Friday, June 14, 2013

Even Before I Left I Was Craving All of My Favorite NY Foods

Even before I left I was craving all of my favorite New York foods, the stuff that I wouldn't be able to find in Maui like heroes, and Nathan's hot dogs and Junior's cheesecake, fried chicken and Italian ices, $2 slices of my favorite pizza and banana pudding. So, a few days before my flight, I asked my dad to bring me a throwback from our Red Hook days. I sent him to the glorified deli on Lorraine Street, the place where I had my very first hero, and asked him to bring back what I called the "classic": a ham and cheese with lettuce, tomato and mayo on both sides. For old time's sake.

He walked in to my house early the next morning, holding out the the tightly wrapped sandwich, smiling from ear to ear, pride in his eyes. "Here you go. I have one, too. When you're ready, meet me upstairs."

Needless to say, enjoying that sandwich with my dad was memory material. It was everything that I remembered it to be, probably better. Soft bread, flaky crust, salty ham wrapped lovingly around the cheese in folds and mellowed out by the mayo and tomatoes, all coming together in harmony.

Michele unwittingly made another wish come true by bringing Junior's cheesecake home a few days later. It is the only cheesecake that I have ever loved. Another throwback, I have been enjoying the dessert since the 1980's, making a bee line for the restaurant with the family after church service at the old Brooklyn Tabernacle on Flatbush Avenue. It's the texture, smooth and consistent throughout, whipped but firm, not too sweet. Most importantly, it is not cheesy in the way that some ricotta cakes can be and is somehow light and rich at the same time. I relished my last strawberry slice, slowly and systematically, knowing that it would be a long time before I would have another.

I had some momentum here. What was stopping me from having a private little reunion with all of my old food favorites? What was next? Two nights before we left, Michele and I made a spontaneous decision to stop at Uncle Louie's, on Union Street, for an Italian ice. Now, there's something called "shave ice" here in Hawaii but it is a different thing entirely. A mound of shaved iced is drizzled with flavored syrup and it's consistency is more in sync with a granita than the fine and uniform flavor of the ices that speak to summer in New York.

I didn't get to Nathan's. I'll have to take a trip to Coney Island when I get back. There is a particular bite and pop and temperature and flavor that cannot be recreated now matter how many of their branded hot dogs you buy at the supermarket. The sharp, grainy mustard, the buns...are as unique to the experience of eating the dog as the sounds of the Cyclone rumbling in the distance.

Bagels and lox will have to wait too. They did not cross my path. But I did get a couple of slices on a couple of different days from Smiling Pizza in Park Slope. I have been wanting this stuff from the womb, no exaggeration. My young, pregnant mom would walk an hour, in the cold and snow, to fix her craving for their pies. Strangely enough, I wanted it every day of my own pregnancy. So there's a history here. It felt right to go back more than once for the memories and for the simple comfort of enjoying something that has not changed in almost forty years.

I can make fried chicken any time I want. But it's not the same without my family. It's crackle and pop fall flat when eaten alone and I can't do it. Makes me sad. But I have Jada as motivation. I can pass on our specific standards (Each black family has it's own version of bird). Still, it makes me homesick and I will probably not make much of it until I return to my family in the fall.

On a sweeter note, my brother Dave brought me a big bowl of home made banana pudding the night before we left for Maui. The ultimate taste of home and a perfect farewell to all of my favorite New York foods, it was bittersweet to share this traditional dessert with everyone at the dinner table.

It's probably hard to have pity on me. I am writing this from paradise, where mango trees heavy with fruit sway above me and avocados and coconuts abound. Fresh fish and meat and beautiful vegetables grow so wild they are not even labeled. Still, there is nothing like the taste of home. Here's to hoping that absence will make it all better next time.

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