Sunday, December 30, 2007

Day 148 - My big break... on the radio.

So, five months almost to the day from when I decided to jettison the trappings of a nerdy bureaucrat to dabble in journalism, it seems I've finally broken in. In Cincinnati.

The brave, kind folks at NPR's Cincinnati affiliate, WVXU, ran the six-and-a-half minute piece on Sunday morning based on interviews I did with a bunch of folks attending Cincinnati Night at Edward's Restaurant in TriBeCa.

My deep thanks to: Brady Richards for the lead on such a fun story (and a great primer on Cincinnati, much of which you'll hear on the piece); Marcos Suiero who donated two valuable evenings away from his wonderful family to engineer the sound so that it actually sounds like a real NPR piece (and, by extension, to the very patient Lorna & little Daniela); and to Gerry Donnelly at WVXU for giving me a shot and for helpful feedback for the next time.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Day 145 - A wonderful day entirely north of 123rd Street

A weekday afternoon. Overcast. A slight, intermittent drizzle. Warm for late December. Maybe the perfect way to be tramping around looking for owls who fly down from further north to spend winters in Pelham Bay Park.

But owls or not, (not, by the way), this was the first time I made the full loop around the nature trail on Hunter Island at the northeastern tip of the park. Views in virtually every direction were foggy and drear--and magnificent. When we made it further north and looked out past a little bay toward Cat Briar Island, there was virtually nothing convincing you that this couldn't have been 500 years ago--still untrammeled wilderness. A fleet of hundreds of brandts bobbed up and down in the bay just far enough to be inaudible. Smaller squadrons took turns circling in formation on brief missions before landing again. It was like watching a busy Richard Scarry airport from afar. From the water's edge, along the fringe of stands of poplar, oak, jewelberry and dogwood, and staring into the mist with faint outlines of islands further away, it wasn't hard to imagine that this is what the Lennape saw before the Dutch and the English arrived. Not sure if some of my pictures will do it justice.

Matt Symons, a NYC Urban Park Ranger, led me around the northern tip of the island along the Theodore Kazimirioff Nature Trail, up an old carriage road that led to the high point of the island and the estate--long gone--of John Hunter. In its place is a stand of white pine whose softly green needles stood out sharply against the browns and ochres of autumn--more so on a shadowless gray day. These are where the owls would be found if they were sleeping, as they tend to do during the day. (Indeed, we found a few saw-whet owls sleeping afternoon away in this very spot a few years earlier on a less rambling walk.) But not on this day. Our only consolation was the sighting of the extremely rare wild Pinus christmas which was in bud when we came upon it.

The afternoon was framed by lunch at Feroza's Roti, a modest, tasty joint on Burke Avenue in the Allerton section of the Bronx; and dinner at Sisters' for jerk chicken, callaloo & collards on E. 124th St. in East Harlem. Feroza's is a (by now) old favorite, thanks to Matt's introduction a long time ago. It gets mixed reviews and I'm no roti expert, but the conch is excellent. Sisters' was new to me and a great place to catch up with an old friend in the neighborhood.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Day 144 - Christmas, Brooklyn-style

So, Dyker Heights isn't a particularly new thing for me. But it's the kind of thing I feel like I never do enough. I get there once every third year or so. There's even less incentive these days now that Lento's amazing, unprepossessing barroom meatsauce pies rather unceremoniously faded into memory a couple of years ago as part of a family dispute. (I just found out that there's a new Staten Island Lento's, apparently of the same family. I'll be checking that out in short order, but it can only go so far since part of the allure was the unchanged--in good ways and bad--1930s Deco barroom.)

But despite Lento's demise (or, at least, relocation), there is a new reason to see the Dyker Heights Christmas lights, and to spend time in Bay Ridge, generally: Tanoreen. This is a Palestinian-owned middle-eastern restaurant on the corner of Third & 77th--just a block-and-a-half from my old Bay Ridge home. Chowhound it and read all of the reviews yourself because they do a much better job than I will in describing individual dishes. All I can implore you to do is to ask the server what's been made on the night that you go that isn't on either the menu or the specials listing. This was one piece of advice we got and my friends and I had the most delicately wonderful lamb sausage in a tangy tomato-sumac sauce. Now a few days on, I get a little weepy just thinking about them.

Tanoreen has no alcohol, but you're welcome to step across the street to Hendrick's wine shop which has what seems like a perfectly serviceable selection of wines--at least to this non-connoisseur. And if you're really feeling old-school after that, you can wander into Mooney's Pub next door. If it's after 10pm, you can even enjoy a cigarette or two or twenty inside. While strangely nostalgic, I remembered when I woke up the next day and smelled my jeans why I so much prefer the smoking ban.

Not the most elegantly executed photo, but possibly my favorite since you get both Christmas AND
the emerald-top of the Verrazano to the right.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Day 131 - Sweet, sweet Cajun country

If you travel just 45 minutes by car to the west out of New Orleans, you'll probably be on the Cajun Highway--US 90. Pull off into Raceland and you'll be on the threshold of southern Louisiana's sugar cane country. The broad arc that sweeps from the Mississippi River across to Lafayette westward along this road is, more or less, the frontier between the crawfishing, shrimping and fishing bayous to the south and sugar cane country to the north.

This year, about 400,000 acres of the flat, marshy deltaic plain--about twice the size of NYC--is under cultivation for sugar cane in Louisiana. And around now, assuming the weather has been good to the farmers--wet early, dry later, bone-dry at the end--some 700 farmers will be riding their fields in combines shucking sunflower-high stalks of cane. In their wakes, dozens of egrets who have flown over from the bayous swoop in to catch insects and field mice dislodged from the stands of stalks.

The farmers make a bit of gamble: to wait as long as possible to begin harvesting without running out of time to finish cutting their 2500 or 5000 acres before a deep freeze settles in by late December or early January. The longer you wait to begin, the more sucrose accumulates in the cane. But the risk of losing a good deal of your crop to a freeze also increases. A few days of rain somewhere in between can delay harvesting for a week and increase the risk of missing the deadline even more. This year has been dry and warm.

The farmers will deliver some eleven- or twelve-million tons of shucked cane to a dozen sugar mills. The mills are industrial behemoths of rusting battleship-gray corrugated steel siding with steam-belching stacks seemingly from another era. They crush the cane to extract the sucrose-laden juice that, with some heat, spinning and chemistry, will become a million--perhaps one-and-a-quarter million--tons of raw sugar. That's just in Louisiana. Texas, Florida & Hawaii also grow cane. Sugar beets, which can grown in more temperate climates, can grow further north. Beet sugar is more prevalent than cane sugar these days. Both are dwarfed by corn syrups in the sweetener market.

I still have more to learn--including about price controls, the characteristics of the industry, etc. But I got to spend a pretty incredible day touring a sugar mill and meeting a few farmers, including Jessie Breaux, pictured below. He comes from an old Cajun cane-farming family who loves what they do and struggle a bit in an industry that continues to demand more and more cost savings through consolidation--but that's the challenge of all commodity farmers at the moment. He was working through Christmas Day this year, as all of his neighbors were, to take advantage of the late warmth and the great yield this year. "Santa will be riding his two-row," he told me with a weary smile. His two-row combine, that is.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Day 130 - Guerrilla Benchmaking in New Orleans

New Orleans is improving. Plans are coming to the fore. There’s still a long way to go, and there are some very tricky questions still to be worked out: how those of the nearly 200,000 residents still displaced who want to return can be repatriated; the wisdom of rebuilding below sea level (indeed the wisdom of levees for that matter); the fate of public housing; the dramatic demographic shift of the city from pre-storm to now and in the next several years. On that last point, Mayor Nagin two years ago famously, if artlessly, said New Orleans was and always would be a chocolate city. And it may, yet. But it is decidedly more dixie cup at the moment.

