I am far from home and a little forlorn about missing out on NYC’s first snowfall of the season. But with each loss comes a gain and so on this past Thursday, I traded in my snow boots, shovel and ski cap to be warmed by India’s winter sun.
India Gate - Delhi, India
I arrive at Indira Gandhi International airport in the city of Delhi and I am greeted by a smokey smoggy sky that smells of burning wood. The locals can no longer recognize the scent as it is a part or their everyday existence. It is only recognized by the outsiders – like me. And an outsider I am! Everywhere I go I get looks and stares from the locals as if they have never seen skin so fair or hair so curly. Throughout my stay the staring never ceases and I feel the eyes of all of Delhi – all 14.5 million people – are on me.
I ride along in the car with my driver Nitin to the tune of Cat Stevens playing on the tape deck. I am comforted and humored by the fact that my first Indian driving experience involves the lyrics of Oh Baby its a Wild World playing in the background.
The streets of Delhi are no match for even the most adept NYC cab driver. For miles I can see cars, rickshaws, bicycles, stray dogs, camels, cows and goats all chaotically cruising in and out traffic – and not once do they collide or crash. To my right I see a pedestrian bravely and boldly walking across the street and to my left I see a man on a bicycle transporting 57 small and large hand-woven baskets on his back.
The streets of Old Delhi - India
The Market in Old Delhi
Outside the car, but not out of harms way, I enter the heart of Old Delhi and wander through Chandni Chowk Road – Delhi’s main thoroughfare. I wind my way through the dirt streets and into Khari Baoli – Asia’s largest spice market. If I thought my home of Greenwich Village seemed stuck in time, I am in for a shock today. This market dates back to 1650AD when it was an opulent and bustling market. It is still bustling – but no longer retains even an ounce of opulence.
Through the dusty streets I wander on a quest for authentic Indian spices – all the while dodging the aggressive crowds of motorcycles, women walking with jugs of water on their heads and trucks delivering goods to the market. The permanent smog that is suspended in the air is only magnified by the dust from the dirt streets, the smell of incense burning and the scent of hot chili powder as I near the heart of the spice market. I am assaulted by the fragrances and aromas. I walk for 25 minutes on a trek to reach the center – all the while I am coughing and sneezing. I pop a Ricola cough drop in my mouth in attempt to temporarily soothe my dry throat.
Spices & Teas - Old Delhi
Spices, nuts and teas
There is only one cure for my ailments – my stuffy nose and my congested chest filled with soot and smoke – and that cure is around the next corner. Finally I reach the heart of the spice market – a market which does not service homes and housewives but is intended for retail shops and restaurants. With so many stalls to choose from, I come upon a smiling older gentleman named Shiva who sits on a thin cushion on the hard dirt floor of his tiny stall.
His spices are kept in small bowls in front of him in a sea of colors as stunning as the saris of the women walking past me in the market. Bright red chilis, yellow mustard seeds, magnificent masalas and colorful curries stand out against the dusty dirt road which lies only inches below these bowls. Tiny twigs of sweet-smelling cloves and pretty packets of star-shaped aniseed complete the picture of perfection. Cardamom, cumin and coriander compound my senses and I am intoxicated. I am also no longer sneezing.
Spices and spice dealer
Spice dealer in his stall with his child
Woman peeling Ginger while sitting on the street
Shiva rips off a tiny piece of newspaper and uses it as a makeshift spoon and I begin to sample the spices. On first taste I am invincible as my palate bravely bears the burden of the increasing heat. And now, only a few moments into my spice tasting session, I can no longer feel my tongue as the blend of spices – otherwise known as garam masala or hot mix – attacks my inexperienced taste buds. The heat – enough to melt the 22 inches of snow reported back home in NYC – melts away my ego and my confidence as a spice-lover is shaken. The temperature is only 65 degrees outside but inside – I am boiling.
I wave my white flag and surrender to the spice. After 5 minutes of gasping for cool air and grasping for cold bottled water I notice a distinct result. My cough is gone and my stuffy nose cleared. Even the dirt and dust kicked up by the passing bus can’t penetrate my secret steel wall of spicy protection. The medicinal power of these spices – born of Indian soil – is in full swing. And in perfect English Shiva and I discuss their healing energy. Tumeric for treating stomach ailments, burns and bruises. Cardamom to cure colds. Cloves for coping with a toothache.
Beyond that it is believed that my beloved, albeit mouth-burning, spices can even cure cancer – mustard seeds in particular. Shiva instructs me to try some coriander to lower cholesterol and some turmeric to slow Alzheimer’s. And with Shiva’s words, I feel as if I have a secret bit of knowledge that I can tuck away for future use. Heading back to my hotel after a full day at the market and with spice packets in hand, I breath just a little bit easier. While I may have missed the first snow of the winter season – I will come back with a cure for the first cold.
My cough is cured. My nose is cleared. It was worth the trek.
And if you want to have a spice tasting for yourself,
But don’t fret. There is no cause for alarm. I am not blue as in sad. I am blue as in the cheese.
In the early hours of Thursday morning, with the moon still beaming bright, I find myself unable to sleep. It is an unusually warm winter night yet the heat persists in pumping up through the pipes only to settle in my sweltering 6th floor apartment. Unable to rest, I open my laptop to see what searches are in store. I come upon a game to get me through the night: A cheese quiz. In preparation for my day of cheesemaking, I eagerly fill in the multiple choice form – curious to know my cheese identity. Try it for yourself: http://cupped-expressions.net/cheese/quiz/
The results of my cheese persona are in. It turns out I am a Blue; mellow, knowledgeable, a little crumbly but wise. Not bad – aside from that crumbly part. I examine the other cheese descriptions and notice the mozzarella is most becoming: soft, imaginative, creative, young, flexible and fresh. Mozzarella sounds so dreamy… so delicate. Oh how I wish I was a Mozzarella.
In an effort to learn the art of cheesemaking, as well as make a major personality conversion, I spent my Thursday at Joe’s Dairy at 156 Sullivan making fresh and smoked mozzarella and falling in love – with Anthony, Vincent, Frank, Ro, Luis & Luis (yes there are two of them).
Joe's Dairy at 156 Sullivan Street - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
I walk into the shop and I am instantly transported to a simpler time and place. Handwritten love letters line the walls: a pound of Cabot Pepper Jack for $4.49 and Rosemary Crusted Goat for $14.99 are casually written, scratched out, and re-written on white sheets of butcher paper. Scattered among the glass showcases filled with cheese and propped up on the wooden shelves next to the pastas, imported olives oils and balsamics are photos of family and just-born children. And like any Italian household 3 weeks before the holidays, you can hear Bing Crosby belting out White Christmas from the speakers of the 1980’s style boom box in the back.
Hand written cheese notes - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
I am greeted by Anthony Campanelli (the shop owner) and Ro Pianoforte (a family friend) who is behind the counter – and has been for 10 years. Anthony is busy packing and unpacking mozzarella deliveries for Luis to transport to nearby restaurants and Ro is tinkering with her cheeses and checking the refrigerator temperature to make sure it is calibrated correctly. While they work – and without skipping a beat – they carry on a cheerful conversation about their holiday gift giving ideas. Among the feta, the manchego and, of course, the mozzarella they chat about snow globes and fairy tale figurines. Joe’s Dairy is a fairly balanced blend of family and fresh mozzarella.
Ro unwrapping her cheese - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
Out pops Vincent from the clear plastic partition which separates the shop from the kitchen where the mozzarella is hand crafted. Vincent is Anthony’s older brother. He is lively and bright-eyed and full of philosophies on everything – from family life to mozzarella making.
Vincent - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
Do you do any ballet?” Vincent questions me. If you thought he was commenting on the graceful line of my neck as I initially did – you’d be wrong. “It gets pretty crowded back there – and we’re not tiny.” Vincent was right. I did plie and arabesque – and also slide, and slip, and almost fall to the floor all throughout the course of my day. Thankfully, Vincent was there to quickly catch me on those first few futile footsteps.
I am crushed in the corner of the tiny kitchen clutching the steel basin of the sink as I try to avoid making a fool of myself and sliding on the slippery, wet floor. Luis is standing over a large pot of nearly boiling, 185 degree water – making mozzarella by hand. Hot milky water is flying in front of me as I attempt to delicately hold my position to keep out of the way. With a twinkle in his eye and a big smile on his face Luis shifts his focus from his work and quickly rolls and ties a tiny ball of mozzarella, dips it in sea-salted water and hands it to me. It looks like a perfectly wrapped present – a bocconcini with a bow. The milky, warm, creamy mozzarella melts in my mouth. I have been to Italy and back and never once tasted something so invited. It is meltingly good and undeniably fresh. My knees are buckling – but this time not from the fickle floor. Luis, watching my delight, gives me a nod. And with this one gentle gesture he initiates me into this private club and my work can commence. But of course, I must start at the very beginning.
The cow’s milk cheese curd comes to Joe’s Dairy by way of Buffalo, New York. I am responsible for first grating the cheese curd in order to create more surface area so that once these tiny pieces of curd hit the hot water they will melt more speedily. Using a Guitara or Harp – otherwise know as a cheese grater – I push pounds of curd through the metal strings – careful not to cause any cuts on the few jagged edges.
Using a harp to grate the cheese curd - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
Like a school teacher (which he was) Vincent helps me polish and perfect my technique and advises me to keep the curd towards the center of the harp. He even holds a pen in his right hand – as if he is about to correct my first assignment. Vincent encourages me not to be afraid of the cheese – just dive in and get dirty is his best suggestion. I never thought of myself as fearful of cheese but after he mentions this I can sense my own apprehension. After a few minutes I relax my shoulders and I realize I quite like this ritual and pressing and pushing – especially to the tune of Vincent’s philosophies. “You gotta be insane,” he insists to be in this business – to put your hands into a nearly boiling pot of water and commit your life to making mozzarella for 19 hours a day. Brothers Vincent and Anthony recount stories of those early days when they would work around the clock – then take a break to run home and shower – only to repeat the cycle again the next day. While I am working out my biceps and triceps on the countless cups of cheese curd, I am enjoying the tales of mozzarella past. In this little kitchen there is a fierce competition. Between the cheesemaking and the storytelling – it’s a tie for first.
