Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Drink More, Eat Less . . . At King Yum!

"I should have drank more and eaten less" was Donna's verdict after our dinner at King Yum, on Union Turnpike in Queens, one of New York's last bastions of classic old-school Chinese-American food. Considering how bad the food was, I decided that would make a good motto for the restaurant. But then it's not for the quality of the food that one visits King Yum. It's for a trip in the wayback machine to 1953, the year King Yum opened.

But before we travel back 56 years, let me rewind just a bit. King Yum had been on my radar since I developed a nostalgic interest in the Chinese food of my youth a couple of years ago. I made it to one of the other survivors, Riverdale's Golden Gate, and actually quite enjoyed the spare ribs and butterfly shrimp. Several people who had been to King Yum had warned me that the food wasn't very good, but it did pretty much maintain its fifties decor, was still run by its founder, James K. Eng, who holds court nightly, and they still serve a full list of "exotic" drinks like the mai tai, the zombie, the mona loa, and the tabu for two. And, of course, flaming pu-pu platters, de rigeur with mai tais and zombies.

It was six months after my birthday and Donna still hadn't taken me out to celebrate. Reciprocal birthday dinners are a tradition I try to maintain with my close friends. So I called in my chit. Since Donna and her husband Masa have a car, a rare commodity among my New York friends, and since King Yum isn't near a subway stop, I requested we hold my belated birthday celebration there.

With its bamboo-accented faux-Polynesian interior, King Yum has more of a tiki lounge atmosphere than any of the Chinese restaurants I frequented as a kid, but the menu is pure old-school Cantonese-American, including many dishes I hadn't thought about in years. We got there on a Wednesday night at 7PM, and the place was hopping. Well, not quite hopping, since I suspect a large percentage of the customers now use walkers. The large dining room was a sea of white hair. I think many of the customers were old when the place opened in 1953. Not everybody was ancient, but the three of us were certainly in the youth brigade. I found that rather refreshing.

One of the reasons it was so busy was that Wednesday is one of their two karaoke nights. The incidental "entertainment" added to the kitsch experience. Shortly after we were seated the woman who manages the karaoke came over to our table. "Is anybody celebrating a special event?" she asked. "A birthday? An anniversary?"

"No!" I screamed out before anybody had a chance to say otherwise. I wasn't lying, after all. We may have been celebrating my birthday, but my birthday is in March. Anyway, we had all agreed we had no desire to participate in karaoke. Besides, I only perform my own songs, none of which have, as far as I know, made it into the karaoke repertoire.

We ordered our drinks. I chose a zombie and Donna a pina colada. Masa doesn't drink. I was disappointed that my drink didn't come in a carved tiki mug, but at least it had an umbrella.

We perused the dinner menu. On the specials list was an item called "mish mosh." Donna had to know what it was, and I'm glad she did. The waiter explained: "It's pan fried noodles topped with shrimp, chicken and pork."

"Oh," I said, "subgum chow mein."

"Yes. Chinese dish, Jewish name." As he said this he made a sweeping hand gesture surveying the alter kakers in the crowd. We didn't order mish mosh. In the topsy-turvy bizzarro world of inauthentic Chinese food, a relatively authentic pan fried noodle dish would be too inauthentic. In the wayback machine Chinese restaurant world there are no pan fried noodles. In this parallel universe, chow mein is a plate of meat and vegetables in a mucilaginous sauce topped with dry, crispy noodles.

We started with individual bowls of wonton soup, of course. The broth tasted as if it had been ladled directly out of a lake in Utah, it was that salty. Everything else was overly salty too.

After we finished our soup, the pu-pu platter arrived.

The contents of a pu-pu platter can vary from place to place. This one consisted of spare ribs, shrimp toast, foil wrapped chicken, beef skewers, and fantail shrimp. No egg rolls. C'est la vie. The ribs were scrawny and salty. The beef sticks were leathery and salty. The foil wrapped chicken was really salty. I don't usually like deep fried things, so I passed on the shrimp toast and the fantail shrimp, the latter of which toted a blimp's worth of batter.

Then our two main courses arrived. I got goose bumps when I saw those metal serving dishes and lids.

For some reason I've had an ongoing Jones for butterfly shrimp for the longest time (and sometimes the Jones lasts for longer than four hours). I wrote about the version at Golden Gate, which was a kind of butterfly shrimp-omelet hybrid. King Yum's was more like I remembered: individual shrimp split lengthwise, with bacon pasted on with just a touch of egg, served in a light sweet-sour sauce with onions. It was the best, or at least the least bad, dish of the evening, but it couldn't compare with Golden Gate's, which was actually good. King Yum's was, yes, too salty.

