Peter Alan Meyerson died this week in Los Angeles at the age of 82. It was remarkable that he lived to an advanced age since he relished a variety of unhealthy habits: A diet that stressed pizza and Jewish delicatessen (with an occasional visit to a Chinese restaurant). He chain smoked unfiltered Camel cigarettes and was no stranger to mind altering substances. He usually had a rich, mahogany tan, the result of relentless sun bathing. Peter was a dear person, HG’s friend for some 58 years. It is very difficult to sustain sad thoughts about Peter’s passing because, simply put, he was one of the funniest people that ever lived. Yes, he had a many decade career in Hollywood as a comedy writer and producer of such shows as The Monkees, Welcome Back, Kotter (the TV show where John Travolta got his start), That Girl etc., etc.. But, the place where his humor was best expressed was in his wild improvisations. In New York, on Fire Island, in Hollywood delicatessens…Peter reduced his friends to weakness-in-the-knees as his comic riffs became more irreverent, scatalogical, satirical, surreal. So many memories: Peter doing an routine (complete with patriotic song and dance) that reduced President Lyndon Johnson’s actions in Vietnam to a mad travesty. Peter (looking very furtive) asking a porn shop clerk: “Do you have anything with marshmallows?”. Peter narrating a bathing beauty contest for Nuns. All pure spur-of-the-moment creations. Goodbye, unforgettable Peter. You left us the memory of a million laughs.
“Eat your vegetables!!” “Finish your brocoli — or no dessert!!” “Eat them — they’re good for you!!” Yes, as children, we were all subject to threats, pleadings and promises regarding vegetables. And, naturally, this has led to resistance. What didn’t come across was the fact that vegetables, if treated properly, are very tasty and worthy companions to good red wine. Witness the roasted vegetable platter prepared this week by life companion BSK. Neither a doctrinaire vegetarian nor a rigid health nut, BSK nonetheless glories in vegetables and treats them imaginatively and with dignity. For the vegetable dinner, BSK filled a baking pan with cauliflower florets, slices of red pepper, radishes,fennel slices, chick peas, chunks of turnip and carrot, Brussel sprouts. This colorful melange got a nice dousing of garlic infused olive oil plus a sprinkling of ground pepper, kosher salt and Goya Adobo. For crunch, BSK topped the vegetables with some finely chopped pancetta (a bow to HG’s infatuation with Italian piggy products). Into a 375 degree oven. Roasted into levels of crisp and unctuous. BSK also cooked some quinoa with onions and mushrooms in chicken stock. This was the centerpiece of the vegetable extravaganza. A companion was a very big bowl of Greek yogurt enriched with oil, garlic, Tsatziki spices, some preserved lemon and piquant Spanish smoked paprika. Adding a Middle Eastern touch was a small dish of harissa. Delicious. Some worthy folks like George Bernard Shaw and I.B. Singer were dedicated vegetarians. HG doubts they ever tasted anything as good as BSK’s creation even with the pancetta and chicken broth eliminated.
In a recent New York Times piece, chef/restaurateur Mario Batali noted that a favorite dish is “Spicy vermicelli with anchovies, hot pepper and bread crumbs.” BSK made a variation of this dish last night. BSK got rid of the bread crumbs and added garlic plus flash-fried squid. Substituted capellini (“angel hair”) fot the thicker vermicelli. BSK and HG like this skinny pasta and (slightly thicker) fedelini. Be forewarned, this pasta cooks in a flash. If serving at room temperature, douse the cooked pasta with cold water and drain thoroughly to stop it from over-cooking.
Room temperature or chilled vermicelli is a standard accompaniment to many Asian dishes. BSK often serves it (with a shot of sesame oil and a dab of sambal oelek or a squirt of sriracha) with Mapo Tofu or alongside sauteed bok choy and steamed mustard greens. BSK also makes Taiwanese Oyster Soup (google the recipe) with gently poached oysters, vermicelli, stock, rice wine, soy sauce, etc. Chinese noodle soup with a skinny twist.