Brothers, Vincent & Anthony - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
Getting into the debate with Vincent and Luis - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
And sharing some more philosophies - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
I slide over to the hottest hub of the kitchen. I am nestled close to Luis and a pot of 185 degree water which sits atop a four-burner gas stove – just like the one I have at home. Next to that stove is large empty pot where we pour my freshly grated cheese curd and then bathe it gently with in hot water – one saucer at a time.
Luis being careful not to burn himself with the hot water - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
Luis guides my hand as I stir the cheese and watch it melt from hundreds of separated slices into a one 32 pound ball of mozzarella. Waves of water are swishing everywhere – on me – on Luis – and onto the floor. A big splash and then another – and I am soaked. Luis assures me I’m doing okay. Our hands are in hot water as we fish out the large mozzarella ball and begin to stretch it out like bread dough – ever so gently as to not lose the butterfat. And then the games begin.
Stirring the pot of mozzarella - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
It's harder than I thought - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
As if it is an olympic sport, Luis speedily tosses one pound balls of mozzarella to Anthony and me at a quickening pace – and they teach me how to roll them out into a ball, tucking the cheese into itself and then pinching off the neck to maintain the moisture. One after the other after the next, we toss the mozzarella balls in cool water and then into a wading pool of sea-salt – creating a polished and shiny surface. While we work, Anthony and I get to chatting about his business and his life.
Mozzarella rolling school with Anthony - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
Watching the master - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
Listening to the expert - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
Back to the drawing board - trying to understand the technique - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
Perfecting my technique - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
Anthony and Vincent were raised in apartment #3 – just upstairs from Joe’s Dairy. Although Vincent became a full-time NYC teacher (and part-time philosopher as well) Anthony decided that college was not in the cards. When when the owner of Joe’s Dairy, Joe Aiello, decided to go back home to Italy permanently, Anthony knew exactly what he needed to do. Just 3 weeks shy of his 18th birthday, Anthony put his key in the door of his very own mozzarella making shop. For the first few years he was only inches away from creditors. Then the customers came. At first they came out of professional curiosity – but they stayed for the cheese. And you will too. It is a story of a neighborhood boy done good. Anthony loves what he does. As he put it, “who wants stick your hands in hot water all day? I do. I do”
Fresh mozzarella - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
Getting a nod of approval from the boys - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
Anthony, Luis and I continue of shaping and molding one pound and half pound balls of mozzarella in the back, while upfront actor Willem Defoe is buying a large one pound ball of freshly smoked mozzarella from Ro. And I am fascinated, by both the chiseled features and high cheek bones of the Green Goblin as well as the process of smoking mozzarella – something I have yet to see. It is nearing 2PM and after an hour of my continual questions, Luis finally decides to give my curiosity a rest. The two of us retreat downstairs to make some smoke.
Luis and I crawl through the cellar doors and into the dark, deserted alleyway between the apartment buildings. It is here that we smoke our fresh mozzarella by hand – no machines, no chemicals involved. Luis climbs up the exterior stairway and Vincent passes the mozzarella balls out through the window. Back down the stairs Luis and I tie one ball of fresh mozzarella on either end of a short brown cord and hang the cords over a long stick. That stick then rests on the top of a large metal barrel. Luis lets me light the bottom of the barrel on fire and the flames fly free for about two to three minutes until the mozzarella is smoked to perfection. Together Luis an I untie the cord from each ball of mozzarella ball – It feels like christmas-time with a sea of just tied presents all waiting to be unwrapped. The newly smoked mozzarella balls are sent back upstairs, through the window to be washed and sold – all but one. Luis removes his gloves and with his bare hands he rips off a salty, smokey slice and it melts in my mouth. I am a ruined woman. I will never eat from a supermarket cheese section again.
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I grew up in a household where the only mozzarella I knew came from a plastic package, had a rectangular shape and was hard – inside and out. This mozzarella is a world away from my early cheese-eating years. After a morning of stretching, pulling, molding and reshaping the mozzarella I start to think about that cheese quiz I took earlier this morning. I think about those mozzarella characteristics – pliable, soft, flexible and changeable. And I am beginning to see some of those traits of mozzarella in me.
I, like most New Yorkers, am always moving from apartment to apartment, relationship to relationship and job to job. I sway with the wind and adapt to each new crisis – quickly and easily. When I crumble – just like those shreds of cheese curd – I swiftly swirl myself back together into a stable and solid object and continue to create the next chapter. But as I think about Luis – tailoring, tucking and tying off the ends of the mozzarella – and as I watched Anthony toss one pounders into the cool water – I start to think about that polished and shiny surface of the mozzarella. All that shaping, kneading and dipping yields a firm outer layer which protects the milky softness inside. This firmness is a quality I have come to appreciate.
In a changing world – it is quite nice to create a sense of stability, solidity and to feel firm in your footsteps. I am moving next week – to my very own studio apartment about a block away from where I am now living with a roommate. The place is small, with fickle heating and it is up 4 flights of stairs. But most importantly… it is mine. It is mine to make a mess – and mine to clean. It is mine to grow basil in the courtyard garden, mine to chop pesto in the kitchen and mine to wash the dishes when the meal is done. As I place my key in and unlock the door to my new empty apartment – and just like that mozzarella after is has had a swim in the salt – I create a firmness, an outer layer of strength and a stability to my surface.
So maybe I am not blue after all. Maybe I am indeed quite like the mozzarella that I spent my day alongside. Maybe I am soft and pliable and flexible on the inside – but firm and solid and strong as well. If you are wondering what kind of person you are – go ahead and take the cheese quiz. And if you’d like to be converted, like me, and come over to the supple side of the mozzarella – stop by Joe’s Dairy on Sullivan. One bite and you will never look back.
Happy days at Joe's Dairy - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
Frank, Anthony & Vincent's Father - keeping an eye on the shop
It is the eve before Thanksgiving. My bags are packed and placed at the front door and my heartbeat quickens with anticipation. I am going home. I couldn’t be more excited.
As I lean in to close and lock the drafty window above my bed I notice that familiar scent – of pies being baked – that floats up the interior courtyard of my apartment building. A bouquet of apple, pumpkin, sweet potato and pecan tease me as they gently crawl up the curtain of my bedroom window. The aroma is so alluring I am tempted to stay and beg the family in 5F for a dinner invitation. But I have a train to catch and I have somewhere to be.
I spent last Thursday in Hampton Bays in the home that I was born and raised with family, friends and food. I was also lucky enough to get a glimpse into another very special family – The Halsey Family – who have lived (and farmed) in these parts for over 350 years.
Halsey Family Apples - an antiqued photo
With my belly full from my large thanksgiving feast (two feasts actually – we ate twice!) I ventured East to the area known as Mecox, in the town of Water Mill, in the heart of the Hamptons. This is not the Hamptons of bikini bathing suits and summer houseshares. This is the Hamptons that I know. A Hamptons filled with fields of grapes and green pastures, of open skies and orange pumpkins, of farmers markets and fruit stands – and of backyards filled with apple orchards and peach trees.
I spent a few hours of my Thanksgiving weekend at The Milk Pail Family Farm & Orchard which has been under the watchful eye of the Halsey family for generations.
The Milk Pail Country Store in Amagansett, NY
Over 30 years ago, The Halsey's ran a Dairy & sold milk at their farm stand, hence the name, The Milk Pail
U-Pick pumpkins and apples in Fall
Driving down the long and windy Mecox Road – lined with farms and fields, and bordered by corn crops and pumpkin patches – I feel a sense of provincial peacefulness as I arrive at #723. The grit and stress of those NYC streets are both a distant memory now. As I walk up to the house, along the stone steps, I am greeted by the newest and youngest member of the Halsey family – a blond haired and blue eyed little guy named Will. Will is only 14 months old but – as the 13th generation in a family of farmers – he is already taking a liking to the outdoors, just like his mother, Jenn Halsey.
We wave goodbye to Will, and Jenn takes me on a gentle drive through her 20 acres of apple trees as we chat about apples and about family life on the farm. In the US there are over 100 varieties of apples that are commercially grown and New York State is the 2nd largest apple producer. The Halsey orchard is filled with a small but well chosen 26 varieties. All of the apple trees here are semi dwarf trees reaching only about eight feet in height – perfect for apple picking – no ladders are required! And at 5’7″ I could eat apples for days without ever going hungry.
It is a windy and rainy day and off in the distance the water level from the picturesque Mecox Bay is rising as we ride along. Jenn and I retreat inside the country store to warm up and to get a glimpse of the fruits born from these orchards. A sea of apples in every variety – sweet, crisp fujis and tart, juicy Jonagolds – are propped up and packaged in small white bags with a handle atop. Perfect little briefcases of Braeburns. Everywhere I look are apples in every form imaginable; homemade apple crumb pies, freshly dehydrated apple slices, jugs of apple cider by the gallon and apple cider donuts sizzling hot and fresh, just out of the fryer. Biblically speaking, apples are a symbol of temptation. They remind us of the innocence we once had. They are also that perfect present for your favorite teacher. They are wholesome, hearty and sweet – just like the Halsey’s.
Perfect little briefcases of Braeburns - and peaches too!
