Tag Archives: NYC

#16/52: Egg Cream Creation at Hinsch’s

It’s 77 degrees and sunny.

New York City is having a heat streak.

As winter takes an early exit and our premature summer takes center stage, I’m feeling ready to release a few layers. I dispense of my dependable down jacket and store away my series of scarves. I tuck my winter-wear deep into the depths of my narrow New York closet and unearth an enormous amount of sleeveless summertime survival gear. Unfortunately, my comfy winter coat covers nearly half of my hallway hanging space and I come to the conclusion that I need a more sensible scenario.

After a quick tap on Target.com and a delivery 2 days later, I find myself on the floor of my 300 square foot apartment contorted and confused as I build a new 36 piece clothes closet that will house my seasonal skirts and summer shirts. Sweating and suffering from 3 hours of Spanish-only assembly instructions with more washers and wooden dowels than I care to mention, I place the final fixture atop my 6 foot 5 inch creation and hope that my 3 years of Ms. Crecca’s high school language lessons have served me well. I gained a brand new closet to store my seasonal stock but depleted my recources and exhausted my energies in the process.

I need a drink.

And not one of the alcoholic variety but rather, one of those sweet syrupy refreshments that symbolizes that summertime is about to bloom out of this springtime of indecisiveness.

I quenched my thirst last Thursday making Egg Creams at Hinsch’s Luncheonette in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

The handsome Hinsch’s sign, Bay Ridge, Brooklyn – sandyhechtman.com

I wake at 7AM with only one item on my agenda: To craft the quintessential Brooklyn Egg Cream. My only obstacle is the R train. After 2 unexplained train delays and 22 sessions of “please stand clear of the closing doors” I arrive in the Borough of Brooklyn for my morning shift.

Awaiting the R train – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

I was raised hearing histories of a Brooklyn of an ancient era. My parents painted a picture so pure and peaceful that I sometimes wish the subway was a modern day time machine. I wish that when I emerge above ground on the other side of the East River that I will arrive in a Brooklyn filled with stoop ball and Spaldeens and sock hops and sweet confections sold for 5 cents at the corner store.

As I arrive at at 8518 5th Avenue and spot the old-school style sign for Hinsch’s Luncheonette that stands out among a sea of modern meal monopolies, I begin to wonder if all my wishing has been rewarded. I’m about to enter one of the few old-time luncheonettes that have been lost on our recent city landscape. This one is complete with its own confectionary. Yes, they even make their own malted milk balls and nonpareils and the best-I’ve-ever-eaten-butter-crunch in small batches off site and sell it here at Hinsch’s. I’ll have to save some of those for later. What I’m most in need of is a good old fashioned egg cream. But I’ve got to begin with the rites and rituals of this carbonated concoction before I can quench my thirst.

You’ll love Hinsch’s too – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

In a sea of sameness, one stands out – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

As I enter the 1890’s building the series of forrest green bar stools beckon me back in time. The wallpaper patterned plastic booths invite 3 scoops and 2 spoons to savor Hinsch’s homemade ice cream. But I’ve got labor longer before I enjoy her rewards. At Hinsch’s, as delicious as the dinners are… it’s all about the drink.

Old school bar stools beckon – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

Simplicity. What more might you need? – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

I meet Raul, the ice cream professional who schools me on the subtleties of egg cream creation. With a passion for perfection, Raul instructs me on the proper proportions and the ideal order of ingredients. Raul corrects my mistakes as I make them – and there are many. The egg cream is an art form created at the fountain and focusing on 3 specific items: milk, seltzer and Fox’s u-bet brand chocolate syrup – in that order and with specific measurements.

A proper education – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

I reach for the proper vessel but am overwhelmed by the shelf lined with banana split bowls and antique sundae dishes. Raul guides me to the classic coca cola glass and places it on the countertop. My tentative pours lead to much less milk than my recipe requires and my stirring ability lacks speed. The signature frothy foam atop my egg cream is in danger of losing its bright white color as I drizzle a dab of chocolate syrup in the wrong direction. Raul coaches me a few more times before I make an egg cream worthy of the next customer that wanders in.

