New York is full of food smells, tantalizing, nostalgic, obscure. My nose leads me in and out of delis and bakeries. I am always hungry in New York.
Pizza joints everywhere. Hot pretzels with mustard, sold from carts on the street. Aromas wafting out of Mexican taquerias, the spicy smells of Israeli takeout, of knishes, and of Chinese food.
The first thing we ate, as we emerged, dazed, onto the streets of New York was the best babaghanoush of my life, squishing out of a pita bread sandwich. I was dazzled by this three-dollar piece of heaven from a so-called Israeli joint at the corner of Ludlow and Rivington, called Three Monkeys.
We were headed to ‘Inoteca which was really just across the street. But we couldn’t help ourselves. It was the smells: of felafel, bourek, chicken shawarma. We had to have a taste.
Then we strolled through an indoor food market on Essex Street, like the kind my parents used to go to in Edmonton, in the winter. Booths of vegetables and fish and Mexican ingredients. A tiny, delightful cheese shop run by a quiet dorky man. He had me taste the strips of parmesan he’d laid out, which I was to dip into balsamic reduction (a new appetizer idea! So simple!). He couldn’t wait to have us try a new peppery chocolate he’d acquired. I bought a shard of an expensive bell-shaped cheese arranged in a display case of its own. We had it with bagels the next day.
By then it was time to meet friends at ‘Inoteca, recommended by Ann, and others, too. It was modest, not what I expected, yet the friends, Coffeshop Dude and Sensitive Artist – two twenty-something queers – thought it pretentious. They were young, those two, not really into the ‘Inoteca vibe which is all small plates and cheese selections and matching wines. They laughed at the eleven dollar cheese plate with not a lot of cheese, and then ate it up. I’ve. Only. Ever. Eaten. Mozzarella. And. Cheddar said The Coffeeshop Dude. She chewed on the cheese with great delicacy, comparing the subtleties of flavour. I told her about my cheesey friend at the market, two blocks away. Plates arrived, of uneven appeal. We weren’t wowed by the egg and cheese bruschetta with truffle oil, but Coffeshop Dude and I swooned over the grilled octopus on fingerling potatoes.
There were amusing fried chickpea flour fritters we dubbed “fish fingers” for their shape and because we couldn’t recall the fancy Italian name. (The menu’s all in Italian, which is pretentious and reminds of a leftie art critic I used to know who thought it stylish to insert entire, untranslated Spanish phrases into her reviews and essays). There was a beet-orange walnut salad I could have made at home, but Coffeeshop Dude had never tasted beets before, and liked them. There was an entire bottle of red wine, Primitivo, at a good price and there was life and energy and fun as the tables filled up with a savvy, laid-back all-ages crowd. There was anxiety, or envy, or sadness, from The Sensitive Artist, who, far too jaded for her age, turned up her nose at our list of things to do in New York. Sweetness, too, as she told the Anti-Poverty Organizer, a kind of aunt to her, that she had a Christmas present for her.
We ended the evening with a stroll around the Lower East Side, so changed since I knew it as a young art student, when it was the domain of Jews and garment industries and tiny Cuban diners. We walked in and out of small glittering shops and high-end vintage stores, the phantom limb of the shmata district of yore. We chanced upon Katz’s, a Jewish restaurant, another phantom limb, and bought bagels and a tub of cream cheese to go, two dollars for the lot.
Fell asleep that night with sirens and car horns and voices and music playing their discordant symphony on the pulsating streets below.
I am always hungry for New York.