At 13 years of age HG was a busy little guy. Following after- school punchball or association football, HG would cruise Kingsbridge Road in the Bronx and help the shopping women. “Carry your bundle, Lady?” said endearing HG and this meant trudging, while heavily laden with shopping bags, up five stories of an apartment house for a nickel or dime tip. A parental allowance was beneath HG’s dignity. HG had to hustle in order to indulge in HG’s Saturday afternoon aesthetic and culinary treat. This was the double feature at the tiny Ascot Theater on the Grand Concourse. HG would pick up some chunks of dry, garlic salami (“a nickel a shtickel”) at the Tower Delicatessen plus two sour dill pickles at a neighboring “appetizing” store (these pickles were plucked fresh from a barrel). Armed with food and a pack of war-time Rameses cigarettes (yes, HG was a smoker even then, a habit he cultivated for some 50 years), HG lounged (and nibbled and smoked) in a balcony seat and succumbed to the joys of European cinema. The Ascot played only art films, mostly French and Russian (and the occasional American film like John Ford’s The Informer.) HG was enthralled by the French “noir” movies starring Jean Gabin (Port of Shadows, La Bete Humaine). Gabin was HG’s favorite movie hero and HG was gratified to learn that Gabin, during World War Two, left a brief Hollywood career (and a blazing romance with Marlene Dietrich) to join the Free French army and fight with the Allies in North Africa. He won the Medaille Militaire and Croix de Guerre and was part of the first contingent to enter liberated Paris. HG’s two favorite films that he watched at the Ascot were Le Grande Illusion (directed by Jean Renoir and starring Gabin) and aforementioned The Informer (starring Victor McLaglen playing “Gypo Nolan.”). HG still recalls Gypo’s last words in the film: “Frankie, your mother forgives me!!”
Years later the Ascot stopped showing art films and devolved into a house of pornography which did not last for long. At last glance the glamorous Ascot was subdivided into a variety of retail spaces while retaining vestiges of its lovely terra cotta facade. In 1988 the writer Avery Corman wrote a nice piece about this stretch of Grand Concourse for the New York Times. It is still relevant today.
When HG was growing up, men wore hats. Fedoras for the most part and Homburgs for the rich old guys. There was a switch to Panamas (real and faux) during the summer. Some dudes wore straw hats (known as skimmers or katies.) Among kids there was a New York City legend that you could knock, with impunity, a straw hat right off a man’s head if it was worn after Labor Day. (HG Never saw it happen). And, women wore girdles, thus creating the anatomic oddity — uni-buttocks. Only very racy damsels jettisoned girdles for garter belts. (This was HG’s experience. Admittedly, a quite limited experience but not for want of effort.)
It seems men’s hats are making a modest comeback. SJ, always in style, has been seen sporting an attractive fedora. Girdles, fortunately, are at one with the corset and the buggy whip. Gone forever. Cocktails seemed to be disappearing a few years ago in favor of wimpy glasses of white wine or even wimpier glasses of mineral water. Now, hip diners all over the country are demanding creative pre-dinner libations. And, they seem to be willing to pay the price. Are women still cocktail addicts? They were in HG’s young manhood (there were even cocktail dresses designed specifically for the Happy Hour). Many times HG happily observed suburban ladies in Sardi’s knocking off two (or even three) Manhattans or Martinis during a pre-theater matinee lunch. And, they could meet the challenge of alcohol. Lots of smiles. Lots of laughs. But, definitely not blotto. Which was more than HG could say about the Martini swigging macho guys falling off stools at Sardi’s bar.