Choose your weapon – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

I’ve never met a drink so ritualized and revered and with so many obstacles to perfection. My own Father often schooled me on the secrets of a excellent egg cream. His every-other-evening treat was an exercise in potions and portions. He offered me ingredients and insight as he spoke standing at his perch at our kitchen countertop and instructed in such a stoic manner as to signify the ultimate importance of: Milk, then seltzer, then syrup, then a speedy swirl of the spoon.  And even today, with Raul watching my every move and with my father’s voice echoing in my ears, the excellent egg cream eludes me.

My first foray – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

The proper proportions.

Even the name egg cream is crowded in confusion and marred with mistakes. There’s no egg.  There’s no cream. And mysteries surrounding the moniker abound. One story suggests that the use of grade ‘A’ milk lead to the name:  “A” cream, which sounds suspiciously similar to ‘egg’ cream. Another theory attests that ‘egg’ is a corruption of the German word echt (meaning genuine or real) and that this drink was indeed an echt cream. Another argument in this unending debate travels all the way from Paris, France where the ‘chocolat et crème’ (chocolate and cream) morphed phonetically into our beloved Brooklyn beverage. A final sentiment on the subject suspects that the first version did, in fact, use egg and cream, but that those ingredients were eliminated due to food restrictions during WWII. And even though my cocktail technique may fall short of perfection, Raul appears impressed with my egg cream understanding.

Fast friends – Me & Raul – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

An egg cream understanding – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

My best shot at the Egg Cream

All this egg cream investigation has me thinking about a few labels of my own. I wondered about the words we so regularly whisper but seldom scrutinize. Our cast of characters is filled with lovers and enemies, friends and foes – all playing overlapping roles. And what about the word family? How do we define a word that is littered throughout our lives so frequently, that it often escapes explanation.

I have an adorable uncle named Stanley who, by definitions sake, is not really my Uncle. Many years ago my Dear Uncle H passed away. My Aunt met a nice man at a meeting and although they’ve never married, Stanley is more my uncle than many others, though there is no bloodline between us. And from my vantage point, whenever I stand on my Cornelia Street stoop and look lovingly all around, I see my extended family: I have 15 blue shirted brothers who work behind the counter at Faicco’s at the beginning of our block. I have a best friend who also happens to be my boss. We all share one beautiful black coated canine named Charlie who resides at 29 Cornelia. And lastly, I have a husband at Home Restaurant and although he may not exactly fit the origins of the word (from the Old Norse meaning Master of the House) he serves as more of a husband than others who have held his position. Although none of them know this is their namesake, our Greenwich Village Family – while not ancestors, nor blood, nor brood – share a Cornelia Street kinship that is apparent to anyone who is willing to extend their dictionary definitions.

As I think about my new friends back at Hinsch’s, I am starting to see some of these very same characteristics. There is a difference between dining in a restaurant and being adopted into family. And Hinsch’s has perfected the latter with its proud papa and protective patriarch: Roger Desmond at the helm. Roger is the type of owner who offers hellos, handshakes and ‘how ya doings’ to each and every one that enters. Hinsch’s is not an exclusive club. One needs no engraved invitation. There are no formalities, no fancy furnishings or tables topped in white. No velvet ropes to wrestle with and no reservations required. This is a flock of friends who have formed into family. Just one order of their well known waffles and you’ll feel the same.

A second home to so many – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

But this family – Hinsch’s happy family, like so many other families – is marred with mourning and near misses.  After 6 generations of family-run fun and countless egg cream creations – Hinsch’s was going to be history. On September 29, 2011 a sign in the front window read: HINSCH’S IS CLOSING AFTER 63 YEARS OF SERVICE. It struck me that, in NYC and beyond, you never know what you’re walking by until it’s gone. Well loved shops with long histories fall by the wayside, just as my Grandfather’s did. And Hinsch’s was about to suffer the very same fate. Hinsch’s originally opened in 1915 as Reichert’s Ice Cream Parlor before Herman Hinsch took over the business back in 1948. Hinsch eventually sold, in 1962, to the Logue Family who carried on the namesake – along with handmade chocolates and hand packed ice cream – until the current economic crisis, rising rent and desire to retire threatened this beloved brooklyn eatery.

