Thursday, September 17, 2009

Food Field Trips!

I am taking a fun class this semester in the Food Studies program at NYU. It is called Urban Foragers, but I think of it as Food Field Trips. Every week we go out into a neighborhood and sample the food, and do readings on the neighborhood's "food voice", ie: how its people have expressed themselves with food through the years. The food is great and it's also reviving my love for the city, which always flags a bit this time of year.

Yesterday we toured the Lower East Side, where there is this charged mix of the remnants of old Jewish tenement life, coexisting with new flashy glam NYC marketing. Here are some of the highlights:

Donut Plant
379 Grand Street
This place falls into the category of New LES -- Valronha Chocolate, swanky font, hipster name, etc -but garners some old LES street cred because the owner uses his grandfather's recipes to make incredible donuts, both yeasted- and cake-style.

My professor was saying something about the architectural miracle of Donut Plant's square jelly donut...
but in my book the Carrot Cake Donut was the real miracle, the one that, while I was eating, I was thinking -- I'm coming back here after I pick up my kids. We are coming back TODAY...

Sorry, no pictures of the actual carrot cake donut. This was our first stop, and you try to get in front of a pack of hungry students descending on a huge tray of cut up donuts. Or, rather, you choose between taking a picture of a donut, or eating a donut.

That was kind of a problem through the whole tour, actually. You'll see. (Laboratorio del Gelato did not even get a single picture, of storefront or gelato, which tells you a bit about where my focus was when we stopped there.)

Kossar's Bialys
367 Grand Street
Our next stop, just a few doors down was Kossar's Bialys.

Question: why did bagels catch on, to the point that bagels have come to symbolize America, and bialys are a cultural artifact stuck in the Lower East Side? My professor theorized that bagels last longer. I theorize that they also taste better. Bialys are floury. They're good, and really tasty with cream cheese. But not as amazing as a really great twisty chewy bagel.

And yet, even as I so brutally dismiss the bialy, you may observe that my camera was apparently crammed deep in my pocket when my actual bialy landed in my hand. Nice pictures of the store front and some bialystock inside. No pictures of the bialy I actually ate with a schmeer of vegetable cream cheese.

Pickle Guys
49 Essex Street

This was a great place. What's not to love? Okay, I didn't love that the pickled carrots were made with baby carrots. Ew. You mean they didn't grow their carrots and have a surplus that they had to pickle? Wait, is all of this made from industrially-produced non-organic produce? Oh. My. God. Okay, whatever. The pickles were GREAT! I loved the pickled okra. I loved the pickled grape tomatoes. I loved the half-sour bright green pickled cucumbers. The olives were great, too. Everything was great.

Economy Candy
108 Rivington Street
Next stop: Candy Land!

I have already blogged several times about my nostalgic love for old-fashioned candy shops. This one -- the sole survivor of a what was once an entire row of candy stores back in the day -- rises above the others I've visited for its sheer NYC-dollar-store-style of crazy over-abundance of every kind of crappy- and high end- and nostalgic- and novelty- candy product in the world. Foot-high Pez dispensers. A boxed set of Wizard of Oz collectible Pezzes. Lollipops the size of mid-90's dinner plates. Jordan almonds in every color, Miso Pretty chewing gums, dried fruit, Clove Gum, old-fashioned marshmallow cups, re-issue lunchboxes, high end chocolates, pastilles in beautiful tin boxes, candy necklaces so long you could double-loop them... I dream of setting my kids down in this place, just for the perverse pleasure of watching them flip out and go on overload.

205 East Houston Street
Here's where the big guns came out. No more mincing around with bits of donuts and shared bialys. Our next stop was Katz's deli, home of the overstuffed deli sandwich, the weird ticket system, and the egg cream. It's also where Harry and Sally had their famous orgasm conversation.

First, a confession. I've never been here.

And okay, let's get it out right off the bat. No, I did not sit at the Orgasm Table.

We sat in the way back, the better to unload our smuggled in pickles. There were about 15 of us, so we got platters of pastrami, tongue, sauerkraut and bread. Not sure if the make-your-own-sandwich is a normal option, but I was into it. One of the reasons I've never come here is because I don't really want a sandwich with four inches of lunch meat. An inch, maybe. But I have to say, the pastrami was amazing.
So was the tongue. So was the sauerkraut. Yes, this is heart attack fare. But, once in a while...? Come on.

The egg creams were great too. An egg cream, as you may already know, is made of chocolate syrup, milk and seltzer. Some people think its name comes from chocolate et creme. Get it? Et creme? Egg cream? There are lots of other theories, including one guy who says his father's soda fountain in turn-of-the-century Brooklyn invented the egg cream and used eggs in it. Who knows? Anyone, I have great plans to turn my kids onto this old-fashioned soda. ("Chocolate soda?" my son said with disdain. "No. That's just wrong." We'll see.More on that later.)

The hot dogs were kind of a revelation. Have I just been eating turkey dogs all these years? Was it the whole wheat buns? Is it the nitrites? Or are Katz's hot dogs just really amazing? God, I don't know, but this was the best hot dog I've had in ages. I can't describe it without sounding like I am writing porn. It was so good.

You would think we would be full. We were. But we were not finished. We had now been walking and eating for about three hours. But we still had one more stop.

Russ and Daughters
179 East Houston Street

This is the kind of place that could make you weep, if it caught you at the right time. It is just so beautiful. Smoked fishes, dried fruits, citrus-colored candies, everything gleaming and gorgeously arranged. It's like a working shrine to food. It's like when you go to Italy for the first time. Here you've grown up in the US used to seeing art kept in its special place in the museums, and then, in a totally separate sphere, the throngs of lowly humanity going about its business on the streets. And then you go to Italy and you can't believe it but the throngs of people are doing their usual disgusting business -- eating, praying, kissing, spitting, etc-- but all the while within reach of these gorgeous masterpieces. R&D is like this. How can something so beautiful and sacred, this sparkling jewel of a place, sit on this dirty profane street and be used and eaten and partaken of by any schmuck with five bucks and a hankering for a bagel with lox spread? And yet that's what's so great about it.

Every time I go in there I think, I need to come back here ALL the time. Maybe that is what it is like for people who go to church regularly. Or the gym. My life would be so much better if I came here all the time.

This is Mark Federman, one of the sons of the daughters. He was a lawyer, but then he came back to the business. He gave us a whole charming spiel about the place, pointed out his daughter and nephew behind the counter, and sold us all even more on the place.

That's it for the tour. I'm still full.

Next week: Chinatown in Flushing!


Cay said...

Oh my lord can I please take that class too? It's like heaven! Truly, it is on my list now that both kids are in school full time...

Lindellica said...

Yum, you are reminding me... It's been twice now that I've thought about moving into those co-ops on the LES: Seward, Amalgamated, etc -- and both times I had these elaborate food fantasies about how great it would be. In that neighborhood are also those dollar dumpling shops, chinese bakeries, AND Moishe's Bakery. Remember Moishe's? It was in Williamsburg on Berry street? They still have a branch on... I want to say Grand. Somewhere near the East side co-ops anyways.

I still dream of moving there, and donut planet.