I am standing in the most coveted corner of the country store where I am put in charge of monitoring the apple cider donut making process – a fairly simple process where donut mix is blended with apple cider instead of water to give it that unique flavor. Simple or not, the moment that delicious dough hits the hot oil, the chimes on the front door of the shop begin a continual track of music as customers come running to my corner to collect their hot, fresh treats. I feel like the most popular kid in the class as the donut hungry shoppers glance through the glass window to get a glimpse of me and my donuts. Although I am sure that between the two of us – the donuts definitely win the prize.
Apple Cider Donuts
Time to eat!
In between the ringing chimes and the rush of customers – and off in the corner by the the Granny Smiths and the Golden Delicious – I can hear Jenn and her sister Amy discussing plans for Amy’s upcoming wedding. They’re so busy they didn’t even see me sneak a nibble of a donut – hot out of the fryer. This is half the fun of my job. The pace is steady but slow inside this little shop: the 40-year old donut machine continues to drop perfect rings of dough into the boiling hot vegetable oil and the girls continue to chatter about the upcoming nuptuals – both filling the shop with a sense of sweetness. And I realize… the lines between work and family are blurred here – and that’s the way the Halsey’s like it.
The Halsey’s have been farming for over 350 years on this land. Generations #11 and #12 – John & Evelyn Halsey and their two daughters – all live within 20 paces of one another on the orchard. It seems as if everything they need is only steps from their back door. It makes me think about my own far and wide search – when sometimes what I am looking was already within reach.
I have traveled the globe in search of new friendships, when my very own sister is a 50 minute train ride away. I have looked for wisdom from my neighbors who pontificate on the stoops below my building, when my own wise aunts and uncles are just over the Brooklyn Bridge. I have sought the solace of a father figure when my own father is only a phone call away. I even ask netflix for advice on which films might perfectly fit my personality, when my very own brother-in-law always seems to know better. This gets me thinking – about my efforts to Google every answer to every question when my own unlived life awaits. In fact, maybe everything I need is right in front of me – just waiting to be harvested.
Of all the things I experienced in my day on the farm, I am most awed by the process by which apples are transformed into apple cider. Red, ripe and perfectly round apples are hand-picked, washed and ground – seeds, core, stems and all – into a mash or pulp called pomace. Layers of apple pulp are wrapped up by hand like christmas presents, packaged in cloth and placed between metal racks – 13 layers in all. A hydraulic press squeezes down – 2,200 pounds of pressure per square inch – and the juice flows free. It takes alot of apples – about 36 – to create just one gallon of apple cider.
With my hands still scented with the sweetness of those cider donuts – and as we are layering and pressing the apple pulp – I learn that apple cider is essentially apple juice that is unfiltered so it retains all that apple-y goodness – course pulp and sediment included. Most juices also add additional water and other ingredients to maintain a lighter flavor and a clarity of color. Trust me, once you taste the rich and hearty taste of apple cider – watered down juice will simply not suffice.
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Pure, unadulturated, unsweetened, unfiltered, undeniably good apple cider is born. But 2,200 pounds of pressure is a significant amount of stress on those sweet shiny apples. Which gets me thinking about pressure and how much of it we place on ourselves and on our loved ones.
I sometimes seek a stress-free life. In the past, when my friends and family would place demands on me I felt weighed down by the pressure of those obligations and responsibilities. But as I watch those 2,200 pounds squeezing the life from those apples, and I taste the sweet apple cider that results – I am reminded that in order the get to the good stuff – those deep and meaningful relationships – sometimes we have to endure a little pressure.
In apple cider making – much like in family life – even though it might sometimes feel like you are being squeezed by a force of 2,200 pounds, you have to remember – that’s how you get to the juice. The Halsey Family knows this well.
My afternoon is winding down. I covered alot of acres and learned alot of apple lessons today. And although those apple cider donuts are calling my name, there are thanksgiving leftovers waiting for me from my own family. But the next time you find yourself way out east on the end of that very long island you must promise me you’ll swing by The Milk Pail, say hello to John, Evelyn, Jenn, Amy and little Will – and stay for a while. You will surely satisfy your craving for fresh squeezed apple cider, hot apple cider donuts and for family-time too.
A little Seinfeld apple/farm reference – watch the first 2.5 minutes!
The best single food item I ever ate was a knee-buckling, life-altering, chocolate crepe from a street vendor on the Boulevard du Montparnasse on the left bank of Paris.
Maybe it was so good because I was cold and it was warm. Or maybe it was because I was 25 and it was Paris. But maybe – just maybe – it was so downright delicious because it was so unexpected, something I just happened upon while wandering down the street on my very first night in the city of lights.
I never found that crepe stand again. And that too was part of the allure.
The search and the find – and sometimes even the loss – makes the treat that much more desired. Crepe stands are a dime a dozen on the boulevards of Paris. The Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream Truck is a touch harder to track down.
I spent my Thursday in confined quarters alongside gallons of all-natural artisan ice cream, meltingly delicious Michel Cluizel hot chocolate and perfectly brewed Intelligentsia coffee. I also got cozy with jumper cables and power cords – proving that the life of a Food Trucker is truly a challenging one.
I am up before the sun at 4:30 in the morning. I take a drowsy shower and pray that the scalding hot water snaps me out of my sleeping state. No such luck. I travel deep into an unknown, unexplored and undesirable part of Brooklyn. By 6AM it is still dark and I am still cold. I am standing on a street corner in an industrial section of Bushwick. I am alone, with the exception of a few hooded locals who brush me by. This is not the friendliest neighborhood. But granted – it’s early.
Finally, I set my eyes on two welcoming sites moving speedily in my direction. The first is Mandi, a 5 foot 9 inch, slender, graceful, willowy, blond-haired former model turned college student. She wears no makeup but is simply and naturally stunning. With peaches & cream skin and strawberry lips – she’s as delightful as the ice cream she will be serving later today. To call her beautiful is an understatement. I prefer the word angelic. Trust me – if you see Mandi in the window of the Van Leeuwen Ice Cream Truck, you would definitely want to buy a scoop from her. Maybe even two. Even in the cold.
The other site I see is equally as alluring: The Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream Truck. She is a former postal truck with a gorgeous makeover. Your typically ugly duckling turn swan story. Not only is her exterior striking – she’s got the goods inside as well.
The Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream Truck - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
Mandi and I unplug the truck from its power source and stock her full of treats. It’s going to be a rocky ride so we lock everything – from cups to cones – in place in an effort to avoid showering the streets of Brooklyn with ice cream and hot fudge. Although, I can think of worse things.
The garage door raises and the first streaks of sunlight begin to appear. We drive, Mandi at the wheel and me in the passenger seat, over the Williamsburg Bridge and up 1st Avenue. We steal a series of snapshots of the Manhattan skyline at sunrise, along the way. It’s a bumpy and loud ride with lots of rattling in the back but Mandi takes the corners quite smoothly. I’m just thankful I’m not driving.
(Great song. Not an accurate account of our car ride. Just a great song)
A shaky shot of Manhattan at sunrise with me at right - photo NOT by Sandy Hechtman
The last time I found myself behind the wheel of a truck was in 2004 when I drove a 16 foot Penske for 24 hours straight. I drove – 75 miles an hour and full speed ahead – desperate to arrive back home in New York after five years of South Florida living. I handled the road with much less grace than Mandi. I have a vague recollection of visiting a gas station in New Jersey and taking its roof with me when I left. I also got lost 10 minutes from my parent’s house in Hampton Bays – a town I had lived in for 25 years. Lets just say that if I was driving in place of Mandi, the world might not have gotten their ice cream.
We park on the corner of 19th Street and 6th Avenue and like any fancy lady standing on a street corner before 8am, the truck seems to attract alot of attention. She is dressed in a soft, pale, buttery yellow with delicate drawings of vanilla beans, ginger and mint leaves dotted throughout her exterior. Large open windows fill the truck with light and confirm that her ingredients have no secrets: Ice creams filled with Sicilian pistachios, pure organic peppermint, Hudson Valley red currants and fair trade coffee beans.
Open for business - Placing the sign on the sidewalk - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
Before we have even turned off the lights up front, we have a customer standing at the window in back. It is only 7AM and she has already begun to sing her siren song. As customers walk up to the truck I listen closely to their conversations. I notice bursts of excitement and shouts of glee as they round the corner and set their eyes upon this truck full of treats.”Oh there she is” and “cool, we found it” litter the pavement as they approach. Coffee-deprived customers come to the window and tell us how they have been searching for us all along the stretch of 23rd Street until they finally discovered us here. This is the nature of our business. The truck moves from block to block – never wearing out her welcome and never staying too long in one place – like a lover playing hard to get. Now that they’ve found her – I can see relief in their eyes.
The truck is like that partner in relationship that always keeps his distance and then decides to re-appear out of nowhere with a bright and smiling face. I lived in Florida for a few years – a brief blip – and I dated a computer science professor named Khaled – also a brief blip. We met in the cafeteria of the college campus where I worked as a counselor. At the time I had fantasies about becoming a ‘university couple’ and the charming half-French/half-Turkish Dr. Deeb fit the bill. Like the truck, Khaled was deeply attractive and darkly elusive – always one step away from my grasp. Khaled was the kind of guy that would call 3 times a day – and then not call for 3 days straight – and then he would repeat the cycle. At that time in my life, there was something exciting about the rush: glancing at my ringing phone, praying his name would pop up on my caller ID and being disappointed when it didn’t. I became like a detective trying to figure out his formula; What was he doing? When would he call next? And when would I not-so-accidentally bump into him in the college cafeteria? The wondering, the waiting, the searching and the finding all drew me into his spell. Later I found out he had several other girlfriends – all of them also eating in that college cafeteria. I can’t help you keep tabs on your man – but here’s how to track down your truck: http://twitter.com/VLAIC
The line forms - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
We are nestled close to the curb on 6th Avenue with a McDonald’s to our South and Cosi sandwich shop to the North. I can see Staples on my left and Burlington Coat Factory up ahead. In a sea of sameness and chain store monotony, this little truck stands out as different. And different we are. Our front door is a window. Our welcome mat is the curb. Our address is wherever we can find a spot. The weather is both friend and foe. We stand in danger of getting side swiped and losing a mirror and when the street sweeper rides by, he rattles our little shop of meals on wheels. Lots of things can happen that most store front shops never think about. We might even lose our generator power or leave the headlights on too long and burn out the battery – which, unfortunately, we did.