When I saw the wor shew opp (braised pressed duck) I was horrified. What have I done? I wondered. The thick brown gravy looked like the La Brea Tar Pits studded with canned mushrooms. It was, believe it or not, incredibly salty. I can't believe I ate as much of it as I did. I'm thinking the mai tai made me do it. I had finished my zombie by the time the main courses arrived and ordered a mai tai. I had never before had either drink. I'm pretty sure the mai tai was just a zombie (rum and fruit juice) with Angostura Bitters added.

It was a lousy meal, no doubt about it, but I'm glad I went. Think of King Yum as a living museum of sorts. Go, have a zombie or a mai tai, soak up the atmosphere, order some food, not too much, have a few more drinks, be thankful that a place like this still exists, and be even more thankful that very few places like this still exist.

King Yum
181-08 Union Turnpike

Monday, September 28, 2009

Word of Mouth's Yom Kippur Pork Roundup

As a radical Atheist Jew, I feel it's my duty to proselytize pork on Yom Kippur, partly because I love pork, and partly to counter the false importance given to pork in the pantheon of treyf by secular Jews. I know plenty of non-observant Jews who don't eat pork but otherwise don't keep kosher in any way. Somehow, over the years, the mistaken impression has arisen among many secular Jews that of all things non-kosher, pork is the most egregious, the one thing that would compromise their Jewish "identity." Feh. In Kosher law treyf is treyf, there are no real distinctions. I think the porkophobia among secular Jews may be a purely American disease.

I also know plenty of non-observant Jews who work on all Jewish holidays except Yom Kippur, perhaps under the belief that this is the holiest of days, and just in case the idiot bastard vindictive god of the Old Testament is more than a perverse fiction, they'd better hedge their bets and stay home just this one day. Double feh.

Here, then, are some of my favorite porky posts.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Ripped Off By Jewel

I just learned that Jewel recorded a song called "Everything Reminds Me of You" on last year's "Perfectly Clear" album. It's perfectly clear to me that the Cherches and Feldman take on the same concept predates Jewel's by nearly 25 years. Whose song is better? You be the judge.

Friday, September 25, 2009

When Life Deals You Green Chuckles, Laugh It Off

In a raffle at the office today I got the green Chuckle. Not literally, but I did spontaneously exclaim to a coworker that I felt as if I had been dealt the green Chuckle. It's not a phrase I'd used before, but it seemed to fit.

The raffle was for charity, and there were lots of prizes, many of them food and travel related, a number of which I coveted. I didn't win any of those, but I did win a pair of tickets to an advance screening of a film I'm not particularly interested in. My green Chuckle.

I loved Chuckles when I was a kid. Actually, I loved two of the flavors, liked two others, and hated the last one. Cherry and orange Chuckles I couldn't get enough of. Lemon were pretty good. Licorice depended whether I was in a pro- or anti-licorice phase. But lime? Yuck. You couldn't give 'em away. In my neighborhood, everybody hated green Chuckles. Cherry was the unanimous favorite, lime the most detested, and licorice the most controversial.

Is this true, or was my memory playing tricks on me? Was I perhaps creating a fantasy Chuckles childhood? Would I need to undergo regression therapy to solve the mystery? I started polling my coworkers and quickly learned that it's pointless to ask anybody under forty. Not only do they not have Chuckles preferences, they don't know what they are. So I called Howard. "Howard," I said, "what do you think of when I say 'green Chuckles'?"

"The candy?" he said.

"Yeah, what about them?"

"Um, nobody liked them?"

Bingo. Confirmation. And Howard grew up in Queens, not Brooklyn. I was satisfied. Green Chuckles is the perfect metaphor, the equivalent of what they used to call a "zonk" on "Let's Make a Deal," even if it draws blank stares from most people.

Chuckles were invented in 1921. According to one source, "In March of 1921, Fred W. Amend went into business for himself manufacturing marshmallow. Later that year he began producing jelly candy from a formula he himself had developed. The formula solved a problem of the time which was the outbreak of "sweat" on the surface of jelly candies. Fred's wife suggested the name of the product which hit the market in 1921." When I was a kid, Chuckles was a major player in the candy pantheon. They're still manufactured, but they're apparently hard to find (not that I've looked very hard), and probably sell mainly on the strength of nostalgia. Since the seventies they've been made by Nabisco and Hershey's, and now Farley and Sather's, which specializes in legacy candies, including Brach's chocolates, JujyFruits and JuJubes (the latter being another childhood favorite of mine).

Of the green Chuckles, one candy blogger says:

Lime - well, there’s always the underdog in every flavor mix and lime is it here. It’s everything you’d expect from a circa 1920 lime candy - the essence of a clean floor. It’s kind of sad that the fabulous flavor of lime was co-opted by the cleaning moguls, but there you have it, for at least two generations the scent of lime just can’t be separated from the smell of a clean bathroom. Even with all its baggage, I still ate the whole piece (not true with the cherry one) and wondered what was so bad with associating a piece of candy with sparkling tiles?

