Tag Archives: Introduction
For the last year, I have been stuffing my face with cheesecake. It’s time to give my cholesterol levels a break. And so I racked my brain trying to come up with an iconic New York food that wouldn’t give me a heart attack. And so I came up with one of the city’s first street food. Pickles.
The need to preserve perishable vegetables is thouands of years old. The first known pickles were made around 2030 BC in the Tigris Valley with cucumbers brought from India. Pickles have been mentioned in the Bible, by Aristotle, in Shakespeare’s plays, and on many episodes of Portlandia.
Long before street meat was king, you would have seen pickle carts all up and down the Lower East Side being peddled by Eastern European Jewish immigrants. But it was actually much earlier that the first pickles arrived on this island.
They’ve been in New York since the beginning. The Dutch brought their love of pickling and began growing cucumbers in current day Brooklyn. Once pickled, they sold them from markets across the city and created the world’s largest pickle industry. In fact, the Dutch gave us the word we use today. Pickle comes from the Dutch word pekel, meaning salt or brine.
The act of pickling something is basically taking fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, you name it, and soaking it in a vinegar or salt liquid so that it begins to ferment and stays good for a longer period of time. Throw in some garlic, mustard seeds, cloves, cinnamon, or whatever and you have a tasty (and probiotic) snack.
As Jewish immigrants flooded the Lower East Side beginning in the late 1800’s, they too sold pickles from barrels and pushcarts on the street. Pickles were very popular in Eastern Europe due to the practicality of preserving the food, but also because they offered a strong tang to complement the bland flavors of a bread and potato diet. Orchard Street should have been nicknamed Pickle Street due to all of the pickle pushers.
To this day, you can’t (or shouldn’t) eat a deli sandwich without the complement of a kosher dill pickle. It adds acidity and cleanses the palate. In New York, you can find both the bright green ones known as “half-sours” which are fermented for only a short period of time, or the “full-sours” which are more dull in color but much more sour and fully fermented.
Unfortunately, like most of the food and drink industry in the US, pickles mostly became a commercially processed product and most Americans have had their first and only taste of pickles from a jar – often with flavoring, coloring, and more sugar than necessary. About 15 years ago or so, some Brooklyn food artisans decided to begin to restore the food industry by making things the old-fashioned way. Pickles were a big part of that movement. Now, in addition to the old-school Jewish pickle guys, we also have a younger generation that are making all sorts of incredible, full-flavored pickles.
Just like dumplings, every culture has their own version of pickles. The Koreans have kimchi, the Germans have sauerkraut, the Scandinavians have pickled fish, and the hipsters have beets, jalapeños, and kale. You can find all of these in New York, but for the purpose of this search, I’m going to focus on pickled cucumbers. Both the old Jewish variety (of which there are only a handful of purveyors left) and the new wave of pickle makers.
Sure, my cholesterol levels might get a rest for a bit, but I’m about to hugely increase my intake of sodium. I better put my doctor on speed dial. Regardless I’m going to shut up and… Eat This!
Like most people, I assumed cheesecake was either invented in New York or brought here in the 1800’s by one of the groups of European immigrants. It could have been the Jews, Italians, or even the Hungarians. All seem to currently have a version of cheesecake in modern day NYC.
But the real story about cheesecake is much more surprising. The origins of cheesecake is not from a little village in Germany, but in fact in ancient Greece (possibly on the island of Samos). Cheesecake in one form (“pounded cheese, mixed with honey and spring wheat”) was served to the participants at the first Olympic games since cheesecake was thought to possess a lot of energy. Can you imagine Michael Phelps stuffing a slice in his face between laps today?
After the Romans conquered Greece, they stole the recipe, modified it, used it as an offering to the Gods (those were some lucky Gods), and began spreading it (along with their armies) across Western Europe. The Ancient Greek cheesecake was tweaked as each nation that discovered cheesecake put their own spin on it – like a very delicious game of telephone. Most began to use beaten eggs (as opposed to yeast) which gave the dessert a sweeter, richer flavor. Many Europeam immigrants brought their own distinct cheesecake recipe to New York when they immigrated here.
