. Cioppino. Tired fish in tomato soup. Shrimp and Crab Etouffee. Hmm…This looks promising. Green. Herbaceous. Lots of shredded crab and chunks of shrimp. Evidence of a blond roux and creole spice. Worth a try. HG was blown away. Just a big, tasty portion of N’Awlins right there in the wholly homogenized Whole Foods. If you fancy making some etouffee at home check Paula Deen’s recipe. Buttery Southern soul.
HG flexed his dining muscles in the 1950’s when New York restaurants were very inexpensive and contained many delights for the adventurous fledgling gourmand. An HG favorite was a warm and friendly French bistro, Fleur de Lis, located at 141 W. 69th Street. It was here that HG delved into the wonderful world of innards prepared in traditional French style. Brains in black butter. Tripe in the style of Caen. Roast kidneys and kidneys in mustard sauce. Tete de Veau (all the little goodies plucked from the head of a cow and served in a thick vinaigrette). Sweetbreads in a lush red wine sauce.These dishes ranged in price from $1.35 to $1.60. Yes, you read it right. A generous plate of Sole Meuniere was $1.15 as was a heaping bowl of mussels (accompanied by pomme frites). The most expensive dish on the menu was a one and-a-half pound lobster for $3.00. HG liked to start the meal with Saucisson and warm potato salad ($.35) or pickled herring ($.35) or a copious crabmeat cocktail ($.50). Red and white wine was served by the glass ($.25). A nice aperitif was dry, chilled sherry ($.25). The cheese selection was composed of Camembert, goat, Port du Salut and blue cheese. Served generously and at the right temperature ($.25 each) Went nicely with port ($.25 a glass). Desserts included creme caramel and chocolate mousse (each $.35). All of these prices are from the Nov. 1955 Fleur de Lis menu.
At that time, HG was a highly paid journalist ($175 a week) who supplemented his pay by moonlighting as a press agent. When HG and BSK wed in 1963 they lived at 27 W. 67th Street in a dramatic artist’s studio one bedroom apartment (Rent: $140 a month). HG had left journalism for the more lucrative field of press agentry. The nearby Fleur de Lis was still going strong and the newlyweds ate there often. Prices had risen, of course, but the bistro remained quite affordable. On their wedding night (a sultry and stuffy July night) HG and BSK dined there with family members. HG had escargots (lots of garlic), mussels (lots of garlic), rare tenderloin steak (lots of garlic). Later that night, in their non-air conditioned bedroom, BSK contemplated HG, her sleep companion, her husband, her life-long partner and what she saw was a hairy man with fragrant garlic oozing from every sweaty pore. It crossed BSK’s mind then (and probably not the only time during the ensuing 49 years) that she had made a dreadful mistake.
La Mamounia in the magical, mysterious Moroccan city of Marrakesh, is the best hotel in the world. At least it’s the best hotel HG and BSK ever stayed in. Art Deco deluxe. Don’t take HG’s word for it. It was Winston Churchill’s favorite hotel and he spent happy times painting in the hotel’s lovely gardens. When not rummaging in Marrakech’s souks, bargaining for rugs and inspecting masterpieces of Islamic architecture and garden planning, HG and BSK swam in the vast hotel pool and sun bathed on the comfortable chaise lounges. The pool area was populated by pert young Frenchwomen. Topless, of course. Their nervous husbands paced around puffing on large cigars and conducting staccato conversations on their cell phones. For HG, the charms of the poolside buffet far outshone the French damsels. Inventive Moroccan salads. Grilled lobster and shrimp. Kebabs of tender lamb fragrant with North African spices. Couscous, certainly. And, much,much more.