Another reviewer describes them in very similar terms:

Lime: This is very chemically tasting and very zesty. It reminds me of Lysol, and I even taste the “fumes” in there. My mouth did feel clean and disinfected afterwards.

When I was a kid I'd often offer the green Chuckle to friends, but they rarely took me up on it. I usually threw the green ones away, but occasionally I did eat them. Sometimes you just have to hold your nose and swallow the green Chuckle.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Andean Eats

cordero asado with tamal, rocoto relleno, papas doradas & vegetables

I already knew from restaurants in the U.S. that Peruvian cuisine was both diverse and excellent, but I also knew that many dishes we find in overseas Peruvian restaurants are Lima-style, with lots of seafood and a number of Chinese-influenced dishes (Lima has one of the largest Chinatowns in the Americas). Andean food, I knew, would be somewhat different. I wasn't sure what to expect, but I knew I'd be eating more meat than seafood, and more than just alpaca and guinea pig. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality and diversity of Andean cuisine.

rocotos rellenos with papas doradas

The rocoto is a mildly hot, squat little pepper that grows abundantly in the region, and it's most often cooked as rocotos rellenos, stuffed with chopped beef and topped with cheese. Rocotos rellenos may be served as an appetizer, a main course or a side dish.

Potatoes are abundant in Peru (they originated there, and there are hundreds of varieties). Pretty much every meal will include potatoes, usually fries, papas doradas (browned potatoes, usually whole), or stewed along with meats. The potatoes that are most commonly served are very dense and starchy. You'll often be served rice and potatoes together. Other grains, especially popular as soup ingredients, are barley and quinua, or quinoa, the "mother grain" of the Incas, which has recently become better known here through health food vendors. Though you'll see "frejol" on menus, Peru is not a bean cuisine like Mexico or the Caribbean countries. However, I was served lima beans on several occasions. A popular salad, called solterito (shown left), combines lima beans with cheese, corn, peas, onions and tomatoes. Lima beans do indeed come from Peru, so we've been pronouncing it wrong all our lives.

There are dozens, if not scores, if not hundreds of soups in Peruvian cuisine, some served as main courses. I tried a lamb and grains soup (with barley, quinoa and corn), a chupe de quinua (quinoa soup with egg, vegetables and cheese), which may be the most popular of Andean soups, a fantastic sopa de ajo (garlic soup), which was one of the best things I tasted in Cusco, and a chairo, a soup of mixed meat and vegetables (including lima beans and hominy) in what I took to be a chicken stock--it reminded me of a cross between a Mexican pozole and a Caribbean sancocho. I'm not sure what the difference between a sopa and a chupe is, and I've seen both sopa de quinua and chupe de quinua used. Also very popular are cremas, or cream soups, but I didn't get around to trying any of them.

chupe de quinua

sopa de ajo


Just about the only fish you'll find in Andean Peru is trucha (trout). But boy is it delicious. Yet it isn't native to Peru at all--it was introduced from Canada. It's a wonderfully rich, sweet, pink-fleshed trout that, grilled or poached, may be as tasty as any salmon I've had. It's also used in local ceviches, though you won't find many dedicated cevicherias in this region they way you will in Lima.


And then there's meat, and plenty of it. Though it's not a grilled meat dominated cuisine like, say, that of Argentina, Peruvians love their anticuchos, grilled skewered meats. One of the most popular is the anticucho de corazon, made of beef hearts. I had a combination of three at a restaurant in Cusco: heart, beef and that wonderful trout.


I didn't have any pollo a la brasa (rotisserie chicken), a staple of Peruvian restaurants in New York, except as part of a buffet lunch during a Sacred Valley tour, but there are certainly plenty of places to get it in Cusco, including specialty chicken restaurants. The chicken dishes I did have, both wonderful, were aji de gallina and estofado de pollo. The estofado was a stew in a delicious red sauce. The aji is a cream sauce with garlic, cheese, nuts and chiles (aji is a kind of hot pepper), very rich, sort of a chicken a la king with a kick (I was a sucker for Swanson's as a kid).

estofado de pollo

aji de gallina

Lomo saltado, a Chinese-influenced beef stir fry is ubiquitous on Peruvian menus, but the only version I had was a tapa at an upscale Cusco restaurant.

lomo saltado tapa

And then there are the wonderful roast meats. Lechon, roast pig, is found on many menus, and I had mine at a buffet at the luxury hotel next to Machu Picchu, where the whole pig, head on, was laid out and sliced for you. At one fairly humble, completely non-touristy local eatery I had a delicious and enormous hunk of cabrito asado, roast kid, that had a marvelously complex spice rub. The whole plate cost me a whopping $4.


