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.

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