HG was reminded of all of this by Florence Fabricant’s baked fish recipe in the New York Times food section. The writer had tasted the dish at La Mamounia and gave it a rave. BSK cooked the dish last night and it will become a household perennial. Essentially, some reasonably firm fish fillets (BSK used catfish) are smothered in a variety of spices; showered with garlic, cilantro, flat leaf parsley; doused with olive oil. vinegar and lemon juice. The fish rests on a bed of sliced potatoes and is covered with sliced red peppers, plum tomatoes and kalamata olives. Baked in the oven for some 30 minutes (or less). Super stuff. HG gave his substantial portion a shot of harissa, the Moroccan fiery condiment composed of chile peppers, olive oil and garlic. The lily was gilded.
Anyone remember these coffee and fast food counter restaurants that once flourished in New York? There were about 80 locations before the chain closed in the 1970s. The coffee brand still flourishes and is sold in supermarkets everywhere. At Chock Full you got a very good cream cheese sandwich on nutted date bread (a favorite of female office workers), whole wheat doughnuts (best doughnut ever, in HG’s opinion), good frankfurters and orange drink. Splendid coffee, of course. Very, very cheap. Swift service by unsmiling, sullen, very angry African-American women. William Black, who owned the chain, tried to make morale better by hiring baseball great Jackie Robinson as Director of Personnel in 1957. Didn’t make any difference. It was still Service-With-A-Sneer. All food at Chock Full was handled with tongs (for alleged hygienic benefits) and advertised “Food Untouched By Human Hands.” The chain got its unusual name from Black’s retail start: a little shelled nut store he opened in 1926. It grew to a chain of 18. Black, a smart (and eccentric) guy, met the challenge of the Great Depression by converting the nut shops to lunch counters in 1931. The signature cream cheese sandwich and a cup of coffee was five cents. Big success. Black married a cabaret singer named Page Morton. For many decades New York radio and TV commercials featured the rather mature, slightly off-key and quite wavery-voiced Ms. Morton singing the Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee jingle: “Chock Full O’ Nuts — That Heavenly coffee.” The persistence of this ad and her suspect talent made it obvious that Black really loved his wife.
After many corporate shifts and buy outs, Chock Full (now owned by an Italian coffee giant), decided, in 2010, to open a Chock Full O’ Nuts restaurant, serving some of the old favorites, on E. 23 Street in the Flatiron District. Very extensive menu. Very slow service. A mixed reception from diners. The cream cheese sandwich costs $4.95.
Gone from the streets of the ever more trendy Lower East Side of Manhattan are the choppers. Permit HG to explain. HG does nor refer to people with cleavers. The “ch” in HG’s “choppers” is pronounced with a guttural, Yiddish “ch” as in “challah.” In Yiddish the word chop means “grab.” And, that’s what a chopper did. He grabbed you. When little HG accompanied his father on various Lower East Side errands, choppers were stationed outside of men’s clothing stores on East Broadway and Division Streets. They would grab the arm of HG’s father and try to drag him into a store. Meanwhile they offered a sales pitch in heavily accented English: “Come inside. Bargains. The finest materials. Beautiful suits, coats. Latest styles. Take a look. Prices you won’t believe. No harm in looking.” The chopper had a grip like an iron vise. It took real strength (possessed by HG’s father) to extricate oneself from a dedicated chopper.
All of this took place many, many decades ago in a simpler New York. Now geniuses like Wylie Dufresne turn out imaginative food in chic Lower East Side restaurants. Nary a knish or “chopper’ in sight.
SJ here. Allow me to make a brief interjection. True, the Lower East Side has transformed into a hipster playground of trendy bars, cafes, etc. But, like a ghost sign that bleeds through faded paint jobs, elements of the old Lower East Side are still with us. Orchard Street, while gussied up beyond recognition, still houses of number of old clothing stores and, surprise, surprise, an honest to god chopper. Yes, I was recently stopped in my tracks — the grip was that strong — by a middle aged Hasid who said, “Young man, you look like a fellow who could use a nice suit. We have suits, so good, so cheap, come inside…” A relic of the old days, the chopper still has the stuff…And when it comes to knishes!!! We have the best still in operation!!! Yes Yonah Schimmel Knishes is open right on Houston Street and serving up a delicious Knish — get the Kasha!!!