I ate so well in Cusco it would be hard to pick out a favorite meal, but a contender would be my final lunch before my flight back to Lima on the way home. It was a Sunday, and the restaurant, Quinta Eulalia, was bustling with local families out for their big Sunday meal. Quinta Eulalia is a Cusco institution, since 1941. It's an al fresco restaurant in a courtyard (that's what a "quinta" is) and is open for lunch only. The day's choices are written on blackboards throughout the courtyard, and I chose the cordero asado, roast lamb. For 18 soles ($6) I got a plate (shown at top) that included a large and muy sabroso serving of lean and tender lamb, a fluffy semi-sweet tamal stuffed with raisins, a rocoto relleno, papas doradas and steamed vegetables.

* * *

Cusco Restaurants

In general, I've decided to discuss the restaurants separately from the dishes. I figure the food will be of interest to most of my readers and the restaurant details will be more useful to travelers to Peru. I had excellent meals in dirt cheap restaurants that catered mostly to locals, mid-range restaurants that seemed to get a mix of local and tourist business, and high-end places that did a mostly tourist business. While there are excellent meals to be had at the more formal or "tourist-friendly" restaurants, don't miss out on meals at local picanterias and quintas, which can be some of the most rewarding food experiences in Cusco.

La Quinta Eulalia
Choquechaca 384

On a quiet end of a street near the San Blas neighborhood, this is a great bet for an outdoor lunch among the locals, and it's an amazing value. I believe most plates include a rocoto relleno and a tamal as well as potatoes and vegetables. As I mentioned above, it's a venerable, classic quinta. In addition to that wonderful plate of lamb 'n' stuff, I had my bowl of chairo there.

La Chomba
Tullumayo 339

This is a picanteria, a working-class eatery where you're unlikely to see other tourists. It's on the street that's the extension of Choquechaca. The restaurant, with long picnic tables, looks like a cross between a mess hall and a roadhouse, and the customers will be doing as much drinking as eating. The food is really cheap and really good, and you'll soak up lots of local color. This is where I had the roast kid.

Plateros 309

This pleasant little restaurant just off the Plaza de Armas seems to be one of the best bets in the heart of the city. The food is wonderful and the prices reasonable. I had two lunches there. The first time I had the sopa de ajo and the estofado de pollo. The soup so bowled me over that I went back the next day for the anticuchos, which were also excellent.

Pacha Papa
Plaza San Blas

This open-air restaurant is designed after the quintas, but dinner is served. It's very popular, especially with tourists, and is recommended by most guidebooks, so you'll need a dinner reservation (lunch shouldn't be a problem for walk-ins). They do a wide range of Andean and Peruvian dishes, and the courtyard is very comfortable, with ample heating at night. I had the aji de gallina there as well as an excellent rocoto relleno appetizer. The slightly sweet little rolls (with an almost challah-like taste), baked fresh in an open hearth oven in the courtyard, are fabulous.

Triunfo 393

On a street that leads up toward San Blas from the Cathedral, this upscale restaurant and tapas bar serves a mix of Italian food, Mediterranean-influenced tapas, and Novo Andino cuisine. I went there to try the causa de cuy I had written about earlier, but the tapas I tried were quite good too. Note that at the bar one can order from both the dinner menu and the tapas menu, but at the tables only the dinner menu is available. If you can't get a table, it should be easier to score a seat at the bar, but make a reservation if you really want a table.

Note: the trout and the chupe de quinua were eaten at restaurants in Ollantaytambo, a town I'll be posting about later.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Toby's Brilliant Brunch Pizza

I saw the sign on Saturday, around noon. I was walking from Park Slope to Sunset Park, down 6th Avenue, when I noticed the sign. It was a blackboard, outside a bar/brick-oven pizzeria on the corner of 6th Avenue and 21st Street, Toby's Public House. The sign said something like: "Brunch Pizza. Saturdays and Sundays only, 12-4 (or was it 12-2?). Tomato, Mozzarella, Eggs, Bacon or Sausage." What a great idea, I thought. I'll have to try it ASAP. ASAP was the following day.

Toby's opened last year. I can't remember what was at that location before, but the interior looks like a venerable bar, with a great classic tile floor. Toby's has already gotten a fair amount of attention from the pizzascenti (and when that word finally makes the dictionary, I may well be the first citation). One thing the writers can't seem to agree on is what to call the neighborhood. To me, 6th & 21st is resolutely South Slope, but some call it Greenwood Heights (a name I first heard maybe 6 or 7 years ago to describe the neighborhood around Green-Wood Cemetery), and one reviewer quite erroneously called it Sunset Park.