In an attempt to move the truck from 6th Avenue and head to 23rd Street we discover a dead battery. I think this is the truck’s attempt to show us who calls the shots in this relationship. She will not be taken for granted.
Surrendering to her power, Mandi and I hop out with jumper cables in hand and attempt to flag down anyone who might give us jump. We stand there, helpless, for about 10 minutes. We offer everything from ice cream to a steaming cup of hot chocolate. We get many rejections. Finally a NYC taxi pulls over with Sharif at the wheel. It takes quite a while to get enough juice to turn the engine over and Sharif patiently waits with us until we have success. In Arabic Sharif means honest and noble – and I think he was.
The truck, the taxi & Sharif - Photo by Amy Bandolik
The truck, the taxi & Sharif - Photo by Amy Bandolik
The truck, the taxi & Mandi - Photo by Amy Bandolik
Jump started and ready to roll, Mandi and I round the corner to 23rd Street near 5th Avenue. As soon as we park, and before we are even ready to serve, the line forms as if we are The Beatles and the fans have been chasing us from 4 blocks away for an autograph. Granted, Mandi is a former model, but this time it’s the ice cream they are after.
“You moved. Why did you move?” they ask, feeling deserted by their dessert. But just like Khaled, we make up for it by plying them with sweetness: pear ginger muffins with brown sugar on top, hazelnut brown butter cakes with mascarpone, and bowls of ice cream in ginger and giandujia (pronounced jahn-doo-yah) and my favorite – Affogato al Caffè – Vanilla ice cream drowned in espresso – perfect for a chilly day.
Working - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
Working - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
Serving it up - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
Working the ice cream truck is nothing new in my family. In the summer of 1960, at the age of 18, my father was employed as an ice cream man for the Freezer Fresh truck. He was stationed in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn and he was required to work every day as long as it wasn’t raining. Weather permitting, he would work from 10AM until midnight – quite a long shift. Unfortunately for him, he happened to start working during a particularly dry stretch of summer – not a cloud in the sky. He lasted only two weeks – considering himself more of a beach bum than an ice cream man. It all worked out quite nicely though. After only three weeks my father found himself hanging out on Manhattan Beach and sharing a beach blanket with a lovely girl named June. I guess she didn’t think he was such a beach bum. They have been married for 42 years.
It’s afternoon and Mandi and I are a little worn down from our battle with the battery. She’s off to study for an exam and I’m off to sleep. Working on a food truck is not simply about the food – it’s about the truck too. She needs to be tended to and taken care of. After all, she is a highly coveted sight on the streets of NYC. She is also an independent and mobile creature, who doesn’t wait around for someone else to come calling. She goes where she wants to go and does what she wants to do – and if you’re lucky enough to find her – you will indeed be rewarded. And if you happen to make your way to the streets of Paris and you find a fantastic chocolate crepe somewhere on the left bank – say hello for me.
A girl and her truck (for the day) - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
Enjoy a little Eddie Murphy – watch with caution – some cursing. 😉
It’s Thursday at 9PM and my day is just getting started.
In my apartment, I tie my hair back, put on my hat and wrap myself up in two sweatshirts, a coat, scarf and gloves. I am tired and all I really want to do is go to bed. Instead, I fumble clumsily with my keys, lock the door and head down six flights of stairs. I walk out, through the double doors, onto Morton Street and I am uncomfortably greeted by a burst of cold sweeping wind – the kind of wind that makes you want to crawl right back up those stairs, into bed and under the covers. Unfortunately, I cannot go home. I am off to work – this time, the night shift at Blue Ribbon Bakery.
I am not alone. There are over 2,000 bakers in NYC who, like me, are leaving the warmth of their homes – their families, their dogs, their cats, their cozy comforters – and heading out into the cold evening air to work through the night.
The corner of Bedford & Downing - Blue Ribbon Bakery - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
From across the street I recognize the red awning with the iconic Blue Ribbon logo. I open the door and peel back the red velvet curtain to a sea of candle-lit tables and waiters, bustling about, in their starched white button-down shirts. An eclectic array of forbidden flavors inhabit the corners of every tabletop. All around me are plates of pickled tongue with spicy mustard, foie gras, and whole roasted garlic that melts as it meets a slice of warm white bakery bread. The lights are dim and inviting – the kind that make you want to lean in just a little bit closer. It is, in a word, enchanting.
The drama unfolds: The entrance to Blue Ribbon Bakery - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
As I step deeper into the belly of the restaurant it becomes apparent – from the buzz of conversation, the clanking of glasses and the sighting of Will Farrell at the corner table – that this is indeed a big night. But don’t be mistaken – every night is a big night at Blue Ribbon Bakery.
There is a feeling of grandeur and indulgence inside these walls. Don’t get me wrong… This is not an exclusive club with member’s only privileges. And you will not be intimidated by its extravagance. I grew up on Wonder Bread and canned Bumble Bee tuna – and I fit right in. And, trust me, you will too. Blue Ribbon Bakery is a well blended cocktail of high class mixed with cozy comfort. One bite of the Chocolate Chip Bread Pudding with Hot Fudge and you will agree – elegance and informality sit side by side.
As our diner’s dinners are winding down, my night is just beginning. I descend the rustic wooden staircase deep below street level and enter the cavernous basement with exposed stone and brick walls. How fitting to be working in these dark and moody chambers for my graveyard shift.
Everything is rich. The textures, the deep colors, the vision of the beef marrow & red wine sauce, the aroma of freshly baked bread that funnels from the open bakery and into the upstairs dining room. Blue Ribbon Bakery is alive and I am awoken from my walking slumber with its sights, sounds and scents.
You can almost smell the freshly baked aroma - Blue Ribbon Bread - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
I round the brick wall and enter our bread-baking lair. I am greeted – by Marco, Raul and Caesar – as well as hundreds of loaves of bread piled high to the ceiling. Everywhere I look are wooden shelves and metal bakery racks lined with pullmans, house breads, ciabattas, challahs, pitas, pizzas and baguettes.We have breads with rosemary and olives and honey and oats. We have flax seed and 9-grain and wheat and white. And covering every crease and countertop, and blanketing every brick and stone is one essential ingredient: King Arthur Special Flour, sprinkled over everything like a dusting of new fallen snow.
Blue Ribbon Bread on a metal bakers rack - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
The chill I feel from the wintery air quickly melts as I gaze upon the heart-throb at the center of the bakery. Along the stone wall on the west side of the bakery is the fiery mouth of the largest wood-burning oven in New York City. She stretches 16 feet in depth and 11 feet in width. This is no ordinary oven. She is a beast. In size, she’s just a few feet shy of my last studio apartment.
The oven at Blue Ribbon - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
Not only am I no longer cold – I am in a deep sweat. The stone and brick oven rises to 600 degrees and I can feel the heat. My clothes are sticking to me and my curly hair has started to frizz. My muscles get a workout as I assist Raul in moving house breads in – and around – and out of the hot center of the oven with a large wooden paddle, or bakers peel. Raul is a master at the sport of swiftly jostling the peel just right so the bread slides off easily and quickly. As Raul and I quickly learned – I am notably less adept at this task. Like a child trying to grasp a pencil and write for the first time – I am clumsy and awkward.
A peek into the mouth of the oven - quickly moving the bread in and out.
Here in our bakers den there is a steady stream of movement – of constant and fluid labor – of arms and fingers performing a habitual dance in the dough. There is no rushing and no emergency – just work. But nearer to the mouth of the oven, the pace quickens. Breads that are too crisp are tossed aside, breads that are undercooked are sent back in – and I feel like I am watching a speedy game of tetris as Raul makes split second decisions and maneuvers bread in and around the expanse of the oven like a giant puzzle that only a mathematician could solve.
A pita bread (that I rolled and baked) and the long wooden bakers peel in front of me - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
Checking my bread with Raul - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
Raul gives my bread the OK - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
As with most great things in life, the oven was an accident. While looking for a site for their next restaurant, the owners unearthed a lucky treasure.
Discovered in the basement of a boarded up Bodega on Downing Street was a 135 year old beat-up brick oven. Abandoned for many years and worn down from neglect, she needed work. Inspired by the newly found oven, the idea for a restaurant – with a bakery at its center – was launched. With the help of Italian hardware, a Neapolitan master oven builder named Alfredo Agozzino and 21 months of hard labor she was reborn. Now, years later, she stands as the proud matriarch, the lifeblood and the epicenter of Blue Ribbon Bakery. An accidental discovery with profound results.
I love accidents. Mistakes and missteps are my friend. Missed appointments, lost keys and closing subway doors do me right. In a world of plans and purposefulness, with goals and hopes – sometimes life’s unexpected interruption is your best bet. My life is filled with great jobs I didn’t plan for and wonderful people I didn’t expect to meet. And I like it that way. When one subway door closes – I figure the next train is meant to be.
The oven at Blue Ribbon Bakery was originally used, in the late 1800’s, as a communal oven for the neighborhood. Villagers would bring their weekly supply of foodstuffs – and soon strangers and acquaintances became friends and family as they shared ingredients, shared recipes and shared their day. The oven was the focal point of the neighborhood, as Blue Ribbon Bakery is today.