Hinsch’s went the way that so many Happy Days era diners do. They were done for.

When the doors shut on that dark day, this story might have ended sharply. The headlines were headed to print (and printed) and the locals forced to find another hangout to call home. Another New York institution loses its life.

The sad neighborhood news on 9/29

Symbolic little engines that travels Hinsch’s perimeter – sandyhechtman.com

But Hinsch’s fate followed a less predictable path. She’s the little luncheonette that could.

Enter Roger Desmond: Local business owner. Neighborhood guy. Hero.

When the nostalgia nestled in Roger was inspired, then inquired and eventually acquired Hinsch’s. He remembered the Hinsch’s of his youth – he’d stop in after school whenever he was in the mood for a good old grilled cheese & some neighborhood girls. His heroism is not completely lost on him. As humble as he is, Roger does get a kick out of his newfound status. “I own Hinsch’s, for gosh sakes.” It’s a bit of a self esteem boost for him. “If you can make Hinsch’s come back, thats nice.” There’s something sweet and simple about the sentiment. But after all, there’s something sweet and simple about Hinsch’s too. And after 2 months of renovations, the doors eventually opened again. Long live the luncheonette.

Roger is the one-time bartender turn soda fountain owner responsible for saving our fair Hinsch’s. He’s the man that made is possible for Edna to eat her 3 meals a day – every day – here at Hinsch’s. He’s the guy who remembers where Vicki went on vacation when she comes in after a few weeks away. He’s the angel who allowed Julie and James to have a place to celebrate (on the house) the fact that today – on the day of my employ – their doctor informs them that they will soon be proud parents. Julie and NYC firefighter James always visit Hinsch’s for their small scale celebrations – as their family has for 3 (and soon to be 4) generations. Roger is the host who warmly welcomes his diners. With boldness and  brevity he simply asks, “a little lunch?”

And even if you’re not yet a regular, wait a little while – you surely will be soon.

A verbal & visual tour – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

Enchanting tales of his takeover – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

Hinsch’s is his labour of love – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

He has my attention and he’ll have yours when you meet him – Photo: sandyhechtman.com

Julie & James – a reason to celebrate – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

A sentiment shared – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

And so Hinsch’s was saved – as the backside of the staff shirts proudly proclaim. Brought back from the brink and rescued from a harsh reality – as so many of us have. I, too, remember a time when I was feeling quite lost myself. And my savior? The city itself. To her, I am forever indebted. I recall a time in late August of 1998 when I wandered jobless and joyless just after grad school graduation. I moved from my small Hamptons hometown to live in the corner of a cousin’s kitchen on 77th and Columbus. I knew nearly no one except for the next-door neighbor I dated for a short time, only to discover he was also dating his next-door neighbor – one wall away from me. I’d listen at the door for the sounds of his arrival and often sat in silence when he wouldn’t return for a while. I figured it was time to find another friend so I turned to New York and asked for her assistance. She became my constant companion. I devoured her sights and sounds, block by block. I rarely took her subways  but preferred a more intimate approach. I pounded the pavement and after 3 miles to work and 3 miles back, a best friendship was born. And as strange as it may sound, as long as I’m in NYC surrounded by her skyscrapers and brownstones, and even when I’m alone, I am never ever lonely. She’s a warm blanket and a cozy cocktail. And only a New Yorker understands her offerings and gets her gifts.

So sometimes, as in the case of Hinsch’s, we save the city. And sometimes, the city saves us.

We all suffer in silence at select moments of our lives. And just when we need it most, sometimes someone swoops in and gives us a save. My only question to you is: Who or what saved your soul in these last few seasons of your life and are they even mildly aware of their influence?