But then New York added their own ingredient when cream cheese was invented in 1872 in New York (not in Philadelphia). A dairy farmer named William Lawrence accidentally made cream cheese in his failed attempt to re-create a Frech soft cheese called Neufchâtel. It might have been one of the best failures ever.
The origins about how cream cheese entered the cheesecake recipe and made New York famous for its rendition of the cake is much disputed. However, most people agree that it was a Jewish-German immigrant named Arnold Reuben who first put cream cheese-based cheesecake on his menu in 1929 at his famous delicatessen Reuben’s (you can guess another iconic NY dish that was claimed to be invented there). The story goes Arnold Reuben tasted a cheese pie (probably made with cottage cheese) at a dinner party and then decided to make it his own. Turns out he made it his own for generations of New Yorkers.
Since then, the recipe continues to be tweaked and expanded for different cultures (we now have Japanese cheesecake) and tastes (think strawberry or chocolate cheesecake). New York might be the youngest city to claim cheesecake as its own, but we’ve put our unique stamp on it and I, for one, am very grateful because now I get to shut up and… Eat This!
There is much controversy surrounding the history of the humble little falafel. One thing that is certain is that it is now as ubiquitious in New York City as hot dogs or pizza. In fact, the task of finding the best falafel is as ludicrous as searching for the best pizza or best bagel in New York. I must be a crazy man. Or at least a really hungry one.
Falafel is an ancient food (probably the oldest of all the foods I’ve focused on so far), maybe even dating back to biblical times. But ironically, it’s a new addition to the New York food scene. Before 1971 when Mamoun’s opened their doors in Greenwich Village, it would have been rare (perhaps impossible) to find a falafel sandwich in the entire city.
Falafel (for those living under a rock for the last four decades) is a ball or patty of ground up chickpeas. Fava beans might be substituted or mixed-in. Herbs, spices, and vegetables can be included in the mix with anything from mint, and parsley to onion and garlic to cumin and red pepper. The ball is then fried until crisp and then eaten by itself or inside a pocket sandwich (usually pita bread). Toppings, like tahini, hummus, vegetables, and hot sauce also make the experience unique and delicious.
The word falafel might have come from the Arabic “filfil” meaning pepper or the Egyptian “pha la phel” meaning “of many beans.”
Many nationalities and religious groups would argue where the falafel originated. But it is generally believed that it was first eaten about 1000 years ago in Egypt by Christian Copts. They ate fried chickpeas as a substitute for meat during Lent. Other theories suggest falafel first appeared on the subcontinent of India around the 6th Century. And still others claim ancient Jews invented it while slaves in Egypt. Wherever it began, it spread all across the Middle East and just about every country in that region enjoys it today.
Today, it’s considered the national dish of Israel (although Palestinians claim the Israelis stole it from them). It can be found in Syria, Persia, Jordan, Lebanon, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and the list goes on. It’s kosher, halal, vegetarian, vegan, gluten free, dairy free, nut free. What a versatile little fritter! No wonder everybody wants to claim it as their own.
In the last 40 years, waves of immigrants from the Middle East have come to New York and they’ve brought their food with them, making the falafel one of the city’s most recent iconic dishes. From food carts to meze platters to takeout storefronts with frustratingly long lines, I’m going to get in touch with my inner vegetarian in order to shut up and… Eat This!
Aside from showcasing my webseries and video shorts, I started this blog in order to discover the most iconic of New York food: pizza, pastrami, bagels, the list goes on and on. I wanted to eat at classic places that I had embarrassingly never been to like Lombardi’s, Carnegie Deli, and Ess-a-Bagel. And those adventures will certainly continue. As my hot dog search soon comes to a close, I’ve already begun thinking about my next conquest.
This blog also turned into a platform for my other food adventure – namely my desire to eat 100 dishes that some other publication recommended. And after three years of savoring Time Out’s annual picks, I’ve decided it was time to fly the nest.
