All games aside, this is one cool project. Melissa was motivated to create this project by the BBC. Generally, I love the beeb, especially when they’re exploring whether or not cows have regional accents (moo-cents?) but on this one occasion, they really let the world down.
Granted, I’ve had many of the things on their list and agree heartily that they should be eaten at least once; lobster, cornish pasties and cream tea are things I’ve had just a few times (okay, I’ve had lobster more than a few times, but not often enough) but, come on!
Chinese food? Sandwiches? Pizza? Let’s be a little more specific! Chinese food at Congee Village, that I can buy. A cubano from Clinton Restaurant, probably not the best, but really darn good… Pizza from Lombardi’s? Yeah, that I heartily endorse. But this list, with no specifics? Kinda sad… We can do better than this!
And so, I hereby humbly submit my five foods to eat before you die. They’re all simple but sometimes the best things in life are life’s simplest pleasures.
I. Sometime around mid-November as the days are getting shorter and the impending weight of the holidays begins to bear down, a tiny thought begins tickling my brain. Without even realising I’m doing it, my walk home begins to shift subtly. I walk down Second Avenue, past the sad, shuttered shell of the 2nd Ave. Deli, and then my heart soars. I can just begin to see the warming yellow glow of possibly my favorite restaurant in the entire world, Veselka.
My heart begins to beat faster, is today the day? I get to the corner of 9th Street and wait to cross, can I see the sign? Is it there posted to the wood panelling above the old codgers at the bar straight out of Nighthawks? No. I’ll have to wait at least one more day for the world’s best soup to reappear into my life; Christmas Borscht.
Impossibly clear, the deepest ruby red, redolent of spices and earthy mushrooms, Veselka’s Christmas Borscht appears for maybe 45 days a year sometime around Thanksgiving and disappears with the New Year. Born out of the meatless Christmas eve dinner customary in Eastern European countries, the broth is made of beets, laced with vinegar and savory spices and is served with a few tiny mushroom pierogis and a delicate dusting of dill. I could eat this soup every day for the rest of my life and when it’s around I do my best.
II. When I was young (we’re talking single digits here), my family would rent a cabin up in Maine every summer somewhere in the shadow of Mt. Megunticook, just north of Camden. We would travel up and down the coast. I don’t remember much of what we did. We’d visit Andre the seal (before he was dead), the blueberry festival and my mom and I would beachcomb for hours (I can’t remember at all what my dad would do, I’m assuming he’d play golf). But the thing I remember the most, and this should come as little surprise, are the clams.
Steamers to be exact. I think I remember once (I’ll have to check in with my mom to make sure I’ve got this correct), I was little, maybe 6 or 7 and we were in a restaurant. All I wanted were clams so I ordered 50 or so steamers. The pile of bivalves came, I remember being very excited and I also remember the guy at the table next to us leaning over to my parents and saying, “You’re not going to let her eat all those, are you?” Either my mom or dad replied, “Why, yes, yes we are.” Guy, “She can’t possibly eat all those!” Parent, “Oh, yes she can and she will!” Guy, “Well, this I’ve got to see, and if she does, I’ll buy her dessert!” So, he watched and I ate, methodically, rhythmically, happily. Pry open shell, peel off the “turtleneck,” swish in sea water, dip in butter, pop in mouth, chew happily, repeat. I finished them all, the guy was agog, he stood by his offer, I flatly refused, unless of course by dessert he meant another round of steamers.
III. Both my mom and my dad grew up near Syracuse, and both their families still live up there. Syracuse is a funny place. It’s really cold and really snowy in the winter and ungodly hot and sticky in the summer. There wasn’t much to do up there when I was a kid other than hang out with my cousin. We’d go to the mall, to the Salt Museum, walk along Onondoga, boat on Skaneateles and go to the A&W with our grandmother. But sometimes, someone would have a party or barbecue to which someone would inevitably bring my favorite use of the potato ever discovered, the Salt Potato.
Tiny red potatoes are almost as common in Central NY soil as well, salt, so it was really inevitable over the course of hundreds of years that someone would figure out a way to combine the two. To that unknown person in the past, I tip my hat. Salt potatoes are simply those wee taters boiled in super-salinated water. One recipe I found calls for 1 1/4 pounds salt to 2 pounds of spuds. But it’s after the cooking’s over that the true potato alchemy happens. As the taters are cooling, the salt crystallizes on their surface, you then pop them into a bowl and dip them into drawn butter. Starch + Salt + Fat = Culinary Bliss. Over the years I’ve discovered that while the traditional way is possibly best, variations are also amazing. Last year for his birthday I made the boy salt potatoes with curry butter. You can also replace the butter with warmed olive oil (maybe with some garlic?) or even olive tapenade. Oh, and they’re delicious cold too! Seriously people, salt potatoes are the perfect food!
IV. I’ve just realised that 3 of my 5 foods to eat before you die involve butter. Hmm… I’m sure Steingarten would have something to say about that… What’s the third? Pretzels. But not just any pretzels, handmade soft pretzels from the Amish ladies at the Reading Terminal market in Philadelphia. I don’t really have a good story about these pretzels… Just a persistent, urgent longing to eat them again. I haven’t had one in just about a decade. Since I moved to the City I’ve developed a rather irrational grudge against Philly. I have no idea why, but it’s kept me from going back. I went back once for work, but I was babysitting a duo of cranky Europeans who turned up their noses at pretzels. Silly, silly men….
These are not generic pretzels. Each one is made to order. You step up, the woman gabs a ball of silky, pliant dough, rolls it out into a snake and then tosses it up in the air in a swirling, twisting fashion, and then it lands on the counter with a light thump, perfectly pretzely. It’s then bathed in butter, cloaked in salt and baked. It comes out of the oven piping hot and is handed to you in a napkin with a little cup of the world’s best mustard, perfectly balanced between sweet and hot.
V. It’s Saturday, somehow I’ve dragged myself out of bed and I’m wandering aimlessly through the Village. My head hurts, my tummy’s rumbling but I’m feeling fantastically incapable of deciding on something to eat, but I must eat… And there, what’s that on the corner? Gray’s Papaya! I’m saved… Time for the breakfast of champions, also known as The Recession Special; two of Gray’s insanely delicious hot dogs and a frothy, creamy papaya juice for $1.95.
I get both dogs with kraut, one with onions on top of that. The kraut-only dog gets mustard and the kraut + onions dog gets ketchup. Why? I have no idea… Remember, any day I’m eating two hot dogs for breakfast and I’m not at a 1:05 game at Yankee Stadium or noshing on a Nathan’s out on Coney Island, my mental capacity is naturally a little low, we’re running on primal instincts here people! And don’t be fooled by the other “papayas” out there. Papaya King, Clinton Papaya, they’re not the same. They don’t have the crispy grilled buns, their dogs ain’t got no snap when you bite into them, they don’t have the recession special and therefore they can never stand in as the breakfast of champions.
So, there you have it, my contribution to Melissa’s fantastic project! I hope everyone joins in, no invitation needed, but in the spirit of the meme, I hereby tag these five folk:
I. Chris of The Electric Stove
II. The Farmgirl of Farmgirl Fare
III. Faith of Mekuno Cooking
IV. The Committee of Tiny Banquet Committee
One last thought: Do I really have to go to work today? I suddenly have an overwhelming desire to catch a train to Philly….