Money finally is beginning to flow. Governmental and non-profit partners are moving from a hired-gun approach in addressing the most critical problems haphazardly to being more deliberative. Programs are becoming institutionalized; staff are being hired.

But it’s slow. And the seemingly small problems that fall far down on the list of priorities are actually more crucial than they might seem. When I was last here nine months ago, I estimated by a rough count that those areas of the city that were still inhabited were missing street signs at one-third of the intersections. A big deal? Perhaps not when you’re worried about getting your FEMA trailer hooked up to the street’s sewer line in front of our house so your family has a flushing toilet. Or if you have to find the title to your property--which has been passed down for several generations without re-registering with the city’s deed office—in order to apply for a building permit. Street signs are the last thing you might care about. But they do an awful lot to tell everyone—residents, visitors, volunteers—that the city is getting back on its feet.

Virtually every intersection I drove through in the more inhabited neighborhoods have their signs now. But they’re still largely missing from the inundated Lower Ninth Ward and Lakeview areas. That is, official street signs are still missing. But local residents have pitched in to help out in a pinch and posted their own. I hear that people who lived in corner houses—if they were still around—did this since they knew what their intersection was. Guerrilla sign painting. My friend Philip pointed out to me that New Orleans is a town that is being rebuilt—such as it is—largely through such guerrilla benevolence. In addition to the signs, there is the guy who owned a couple of hotels in the French Quarter and couldn’t get the city to come pick up his garbage for a good long while after Katrina and so bought his own garbage truck and Dumpsters and now has a side business in sanitation. Truly. (He even recently won a couple of the city’s contracts for waste hauling.)

And then there are the guerrilla benchmakers.

The Bench Women, as they call themselves, were introduced to me by my friend Robin Barnes—herself a Bench Woman. She and two colleagues—all involved in New Orleans’ rebuilding, though in less manual ways—spend some of their weekends building, painting and deploying simple, sturdy benches at bus stops in New Orleans’ Central Business District. Surreptitiously. They don’t do it under cover of darkness or anything like that. But they don’t have permission either. But neither did the folks posting street signs. Nor, at first, the hotelier turned garbage truck king.

The benches are the inspiration of Carey Shea after she noticed people massing at the street corners downtown throughout the day.

“At first I thought something free was being handed out,” Carey told me. “It was just a few months after the storm and there were very few people around at that point.” So large groups were downright noteworthy.

Carey, a former New Yorker and current New Orleanian, is a program officer at the Greater New Orleans Foundation working on affordable housing issues. Her habit is to ride her bike most places around New Orleans. She began to notice—in the way that the slower, more deliberate pace of a bicycle ride through a city allows—that throngs of people were gathering on some of the street corners in her neighborhood.

She realized that they were simply waiting for the bus. These were the 10% of the New Orleans transit ridership that had returned—because they had few other choices—to use the skeletal, limping system of buses that arrived infrequently, if at all. The waits, even now, two years on, can be over an hour on many lines. Carey said she thought to herself that someone—the city, the transit authority, someone—should put benches there for the waiting patrons, many of whom were elderly. But New Orleans was a town of dire infrastructural need even before Katrina. Bus stop shelters and benches are still a luxury that MIGHT be indulged in after new buses are bought, streets are paved, electricity is restored to swamped neighborhoods, and housing is rebuilt.

Then Carey realized that she had her own power tools

Robin Barnes’s sideyard has become the staging area for benchbuilding. Every couple of weeks she’ll arrive home from work to find a half-dozen pieces of lumber waiting behind her gate. She then knows that Carey “made a drop,” and that they’ll be building and painting at the weekend. The team includes the two of them as well as Robin Keegan, a New Orleanian by birth who lived in New York until Katrina and who has since returned. In about 90 minutes, they can assemble a 16” high bench that is 8 feet long. Two of these, bolted together after they arrive at the bus stop where it will eventually be deployed, gives about 10 people space to wait for buses.

While two of them work on construction, the other is painting and varnishing the previous session’s benches just prior to delivery. The most recent one was a deep pink with black fleurs-de-lis stenciled on. It’s at the corner of Loyola and Common, downtown. I wandered over there the other day and found a few folks sitting on it. It’s just used—constantly, it seems.

I asked Joanne Johnson when she first noticed this bench here.

“’bout two weeks ago.”

And what did she think of it?

“They have a lot of old people. A lot of people that be coming home from work they need to be sit down waitin’ on these long buses. It’s hard. It’s real hard.”

Did she know where the bench came from?

“No, just showed up one day.”

I told her about the Bench Women.

“I’m a senior citizen and I thank the ladies very much for the bench.”

And then Ms. Johnson pointed up the street and asked me to tell them which corner she thought the next one should go.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Day 117 - Briney! Preserving local manufacturing.

Hundreds of jars, mint leaf waiting quietly at the bottom, ready to receive champagne vinegar spears...

As many of you know, I have, over the past year, joined Jon Orren of Wheelhouse Pickles on occasion for an evening of slow, artisanal foodmaking. He makes fantastic pickles. I have gotten to slice pears for his tangy, slightly sweet Irma's Pears, to quarter cucumbers for his champagne vinegar spears, and to roast and peel with my hands a couple hundred pounds of beets. He also makes peppers, wax beans okra and, occasionally, turnips. His "whim" line includes some of his most fun experiments including very, very fresh horseradish and, most recently, a chutney made with Red Hook's own Six Points Ale.

Jon makes his pickles at the Artisan Baking Center's kitchen incubator for nascent food businesses. For a nightly rental fee, Jon gets to use ABC's industrially equipped kitchen after hours for a night or two a week. This saves his young, growing business the cost of leasing a space that he isn't yet big enough to use fully. It also saves him the cost of buying a lot of equipment. For the challenge of not always having exactly what he needs at hand in the kitchen, he is saving himself a lot of money. More to the point, since he might not have been able to raise the kind of money needed to buy all that space and equipment, ABC has allowed him be in business when he otherwise might not have been able to thrive.

While I was at the Mayor's Office for Industrial & Manufacturing Businesses, we commissioned a study by the New York Industrial Retention Network and the Fiscal Policy Institute--More Than A Link In The Food Chain--to explore how to take advantage of New York's already vibrant food manufacturing sector and make it even more so. One key recommendation is to find more large, industrial or institutional kitchens that, with some effort at programming, can be turned into incubators for New York's food entrepreneurs--many of whom are immigrants and women.

On the nights I've worked with Jon and his team, we've been side-by-side with an organic, small-batch granola maker, an organic dog treat maker (better ingredients than are likely to be in your typical ham, egg & cheese sandwich at your local bodega), a high-end fat-free dessert maker, and another who serves exclusively airlines traveling between New York City and east Asia. And that's one night a week. It's open all seven for similar businesses.

Access to affordable space that allows for manufacturers to craft products that are locally demanded and supplied, and which take advantage of its talented pool of skilled labor, is the single biggest challenge for many businesses anxious to set up shop in New York City. Many of the City's most successful industrial areas have vacancy rates, conservatively, below 5% with waiting lists for spaces that are becoming more and more expensive as the specter of rezonings and the allowance of non-manufacturing uses bids up rent levels. A land use policy that incorporates a balanced approach to mixing uses (scroll down)--light industrial activities like pickle making and appropriate densities of residential units--could help ensure that these jobs and activities remain in New York City. And in a town that is more than two-thirds foreign born, having good paying jobs that provide opportunities for folks with limited education and English proficiency--not to mention a much more interesting urban landscape--couldn't be more important.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Day 115 - Hena Coffee Roasters

I spent a pretty spectacular 3 hours today with Lanie Tauber, one of the duo of brothers running Hena Coffee Roasters out in very industrial East New York. They are the third generation of coffee roasters in their family. Their grandfather Harry H. Wolfe was a roaster for then-ubiquitous Martinson before setting up his own shop with his son. Harry H. Wolfe & Son was a roasting house that worked under contract to other coffee companies, commissioned to render the art that is roasting their coffees for their labels.