Back in business – Photos by sandyhechtman.com

Hinsch’s before it was Hinsch’s: Reichert’s Ice Cream Parlor – sandyhechtman.com

Always an ice cream parlor in this spot – Reichert’s

Lunch break with The Cardinal – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

In addition to egg creams and countless other items (I had the utterly amazing Chicken Cardinal with fresh local mozzarella and roasted red peppers on ciabatta lightly brushed with herb butter) that fare much finer than so many other diners, Hinsch’s still sells those sweet handmade confections as it has for 60 years. Their nonpareils are the best I’ve had and well beyond any boxed candy variety. And it’s perfectly appropriate that those dark chocolate discs dotted with white are Hinsch’s bottom line best seller since the French word nonpareil literally translates into: having no equal or unparalleled. I think it’s fitting.

Be sure to stop by Hinsch’s Luncheonette in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn and visit with our hometown heroes, Roger & Raul. And maybe even wave hello to Julie, and James of the FDNY.  And don’t forget to order an egg cream for an experience of unparalleled proportions.

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#8/52: Recipe Testing at Suenos

Nothing is perfect.

At least, nothing starts out that way.

The caterpillar becomes a butterfly. The student becomes a scholar. And a pot of vegetables and beans becomes a vegetarian chili worthy of its very own page in a cookbook. Most things don’t start out perfect. But luckily for our taste buds – some end up that way.

A marriage of flavors at Suenos - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

I spent last thursday at Suenos Restaurant performing Recipe Testing with Chef/Owner Sue Torres, as she perfected the pages of her upcoming cookbook.

I arrive at noontime to West 17th Street and I am feeling a little lost. Granted I did, only recently, return home (jet lagged) from 22-hour plane ride from India and, in general, I do have a very poor sense of direction – but I usually know my way around the city better than this. From the corner of 17th Street and 8th Avenue I happily spot the maroon colored awning that reads: SUENOS in a funky teal green block lettered font. And from street level in front of #311 I can see a small window that leads to the long and narrow subterranean kitchen. All the signs say I am surely in the right place… but I cannot find the door.

This is a typical scenario for me. I can see exactly where I want to end up but for some reason I cannot get there. Or at least, I cannot get there right away. Eventually, I arrive. I just take a little longer.

The hidden door to Suenos is down this narrow alleyway - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

I did finally arrive at Suenos. I found the hidden door – through the nondescript alley, down five steps and onto a metal grate  – a secret entryway known only to those who are deserving of Sue’s inventive Mexican plates.

Sue sits me down at the bar and outlines our agenda for the day. She is organized, meticulous and hyper-aware of every detail of her business. Nothing gets by Sue Torres. Plates of mediocre food: BEWARE! Only succulent dishes – like shredded beef mini tacos and tequila-flamed shrimp – need apply.

My absolute favorite menu item: The Shredded Beef Mini Tacos - http://www.suenosnyc.com

Sue is in the process of writing a cookbook and today I am responsible for assisting her as she perfects (and documents!) a few of her favorite recipes.

We begin with Vegetarian Chili. Side by side, Sue and I chop vegetables. Sue instructs me on how to chop properly – and I certainly need her help. I have never seen a carrot so large and misshapen. Too many years of those bags of pre-peeled, pre-washed baby carrots, I suppose. I don’t know how to begin to attack it without the knife attacking back at me and julienning my finger. Sue guides me like an older sister – firm but friendly, kind and caring.

Watch and learn - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Getting the hang of it - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Making peace with the unusually large carrot - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

When it’s time to chop onions, Sue shows me her special technique for slicing. I certainly have met many an onion in my 35 years, but I suppose I had never been formerly introduced in this way. Sue advises me to keep the root intact so the onion doesn’t fall apart. [Coincidentally, I had made the very same suggestion to some of my clients in my 10 years as a counselor.] We make several slices 3/4 of the way through and then, holding the onion firmly, we chop in the opposite direction yielding finely chopped squares. I tried this at home a few nights later when making a pot of Rosemary White Bean Soup from a recipe I found online. Let’s just say that my onion chopping skills are not as award-winning as Sue’s and that some of that onion somehow ended up on the floor – but only a few casualties.