The pizzas are 12" thin-crust Neapolitans, and I thought the crust was quite good--a nice char to the edges and a good crunchy-chewy balance. I wondered how the bacon and eggs would figure in the pizza. Would it be topped with cooked eggs and bacon? No, it appears that everything was baked together, with generally satisfactory results. I'm guessing that beaten eggs were poured directly on the crust after the cheese, dotting the pie, giving the eggs a fluffy consistency reminiscent of a baked frittata. I'd have preferred the bacon crispier, however--partial precooking may be the answer. All in all, though, it was a fabulous combination. Quality mozzarella, a good crust, an excellently flavor-balanced sauce, crowned with bacon and eggs--who could ask for anything more? The pizza makes perfect breakfast sense: eggs, bacon, cheese, tomato, bread--can you show me a better way to put them all together?

Toby's Public House
686 Sixth Avenue
South Slope or Greenwood Heights, depending on who you ask
Brooklyn, NY

Closest Subway: R to Prospect Avenue or 25th Street.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Orient-Express Had Me by the Balls

I may have refused to enthuse about Machu Picchu, but I won't refuse to bitch about the company that has a lock on tourism to the site.

Peru gave away the store to a single company, Orient-Express, as far as tourism to Machu Picchu is concerned. If you want to take the train and you're not a Peruvian citizen, you have to take the expensive private trains they run from either Cusco or Ollantaytambo. And they're even allowed to call their private train company Perurail. You'll pay $60-150 round trip, depending on the departure station and level of service. I took the Vistadome Valley from Ollantaytambo, for about $100 r/t. But my morning train didn't have the panoramic dome that's one of the selling points of the service. "Why do they call this the Vistadome if there's no dome," I asked one of the car attendants who was serving me the crappy 50-cent snack box that comes with your ticket. "It's the Vistadome service," he replied. Whatever the fuck that means.

The same company owns the only hotel by the ruins, the grossly expensive Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge. Rooms go from about $600-$1,000 a night. Fine, nobody's forcing you to stay there. But they also control all food concessions. They run the overpriced snack bar by the site and the two restaurants at the hotel.

When I took a break for lunch I tried to eat at the hotel's a la carte restaurant, as I didn't want to do the big buffet at their other restaurant. I was told that I could only eat there if I was staying at the hotel. The restaurant was virtually empty. So I ponied up $33 for the buffet. Actually, it was quite a good buffet, with standouts being a whole roast pig, some fabulous ceviche de dorado (mahi mahi) and poached trout with julienned vegetables, plus about 5 excellent desserts. Well, dinner that night was a granola bar.

I had run out of water after the first half of my visit to the site, in the morning. I hadn't known that there would be no vendors anywhere in the vicinity selling water, as there would be at any other archeological site in Peru. So not only did I have to pay about 5 times the normal price for water from the snack bar, but they only had it in glass bottles! I had to lug glass bottles of overpriced water around in my day bag while I visited the other half of Machu Picchu.

Allow Word of Mouth to convey a warm FUCK YOU to the Orient-Express company.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Meat Up the Wazoo

There are plenty of pricey "continental" restaurants, or whatever one calls them these days, in the Berkshires, if one is looking for such things. Many of them are no doubt better than the places that Calvin Trillin used to snidely refer to as "La Maison de la Casa House," places he was dragged to by hosts who wanted to impress him when he really wanted to find the real deal regional chow. I don't know if there's much real deal Western Massachusetts chow to pine for, but foodies who live in or visit the area do lament the dearth of restaurants that are good, interesting, affordable and unpretentious. Pittsfield's La Fogata, a low-key Colombian restaurant (also offering other Latin American specialties), is one place that answers that need.

Run by a former butcher and his wife, La Fogata is a great bet for the enthusiastic carnivore, and prices are so low that you can tighten your belt and gain weight at the same time. The most expensive menu item for one, I think, is the New York cut steak, at $16.95. It's quite a respectable steak, though they did cook ours too much on the medium side of medium rare. Then there's the enormous house special for two, the Picada La Fogata, at a mere $25. It includes short ribs of beef, pork, chicken, chicharon (pork rind) and chorizo. I found the chicharon a tad too salty, but the chorizo was fantastic (it's also available as an appetizer--don't miss it). Included sides are tostones (fried green plantains), wonderful little roast potatoes, and strips of fluffy white corn arepas that were rather bland. But the warmth of the owners more than compensated for the blandness of the arepas. La Fogata was very quiet on a Saturday night; I believe it's much busier at lunchtime.