Cutting out a lot of details (for a change), Hena is the latest incarnation of the family's coffee roasting heritage. Lanie and brother Scott operate in the specialty coffee market--higher end products for fancy restaurants and gourmet shops.

I'm a fairly recent coffee drinker, so I assume almost everyone else in the world knows more about coffee than I do. But Lanie was gracious enough to give me a crash course in the art of buying, blending and roasting proprietary combinations of coffee that give each roasting company their signature tastes and characters. I learned the spectrum of roasts from lighter American City roasts, through Vienna roast, French roast and, finally, Italian roast. All the same coffee--just a matter of how long it's in the roaster. And the difference between the different roasters can be a matter of seconds in small batches. That's part of the art, too.

Lanie and I mixed together a few handfuls of green coffee beans from Kenya, Uganda, Guatemala and Columbia and then tossed them into his vintage Jabez Burns & Sons sample roaster. This is an ingeniously efficient machine that is--for nerds like me--perhaps more of a highlight to witness than the magic of roasting coffee itself. Gas jets are lit beneath a pair of small rotating drums that, to me, evoke clothes dryers except each is about he size of, well, a can of coffee on its side.

A small amount of our green beens are funneled into the roasters where they are kept in constant motion above the flame. Bafflers line the drum to ensure the beans flip and are not just running along the smooth sides of the drum. With only 1/4 lb of beans in the roaster, it doesn't take more than a few minutes for roasting to begin. Lanie likes to say coffee is a food. And as he talked I went a step further and thought of it as wine. The terms used for the aromas that are released at different points of the roasting are widely discussed at coffee samplings. Like wine, the terms seem to be as precise as they are subjective. Smelling the grassy, earthy bouquet of coffee beans taking on heat and just beginning to give off some aroma was straightforward enough. But when I went a step further and said I thought I detected a nuttiness, I got a frown from Lanie who explained that that would bad. He smelled it and detected no nuttiness. What do I know?

Over the next 3 or so minutes, the beans quickly moved through the American family of roasting shades and into the espresso family: Vienna, then French, then Italian. Lanie took a scoop out every few seconds not so much for him to check progress (he can do this blindfolded) than to show me how quickly the beans progress through stages. Different oils come to the surface at different temperatures, producing a popping sound at two distinct points along the way. He'd put the scoop beneath my nose, I'd inhale and immediately recognize lovely, familiar notes which, when I offered them aloud, caused Lanie to furrow his brow again in worry, check it himself and gently correct me. (This is why, while fascinated by and a lover of good food, I'll never be a proper foodie. Secretly, I want to be. But I'll never know how.)

A few seconds more and we dumped the hot beans into the trough in front of the roasting drum which quickly passes cool air over them to arrest the roasting process. If this wasn't done, they'd continue to cook. Another minute and we ground our VERY fresh coffee. We placed a tablespoon into some sampling cups and poured boiling water on top and let it steep.

Who samples coffee? While they can be retail events in the way that wine tastings have become, they don't seem to have caught on. Most roasting houses have sampling rooms in order to test the quality and characteristics of the green coffee beans they're purchasing from growers and brokers. Wholesale customers can also arrange to come and taste different blends and products.

After a minute or two of steeping, each cup developed a crust of oils on top called the crema. This is key. The best time to smell brewed coffee's aroma is as soon as that crema is broken with a spoon. That is the point at which they are the most concentrated. After that, sampling would proceed with several coffees of different blends or different roasts, or both. A spoon is used to take a sample, it is slurped into the mouth to aspirate it, and then sloshed around all parts of the tongue and palate to trigger all of the taste sensors. And then there is a big old spittoon-like vessel into which it is to be spat, not swallowed.

It turns out that you can roast coffee at home either in a hot-air popcorn popper or in a good pan on a medium-high heat on the stove. My friends and I did the latter to great effect this past weekend with a bunch of green coffee beans Lanie was kind enough to send me away with. I'm now a convert!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Day 107 - Hang Gliding School

For much of the last 10 years, I've been spending Thanksgivings with family in a decidedly non-NYC way: on the Outer Banks. In the wonders of modern family, I have the benefit of a dozen or so step-aunts and -cousins to carouse with for several days each year on a wind-whipped beach during a season when it might be 75 degrees or 35. While it is decidedly a destination and resort area, there is a great deal of history along this 100-mile strip of barrier island. And when not in the high season, it's a lovely place to spend a few days exploring in addition to relaxing.

Most people will undoubtedly know the Outer Banks as the site of humans' first heavier-than-air flight. On December 17, 1903, the Wright Brothers succeeded in powered flight from a natural sand dune in the village of Kill Devil Hills. News of their success was transmitted from the telegraph station in nearby Kitty Hawk, forever linking--erroneously--that community's name in millions of school children's minds with the actual event.

A wonderful Art Deco granite monument was erected atop the dune in 1927 to commemorate the event. Only problem? As sand dunes tend to do when nature is interrupted, they slowly migrate in the direction of prevailing winds. The smaller granite markers that were placed in the ground to show the distance of three successive flights are now much further away from the apex of the dune than they were 104 years ago. In the quarter century between the inaugural flight and the dedication of the memorial, the dune had migrated south more than 100 yards. It was stabilized, to some degree, with vegetation when the monument was erected. Nature will, undoubtedly, have her way at some point.

A little further south in Nags Head, the same dune system continues as part of Jockey's Ridge State Park. After years of passing it by on the highway and ignoring the sign "HANG GLIDING SCHOOL," I could wait no longer. I signed up for a lesson which included five "accompanied" flights. You fly solo (there are tandem flights from higher altitudes) but are tethered to a couple of instructors running along on the ground with long nylon cables that don't let you get much more than 40' off the ground--at least until you've had a few lessons.

It was both easier than I would have thought and trickier to actually manipulate the glider. My first flight landed me face-first in the sand and I have a great big bruise on my thigh as a war wound. But the next four flights went really well. I got high enough to be able to steer a bit. It was exhilarating! This is not normally the type of things I'd do, but I'm really, really glad I did. Notice any similarities?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Day 102 - The Last of the World's Fair

I was fortunate enough to be a guest at the Long Island City Business Development Corporation's annual luncheon today. It was held at Terrace on the Park in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. This was a noteworthy event for me. Yes, I was pleased to have been invited by LICBDC. But there was something else. This was the only relic of any import remaining from the 1964/65 World's Fair that I had not been in.

In its current incarnation, Terrace in the Park is an event space and catering hall--with panoramic views of that glorious borough that is Queens. But the structure is also the former Port Authority Pavilion from the Fair. From outside, it looks vaguely like one of the Space Invaders (second row from the bottom, I'd say) in the futuristic style of the fair and of the day. But there is reason for the high-top, flat-top look. It was the Fair's heliport. Helicopters ferrying the city's business titans (and Port Authority executives, no doubt) to and from the fair would alight and take off from here.

Despite still being open to the public--Terrace on the Park is the scene of an endless parade of retiring city officials' sendups and a not insignificant number of my friends' and colleagues' weddings--I somehow had not been in there yet. (I have even been able to climb to the top of the nearby off-limits NYS Pavilion--what most folks think of as the flying saucers or the things from Men In Black.) Other than scaling the outside of the Unisphere, I think I've conquered the Fair's main extant sites now.