As I am rolling out a series of baguettes, I think about the idea of finding something so special – that we decide to build our lives around it – a career, a child, a city, an oven. And whatever it may be that you decide to center your life around – whatever your focal point is – the important questions are these: Does it give you heat, does it warm you and does it get you hot?
I live in Greenwich Village. I work in Greenwich Village. And I play in Greenwich Village. There is nowhere else I would rather be. Over 35 years ago, my father had a mail delivery route at the Sheridan Square Post Office and he would deliver parcel post packages to apartments and businesses in this part of town. My grandfather spent his days and nights in a small but well stocked Army Navy store in Chelsea – only 10 blocks northwest of here. I have built my life, as my family has for generations, around a series of shops and restaurants and people within a 4 block radius of my front door. That thought warms me – almost as much as the oven does.
In the corner of the bakery I help Marco and Caesar mix the ingredients in a very large and very powerful mechanized mixer. Marco is the leader here and Caesar, the quiet one. Together they are a nice balance. About 200 pounds of dough is mixed and Caesar begins section off the dough with a bench scraper. Each dough section is tossed on the wooden table for Marco and I to roll out – round pitas and pizza crusts, rectangle pullmans with oats on top, mini banana breads and a beautifully braided challah. A pinch at the end – a braid through the middle – a pinch again – and a challah is born. But the more pitas we roll and the more challah we braid, – the more dough comes our way. We chat to keep awake and, in broken English, Marco tells me stories of his life here in America. He asks if I am married and he wonders what I am doing out – making bread – so late at night. Sometimes I wonder too.
Marco sectioning off the bread dough - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
A light layer of flour prevents the dough from sticking to the counter - Marco & Caesar - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
Making Ciabatta - Meaning Slipper in Italian - The loaf is elongated, broad, flat and should be collapsed in the middle - like a slipper - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
Watching and learning from Marco - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
Happily making bread - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
More bread - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
A very tired baker - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
As the clock strikes twelve the house lights pop up, the diners go home and the real party begins. The buzz of the restaurant simmers to a low boil as waiters and busboys begin cleaning and closing up shop . But our night is just beginning. The bakery is alive with activity. It almost feels like a disco or night club. In every corner there is movement: Bread being mixed, cut, rolled, and moving quickly, in and out of the oven – each loaf conveniently placed and perfectly timed. It’s like a night club in here – and therefore, in that spirit, we must we dance.
Raul raises the music. The song on the radio is “I know you want me” by Pitbull. And among the ciabattas and the baguettes and the flour, water, salt and yeast – Raul spins me – and we dance a quick dance to liven the mood and perk up our tired eyes. It’s late at night and I am exhausted – but these guys still have smiles on their faces and a dance in their step – as they work. Listen for yourself.
For so many of us, work is a mundane and monotonous task that we do unwillingly and unhappily. For my bread baking buddies who all hail from Ecuador, work is about willingness and desire. It is – as Marco tells me – about the American Dream. It is about joy and enthusiasm. And it is about the dance.
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After a heathy dose of dancing and dough, I crawl upstairs and out of our bread baking den – aching feet, aching back, aching wrists from hours of standing, leaning and rolling. It is 3:30AM and the diners have all gone home to slumber. The waiters, bartenders and busboys have too. Out the window I see one lone taxicab racing down an otherwise empty street. Inside the chairs are artfully stacked in a criss-cross pattern and our just-baked breads are packaged and ready for their morning deliveries. The air is much cooler up here and I sit and quietly contemplate.
An empty restaurant at the end of the night - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
While the rest of New York slept – I baked. I am covered – from head to toe – in sweat, sore muscles and a little bit of King Arthur Special Flour. I am also filled with a certain pride and pleasure. I worked hard. Physically hard – possibly harder than I have ever in the past. Bread baking is back-breaking work. And I feel as if something very special has taken place deep in the dark of the night underneath this fair city. We danced and we laughed – and we made bread. Simple things, really.
Until tonight I had not given a care or a thought to the bread that sits on top and bottom of my italian sandwich or the ciabatta that is layered above and below my fresh mozzarella, tomato and basil. It hadn’t crossed my mind that someone else had to labor deep into the night – just so my morning bagel would be fresh.
(Another 30 Rock tribute to food. After you’ve watched it: click “Continue” and then “Pause” – these clips tend to run on for some reason.)
It is 4AM and my day is nearly done. I walk home on a deserted street and enjoy the cool refreshing air. A deep and well deserved sleep awaits. As I round my corner I can smell that familiar yeasty smell in the air and I know – someone else is hard at work baking in the night. And tomorrow, when I finally roll out of bed and order my morning croissant, or my afternoon sandwich or my evening baguette – I will give a little thought to my friends Raul, Marco & Caesar. And for you, I hope you drop by Blue Ribbon Bakery on the corner of Bedford & Downing – head downstairs, say hello, watch them craft your bread – and stay for a dance.
Grand Finale - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
Milk and Cookies. It is a beautiful marriage. A perfect pairing. A flawless union. And there’s a tiny shop, on a windy street in the heart of the west village, that pays homage to this fine couple. Filled with romance, intrigue and seduction, Milk & Cookies Bakery is a lesson in love.
Even the bench is inviting - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
The romance begins even before your first nibble. The shop, which sits at 19 Commerce, practically whispers to its passerby – Come in, Come in. Tucked away from the main drag, the shop has eluded even local village residents. And that is certainly part of the allure. Once you stumble upon this great cookie sanctuary – you feel as if you have just discovered a speakeasy during the prohibition era. You want to keep the secret for yourself and shout it from the rooftops – all at the same time. NYers love to stumbled upon a secret saloon or discover a chef who experiments with a yet to be explored food group. The search is half the fun. Luckily for us, the capture at Milk & Cookies is just as rewarding.
When I first found myself winding my way down the curve of Commerce Street and I peered into this little nook – I knew I had to know more. I spent last Thursday falling in love with these two classic American treats…
Like any good date, my day at Milk & Cookies Bakery starts with a little mood-setting. Damien DePaolis is the store manager here and he is a man in charge of his cookies. The first order of business upon entering the shop is to dim the lights and raise the music to create the right cookie-indulging-atmosphere. You can almost hear the echo of Barry White playing in the distance.
I walk into the shop and I am kissed by the sweet smell of Pure Premium Madagascar Vanilla, Guittard Chocolate and Valrhona Cocoa. We haven’t even begun to bake yet but the walls, which are painted a Robins egg blue, and the hardwood floorboards are soaked in the sweet scent of freshly baked cookies from days gone by. All of my senses are standing at attention now.
Damien has a newsboy cap on his head, fire in his eyes and drama in his voice. He speaks slowly and smoothly – like he’s got a secret to tell. He dances, in one poetic movement, across the floor of our little shop: lights… camera… action… cookies! Damien is an actor and he knows just how to create the right ambiance for the cookie encounters our customers are about to experience.
We begin our work by displaying all of our sweet treats on the large marble counter-top. I am given the task of placing and piling the chocolate covered macaroons in a perfect pyramid ever so delicately on a paper doily which sits atop a white ceramic cake plate with laced edges. Each Macaroon is dipped, halfway, in chocolate and Damien instructs me to arrange the plate so that the chocolate sides all face the same direction. There is a method to Damien’s madness…
Our cookies and our other treats [macaroons, magic bars, lindsor tarts, blondies] are meant to be admired and adored and eaten – in that order. Everything here, at Milk & Cookies, is pretty. From the chalkboard colors used to highlight the ice cream sandwiches, to the counter display, to the precious little smart car that is used for emergency cookie deliveries – the beauty is apparent in every corner. Even Damien is pretty.
Ice cream sandwiches - Delicious, even in winter. Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
Smart Car for emergency cookie deliveries. Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
I am reminded of those early stages of love. In the beginning, before we touch – we look. We admire. We breath in the fragrance of our object of affection. We exalt in the symmetry of the face. We contemplate the curve of the hip. We are captivated by that cascade of hair that falls gently across the eyes. Buying a cookie is much like this romantic dance.
Baking cookies - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
As our customers approach the counter, they are timid, shy and quiet. I ask my first customer what she would like and I can sense her apprehension. Buying a cookie, I discover, is about alot more than a purchase of sugar, butter and gourmet chocolate chips. Buying a cookie is an indulgence. It feels as if they are taking a bite of the forbidden fruit.
I step back – away from the counter – and to occupy myself with some other task. I realize I have just entered a private space between a lover and the object of her affection and I become fully aware that there is no place for me here. This cookie is not a gift for a friend or family member. It is not a token of appreciation for a co-worker. This is a very personal and private cookie encounter. If you watch closely in your local bake shop – you just might notice this same dance.
Finally, my first customer orders – and she does so apologetically. A cookie, especially one that looks so pretty and tastes so perfect, feels like an indulgence – especially when you pair it, like she does, with a small glass of Ronnybrook Farms milk. And Damien and I step back again so our customer can enjoy this moment at a quiet table in a cozy corner of the shop.
Damien knows what he is doing. And he knows food. As a child, his only notion of breakfast was meatballs and a loaf of italian bread. And Sunday dinner just had to be a stuffed chicken in Sicilian sauce. On Saturdays he was treated to Pizza Fritte. Damien’s Saturday date with fried dough, butter and sugar – was only foreplay for a career in cookies.
A Traditional family recipe for Pizza Fritte:About 1 LB Prepared Pizza Dough3 cups oilPowdered Sugar, Butter or Cinnamon Sugar
Heat Oil in skillet to about 325f to 350f Break off pieces of dough about the size of the palm of your hand and flatten with your hands till about 3/4 an inch thick Fry dough in oil till light brown one side, turn over and brown other side Drain on paper towel or brown paper bagSprinkle on cinnamon sugar or powdered sugar or spread on some butterServe Warm
“I am food obsessed,” Damien tells me, “have been since I was a kid.” And here, at Milk & Cookies, Damien combines his two passions. In addition to his food obsession, Damien is an actor and an artist and a showman. He knows just how to dim to lights and raise the curtain on our leading couple: Milk and Cookie.
