How to Eat Your Way Around New York
The world-champion oyster shucker, who works at the Grand Central Oyster Bar, has never tasted one: ‘I’ve tried to but I just can’t do it.’
By MOIRA HODGSON
One of the most bizarre and entertaining meals I’ve ever had in my life was at a place on the Lower East Side called Sammy’s Roumanian. A sign at the door to the basement restaurant said “No Spritzing Allowed.” The waiters were identical triplets, causing confusion, and they served platters of Jewish specialties such as kreplach (meat-filled dumplings) and flanken (boiled beef). There was a jar of chicken fat on the table, vodka in a block of ice and a bottle of Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup. How did the syrup get that name?
You’ll find the answer to this and much else in “Food and the City,” Ina Yalof’s delightful oral history of, as her subtitle has it, “New York’s Professional Chefs, Restaurateurs, Line Cooks, Street Vendors and Purveyors.”
The author visited all five boroughs to write about more than 40 restaurants, very broadly interpreted, since some are trucks, diners and pizzerias. Ms. Yalof interviewed more than 50 people, not the usual star chefs (we’ve heard more than enough about them) but a praline artisan, a Brooklyn tortilla supplier whose kitchen turns out 450,000 a day, the owner of a Long Island duck farm and even a woman who calls herself “entertainologist”—a private chef for celebrities.
When Ms. Yalof pays attention to a fancy or famous restaurant, like Le Bernardin, she doesn’t interview executive chef Eric Ripert, but Justo Thomas, the fish butcher who works in a 5 foot by 10 foot alcove in the basement. At the Four Seasons, just recently closed, she talks to Jesus Albino “Albi” Chauca, an Ecuadorean who toiled in the kitchen for 16 years. The cast of characters is remarkable and Ms. Yalof captures their humor, passion and genuine enthusiasm for extremely hard work.
The author is an investigative journalist, not a food writer. As a child in Miami Beach, she was raised on a diet of TV dinners and her father’s one specialty, “Leo’s Famous Croquettes,” (canned Bumblebee salmon, eggs, Pepperidge Farm breadcrumbs and a great deal of butter). She was eventually taught to cook by her mother in-law, who had an “efficiency apartment” in an Upper West Side hotel. The refrigerator stood in the bedroom, she writes, “covered with vine-patterned Con-Tact paper so it would ‘fit in’ with the décor.” Somehow it contained enough food to feed a hockey team.
The idea for Ms. Yalof’s book came from a chance conversation with a neighborhood butcher. “His repartee was so entertaining . . . that it got me thinking: How many others like him are there around this city?” Plenty.
There’s Luis Iglesias, “The Mexican Menace,” who works at the Grand Central Oyster Bar. He’s the eight-time world-champion oyster shucker (15 a minute) who has never tasted one. “I’ve tried to but I just can’t do it.” He shares that phobia with Woody Allen who once commented, “I will not eat oysters. I want my food dead. Not sick. Not wounded. Dead.”
Ms. Yalof meets the head chef at Riker’s Island, who’s not some beefy bruiser but a five-foot-tall 60-year-old woman named Paulette Johnson. The native Jamaican is responsible for turning out 47,000 meals a day (breakfast at 5 a.m., lunch at 11 a.m. and dinner at 4 p.m.). When Ms. Johnson was asked at her job interview how she’d feel about managing the number of people needed to produce such vast amounts of food, her answer was unintentionally ironic: “It’s not really the size of the gun, sir, it’s the effect of the bullet.”
While Ms. Johnson cooks up pasta casserole (and, on occasion, her famous carrot cake) for prisoners, Lulu Powers caters parties for movie stars and politicians and pays close attention to their fickle tastes. The drink of the moment is “birch tree water,” Ms. Yalof assures us. “. . . And please not coconut water. It’s over.”
Some of the people Ms. Yalof meets have impressive personal histories that have nothing to do with food. Luísa Fernandes, the chef at Robert, a restaurant on top of Museum of Art and Design, is a Portuguese woman who worked for Doctors Without Borders as a nurse and parachute jumper in Angola and Kosovo. Alexander Smalls, great grandson of slaves, was a well-known opera star before he became proprietor of the Cecil, a well-known brasserie in Harlem. Mohamed Abouelenein, an Egyptian who owns the popular midtown food cart Halal Guys, is a former soccer player with a doctorate in veterinary medicine.
And then there are the mysteries she solves. Occasionally I’ve noticed many firefighters dressed in their gear shopping together in a supermarket while their truck idles outside.JoJo Esposito, a fireman on Staten Island explains that “the whole company has to go out together because if we get a run, that’s where we’re leaving from.” Six nights a week they get a real meal, and he cooks it. “Why me? Take a look. I’m the heaviest guy in the room.” His favorite dish is rigatoni with sausage. If a call comes in while he’s cooking, they’re all out of the firehouse in under a minute—including Mr. Esposito. When they return, he heats up their dinner. “There’s not a meal that I make that you can’t heat up and it’s just as good later.”
As for Fox’s U-Bet at Sammy’s Roumanian? David Fox, the originator’s grandson, explains the sauce’s name. His grandfather, a Brooklyn-born Jew, was a gambler who went to Texas to invest in land and lost all his money there. “But he did come back with something,” says Mr. Fox. “He came back with an expression that everyone used in the Southwest —‘You bet!’ ‘Feelin’ okay today?’—‘You bet.’ ‘Hot enough for ya?’ ‘You bet.’ And that, in a nutshell is how our chocolate syrup got the name Fox’s U-Bet.” They’ve been making it since 1900.
—Ms. Hodgson is the author of “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: My Adventures in Life and Food.”