Many thanks to LICBDC for the opportunity!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Day 101 - Midtown Modernism to Manganaro's

Had some time to kill today between a talk at the MAS and a food meeting at the Cornell Cooperative Extension on 34th Street. So I headed to B&H Photo on foot to get a new mic stand. This hazy late morning was perhaps the last mild day before the bitterness of autumn finally settles in on the City. I love the seasons--every one of them--but there is a bit of cruelty to offering a snap of springtime when it is likely to be followed immediately by autumn in earnest. Like an aperitif at the end of a meal.

As I wandered westward in the fifties past the Rockefeller tree enshrouded in scaffolding--like every other new or newly gussied edifice in the city these days--the monoliths of modernism along 6th Avenue yielded to lower-slung old taxpayers lining 8th and 9th Avenues. They're filled with modest businesses along the street that, in the old days, helped to subsidize the residential apartments in the 3 or 4 floors above. But they're all leaving. Ground floor shops and watering holes of long standing if questionable quality are closing up as their leases end and the buildings' owners realize the value that can be unlocked beneath their stately, if soot-smudged, brick facades. These are buildings from turn of the century New York when stone masons arrived by the hodful in steerage from Italy to erect handsomely clad buildings with decorative window lintels and pressed-tin-covered parapets that, on my of these old-timers, still cling to the top edges.

But now their time is past. Entrepreneurs rarely own, develop and run a business--or a building--on a single lot anymore. Aside from the odd sliver building that bucks this trend (see picture) most of these properties are being emptied, sold, and assembled by developers who are aggregating air rights and awaiting (or presaging) the transformation of the far west side. The most recent casualty close enough to me in my extended family of neighborhood joints for me to mourn a bit was the Collins Bar on the east side of 8th Ave, just north of 46th. Don't misunderstand: while this was a relatively young concern--less than 10 years--it was in a space that had all of the charms of a local gin mill for generations: darkness (true darkness, not loungy, candleflicker dark); dankness; improbably narrow with barely enough space to edge your way behind barstool patrons to the small dumbbell nook of tables at the back; tall, pressed tin ceilings; and a popcorn maker. Despite the cajun spiced salt and the high-end beers, this was still pure localism.

A little further down, a few relics which have hung on so long they're in danger of becoming, first, campy and, eventually, a kitschy throwback to yesteryear: Manganaro's Grosseria. Click here to read about the longstanding feud between it and the neighboring, not quite related, Manganero's Heroboy.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Day 98 - Urban Detective In Training

I spent this chilly autumn morning with my buddy James (above) who was interested in becoming an Urban Detective Trainee. We met a group of other UDTs beneath the arch in Washington Square. There, the Municipal Art Society was hosting a tour geared at teaching young people about Jane Jacobs and her virtuous life in her neighborhood.

Before we set out we were given a map of the park and ambled around as a group looking at where people were gathered in the park and what they were doing. Some folks were playing with their dogs in the dog walk. One group was taking a tour, just like us, but not with as many young people. Some people were just sitting and talking on the benches (even though it was so cold!) and a lot of people were using the bathroom to wash themselves. (It turns out we learned some people live in the park.) Afterward, we came back as a group and completed two exercises. We filled out a grid with what things we thought a good park should have in it and, then, did the same thing for a good neighborhood. Here's some of what James came up with:

in a Park:
  • bathroom
  • flagpole
  • paths
  • dog area and dog fountain
  • people fountain
  • trash cans & ashtrays (so people don't throw cigarettes on the ground)
  • trees
  • benches
  • good lighting
  • play grounds

and in a Neighborhood:
  • a school
  • card store
  • arcade (didn't know kids James age knew what these were!)
  • entertainment
  • bowling
  • museum
  • clean stores
  • food store
  • theatre
  • subway station
  • firehouse
  • police station
  • army (oy...)
Good lists!

Then we set out with our guide from MAS and began walking around the neighborhood outside of the park to see some other strands of the urban fabric. We walked up to Washington Mews to see a quiet little enclave in the busier, bustling city outside its gates. It's a lovely space, a gem of a row of residences in old carriage houses. James and I saw something really cool: a tree or vine that had grown through the iron gates in front of one of the doors. We wondered how long the people had been stuck inside! And I was tickled that, incredibly, I had not been here myself, yet. But I wasn't sure this is what I wanted to show off to young Urban Detectives in Training as ideal urban living. (Though I was pleased that we got to go behind a gate and poke around in a place that otherwise seemed off-limits. Learning similarly at a young age has led to many, many years of me poking around in places I shouldn't have been. Including some subway tunnels. Sorry James' mom!)

We learned that the apartment buildings across the street at 2 Fifth Avenue has a fountain in its lobby that supposedly liberates water from the hidden watercourse below ground that used to be Minetta Brook and is now covered (UDTs take note!) by all of the streets and buildings and parks and trees-growing-through-doors that people have all built in New York in the last 400 years.

Unfortunately, after that the tour got a little boring. There was a lot of interesting adult stuff being talked about, but not so much for younger folks. Plus it was cold. We decided we'd head off to a bookstore a few blocks away to warm up and wait for James' mom. (Oh, and pore over Japanese graphic novels--James had a lot to teach me!)

On the way we thought we'd make the most of the rest of our times outdoors to polish our Urban Detective skills. (I always like to keep mine sharp as an Adult Urban Detective.) We saw some really cool things. First of all, walking back through the park we saw what must have been a discarded piece of fruit on the cobblestones beneath the arch that looked suspiciously like phosphorescent alien brain.

Then, just because we happened to be looking up in the air, we found what must have been the vestiges of an old tree house! There, about part-way up a tree in the park was--a mailbox! What a strange, fun thing to see!

Given the style of the mailbox, I think we assumed it was from the late-Levittown Suburban era, possibly early McMansion period. It was particularly odd to see an example of that style kitty-corner from the Federal style just a few yards away along Washington Sq. North.

I've been on a manhole cover kick lately and spending a lot of time paying close attention to the markings on steel castings that are either covers or sewer grates. (The Times scooped my story idea which I am in the middle of researching--about why so many of them are made in India now. Dispiriting, I tell you...) But this cover was one that I hadn't seen before. My guess is you won't find too many of them around the City. Note James' feet added in order to appreciate the scale...

Then it was time to learn about terra cotta. On the southwest corner of Washington Square Park is a fancy-pants apartment building over whose brass and copper awning is some prettily-colored baked tiles framing the window lintels and encircling the faux columns beneath some of them. James was more interested in splashing in puddles by this point. And given the temperature (and now the wet feet) we decided we'd proceed directly to the bookstore with now more boring distractions below our feet or above our heads.

But I'm really sad James wasn't with me just a couple of hours later when, after I left him with his mom, I found the most curious discovery of the entire day. And it made me feel good. Like an angel--or at least someone with special powers--was looking over us, every single day, in this busy, hazard-riddled city of ours.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Day 95 - Lunch in a Loading Dock

My friend Dory took me out to lunch for my birthday. I was asked if I could meet her near her office in the Garment District and given the choice of a Japanese curry joint or falafel in a loading dock.

As if she had to ask.

Pick-A-Pita does a brisk business in the back of a loading dock that you get to from the north side of West 38th Street. It looks like it was built out from where the old mailroom in this old garment building was. Florescent light banks line the ceiling like an office. The Snapple refrigerator competes with space for the 4 or 5 tables on asbestos tiles. "Garish" is an apt word. "Perfect," too. Falafel was excellently spiced (not too much cumin) if a little overcooked for my taste. But the ample, endless sides and condiments make it an even bigger treat.

