Companion to my journey to Hasidic Williamsburg.
Tag Archives: New York
Never season another man’s collard greens. It’s bad manners and a bit emasculating. When a bowl of collards comes smothered in hot sauce—as it does at Pies ‘n’ Thighs, a boho Brooklyn salon serving fried chicken and stroller moms—it insults the vegetable and the diner. I, for one, know how I like my greens: cooked to a soft knot, smoky and haunted with bitterness, a sweet tingle, sour bushes scrabbling through sand and clay. The taste of good potlikker, born from that struggle, resonates in my stomach like a sympathetic vibration; it boils up my esophagus and lodges somewhere near my heart, a rumbling stroke of thunder without rain. That is not to say collards should come unsalted, unpeppered, or bland—again, as they do at Pies ‘n’ Thighs. I just don’t want my vegetables dressed like Buffalo wings. I see’est thou poised with thine sauce, but restrain thy hand. Be not so presumptuous. Continue reading
“The photographs are not illustrative. They, and the text, are co-equal, mutually independent, and fully collaborative.” James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, xi.
Piglet is squealing.
Mark Ladner, chef at Del Posto, wears square granny glasses and blue latex gloves. With a practiced snap to check for fit, Ladner bends over the cutting board.
Pig: Sus scrofa domesticus: child-like. Its hairy and pink skin reflexes upon palpitation; it snuffles to the human touch. Cradled in the arms of a pubescent girl, its heart beats in languid, muffled, contented ka-thumps. It avoids cold, wet, and windy weather, preferring the safe habitations of a straw-lined litter. In the bluster of a kitchen, the pig peeks its pointed head between open oven doors, inquires into burbling pots, and trips, nervous, as though made uncomfortable by the warm voices far overhead. They speak of dinner and death. Continue reading
I’m in Chengdu Heaven.
There’s a plate of pig ear chopped in thin chunks, absolutely drenched in chili oil and Sichuan peppercorn and covered with something green that tastes like scallion, and I’m stuffing my face. The chopsticks won’t stop careening from styrofoam plate to mouth; I want to stop and my tongue buzzes but my hands involuntary swipe at more ear, rubbery and crunchy like giant pale rubber bands. “This is some pretty good pig ear,” I say, in between bites, and Chef (who’s worked at all sorts of Michelin starred and otherwise applauded restaurants) just nods, his mouth full of dan dan noodles or tripe slathered in more of that ma la concoction, I can’t really tell because he’s really shoveling it in vigorously and enjoying it. Frankie From Seattle is taking a break from the tripe (which also comes with tongue) and is capable of agreeing with me in no uncertain terms: “The best ear I’ve ever eaten.” Continue reading
When I was 15, I desperately wanted to be gourmet. I read Michael Ruhlman’s books like fantasy novels, plumbed the depths of MFK Fisher and Waverly Root, and took over the kitchen to prepare elaborate family dinners. Gourmet was my bible, my textbook, my travel guide, my daily devotional; one Thanksgiving, inspired by a Gourmet recipe, I proposed an alternative turkey stuffing, something fancier than my dad’s usual stovetop invention. Met with firm resistance, I surrendered, shamed at my affectations of sophistication and snobbery. “Discerning, not discriminating,” became my mantra after that Thanksgiving fiasco, and I continue to consume high and low without preference or moral judgment.
Besides an interest in pretentious cooking, my 15-year-old-self expressed a fascination with fine dining. After pouring over Ruhlman’s The Soul of a Chef four times, I fell in love with The French Laundry. Ruhlman describes The French Laundry Experience in mystical terms; Thomas Keller figures as a demigod, a Zen master, a new philosopher for the modern cook. I incorporated Keller’s maxims into my daily life; I sought to emulate his “sense of urgency,” to pursue perfection in every movement. A family vacation to San Francisco offered an opportunity for pilgrimage, and my parents agreed to a Yountville day trip with enthusiasm. Continue reading
October on Bayard Street tastes sharp like radish and blue zinc; Chinese mothers carrying cucumbers and mackerel quicken their step, bundled in black cloaks against the cold; schoolboys slurp hot and milky tea in Taiwanese snack shops; the rare tourist pauses and studies his subway map in confusion, for he has wandered far from Canal Street and needs a woman, clutched like a chicken foot, to guide him West. Against the current of the crowd sweeping over the sidewalk, flowing between lampposts and parked bicycles, pushing from Mott to Mulberry, head buried and burrowing on, a fruit stand is set. Its lights shine on tangerines and the season’s last grapes, shrunken and timid and priceless. Swimming against the mob I grab a jackfruit for dear life and poke my head above water, breathing in the light before surrendering myself to another block before dinner.
Inside Xi’an Famous Foods, I ordered spicy and tingly lamb face salad at the cash register. The morning had been a matter of anticipation, the afternoon an exercise in agonizing delay. Lunch: peanut butter and jelly on English muffins. Milquetoast fare for cubicle living. At long last, I had found the center of my office maze and escaped the gray and white and leapt free from plate glass up, out, over Midtown, across Hell’s Kitchen (sneaking peeks into ramen noodle houses and peep shows), down the West Side Highway and East, due East, into Chinatown. After changing my twenty and taking a seat, I listened to the call, “28, order 28,” and then “29,” and then, mercifully passing over the next number, “31, lamb face salad.”
I am watching Anthony Bourdain eat off my plate, fending off his pernicious fingers with a pair of chopsticks. Continue reading