La Fogata
770 Tyler St.
Pittsfield, MA

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Machu Picchu: I Refuse to Enthuse

I've always been ambivalent about travel writing, and I have no interest in writing descriptive prose about places that have been written about to death. There are better descriptions out there than I could write, anyway, and they're easy to find. Attempts to convey my impressions of well-known tourist attractions would only join multitudes of other banalities. I don't need to tell you that Machu Picchu was awe-inspiring or breathtaking; I'm sure you can find those adjectives elsewhere, thousands of times over. And if anybody tries to tell you that it was a "spiritual experience," shoot them. I don't need to tell you the history of Machu Picchu or the story of how this "lost city of the Incas" was rediscovered by Hiram Bingham. You can look it up. Instead, I'll just show you some pictures.

Congratulations, Steve Levin; Good Luck Bill de Blasio

Stephen Levin, whom I had a bit of fun with over his attempt to interrupt my lunch the other day, has prevailed in his primary bid for the 33rd City Council district. Word of Mouth is nothing if not gracious, and I wish Mr. Levin the best of luck in office (in my neck of the woods the Democratic primary is the general election). Despite concerns about his allegiance to "the machine," I'm sure he'll be a decent and reasonable representative for his constituents. In my district only candidates on the liberal-progressive continuum stand a chance of winning any election, and six of the seven candidates certainly fell within that spectrum (the one exception being the candidate described as a "Hasidic activist").

In the citywide races, voters now have two runoffs to think about. I'm not too concerned about the Comptroller's race; I don't see that much of a difference between Liu (whom I supported) and Yassky. The Public Advocate race is another matter, more a matter of character than politics. It has come down to a runoff between Bill DeBlasio and Mark Green, who previously held the office and has the greater name recognition. For years, Green had distinguished himself as a perennial reform candidate unable to win any local, citywide, or statewide election, until he ran for Public Advocate in 1993. After serving as Consumer Affairs Commissioner (an appointment) he was the first to hold the Public Advocate position, and there's no denying that he was tireless and effective in that job. However, blind ambition got the best of him, and with his reprehensible race-baiting tactics in the final days of his closely contested race with Freddie Ferrer in the 2001 Mayoral primary he lost any chance of future support from me.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Lost, Found and Enormous

My latest anthology appearance is in Lost and Found: Stories from New York, edited by Thomas Beller, which was published last month. My contribution, a memoir of Fred & Rudy's candy store, originally appeared on the website Mr. Beller's Neighborhood, but Tom Beller's editorial suggestions make the print version a better piece, I think.

I'm pleased to be in the anthology, and I'd love to read the whole thing, but I have a problem. The book is huge. Even in paperback it's a doorstop, at over 800 pages. I do most of my book reading during my commute, and this, except for its size and weight, would be the ideal subway book, with scores of true tales of the city. Since I don't feel like lugging the monster around, I guess I'll just have to read it piecemeal at home. If I only had a kindle.

Last month Beller and anthology contributor Said Sayrafiezadeh were interviewed about the book on the Brian Lehrer show, though not by Brian. You can listen to the podcast HERE.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Extra! Callous Council Candidate Rudely Interrupts Blogger's Lunch

Stephen Levin Electioneers in Brooklyn Heights

With only two days to go before the hotly contested Democratic primary for the 33rd City Council District, machine-insider Stephen Levin came out to greet voters in Brooklyn Heights on the afternoon of the Brooklyn Book Festival. In a move that could cost him the election, Levin and a female confederate attempted to disrupt the lunch of noted food blogger Peter Cherches.

I was lunching outside at Teresa's, the Polish restaurant on Montague Street, on a break from the book festival. Dayna and I were chatting and chowing on pierogies when candidate Levin and a woman (left in photo) stopped at our table. "I hope we're not interrupting," the woman (who Dayna suspects is the candidate's mother) said. "I know you're eating..."

Dayna and I were both taken aback. "You certainly are interrupting," I said, and Dayna simultaneously said something similar. "You shouldn't bother people when they're trying to eat," I said. "You probably just lost a vote." They slunk away and stood a few yards away from the restaurant.

Actually, I never was intending to vote for Levin. According to an article in the Village Voice, he's apparently a puppet of Brooklyn party boss Vito Lopez, and is likely going to be answerable to a number of vested interests that don't include people like me. The fact that Levin recently landed the endorsement of Chuck Schumer doesn't score any points with me these days either.

Brooklynites, do you want someone representing you who doesn't even respect the sanctity of lunch? It's time we send a clear message that lunch is off limits by voting against Levin in Tuesday's primary. It's a packed field, and there are a number of choices. I haven't made my mind up yet, but I'm leaning toward Ken Diamondstone, who seems the most resolutely progressive of the bunch.