Walking back to the subway, we passed the curry joint Dory had also suggested. Go! Go! Curry is just a few doors down. The Japanese owner is described as an obsessive fan of #55 on the Yankees, Hideki Matsui. How much so? Consider the shop's hours of operation:

Friday, November 2, 2007

Days Afield: Day 88 - Lost Between Pizza, Ploughshares & Pitchers

The lure of a rental car that was one-third the price of a Manhattan rental was just one thing that drew me to Philadelphia on Halloween. In fact, it was just one-third of the lure. The other two-thirds? A pizza pie from Tacconelli's before setting off on a road trip to see family down south.

Tacconelli's is a neighborhood joint tucked into the ground floor of a rowhouse in a working class neighborhood lined with three-flats. A little further east, down a gentle slope, Sommerset Street passes under I-95 before it stub-ends onto the old port's piers which reach arthritically into the Delaware River. The waterfront is still lined with industrial concerns but few, if any, seem still to rely on the river for much other than buffering them from development. The modest brick and woodframe houses up on the hill were home for the Polish and Italian dockworkers. And based on who I saw and heard sitting out on front stairs in the straining daylight, patiently waiting for trick-or-treaters with candy supplies in hand, easily calling to neighbors on the next set of stairs or across the narrow street, they're the same folks. It's their kids' kids now scampering from stoop to stoop filling bags with goodies.

Tacconelli's is unpretentious: pizzeria meets red-sauce sit-down joint, only without anything but pizza. It's a few steps up from the sidewalk into a faux-paneled vestibule and then into a 1980s era dining room with booths beneath a drop ceiling. Along one wall is a soda fountain and ice chest with a plastic rolling cart holding paper cups and plastic lids. It reminds me a bit of what a finished basement would look like if you turned it into a pizzeria.

Despite (or maybe because of) the lack of pretension, Tacconelli's is sometimes hard to get into. But reservations are needed not so much to hold a seat as to reserve a dough. They make only enough dough each day as is needed for the number of pizzas folks have reserved. Reserve 3 doughs for your party of seven and decide you want just one more gorgeous tomato pie? Sorry. Unless, of course, someone before you committed the treasonable act of taking fewer pies than they reserved. The menu and website both admonish diners to take what they've ordered and warn them not expect an extra.

Belied by the d├ęcor are brick oven masterpieces of exceeding simplicity. Each pie, individually made, has some combination of the following: dough, oil, cheese, tomato sauce. A “white pie” will be just oil and cheese on the dough with salt, pepper and liberal handfuls of garlic. The tomato pie, probably my favorite with a few anchovies added, is sauce on dough done to perfection. There are a couple of other equally simple combinations—and the standard toppings. But few, if any, are needed.

The brick oven into which the current pizza maker slips his works of simple artistry into is do deep that his wooden spatula has a handle that is nearly 20 feet long--so long that when it's at rest just outside the mouth of the oven the tip-end rests on a standing roller ten feet behind him to keep it from snapping. When feeding the spatula in to the oven to slip a pie in or retrieve a perfectly crusty one from it, the roller supports the handle gliding along behind the oven master. It's a beautiful one-man pizza operation. Stop by for a pie (call ahead!) and ask them if you can peek into the kitchen. If it's not busy, they'll simply step aside and let you ogle the place for awhile. Heaven on earth—in Philadelphia.

* * *

Most of you know how tickled I am by maps. And gadgets. So it's with some curiosity that I haven't embraced the advent of GPS and, for instance, chosen a cell phone with one if only for plotting my bicycle rides. But I also don't use them when I'm driving. I dunno.. seems a little like cheating. I pride myself in being able to find my way around just about anywhere with an admittedly keen sense of direction and a good, old-fashioned paper map. But I have to say that I was mesmerized by my friend Lucinda's on-board navigation system while we were making our way around Philly and its environs. For a little while after dinner, I really thought that it might be fun to be navigating my cross-country journeys with a dash-mounted map instead of having to pull over and consult a bound volume to double-check a coordinate or confirm a missed turn.

But then the next morning I got lost in central PA. Not the first time, frankly, and I hope it’s not the last.

I was cruising west along the Pennsylvania Turnpike waiting for my exit for I-81 south. A combination of insufficient caffeine levels and a rather robust two-fer of Bryan Adams on the radio is the likely reason that I realized I was zooming past my exit only as it was happening, doing 70. But, being unemployed and on a vacation within my vacation, there was little I could do to justify being angry. After all, what was my rush? I’d simply get off at the next exit and get back on in the other direction and get back on track. Ten miles passed. Then 10 more. Despite my best efforts, I was getting annoyed. Mostly it was this: I had no idea how far it was until the next exit—and I didn’t have a paper map; I forgot to take my road atlas from home. A keen sense of direction is a gift (as well as a developable skill) I’m proud to have, but it’s only part of what makes a successful trekker. I didn’t know if the exit was in 5 more miles or 25 more miles. Then when you add on the distance back to 81, it’d be double that. Two-x, x being an unknown value. Luckily it was only 5 more.

I scooted off the turnpike and found a gas station with a set of maps. I snuck a perusal and put back on the rack. Rather than go all the way back I found a route that let me triangulate to I-81 from where I was now. It required wending through some small roads but it was mostly a straight shot. And, secretly, I was pleased to be off the highway and tooling around in a new place.

Penna. Route 997 twists southward from the Turnpike through the great, fertile Cumberland Valley. It passes through a few small farming villages that seem like period pieces—further reinforced by Amish and Mennonite farmers who were out tilling their maize stalks into the ground for the winter on sled-plows drawn by small teams of 2 or 3 horses. Route 997 eventually merges with old US Route 11—one of the original Federal highways from the 1920s that picks a route from north to south from the Canadian border to New Orleans, largely through the north-south valleys paralleling the ridges of the Appalachians. I-81 runs nearly parallel to it for hundreds of miles, taking advantage of the same geographic advantages US 11 does.

Through these parts, US 11 is known as Molly Pitcher Highway. It was the nickname given to a Pennsylvania woman reported to have fought in the Revolutionary War beside her husband. In late June of 1778 in searing 100-degree heat, the Battle of Monmouth took place on the Jersey shore as the Continental Army attacked the evacuating British troops as they tacked north from Freehold. Molly’s husband was manning a gun or cannon was either wounded or felled by the heat as nearly half of the fighting force was that hot day. She took up his position and began firing on the British without missing much of a beat.

Historians seem to differ on whether or not Molly Pitcher actually existed or was, rather, a folklore composite of many women who contributed in heroic ways to the war effort. Whether real or apocryphal, Molly is memorialized along this section of Route 11 here in south-central Pennsylvania. There is also a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, closer to the site of the battle, named for her. One woman with better documented contributions of heroism—Margaret Corbin—took position at her mortally wounded husband’s cannon against the British at Fort Washington two Novembers earlier. She herself was apparently wounded by enemy fire and became, after much haranguing, a pensioned invalid soldier—as a woman. Corbin’s contribution is similarly commemorated near the former site Fort Washington, just south of the Cloisters, at Margaret Corbin Circle. God help me if I ever do something important enough to name a road or rest stop after me.

The things you can learn from getting lost.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Day 85 - Cincinnati, NY

Photo credit: A bowl of 4-way Skyline Chili by Cathy Erway,

NYC being as cosmopolitan as it is, I've always been fascinated about where folks who are from somewhere else gather to be around compatriots. Almost everyone from someplace else longs for the comforts of home: a crowd with whom to root for the home team, people who speak with familiar cadence and terms of speech, and comfort food. New York must be filled with these sorts of places and I wanted to start visiting them.

So I recently put out a request to a few dozen of my more worldly friends here to ask them for suggestions.