Instead of eating my way through Time Out’s list in 2013, I’ll be following my own path. I dine out at NYC restaurants a few times each week and have already compiled my own annual Top 100 dishes.
So starting next week, I’ll be featuring a different dish (or drink) from around New York that has fascinated and satiated me that week. These are bites I believe in and recommend seeking out. I think it will keep things fresh, varied, and surprising. Each week there will be something new for me to shut up and… Eat This!
Speaking of, anybody have a guess as to what food I am eating in the photo above? Clue: It’s the same thing I was eating in this photo.
Can you think of a more American food than hot dogs? Sure, we can claim many different regional specialities, not to mention barbecue, hamburgers, and (sadly) fast food chains. But what dish is so closely associated with the one true all-American pastime – baseball? No matter what American city you’re in, when you go out to the ballgame, you don’t want a big juicy burger, you want a hot dog. Tell me I’m wrong!
As is the story with most iconic foods from this city, it was the immigrants that brought over the building blocks for the hot dog. German butchers brought the processed meats known as sausages to New York. Many of them started businesses from pushcarts, including Charles Feltman who owned a pie wagon in Coney Island, Brooklyn. He wanted to serve a hot savory sandwich to his customers and thus in 1867 decided to put a boiled sausage on a milk bun. This eliminated the need for much space (since a friend built a small boiler) on the cart and prevented customers from burning their hands on a steaming hot sausage.
Feltman later opened a huge restaurant and one of his employees, a man by the unfortunate name of Nathan Handwerker opened his own nearby hot dog stand in 1918 out-pricing his mentor by 5 cents and so began Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs and the quintessential New York frank.
Some combination of pork and/or beef (along with fat, trimmings, salt, preservatives, and who knows what else) in a casing of sheep intestine or collagen (hungry now?) are the traditional hot dogs (although now we have everything from turkey to elk to salmon) in this country. I don’t know about you, but you can tell me anything goes inside a hot dog and it still sounds mighty tasty to me.
We get the names “frankfurters” and “wieners” from the towns of Frankfurt, Germany and Wien (Vienna), respectively, who both had their version of these sausages. But there are many theories as to where the name “hot dog” comes from. Back in the 1890’s, people didn’t know what went into these casings and some people guessed that it might in fact be dog meat.
Others say the shape of the long thin sausage resembled the body type of the dachshund hound. When NY cartoonist T.A. Dorgan heard hawkers selling “red hot dachshund sausage” at a 1901 polo game, he decided to shorten it to “hot dog” in his cartoon since he had trouble spelling the full name. That’s my favorite story. Misspellings are funny!
Whether they’re kosher, all natural, deep fried, served with a side of papaya juice, or just from some dirty water cart, I’m about to get in touch with my American (and New York) roots in my search for the best dogs in the city. Ok, it’s time for me to shut up and… Eat This!
When Time Out New York’s latest 100 Best issue was released in October, I was both excited and slightly dismayed. The food choices look pretty great and it’s always fun to read an issue full of such lascivious food porn. But I noticed that this year more than ever they’re, encouraging readers to push their way through the entire list. They’ve even started a big promotion on Twitter with the hastag #100Best – a hashtag I’ve been all too familiar with for more than a year now.
And while the idea of eating and drinking my way through the list is something that’s hard to resist, it just doesn’t feel as special anymore. If everybody’s doing it, I’m just not as interested. That’s why I was never the cool kid at school.
I’ve been checking the Twitter feeds and searched for other blogs chronicling this expedition and aside from a few early persistance on Twitter, it doesn’t seem like many people are taking the challenge too seriously. And you know what? I’m not going to either.
But I’m still hungry and Time Out’s list is a great starting off point for finding specific dishes at many different types of restaurants across town. It definitely helps expand my restaurant and food knowledge, not to mention relieve the difficulty of deciding where to get dinner.
So for the third year in a row (and most likely the final), I will document my adventures eating every last dish on Time Out’s list. But if some place has closed or stopped serving the dish, I won’t feel like a complete failure. I’m not looking for fortune or fame this time, just some good food and I’m ready once again to shut up and… Eat This!