HG has always enjoyed street food starting with the sweet potatoes, chickpeas, ices and chunks of coconut that were sold along the Bronx streets in HG’s youth. During early manhood HG fancied the grilled Italian sausages with onions and peppers sold from the back of trucks in Greenwich Village. The classic New York City Sabrett hot dog, topped with onions and mustard and sold from a “hot water” cart, was always a treat. In Chinatown, anything sold on the street (no matter how unhygienic it looked) was always good. HG had excellent wurst and rye bread on the streets of Prague and even better wurst at the foot of ski slopes in the Italian mountain town of Selva Val Gardena. HG bought a very savory spleen (yes, spleen) sandwich from a Palermo vendor. HG was not a tripe fan (HG is now a Menudo — Mexican tripe stew — addict) when HG unhappily nibbled a tripe sandwich from the famous truck in the Florence wicker market. In Brazil, HG was too timid to taste the pungent stews being sold by women tending steaming caldrons outside of public markets in Rio de Janeiro and Bahia. The largest array of street food HG ever saw was in the colorful, surreal, slightly insane Djeema el Fnaa, the famous public square in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh. Established sometime around 1147, the square is a virtual maelstrom of noise, aromas and people (native Moroccans and tourists)/ There are magicians, snake charmers, water sellers, acrobats, story tellers, young men with chained Barbary apes, dancing boys and dentists (with large displays of pulled teeth as proof of their skill and prowess). When darkness falls, scores of food stalls appear and the air is filled with smoke. Hundreds sit on benches eating, grilled lamb (and its innards), chicken and every variety of seafood. Somehow HG found the square exciting but sinister (beneath the square is a police center for the vigorous interrogation of suspicious individuals). HG never patronized any of the stalls. Today, street food is having a renaissance moment in the United States. Serious and creative chefs are opening food carts and trucks alongside the ethnic specialty trucks (which had long dominated the market) in cities throughout America. Both groups of chefs are equally drawn to the food cart’s low overhead and the ripe possibility of building an audience for your cooking before dumping a fortune into a brick and mortar restaurant. And not only are the food trucks opening, urban planners and city governments are recognizing their civic importance. Cities such as Portland are actively supporting food trucks and creating a supportive business environment to help them thrive. The trend has reached New Mexico where excellent street food can be relished all over Santa Fe. This is an attractive trend bringing interesting, affordable food to folks who haven’t the time or patience for the traditional, leisurely, sit down restaurant meal. Finally, a culinary trend HG can stand by.
Joy. Happiness. Jollity. Yes, life is one big smile today. HG has just learned that the vast Fairway Supermarket located on Brooklyn’s Red Hook waterfront has reopened today. It was so devastated by Hurricane Sandy that few thought it would ever reopen. But, it’s back. Better than ever (with slightly wider aisles). There are those who do not have the advantage, like HG and BSK, of having a son (SJ) and a daughter-in-law (Exquisite Maiko), living close to this cornucopia of good food. So, permit HG to explain. Fairway is the essence of New York City. It is a true family business that began in the Upper West Side as a humble fruit and vegetable market. It has since expanded into multiple locations and boasts huge selections of fish, meat, produce, vegetables and a simply encyclopedic cheese department. But, it is not size or quantity that gives Fairway its character, it is the devotion to sourcing great edibles from Alsatian Sauerkraut to Pickdew Peppers and the passion to actually want to share these great things with their customers in an affordable way that defines the Fairway experience. As such, Fairway caters to a public of every ethnicity, age and economic status. All know food, are infinitely demanding and want the best. There are other Fairways (in Manhattan and on Long Island). But, the Red Hook outpost is the best. Its views of the Statue of Liberty and New York Harbor are incomparable. Eating a Fairway Lobster Roll at one of their outdoor tables with a harbor view is one of the great democratic, affordable food experiences. Then there’s the crowd that fills the store. Remember, you’re in Brooklyn. So, there’s every shade of skin, every manner of dress, every accent. Maybe the best show in town. Yes, New York is indomitable. Whatever happens New York survives, rebuilds, renews and becomes more varied (and expensive!!) than ever. Civil War draft riots? Boss Tweed and Tammany corruption? Quasi-bankruptcy? Nine/Eleven? Hurricane Sandy? Fuhgeddabout it!!! Let’s eat.