The most intriguing spot I heard about was Edward's in TriBeCa. One night a month, Edward's creates a little Cincinnati in New York by importing a handful of classic dishes from the city of seven hills. Things like Montgomery Inn Ribs, LaRosa’s Pizza, and Graeters Ice Cream. Now, this was not, strictly speaking, what I was thinking of when I was asking about expatriate bars, but that may be why it captured my interest.

But first, I had a lot to learn about this fair city: its people, their food and, quickly, the geography. In particular, whether one is from the East LinkSide, or the West Side.

I pulled a seat up to a table with Ben Berman. Ben's a real estate development consultant from Cincinnati who works in San Francisco but just happened to be in New York on business and joined a friend from Cincinnati at Edward's.

“The east side associates itself with the eastern United States, essentially, I think," Ben told me. "And the west side seems to be more heartily Midwestern. So all the connotations of whatever that means for people in other part of the country are probably true for people who live there and the way they conceptualize themselves. They educate their kids in different places. They go to church in different places. They live in different cities when they graduate from college. I mean, it makes a very big different in terms of how you orient your life.”

He might be right about where folks settle when they leave Cincinnati. I interviewed more than a dozen people and all said they were from the East Side.

Brady Richards is an author from the Hyde Park neighborhood of Cincinnati, living in NYC after leaving his hometown for college 10 years ago. I asked him what characterized the typical Cincinnatian.

“We’re extraordinarily down to earth, humble, ouch!. I think there’s a strange groundedness to a lot of the mid west and Cincinnati is the heart of that, as they say. I’m also a meat and potatoes guy—it’s that kind of person. There's a real community feeling there. Growing up, it’s generations of the same families that you know everyone’s parents grandparents, that kind of thing. It’s a little harder to get here. But it’s nice to grow away from that in a way and try to establish that sort of feeling elsewhere."

At the next table over, Nicole Ginocchio, a new kindergarten teacher at a public school in the Bronx who also grew up in Hyde Park, was having dinner with a couple of other friends who recently moved to New York City after graduating from college. I asked her how she’d describe Cincinnati to someone who has never been there.

“The thing about Cincinnati is it’s kind of confused," Nicole said. “It’s in the Midwest geographically. But the people are this southern Midwestern hybrid. It is either like the most southern Midwestern town, or the most Midwestern southern town, ever. My dad always jokes that if they ask you where you went to school in Cincinnati, they don’t mean where you went to college, they mean where you went to HS, because they assume you never left, because everyone stays in Cincinnati.”

And then, a classic Cincinnati moment--or what must be. Brady had overheard my conversation with Nicole and leaned over and asked if she was related to the Ginocchio he went to school with.

"That's my sister!" Nicole said. And with that, the she and Brady caught up with a totting of houses bought, babies born, etc. "There you go," she continued, turning back to me. "Old Cincinnati right there!"

Which brings us to the food from Cincinnati. It's what seemed to unite all the Cincinnatians I met that evening: a nostalgia—or, at least, a craving—for particular dishes that are not easy to get away from the greater Cincinnati area: Montgomery Inn ribs, LaRosa’s pizza, and something called 3-way.

“A 3-way is three ingredients," Brady explained to me. "Spaghetti, chili, cheese. 4-way, you have you choice of either adding onions or beans. 5-way is adding both.”

Now the chili served at Edwards and in Cincinnati is different from what people in other parts of the country think of as chili. “I think that people who grew up with chili as its own meal probably do not understand--and possibly even hate--this being called chili because it’s just, in a way, meat gravy. You would never, in my experiences, order just a bowl of Cincinnati chili. But it’s much better as a condiment than regular chili is. While I’d love to a bowl of chili from Texas, or something like that, when you’re having a 3-way, the only way to do it is with Cincinnati chili.”

Even calling it meat gravy—which I had growing up in an Italian neighborhood here in New York—doesn’t quite capture Cincinnati chili’s hints of chocolate and cinnamon. From what I gathered, chili in Cincinnati is served in parlors as ubiquitous as pizza parlors are—or once were, anyway—in New York. Unlike New York’s history with pizza, though, Cincinnati chili parlor families opened many outlets for their respective brands. The two biggest are Skyline and Gold Star. Brady’s tastes have evolved over the years, it seems.

“I think like many of the chili parlors, started by a Greek immigrants to Cincinnati who had their own recipes. My history is a little shaky even though it’s written usually on the menus and the walls. My personal history is that I was a Skyline—well, I guess I was actually a Goldstar kid for most of my youth. But then when I hit HS it was skyline all the way and it still it. It’s the most prevalent one. There’s one in every neighborhood pretty much.”

Edward Youkilis is the owner and namesake of Edwards and the instigator of these monthly reunions. He left Cincinnati in 1969. On this night, we were watching his nephew Kevin prepare to help the Boston Red Sox sweep the Colorado Rockies in Game 4 of the World Series on a big screen TV. In between innings and bites from a rack of Montgomery Inn ribs, he shared some of the thought behind Cincinnati Nights.

“We started the Cincinnati night about 3 years ago with a friend of mine who worked here named Seth Workman and I started it together. He’s also from Cincinnati and was the manager at the time. And we started small and we started realizing that there are a lot of people who moved here from Cincinnati or worked in Cincinnati who missed a lot of the very specific food they were associating with Cincinnati. So little by little we developed this menu. And I think tonight is our 37th or 38th Cincinnati night here, so we’ve had quite a few of them.”

Toward the back of this narrow restaurant I found Megan Schlegel, an event planner for a large department store and Alexi Tavil, a personal assistant. They met through work and when they realized they were both expatriates, they decided to get their other Cincinnatian friends together to check out the scene at Edwards. It just took them awhile to find the place.

“We’ve been trying to find this place for two years," explained Megan. “I was googling it and could not figure it out. We had a friend who was here on an internship and told us about it. And we could never figure it out where it was and we just did. And I’ve been looking forward to this all week.”

Alexi moved out of Cincinnati about 5 years ago and her family subsequently left the city as well. Does she miss it, I asked?

“Yes, it’s where I grew up. So I lived there for 20 years. You get used to a certain way of life and you get used to a certain kind of food, and then you go away and you can’t find anything similar. I was actually telling everyone before that my parents still will send me, when they go back to visit friends, they’ll buy me cans of Skyline, buy me bottles of Montgomery Inn, and they still have Graeters ice cream dry-iced and shipped to where they live in Washington.”

And how does Edwards compare to back home?

“You know, it’s good," Alexi agreed. "Tastes the same.”

And would they come back?

“Definitely. We’re talking about making our reservation for next month tonight.”

Megan and Alexi were surrounded by about 8 others who, in turn, were surrounding a few LaRosa's pizza pies. Were these their steady Cincinnati friends living abroad here in NYC, I asked.

Is this your kind of standard group of folks you know from back home?

“Actually we know each other very distantly through work, and so these are her friends and these are my friends," Alexi said pointing to each half of the table. "And we just came together.”

“Over Skyline,” crooned Megan.

“Over Skyline,” gushed Alexi, with a smile.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Day 82 - Why do they call it Conduit Blvd, anyway?

I've been saying this a lot lately, but days like today remind of how lucky I am to have time that is my own. I saw an article in today's Metro NY on the Parks Department's proposal for part of the disused Ridgewood Reservoir. All I know about the plans is what I read in this article. In brief, it seems one of the basins may be filled in to allow for ballfields of artificial turf to be installed for active play. I don't yet have a strong opinion on it. My initial reaction is that natural green spaces should be maintained as such and perhaps adapted to allow recreation that complements their landscapes. I realized that this was one of the few parts of NYC's water infrastructure I still hadn't seen. But being concerned that there may be some significant changes in the offing, I wanted to have a look for myself. I was interviewing a manufacturer in nearby Ozone Park for a piece I'm working on, and since I had nothing to do afterward, I took the Q56 down Jamaica Ave. to Highland Park to have a look around.