Cookie of the Day - The Java Chocomel: A vanilla based cookie with espresso, dark chocolate chunks & caramel
At Milk & Cookies, we have 14 different types of cookies to choose from – 15 with our cookie of the day. No wonder it is so hard to decide. It is just about as overwhelming as logging on to jdate to glance at the available bachelors. So many options – but only one cookie is just right for you. And the funny thing is – with all those choices – only one cookie seems to stand the test of time – The Chocolate Chip!
The Chocolate Chip! - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
Milk & Cookies Bakery adds rolled oats to their chocolate chip cookie – making it a more complex cookie with a depth of flavor that is absent in most store-bought versions. And the use of E.Guittard chocolate doesn’t hurt either. With so many cookie choices: Dark Chocolate Toffee, White Chocolate Macadamia, Milk Chocolate Caramel, M&M, Peanut Butter and on and on – sometimes simpler is better. The simple chocolate chip is the house favorite here.
I like to keep things pretty simple too. I live in a 6th floor walk-up building in Greenwich Village. I have no use for fancy things like elevators and doormen – or even cars or TVs for that matter. I don’t wander much above 14th street or much below Houston and I stick mostly to the west side of 5th Ave – NYC’s dividing line. SImple is good. And sometimes a cookie is indeed the simple answer to all life’s problems…
It’s about noontime and I’ve been so curious about the cookie buying habits of human beings (it is almost like watching a documentary about the courting rituals of peacocks on the National Geographic channel) that I have forgotten to eat. While no one is looking, I grab a quick cup of the full-fat Ronnybrook milk and drink it down. I don’t think Damien noticed. And that should just about hold me over.
I slowly and carefully descend the spiral staircase to the heart of the bakery. I swipe a fork-full of raw dough (since I can’t have my milk without my cookie, albeit a raw cookie) and I continue my work – this time mixing 72% dark chocolate, butter and corn syrup, which we will use to glaze a large chocolate chip cookie birthday cake. While stirring the chocolate over low heat, I have a chat with the former Banker turned Baker, Teresa Coles.
Teresa is sweet and pretty – much like the cookies she is decorating. She stands among a sea of butterflies and daisies as she hand decorates each one with pink fondant and yellow and purple piping. I love watching the transformation – as butter, flour, sugar and eggs become butterflies and daisies. And butterflies and daisies become smiles and laughter on the faces of happy children.
Butterflies - almost ready to fly
Butterflies - fly away!
Back up stairs, I am needed to help bake more cookies. We’re low on M&M Sugar, Double Chocolate and, of course, Chocolate Chip.
Stevie Wilson teaches me how to roll the cookie dough just right. Each of our 14 different cookies are rolled differently – some more square, some round, some flat. Some get squashed with the palm of my hand and some are left plump. Stevie teaches me that each cookie really has a unique personality and that each ball of dough has a life of its own. Some cookies (the dark chocolate toffee, smores, milk chocolate caramel and white chocolate macadamia nut) need to be baked on the top shelf with higher heat because they tend to be “spreaders” and they will end up flattening out and becoming thin and puddle-like. The high heat source insures a nicer cookie shape. Stevie also tells me that if we roll them too tight or bake them on the wrong rack, they come out ugly, misshapen, fat and lumpy – and then we have to throw them out – or chop them up and give them away as samples. The uglies and the misshapens don’t even make the cut for selling.
Baking is serious business - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
Rolling the cookie dough - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
So many cookies - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
The uglies. The misshapens. The fat. This reminds me of a few blind dates a recently went on. But can we really size up a cookie, or a potential mate, by its outward appearance? When it really comes down to it, doesn’t it taste the same? Maybe we have all been too picky about what is on the outside and we have been forgetting what is at the core. I’m not sure. But what I am sure about it that they do indeed taste the same. I know because I ate them – all of them – even the lumpies, the misshapen, the uglies and the fat.
When I was in high school I remember that all of the girls were thin and pretty and blond. And there I was, with brown curly hair feeling like I just didn’t quite fit. I also remember that appearances were important. And I recall that all the popular girls had the coolest clothing and the funkiest accessories and the hippest hair styles. I think I was still wearing OshKosh B’Gosh until 6th grade! Not only did appearance matter, but it was everything. The cuter the girl, the blonder the hair, the more ski-sloped the nose – the more popular she was. Oh how I would desperately try to become one of them – putting sun-in highlights in my hair and going on those silly diets (Richard Simmons dancin to the oldies, anyone?) and denouncing or denying my Jewish heritage. I even found myself hanging out at St. Mary’s Church on Ponquogue Avenue with my Christian friends – all for the sake of fitting in, looking the same and trying my hardest to not appear just like those cookies we were throwing to the curb earlier today.
Times change. And while appearance and how we present ourselves to the world still matters, it does not matter more than what is on the inside. I’ve always gotten along better with people who don’t quite fit the mold and who are a bit misshapen. I find those little cracks, crevices and imperfections to be the thing that makes people most attractive, not less. A slight stutter or a scar just above the eyebrow – this is the stuff of real people and real beauty.
At Milk & Cookies Bakery, we want our cookies to look beautiful and to be perfectly shaped. In real life, there’s a little more leeway. And even though some of our batches (especially mine) may not always look perfect – they sure do taste good.
Stevie and I continue to work the cookie dough into their proper shapes and sizes. Stevie is pretty cool girl. She’s a geek – but she’s the cool kind of geek that you might find living in one of those hip neighborhoods in Brooklyn. She has fair skin and dark hair – well except for the hot pink streaks!
Stevie and I chat like two grandmothers who have been making cookies for generations. Stevie is not more than 30 years old but she has a wisdom and a sense of authority about her. She teaches me how to roll the cookie dough, properly and pop it in the oven, properly.
Stevie is also an artist. Specifically, she’s a comic book artist. She writes love stories, but not the kind of love stories that are familiar to you and me and not the kind about married couples like Milk & Cookie. Her stories are no fairy tale. They are urban fables filled with cursing, drinking and, as she puts it, gay-themed-romance.
By day Stevie sells the sweetness of milk and cookies but by nightfall, she writes and draws the darker side of love. Whichever your preference – Stevie’s talent is undeniable. See for yourself – and come by Milk & Cookies to say hello to Stevie – she might even draw you into one of her comics!
My day is almost done. Stevie and I have few more trays of cookies to bake before the late shift arrives. I sneak a little bite of a cookie from the tray of misshapen, lumpy and fats. Ah the sweet taste of imperfection!
The late shift is ushered in by the owner of Milk & Cookies herself, Tina Casaceli. By day, Tina is the Director of Pastry and Baking Arts at the French Culinary Institute. Her nights are spent here.
Fittingly, Tina’s last name loosely translates into House of the Sky or House of the Heavens – and I think that explains where her cookies come from.
Tina’s earliest memory is of being a little girl only as tall as the kitchen table and watching her grandmothers and aunts make cookies. Back then, the women of the house never went to the store to buy cookies for a special occasion – they made them. Tina remembers how all the ladies of the house would sit around and chitter chatter and make cookies. The only problem was that their fingers were too large to tie the tiny little bow on the top of those cookies – and that is where Tina enters stage right and begins her career in pastry.
Young Tina’s little hands were the perfect bow-tieing size and, when needed, she would step up to the plate and lend a hand to the women of the house. Cookie-making, for weddings and christenings and holidays, was a 2-3 day family event – and Tina loved being a part of it. As the ladies would gab on and the elaborate and intricate cookies were designed – Tina would dream about the day when she would be old enough to get her hands in the dough. That day finally came. And we are all thankful it did!
Milk & Cookies. It is a perfect match, isn’t it?
Marriage is a tough business. We have all watched, with hope and expectation, the rise and fall of so many. There was Princess Diana and Charles. There was Fergie and Andrew. And then there was Brad and Jen. Not all marriages are made to last. But thankfully, some do.
There is an almost indefinable quality to this one-man-show of a foodgroup.
A slice of pizza conjures up playful images from our youth. Eating it make us feel devilish, childlike and almost naughty. It evokes memories of birthday parties and grammar school classroom celebrations. And there is, certainly, no replacement for that quick and easy phone call to our favorite local pizza joint for a speedy delivery of both pizza and good time – especially during game night – especially during the World Series!
But, in actual fact, there is nothing naughty or devilish about pizza. On the contrary, it is quite good – and good for you – if you use the right ingredients.
I know this because I spent 13 hours with my hands in dough—as well as chopping and browning the onions, stirring the sauce, finishing it with olive oil, basil, oregano and Parmigiano cheese and even delivering it to your doorstep. Let me tell you about my day…
By days end I was making Pizza- Placing mozzarella on a Bleecker Street favorite: the Nonna Maria. Photo by Sandy Hechtman
I arrive at 10am and I am immediately put to work. Very quickly I learn that before one can cook, one must clean. See, I always thought it was the other way around – I always thought we needed to clean up our messes after we made them. But this is not the case today.
I am handed a roll of paper towels and some windex – and I proceed to wipe down everything I see – the tables and chairs which will be filled with hungry eaters by noontime, the counters where our customers will eventually lean their elbows and press their noses in search and in study of the perfect slice, the windows, the glass soda cases and lastly, the plastic sign out front which boasts, “Best pizza in NY – 3 years running!”
Greg Greenwood and I are a tag-team operation. He brings out the chairs for our sidewalk cafe, I wipe them down. Greg is the brother of the owner of Bleecker Street Pizza, Doug Greenwood, so this is a family operation. It is a nice and sunny day and Greg happily does his work. He is not quite whistling a tune, but he certainly seems like the type of guy who might do just that.