Stephen Levin should heed the words of Waldo Lydecker, Clifton Webb's character in the great film Laura: "You seem to be completely disregarding something more important than your career. . . . My lunch!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Everything Reminds Me of You

Be Lee..Peter Cherches at Joes Pub from JMJProductions on Vimeo.

This is one of the two songs I performed at the Be Lee Festival at Joe's Pub in July. It's the best-quality performance video of me to date, and for that I thank John of JMJ Productions, as well as Ed Haber for the sound. And, of course, boundless thanks to Lee Feldman for the music, the accompaniment, the five or six years of active collaboration, and the 26 years of friendship.

If the embedded video isn't working, follow this link.

More to come shortly.

Purgatory Pie Press in Fine Books Magazine

The September issue of Fine Books & Collections features an article on Purgatory Pie Press, the innovative New York letterpress publishers who put out three of my books in the eighties (two are mentioned in the article, along with images of a number of their titles).

P.S.: If you click the images above you can actually read the text.

Friday, September 11, 2009

I'd Rather Wear It Than Eat It

Before I got to Peru I knew there were two kinds of meat I was going to try that I'd never had before--guinea pig (cuy) and alpaca.

After I settled into my hotel in Cusco I went down the block for lunch at Inka...Fe, a touristy little place but with a reputation for good food. I saw that the menu included sauteed loin of alpaca in a tomato and chile sauce, and I ordered that along with a chicha morada, a sweet soft drink made from blue corn.

Alpaca meat is prized in the Andes for its high protein content. According to one site, "Alpaca meat is not only rich in proteins, but also has the lowest level of cholesterol of any meat--only 0.16%." And therein lies the problem: not enough fat, not enough flavor. The chunks of alpaca loin had the texture of lean pork chops or lamb chops, but without nearly the flavor of either. There was nothing offensive about the flavor of the meat other than the relative lack thereof, and the sauce was very good. I decided that having checked alpaca off on life's culinary checklist I could move on to other meats for subsequent meals.

Alpaca is a cash cow for the region, not for its meat but for its fleece. Alpaca fiber (technically it's not wool) is prized for its high quality, softness and warmth, and unlike lambswool it's hypoallergenic. I knew that I'd be picking up some alpaca scarves in Peru, as I'd probably be paying 30-50% less than I would back home (though there are some online vendors with pretty good prices).

Alpacas, like llamas, are camelids, members of the camel family. While llamas are beasts of burden, alpacas are bred for their fiber. You'll see many children in Andean Peru holding baby alpacas and offering to be photographed for tips. Alpacas are very cute, but cuteness never stopped me from eating or wearing anything.

I bought two alpaca scarves, one in Cusco and one at the Lima airport, when I was trying to unload all the cash I had left over in Peruvian soles. I'm sure I'll get years of pleasure and warmth from my alpaca scarves long after my alpaca lunch is but a distant memory.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

A Classic New York Saloon

I love the original P.J. Clarke's. And when I say it's a classic New York saloon, I mean classic. The bar, at 915 Third Avenue, has been around since 1884. The two top storeys had to come down to accommodate the high-rise that surrounds it, but the survival of the two lower floors was a coup, as the owners, with the help of a number of angels, managed to stave off destruction and make progress take a detour. P.J. Clarke's has gotten a bit of a publicity spike in the last couple of years, as it's the favorite haunt of the ad men of Mad Men.

There are other P.J. Clarke's branches now, in New York and Chicago, but they don't count. It's just a name at those places; there's no history. But the Third Avenue location has history galore.

The bar scenes in one of my all-time favorite films, The Lost Weekend, were shot at P.J. Clarke's. Johnny Mercer penned the lyrics for one of the classic bar tunes there: "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)." Frank Sinatra, whose recording of that song is the gold standard, also drank there.

It's a bar and it's a burger joint, one of the best, in fact. Richard Harris loved the burgers, even if he loved the drinks even more, and Nat "King" Cole declared their bacon cheeseburger "the Cadillac of burgers." Now it's called "The Cadillac" on the menu.

I'm not a big hamburger eater, but I too love the ones at P.J. Clarke's. And I love soaking up the atmosphere while I eat my burger, bacon and cheddar, or maybe mushroom and cheddar, medium-rare.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Read Something Today, Even If It's Only Word of Mouth

Today is International Literacy Day. It's also the day that President Obama will tell kids to work hard and stay in school, and, according to an alarming number of schmucks and loonies, he'll also slip in a secret encoded message telling them to establish a socialist one-world government.

Today is also the perfect day for you to take the Word of Mouth Reading Comprehension Test.

It's also a good day to find a synonym for "also."