Finally, onions, garlic, salt, celery, carrots, beans and smokey, savory chilis are married in a large pot. We measure, weigh and record each ingredient with such precision you might think we are performing surgery. Our recipe has got to be cookbook worthy. Every seemingly small step along the way – from the tender slice of the onion to the use of local, seasonal, organic beans and vegetables – is critical to the taste and texture of our final product. There’s no room for skimping. Tastebuds do not lie.

Carefully calibrating the scale - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

While I do enjoy chopping, seasoning and stirring, the best part of recipe testing – is recipe tasting.

Sue and I grab fresh spoons every hour and steal a taste like two teenagers sneaking into the covered apple pie resting on the kitchen countertop. We give the pot a stir and a sample. One moment it is coming along nicely. Another taste – and the heat from the chilis goes to battle on our tongues.

Is it ruined? Is all our hard work for naught? Can we perform time-travel in order to alter our recipe? Can we somehow repair the damage? And in that moment, I became a little sad. I happen to be very good at making that quick mental jump from complication to catastrophe.

But this, my friends, is where Sue stands out from the rest – in both her ability to sooth my nerves as well her capacity to create. She recognizes that her chili is a living breathing element and she carefully coaches (but not controls) it at each stage. Sue is never on automatic pilot. She is always thinking, always on task. Although we cannot go backwards, we can continue to alter and grow our recipe until it reaches perfection.

Giving the pot a whirl and getting ready to dive in - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Serious concerns: Is the chili too spicy - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Can we fix it? Sue shows me how - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

So with a corrective cooling measure in mind, we add some sweetness to combat the spice – more carrots, celery and some beets (both pureed and in solid form) seem to do the trick. Sue feels strongly about not adding sugar to get the spice to surrender – she thinks there are more natural and healthy ways to add that sweet flavor back. So we add that to the pot and we jot it down on the recipe. Quick thinking as she is, Sue remembers to fish out those chilis – making sure they don’t continue to turn the heat back up. And we document that step as well.

What isn’t documented, however, is the part of cooking that cannot be measured – the part that is fun, playful and inventive. What can’t possibly be tabulated in our notations is that moment when cooking becomes crafting. It needn’t be a race to the finish or a challenge steeped in potential failure. It should be fun. And we, as chefs, should be bendable, flexible and pliable. I suppose you could say we should be soup-y or chili-like… never too firm and always ready to adapt to the blend of ingredients. Sue teaches me to play with my food. And never be afraid to fail. She teaches me that there will always be a corrective measure that will save my soup.

Between all the chopping, stirring, tasting, adjusting and tasting again – I am ready for a break. Luckily for me, it is time for Family Meal – one of my favorite traditions. And luckily for the staff, we are eating that perfectly perfected, not-too-sweet, not-too-spicy Vegetarian Chili. So I join my first family meal – a time for the staff to break bread and discuss the evening ahead. The vegetarian chili is a hit with the staff. No mouths are aflame and it seems spiced just right. It took several tries, but I think we finally got it. Spicy. Smokey. Smooth. Hearty and healthy too. Perfection.

The hard job of perfecting... and the reward - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Good things. like the chili, take time. In my last 6 years in New York City I have lived in 5 apartments, dated 4 significant boyfriends, held 3 different careers and cooked 1 pot of vegetarian chili. None of it started out perfect. But it gets better every time. Even the chili took 4 hours to get right. In fact, that pot of chili and I have a few things in common. Spicy. Smokey. Smooth. Hearty and healthy too. Perfection. Life is cooking up quite nicely as well. I’ve just got to simmer a little while longer.

Our meal has come to an end – and now it is time to feed our friends. As quickly as we clean up our dishes and wipe down the tables, the crowd arrives at our doorstep. 4-top after 2-top after 6-top – the crowds flood in and the wait-staff begins to circulate.