The bus lets you of just past the Cypress Hills National Cemetery's perfectly aligned rows of headstones, and its rusting cyclone fence. It was gray and blustery late morning--perfectly autumn. Treetops were beginning to smudge from deep green to yellows and ochers, more vivid beneath the diffused light of an overcast sky. I slung my bag over my shoulder, leaned forward into the wind and marched up the path. Near to the top an old pair of staircases lead to top edge of the old reservoir. At some point it was probably a common thing to see folks from the neighborhood mount the hill and circumambulate the basins high up over the graveyards and apartment buildings. Along the path, the globes of all of the lamp posts--scores in total--are smashed to bits now, but I bet this was a lovely place to take an evening walk at one point. Might still be. Just darker.

The reservoir is fenced off. Some sections have been peeled back by folks intent on being inside. One such opening led to the top of the wall that bisected the basins--a path I was salivating over sneaking into. But nobody knew I was here, it was now raining pretty steadily, and the reservoir at mid-morning is a lonely, overgrown place. The stone walls sloping down into the undergrowth were slick. I used to be braver about such adventures. I'll be back, though.

One basin is filled partly with water and forms a makeshift wetland, fragmites and bullrushes looking more like Jamaica Bay than the Brooklyn-Queens border. The other is almost fully covered in cherry and willows and mulberry. At the edges are boarded up buildings that were the pump houses and valve chambers, in use until the mid-1960s. All are out of reach behind the fencing, ivy overtaking their thresholds.

The old reservoir sits atop the moraine that is the spine down the center of all of Long Island--from the East River to the East End. This is the furthest point south to which glaciers advanced during the last ice age. As glaciers pushed southward over tens of thousands of square miles, trillions of tons of soil, shale, boulders and sand were scraped up along its frontier, a Mother Nature-sized bulldozer. As the ice sheets retreated, all of that detritus was left to form the geologic feature that gave us the makings of many bridge-and-tunnel jokes. It also created a porous land form wonderfully conducive to naturally filtering and holding rainwater in underground aquifers.

The City of Brooklyn burgeoned in the mid-part of the last century and its collective thirst for clean water grew commensurately--probably moreso. At any rate, it outstripped the ability of wells and natural aquifers in Brooklyn to slake the thirst of residents, brewers, tanners, and gristmillers. Ridgewood Reservoir was commissioned around 1858 to hold waters brought in from Baisley Pond in what is today southeast Queens but was, then, still Nassau County. Water ran through an aqueduct--or conduit--westward from there into Ridgewood. The curiously named North and South Conduit Boulevards--familiar to anyone driving along the Belt Parkway to JFK Airport--framed the route from the pond to a point at the foot of the hill beneath the reservoir. From there, a steam pump forced water up the incline (the eponymous Force Tube Avenue, just south of Highland Park, marks its path) into the receiving basins where it would sit, ready to be used by Brooklynites. The height of the reservoir allowed gravity to do the rest of the work of distribution. After the greater City of New York came into existence in 1898 and Brooklyn was included in the more reliable Catskill watershed system, the Ridgewood Reservoir became vestigial.

If you can visit soon, it's a worthwhile spot to take in some fall foliage. And if you have a chance while you're out there, arrange to take the A-train out to Lefferts Boulevard. This is one of three routes to which I had not been to the very end of the line. Beneath the elevated, along Liberty Avenue from from Lefferts Boulevard all the way back to Rockaway Parkway, is one of New York's classic shopping streets. It's updated to reflect the Guyanese population that has largely filled in the modest row houses in Ozone Park. But it is a classic, disappearing scene in New York: a strip of locally owned stores providing a range of products and services for a diverse population. I don't recall a single chain shop, and saw quite a few old-time bakeries and fish markets. Residents appeared to have almost all of their needs met by this 20-block strip. It is magnificent.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Day 78 - Tour de Bronx

It was a gorgeous day to be on a ride in the borough I've conquered least--the Bronx. Today was the annual 40+ mile Tour de Bronx ride sponsored by both Transportation Alternatives and the office of the Bronx Borough President.

With my time off, I assumed I'd get to see more of the Bronx to round out my knowledge. (I actually thought that abbut a lot of places in the city and have been surprised by how much less of it I've done; I imagined being out and tramping in a new neighborhood each and every day.) But on this ride, I realized I'd really seen quite a lot of the Bronx already. There were only a few legs for a few miles each that I hadn't really seen and said "oh wow" to myself on realizing I was riding through an area new to me. (Though nerdy and a little obnoxious, there aren't a lot of places in New York City left that I haven't seen before. It's a wonderful surprise when I can still be surprised by a street or a row of stores I hadn't seen before.)

For fun, I'll let folks try to guess which neighborhood was truly new for me.

The crew I rode with was as crowd-averse and anxious to get started as I was, so we set out ahead of everyone at all the different checkpoints. It was, for the most part, a benefit not to be caught up in the scrum of riders for the whole way, especially as they were delayed by over an hour beyond their scheduled times. But, to my great disappointment, being early meant that we were not able to ride along (on top of!) the Sheridan Expressway. The cop at the entrance wouldn't let us on until the main body of the ride was there. Rather than wait 90 minutes (though we did sweat it out for about 30, hoping we could sneak on), we found a parallel route and headed to Soundview. I'll be back next year to get a shot at that.

A modified version of the route I rode on appears here.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Day 75 - Of Small Businesses, Olives & Sauerkraut

Dateline: Arthur Ave., THE BRONX

It's days like today that I relish being accountable only to myself. Woke up, checked e-mail, read the paper and did a little writing. Made a few phone calls and then packed up and headed out on an adventure.

Headed first into Brooklyn Heights to find some proprietors to interview for the story I'm doing on Worksman Cycles--to round it out from the customer angle. It was quite possibly the last day of indian summer, the sun streaming down Montague Street at a low, autumnal angle, warming my neck. Montague, despite the increasing incursion of chains and so-called format retail stores, is still a street of small businesses and individual propriety. I fell in step behind (I eventually deduced) the local dry cleaner, nattily dressed, who was greeting warmly and with recognition everyone walking toward him. He was like a little mayor of the block.

I was waiting for owners to show up at Monty's Pizza and Lassen & Hennigs and so killed som time reading The Onion and noshing at Montague Bagels (only so-so... too much like a sandwich roll). I wandered back up the street and got the brush-off at both places and sort dejectedly got on the train to Manhattan. I had business card proofs to pick up in Chinatown.

Walking east on Broome I passed a few restaurant supply stores and remembered that I wanted to try curing olives after reading about it in the Times yesterday. I went from store to store looking for gallon Mason jars. No luck. Went into about six places including the magical DiPaolo's Market who I assumed might have some in order to cure their own olives. Nada.

Late morning by this point. The morning mugginess never burned off as the sun climbed in the sky. A little uncomfortable for a stroll in jeans, but I kept nosing up and down blocks along and across the Bowery. On Mulberry, just north of Grand, a couple of old Chinese shop workers argued loudly across the way, squatting on the shady side of the street.

Over on the Bowery, I wandered into Balter, one of the last few old-time supply shops along the strip. These places are little more than storefront warehouses that are hums of human activity. At Balter, you make your way down a tall, narrow hallway with ancient, creaking floorboards. The fluorescent light flickers, barely making its way down past the stacks of boxed wares. It is a supremely satisfying, fleeting feeling to be a retail purchasers in a wholesale market. It feels select. Behind-the-scenes. If you're an educated consumer or connoisseur of your quarry, you might be able to avoid being fleeced. It's titillating.