Monday, September 07, 2009

Fancy Schmancy Guy Kibbee Eggs

It seems that in recent months a link to my post on Guy Kibbee eggs has been added to a Wikipedia entry on egg in the basket, a more common name for the dish. All of a sudden I noticed that I was getting at least two hits a day from the Wikipedia link. Assuming a small percentage of Wikipedia users click through to secondary links, this suggests that a lot of people are interested in eggs in the basket. One thing the Wikipedia entry does get wrong is the claim that the term "Guy Kibbee eggs" was used in a movie. No, the term came about because the actor Guy Kibbee made them in a movie.

When I wrote the original post I didn't know whether the term Guy Kibbee eggs was used purely in my family, nor did I know what movie inspired it. Thanks to the miracle of the internet, I learned, through comments on the post, that the film, from 1935, was called "Mary Jane's Pa," and that other folks did indeed have parents who served them a dish called Guy Kibbee eggs. One of the comments came from a poster whose mother is my mother's contemporary.

I bring this all up because yesterday I ate an excellent twist on Guy Kibbee eggs, from the brunch menu at Brix, a French bistro and wine bar in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, though, of course, it wasn't called Guy Kibbee eggs. Still, having become a de facto Guy Kibbee egg expert, I had no choice but to order this dish. The Brix version was made with a thick piece of challah, was served atop asparagus, and garnished with grated parmigiano and truffle oil. You've come a long way, Kibbee! There was one amusing typo in the description. Another name for the dish is "toad in the hole" (though that's also the name for a different dish in the U.K.), but Brix's menu said "joad in the hole." I was worried that I might have to pull one of Steinbeck's Okies out of a ditch.

40 West St.
Pittsfield, MA
(413) 236-9463

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Miguel and the Sexy Woman

I was sitting in the Plaza de Armas, Cusco's main square, resting my dogs. A young boy, maybe nine or ten years old, sat down next to me and asked me in English, "Where are you from?"

"United States," I said. "New York. Nueva York."

"Ah, the statue of liberty. And Washington is your capital. And your President is Bush--no, Obama!"

"Si," I replied. "Obama es mejor que Bush."

"Yes," the kid said. "Obama is black."

We chatted for a while in a mix of English and Spanish. He told me his name was Miguel. I told him mine was Peter, but I preferred Pete. The kid was very smart, cute and outgoing--just like I was at his age! I asked him if he was learning English in school. "Yes," he said. He told me a few things he knew about other places around the world. "Paris it has the Eiffel Tower."

Then I thought he was asking me a very odd question for a kid his age, especially in a second language. "Have you seen the sexy woman?"

Should I turn around, I wondered? "Sexy woman?" I asked.

"Yes, Sacsayhuaman," he said, and pointed north. Ah, he was talking about the Inca ruin just on the outskirts of the city.

"Yes, I've been there," I said.

Then he said, "Can I have two soles for something to eat?" The sol is the Peruvian currency, three to a dollar. Of course I gave him two soles. We talked a bit more. He told me where he lived, and pointed southward. I didn't recognize the name. "Is that a barrio in Cusco?" I asked. "Yes." Then he said, "Can I have one more sol to take a taxi home to my mother." Of course he could.

The statue near Sacsayhuaman is the White Christ, not a sexy woman. Modeled after the Cristo Redentor of Rio de Janeiro, it was presented to Cusco in 1945 by the Palestinian Arabs who had been resettled there during WWII, as a token of their gratitude for the hospitality shown by the city.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Flamin' Yun

When I was a kid I thought there was a kind of steak called flamin' yun. That's what it sounded like my mother was saying. What did I know? I didn't know from French steak names when I was seven years old.

I may have had a shitty childhood, but I had lots of good meat. My stepfather, Sy, was in the prime meats business for the hotel and restaurant trade, and he used to bring home the best of the best: loin lamb chops, South African lobster tails, N.Y. strip steaks and flamin' yun.

I was reminded of my good meat shitty childhood recently when I went for a Restaurant Week lunch at the Palm Too, the annex of the famous New York steakhouse (now an international franchise). Though it opened in 1973, the Palm Too looks like it's been there forever. The blasé, semi-grumpy old-school New York waiters with indeterminate accents also looked like they'd been there forever. I could have done without them, but the twin filets mignons were excellent, perfectly medium-rare, per my order, as one would expect from such an establishment.

And the cheesecake was both fantastic and humongous. I really shouldn't have eaten the whole thing. That slice must have toted at least 1500 calories, the accompanying whipped cream a cruel taunt. I sometimes go years without eating cheesecake, and this was my second in about a month. I had written about how good the coconut cheesecake at Beacon was, but this one made me forget it. I can't imagine a classic New York cheesecake better than this one; I can't remember ever having had one, even in the heyday of Junior's.