Greg came out of retirement to work here and keep an eye on things for his brother. He worked, for over 30 years, at a desk job for NY State Tax. He’s not quite sure which is harder: pizza or taxes, but he remembers fondly that he had an easier time finding a lunch hour in his old gig. Here at Bleecker Street – it’s always lunch! He is very funny and very sweet. Throughout the day you can hear Greg instruct customer after customer to, “watch your step” so they don’t trip on the stairs as they leave. It doesn’t matter if you are a first-timer or if you are a regular here. No matter how many times you have walked up the steps to Bleecker Street Pizza, Greg will kindly part ways with you with a simple, “watch your step.” It’s just his thing. What you don’t know about Greg is that he knows you are a regular – and he wants you to watch your step anyway. That’s just the kind of guy he is. And Bleecker Street is better for it.
Watch your step!
I keep my eyes on Greg for most of the morning. Even when I am off doing other work, I feel the need to know where Greg is at all times, just in case I need to watch my step.
Greg tells me that he chose to come out of retirement because he gets bored after a few days at home with his two friends: Oprah Winfrey and Jerry Springer. That being said, after a few days of Pizza and Pizza-hungry customers, Oprah’s not looking so bad to him. So Greg and I give everything a once over and I am eager and anxious to get started with the real work. I know I can always run back to Greg if I need a break or if the heat of the kitchen gets to me.
Greg has a warmth about him and his work means something to him. Greg is the kind of guy that gets to work at 9:30, when he doesn’t really have to be in until 10. And he teaches me a valuable lesson: He shows me that before I can make a mess out of something (pizza, for example), I need to clean up from the night before and start with a fresh slate.
While windexing the last of our 4 outdoor tables I realize: Greg’s lesson about cleaning before cooking can be applied more broadly.
I think about past and present relationships. I think about how I sometimes come to new relationships without having cleaned myself up and wiped myself off from those that came before. I remember a date I went on – only 3 weeks after a recent breakup – and I later realized that everything I was saying to him (the new guy) was really meant to be said to him (the old guy). You’ve got to wipe the counters down before you get yourself cooking – in life and in love – and in pizza.
After cleaning I spend about two hours doing nothing. Well, seeminglynothing. Nothing only to the untrained eye. For two hours I watch… and I watch… and watch. I only later discovered that all that nothing was indeed – turning into a something.
I find myself a little perch in the corner of the pizza place. I am nestled in between a burning hot oven (I know this because my wrist accidentally grazed it a few times) and an even hotter pizza-maker. I watch Tony ever so gently and delicately make pizza. Dough, sauce, cheese, repeat. Dough, sauce, cheese, repeat.
Tony works for 10 hours a day and he makes pizza the entire time – one after the other after the other. While he is doing this, he has his ears tuned in the every aspect of the operation at Bleecker Street. He hears and he knows everything that is going on behind him – but his focus remains on the pie.
Tony has quite a gentle and artistic way with his work. And as the pressure from the kitchen heats up and the lunch crowds pour in – Tony is anything but tense. He is calm and cool – a man in control of his pizza.
While Tony technically resides in the fast-paced city of Manhattan, his heart and his rhythmic and calm pace are an echo of his former existence in a place that is far away from here. While he makes pizza (Dough, sauce, cheese, repeat. Dough, sauce, cheese, repeat.) he paints me a picture of a land where people don’t run from one appointment to another and where food choices are much more limited. He reminisces about a simpler life. Tony speaks of a place where just one meal a day is enough to pleasure and satisfy a person, all the while he is serving up pizza to the masses – for their lunch, and their dinner and their late night snack.
So, after I wait and watch – and watch and wait – Tony finally turns to me with those dangerous steel-blue eyes and says one simple yet powerful word, “ready?”
Tony finally decides that I am ready to go to the kitchen after watching him make pizza for 2 hours. Photo by Sandy Hechtman
All that waiting and watching and finally, my time has come. I later learn that Tony was teaching me my second lesson for the day. Sometimes we do have to watch and wait and take it all in… and learn.
Sometimes we can’t win the jackpot on our first pull of the lever. Sometimes we can’t score a home run with our very first swing of the bat. Sometimes we can’t even make a lasting marriage with our first walk down the aisle. Life is funny that way. Sometimes we have to watch and wait.
I have a habit of always wanting to jump right in to everything I do. I want to make things happen and make them happen quickly. I want to fall in love, and find the perfect career and make fast friends instantly upon first encounter. I want to get to the end, before I even try my hand at the beginning. I want to move in and marry you, before I even know your name – or at least before I even know who you really are and who I really am as well.
Tony’s slow and patient pizza making lesson is a lesson for life. And when I think about my life, with Tony’s simple lesson in mind, I realize that some of the best things in my life are those that took a bit of time. I have three best friends – we are a foursome all together. There is no one I trust more deeply and can lean on more closely than these girls, who I have known since 3rd grade. And while I have met some fabulous people in this great city, Tony reminds me of the lesson that good things take time and patience – with friendships as well as with pizza.
So now, it is time.
“We go to the back” Tony says with a smile and a nod. We walk, like a death march almost, to the kitchen in the far back of the restaurant. Tony opens one-half of the swinging kitchen door and says to Miguel, “This is Amy. Show her what to do.”
Now I am officially nervous. I look for Greg one last time but he is now far away from me, up front by the register making sure people are getting in and out of the door without tripping all over themselves. So it is just me – cooking in the kitchen with Miguel – tripping all over myself.
Miguel speaks little English but he has kind eyes and a tender way about him. He apologizes for his lack of language skills – and that is the last time for the entire day that it feels like there is any language barrier between us. I am in a tiny kitchen with tight quarters, with Miguel and we are joined by 6 other young guys. They bump into each other, get in each others way, borrow each others knives and drop packages on the floor. But not once do they fight. Not once do they seem to get frustrated with each other. Not once do they stand angrily on top of one another. They all seem to get along. And they all seem to know their first and only priority – to get the job done.
The very first thing we do has nothing to do with pizza. I also thought it had nothing to do with ANYTHING of any importance – but I would later find out that I was wrong.
We begin assembling the salads. Most pizza places have a salad on the menu as an option – so this is where we start for the day. We fill our clear plastic containers to the top with mesclun greens, 4 tomato slices, 5 cucumber slices, a handful of sliced black olives and cubed red peppers. We add a slice of purple onion for flair.
Then something happened to me in that moment when that very first salad came together. Mind my raced – from thinking that this task was meaningless and hoping to move on to more important matters like dough, sauce and cheese – to all of the sudden realizing the importance of what I was doing – however large or small.
The idea that someone – some random person – was going to eat the salad I had prepared for them kept me going. Don’t get me wrong, I have made salad before – all types of salads with goat cheese and toasted pine nuts and all sorts of fun treats on top. But the realization that I was making this salad for someone to enjoy – for someone to find pleasure in – that alone made it worth it.
We all do our jobs for different reasons. In that moment, as a salad maker, I found pleasure and satisfaction in the idea of feeding people. To help someone’s day go more smoothly, to give them a bit of pleasure, to allow a busy mother to enjoy a quick and heathy meal – that made it all worth it. When you begin to make food for others, especially if you (like me) have never really done so, it takes on a meaning and a life of its own. It becomes quite maternal. I don’t cook much, just like many single NYers. But the chance to make a simple salad as my first task in the tiny kitchen in the back of Bleecker Street Pizza helped me to understand the true value of feeding another human being. I realized the purity of real people (not real machines) making real food – even something as simple as a house salad.
After salad prep, we chop onions and garlic for the marinara sauce. We let this brown for a very long time in a pot that is larger than any I have ever seen with a wooden spoon that is, quite possibly, larger than any you have ever seen. Every time one of us passes by the big pot with the big spoon on our way in and out of the kitchen or in and out of the refrigerator in the back of the kitchen, we give it a good stir. A few hours later – with the addition of tomatoes, sugar, salt, pepper, oil and few other secret ingredients – WE HAVE SAUCE!
So after several hours of salad and sauce and a little bit of a roll in the dough, I have indeed graduated. I only know this because when I looked up from that steaming pot of thick and hearty red sauce, I see those steel-blue eyes checking on me to gauge my progress. Miguel and I peacefully part ways. I tell him he is a great teacher. I’m not sure he understands me – but he smiles just the same.
With Tony by my side, I return to the front of the house – to the stage where Tony makes his pizza. And it is indeed a stage – elevated just enough from the common pizza eaters. Tony’s perch sits on a pretty nice piece of real estate – complete with a large window view. He often gazes out the window – and if you’re lucky, you get to gaze back in at him. I say this because I can see how very valuable Tony is to the neighborhood people. As the workers of Greenwich Village are going about their day – they never neglect Tony as they shower him with warm waves and winks. Tony never neglects them either and no matter how busy things are inside our little pizzeria, Tony appears, to the outside world, to be connected and in tune with the beat of the neighborhood streets. Greenwich Village practically has a mayor on every corner – an old timer who has survived the decades or a young shop owner who is treated by all like royalty – waving hello as he goes. That is the way Greenwich Village is – and that’s the way we like it. Tony is like a king – of the corner of Bleecker & 7th at least. But he’s a good king and a benevolent dictator – I think this is one of Tony’s favorite things to do – to watch out the window and be one with the people.
Tony’s other favorite thing to do – make pizza. And he’s good at it. Tony gives me a look and I know my time has come.
We start, of course, with the dough. We slowly work and stretch the dough – by rotating it and pressing it on the marble slab countertop. Tony slides his gently against gravity and into the air – and i try to do the same. We stretch and manipulate the dough until it grows into a full size pizza crust. My dough comes out a little thinner than it is supposed to be. Tony tosses it, without malice, into the garbage.