Yet, no one down there is carrying gallon Mason jars.

I finally gave up and headed up to Teitel Brothers on Arthur Avenue for the fresh olives that I would cure, hoping I could also procure a couple of empty bottles from there or nearby. I took the 5 train up the Dyre Avenue line. For subway aficiandos, you'll appreciate why getting off at stations along this route is a treat. This branch is a former leg of the old New York, Westchester & Boston Railway that was converted to subway use in 1941. Its most notable features to non-railroad enthusiasts are its capacious stations that are spaced at commuter rail intervals instead of more tightly spaced rapid transit stops. From the Pelham Parkway stop, Arthur Avenue is a quick trip on the Bx12 bus.

I was rewarded!

Teitel Brothers is a treat to visit all by itself. This is an old-style market with a half-dozen brawny guys behind the counter fetching most things for you. The olives were piled in boxes in front of the store, underneath cheeses and sausage. Eight pounds of fresh olives? "No problem!" Two empty gallon jars? "No problem! But you gotta clean dem."

No problem indeed. I walked out with a shopping bag filled with olives and two more, each with an empty jar that had held a bunch of pickled gardenia recently transferred to serving dishes in the store. (And they still had the vinegar smell and streaks of roasted red paper and caulilower florets to prove it!)

And here I am, taking a break over coffee at a sidewalk cafe just up the street from Teitel Brothers. There are neighborhood regulars and Fordham students ordering biscotti or cannoli. In a few minutes, I'll hop back on the Bx12 and keep heading west over the Fordham Road Bridge into Inwood for a subway home. Not a bad prelude to making my first two gallons of homemade olives--and pickling my first homemade sauerkraut from a head of cabbage I've been meaning to use while I'm at it.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Day 63 - Making Wine in Queens!

New York State’s latest experiment in viticulture is, right here, in New York City. That’s right. Long Island’s merlots have been gaining a grudging respect for their trademark oaky flavor. And the upstate Finger Lakes region is known for its award-worthy Rieslings. The next region to become well-known? How about Queens? As in New York City.

The Queens County Farm Museum is a 47-acre farm, the last one in New York City. And though it’s just blocks from the Nassau County border, it’s New York City, alright. The Q79 bus stops right out in front. It’s been a working farm since 1697 and open as a museum and educational institution since 1975. The museum helps to interpret the site and to teach the public about the City’s agricultural history. There are sheep and pumpkins and goats and hogs and corn and, says Gary Mitchell, the farm's operations manager, “We also have planted in 2004 an acre-and-a-half of vinifera—French wine grapes on American root stock. And we have 4 varieties here on the farm: We have chardonnay, merlot, cab franc, and cab sauvignon.

“Our first harvest in 2006 which we’d taken to our wine maker at Premium Wine Group in Mattituck, and from that we have a merlot and possibly a red blend will come out of that first vintage. The second vintage is in the middle of harvesting now. We took a chardonnay and a merlot in. So our second 2007 vintage will be a white and a red.”

In theory, it shouldn’t be that hard to grow grapes in Queens. Climatically speaking this area gets basically the same weather as the vineyards 100 or so miles east on the end of Long Island. But there’s something about the notion of growing wine grapes in New York City that still seems to defy nature—or at least the odds.

“Obviously, no one had planted grapes on the farm before," says Gary. "So there was a little bit of a mystery about whether the grapes would grow and flourish, but they have.”

Gary, in his 50s, is a theater actor turned farm manager and non-profit winemaker. And he sports the straw hat and reddened neck to prove it. He was showing me around his vineyard a few weekends ago. The farm decided to grow wine grapes as an experiment to see what was possible—and as a way of creating more programs that would appeal to adults.

Hence, winemaking. Or wine-growing, really. The grapes are grown here. But modern-day winemaking requires specialized equipment like automated grape presses, large fermentation tanks, and a bottling facility. The Queens County Farm Museum has none of this. It doesn’t even really have enough grapes to get a sufficient volume of wine for modern day equipment. So Gary spoke to a fellow wine maker out east on Long Island.

“And his suggestion," Gary continued, was that because of minimum size of fermenting tanks and because of the amount of wine we actually wanted to make—which is by far the smallest quantity anyone makes with him, about 350 cases—it was decided very early on that we would have to source grapes from other LI growers. Any one variety here wouldn’t sufficient to make enough wine because it is only about an acre-and-a-half to two acres.

“Once we saw that we had some quality fruit. We’ve purchased some grapes and mixed ours in there so there’ll be a nice heavy percentage of our own grapes in the bottle, and make wine under the name Queens Farm Vineyards.”

Alice Wise of the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Suffolk County has been conducting viticulture research for the past 20 years. She says she is pleased with what the Queens experiment will mean for raising awareness among City residents of the importance agriculture retains in the region. Besides, she says, “New York City is probably the most important wine market in the world. Why wouldn’t we want to have some examples of local wines here?”

Back on the farm, a couple of Gary Mitchell's farmhands were snipping some examples of cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon grapes in order to introduce a dubious public to Queens’ possible future as a winegrowing region. The dozen or so rows of vines are all covered with netting that protects the precious grapes from birds, including the farm’s own Guinea hens which had raided a couple of rows a couple of weeks earlier. Underneath one was Carmen Ortiz, a baby-faced 29-year old father of three from Spanish Harlem who makes the hour-and-a-half trip out here to help out on the farm. Gary hired him earlier this summer after Carmen had come out here with his kids on a day trip to visit the farm.

Throngs of parents pushing strollers with rambunctious children in tow, some weighed down with bagfuls of apples, made their way up the farm’s main drive, from the entrance, past the hog pens and the sheep corrals. Some branched off for the obligatory corn maze. But an increasing number gathered around Gary and his assistant Carol Nicolini-McCauley as they handed out some samples from bins of wine grapes. Gary and Carol described the process of growing and harvesting wine grapes.

The vines receive as many as five prunings throughout the season. The prunings ensure that only the best grapes remain during the months when their fermentable sugar is concentrating in the fruit. Pruning also ensures that air can circulate around the grapes. This reduces the likelihood that a scourge of wine grapes in this region--powdery mildew—will take hold and ruin the crop.

Deciding when wine grapes are harvested is determined by several factors. Most are scientific, the most important being the sugar content in the grapes which increases throughout the season to a peak point before the grapes begin to raisin on the vine. Close to picking, the sugar can change by the day, and part of the art of the vintner is finding the exact moment to harvest.

But there are also practical challenges, such as when a non-profit farm museum can locate enough labor to pick an acre or so of grapes by hand. Or if Gary’s pickup truck has enough payload capacity to haul all the grapes to the winemaker.

Carmen lugged up a couple of crates of clipped grapes and Gary asked the assembling crowed who wanted to crush some grapes. A chorus of "MEEEE!"s went up--largely from the adults.

Nancy Santiago took her shoes off and stepped into a steel vat about twice the size of a bathtub and filled up to her ankels with cabernet sauvignon grapes. "This is weird. It's like stepping on bubble wrap!"

Last month, the farm harvested their chardonnay grapes, followed by the merlot a week later. This year’s chardonnay which, as a white wine, requires less time to ferment, should be ready at roughly the same time that last year’s merlot vintage will be ready: early next summer. Orders for the few hundred cases will taken by the Queens County Farm Museum soon.

When one dubious visitor asked if the wine that was being made was any good, Gary offered a honest appraisal:

“Drinkable. Really nice. We’re not going to make an award-winning wine. But we’ll make a decent tasting wine that you can take home for dinner and not be embarrassed.”