The lights come down low. The 5 orange lanterns above the bar begin to twinkle and tease as they draw the crowd away from the drafty door and into the main dining room. I’m not sure which casts a more powerful spell on our diners: drinks like Suzy’s Smokin’ Margarita cocktail or Nick, the scruffy smoldering bartender who mixes them. Jorge hits the music. The hot pink painted wall is illuminated. The bright blue bar stools stand ready to comfort our thirsty guests. And the action begins. Alisia stands in the corner of the restaurant on a raised platform stage as to highlight the star of the show: the fresh corn torillas. The theatre is alive and well in New York. And broadway is no match for the show at Suenos.

Not sure which is hotter - the pink wall or the tasty torillas being rolled - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Adding some flavor with cilantro - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

As the dinner service is winding up, my night is winding down. I pop into the kitchen one last time and already the pace is at lightening speed as plates of Avocado-3-ways, Tamarind Glazed Hanger Steak and Halibut, Halibut, Halibut come flying past me. Sue is right in the thick of the battleground expediting orders and making sure everything is timed to perfection. I sneak one last bite of the leftover Vegetarian Chili before heading out the door and I begin to think about that great big pot filled with beans, vegetables and hard work.

There were moments when I didn’t think we could resurrect that chili. There were times when I was frustrated by its flaws. So many of us, in chili and in life, erroneously expect perfection from the start. We expect that by 35 we will be a finalized complete package. But life is a constant re-adjustment. If we overdo it – we need to tone it down and bring it back to center. Sometimes we just need to round up some more flavor. And sometimes we just need to figure out a way to sweeten the pot.

Finally getting it right! - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Back at home, I tested a recipe of my own. It was Tuesday night, late in the evening. After a quick cup of coffee with a friend, I was home in my month-old apartment on Cornelia Street. I was settling in to a cold winters night – surrounded by boxes and sleeping on a mattress on the floor because the box spring didn’t make it up the narrow staircase during the move. Then, rising up from the courtyard below I heard echos of laughter and conversation. I was at a crossroads.

My home - photo borrowed from my friends at: http://www.lovetoeatandtravel.com

Every New Yorker is plagued by two television shows that will forever ruin apartment living in this town and leave us in a state of perpetual disappointment: Friends and Seinfeld. These shows taught us that we can be best friends with our quirky next-door neighbor and fall in love with the guy across the hall. They preached to us that we could live in a place where friends were always popping by and sense of community was only a coffeehouse away.

These shows lied to us. Or so I thought. And so on this night, I decided to test MY recipe: Can the new girl in the building make lasting friendships? Can she turn her small studio apartment into a home? Will the courtyard space at #15 Cornelia transform from a garbage recycling zone into a shared community garden filled with fresh herbs, tomatoes and flowers? Will my recipe for life turn out to taste as good as I imagine it?

(Even Kramer recognizes the challenges of getting that recipe right!)

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Eager to test MY recipe and to meet my new neighbors, I put on my coat and hat in a flash and raced to the courtyard with a faux errand in mind. This seemed to me, even in the moment, like a Seinfeld episode in itself. I walked through the courtyard, pretending to be on my way to the corner deli. I said my hellos and made my introductions to my neighbor Ollie, his dog Tucker and his visiting Connecticut friends. Turns out – tonight is Ollie’s 35th birthday and within 5 minutes of conversation, I am invited to Daddy-O’s – a bar one block away. I said “maybe” and carried on my way to the deli, pickup up something I didn’t need and headed back to my apartment. An hour later I decided to follow through on my recipe plan and I met the group at the bar. Lets just say that by 2AM I had a made a few friends, got a few phone numbers in my pocket, some email addresses in my blackberry, a lunch date and some plans with Ollie for a garden renovation.

My recipe worked so far. I bonded with my neighbor and brought myself one step closer to feeling at home. I might have to add some other neighbors into the mix and stir that up for a while. There’s always the chance my recipe might veer off course. But so far… this recipe… Perfect!

And if it’s not perfect… I think I’ll know how to salvage it. Thanks go to Sue Torres for that one.

They're house made - and they're spectacular - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

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#4/52: Van Leeuwen Ice Cream Truck

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.

Mandi Nadel - ice cream girl - http://theothericecreamman.tumblr.com/ - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

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. 😉

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