Out of kindness, and a bit of sympathy, he hands me his dough and I continue my work with that. I sprinkle some cheese – maybe a little too much – on the pie. Tony takes off the extra cheese and puts it back in the cheese bin. Time for sauce. Tony hands me the ladle and he patiently guides my shaky hands as I place each dollop of sauce in the correct quadrant. Tony then tries to move the sauce around, with his hands, so it is placed more evenly throughout the surface of the pizza. Tony and I have a back and forth rhythm now: I make, he fixes. Finally, I sprinkle the oregano, Parmigiano and my favorite ingredient, some extra virgin olive oil on my pizza. And we have liftoff! I pop the pizza in the oven and I breath a sign of relief. High fives all around. I have learned that it is not at all easy to make pizza and it is even harder to make good pizza. With the right ingredients – and maybe 1,000 more lessons from Tony & Miguel I might just get the hang of it. Take a look for yourself:
Finale (photo series by Gary Winter)
All this pizza making had me curious. I wanted to know more about the Man Behind the Curtain. With my new found knowledge that pizza-making is not an easy task and that running a pizza shop is an overwhelming project, I needed to explore what it was that would compel one man to take on such a feat. He had to have a good reason.
Doug Greenwood is the owner of Bleecker Street Pizza. Doug is a charming man. He is warm, inviting and almost seems a bit of a softee. He has that paternal quality of generously yet forcefully pushing food on those around him. “Eat, eat” he said several times until I was forced to enjoy a salad and a slice.
I think this is an important quality in a restaurant owner. But a softee he is not. Doug is a retired NYPD Captain. He served for 26 years. He may be soft hearted but there is certainly a strength and a sense of leadership about him – uniform or no uniform.
Cops, firefighters – they are all welcome here – and they know it. In fact, at Bleecker Street Pizza, anyone who comes in wearing a uniform is treated with a certain respect and a sense that they are not taken for granted here. Besides having great pizza, it is a good place to be for a man or woman in blue. There is a sense of fraternity and comraderie on the corner of Bleecker & 7th. And I suddenly feel even safer.
I spent a little time with Doug last week. He took me to the back and through the kitchen into the refrigerator. With childlike excitement Doug shows me all of his fabulous ingredients. He points out, with enthusiasm, the Basil from Israel and the real Parmigiano–Reggiano cheese. “Not everybody uses this”, he says. Quality – and sometimes costly – ingredients are what make the pizza great. That – and an italian grandmother with a perfect recipe for sauce.
My night at Bleecker Street Pizza ends with a delivery. I was having so much fun working with these guys and making people smile with a slice, that I neglected the fact that there were some hungry mouths to feed just down the street. Good thing the boxed up pie was sitting on top of the oven – cold pizza is just not the same.
This season’s 30 Rock says it best:
(After you have watched it: click “Continue” and then “Pause” – these clips tend to run on for some reason.)
Vodpod videos no longer available.
Much like a schoolboy, Tony grabs his backpack and gives me a nod. It is 10:36. We have put in a full day and it is time to go home. It’s funny to think that he spent his whole day participating in this seemingly simple task – but that he brought so much pleasure to so many.
I’m not actually a pizza person. At least I wasn’t until I tasted the house favorite a few years back: The Grandma Nonna. I am a thick crust kinda girl and this square slice just does it for me. The Nonna Maria is pretty life changing as well. They are both knee-buckling bites to eat.
And while I didn’t consider myself a pizza-craving fanatic like most manhattanites, lately, I have been dreaming about hooking my arm up to an intravenous drip of that Bleecker Street marinara sauce. Yes, I have been dreaming about pizza – and Tony and Miguel and Greg and Doug and the rest of the boys at Bleecker Street. I have been thinking about how hard they work and how much heart they put into each and every slice. If you happen to find yourself wandering around Bleecker Street and 7th Avenue – I beg you to pay them a visit. If you can’t get down that way, give them a ring for delivery. You just might get me at your doorstep.
Visit me on Thursday, October 29, 2009 at: Bleecker Street Pizza, Bleecker St & 7th Avenue, NYC 10AM – 2AM After my day on the job I will be blogging about the experience. Be a part of it! Eat my Pizza! Read my stories!Got any pressing Pizza questions? Send me a note and I will ask them for you! http://www.bleeckerstreetpizza.com/index.htm
Chinese Food, TV dinners & my Thursday cooking lesson with Mom
When I was growing up, dinner at the Bandolik household was nothing fancy. Don’t get me wrong, it was special – but it just wasn’t fancy.
The early years
Sometimes it meant ordering Chinese Take-out from the one decent delivery place in town. I remember when my Dad would phone in the order and the voice on the other end of the phone would respond, “ah yes, Uncle Kenny, hello.” He was such a frequent customer, they knew him on a first name basis. To this day they still call him Uncle Kenny – even though he is not an uncle to anyone there. As the story goes, one day my father happened to walk into the Chinese restaurant at the exact same time as my cousin – and my cousin gave my father a big, “Hello Uncle Kenny.” So my Dad forever became known as Uncle Kenny to the staff of Ming Garden.
A familiar and comforting image
On very special nights, my family would go out to dinner – also involving Chinese food. We would often frequent Panda Garden or Johnny Chih’s in Westhampton Beach. I remember all of the elements and how very special it was to be dining outside of the home. White table cloths, white linens, steaming hot tea and fresh crunchy noodles in a bowl. My favorite element of this experience was that we shared everything. Plates of food filled the table and were passed from one to another. We would chat about what tasted good, and what we didn’t like, what we should have gotten, and what we’ll get next time. Comments on the perfection of the crispy walnut shrimp (they get it right every time!) or the blandness of the chow fun (why do we keep ordering this?) or the fullness of our bellies (why did I eat the whole egg roll?) filled the table. The idea of shared food and a shared experience warmed my little heart. Less so for my older sister, Jennifer. She hated Chinese food.
One of our family favorites in Westhampton Beach
On most nights, however, I recall my sister popping a TV dinner into the oven (no, not the microwave, the oven). I remember those dinners being delicious and exciting. I think I liked all those compartments; one for chicken, one for mashed potatoes, one for vegetables and if you were lucky, one for a brownie. I also remember how my sister would doctor up each compartment to make it taste even better than it already did. A little pat of butter on the mashed potatoes. A little pat of butter on the vegetables. A little pat of butter on the chicken. A little pat of butter on the brownie. Well, you get the idea. And I’m not joking – she totally put butter on that brownie and it totally tasted better. And now that I am 35 and have some slight exposure to the world of food, to fabulous restaurants and to fantastic chefs – I actually think that with all that butter, she must have been french trained!
Don't forget to butter your brownie!
But my most profound food & family memory must have emerged when I was about 9 or 10 years old – and continued for many years. My mother and I had this little ritual that we would share and that I cherish to this day. I’m not even sure if she knows how important it was to me. My mom was a working woman, but she happened to be off from work every Thursday. Thursday became a special day where she could relax, run errands and make a nice family meal. Oftentimes she would make fish – either shrimp or flounder were the typical choices – and a nice big bowl of Spaghetti and Ragu brand sauce. Simple things really.
The only sauce I knew
The ritual we shared went like this: After school my Mom and I would ride in the car towards the ocean to go to Tully’s Fish Market. Growing up in the Hamptons afforded us lots of great fresh local fish – of which we mostly stuck to shrimp and flounder. We’d get to the market – and although my Mom was not referred to as Aunt June – she was indeed on a first name basis with the shop owner. The shop was exciting. It almost felt like a place you shouldn’t be in or shouldn’t see. It felt like a warehouse that was off limits. But there we were – with all that fresh fish, all that seawater on the floor getting our shoes all dirty and fishy, all those live lobsters moving about – it felt like an exciting world to get a glimpse of every Thursday after a tough day at school. After we got all the trimmings for that evening’s dinner – my mom would get one more thing, just for me: A quarter pound container of Tully’s fresh crabmeat salad. This was special – because if I didn’t finish it in the car on the way home, then I would sit at our small, round, faux-wood kitchen table and eat my crabmeat while watching my mom peel, de-vain and wash the shrimp. She had her own ritual way doing this. She would always rip open the brown packaging that the shimp was wrapped in and use that as her working area. I can still hear the tearing sound of the brown paper bag. She did this simple task with such confidence – making our Thursday meal was something she knew well and something she did well. Between bites of crabmeat I would sometimes help her dip the shrimp into the egg batter and then into 4C salt-free Italian breadcrumbs. We would leave the breaded shrimp on the brown paper wrapper until we were ready to fry them up as soon as my Dad walked through the door from work.
A staple in the Bandolik family pantry
This ritual never left me. And while I have broadened my palate to include much more than chinese food or shrimp and spaghetti or TV dinners with butter, butter, butter – I have never lost sight of the importance and value of the family meal. From food shopping, to preparing the ingredients, to the shared plates of pork fried rice, my earliest and most fond memories of growing up are always around that small faux-wood table filled with food, family and friends. I remember those Thursdays especially well – and will always treasure that early food journey to Tully’s and back – crabmeat salad and a cooking lesson from mom.
And now, inspired by my family’s communal table at home and enriched by my experiences as a Culinary Tour Guide for Foods of New York Tours, I embark on my own journey — through the world of food, with the goal of highlighting and promoting family run businesses, mom & pop shops and places and foods that remind us of home sweet home.
52 FOOD ADVENTURES FOR ONE HUNGRY GIRL...
After 6 years (and counting!) of working as a culinary tour guide for Foods of New York Tours, I became hungry for more. I decided to take a (de)tour and embark on my own journey, through the world of food. Week by week, I will spend one day (Thursday) experiencing (growing, milking, chopping, mixing, baking, tasting and delivering) a unique aspect of food and writing about it here. Tune in!