Sunday, October 29, 2006

Downtown Made Me

Long before I reinvented myself as a food and travel blogger, long before there were blogs, I was a “downtown” writer and performance artist.

The recent publication of the anthology Up Is Up, But So Is Down: New York’s Downtown Literary Scene, 1974-1992 (NYU Press) has inspired this reminiscence.

Over the years I’ve published fiction and other short prose pieces (which some choose to call prose poems) in many literary magazines, most with pretty small circulations. Anthologies have exposed my work to wider and quite different audiences. In The Big Book of New American Humor I shared pages with Woody Allen, Seinfeld, Peter DeVries, Garrison Keillor and Philip Roth, among others, a fact that led me to proclaim that I was the only writer in the book I had never heard of. Poetry 180, Billy Collins’ website and anthology originally aimed at exposing high school students to contemporary American poets, surely garnered me my largest audience yet. My entry in Guys Write for Guys Read, Jon Scieszka’s adolescent boys’ literacy project, surely garnered me my youngest audience.

This new anthology represents my work within the sociocultural context in which it came to maturity, the downtown scene of the 1980s. A large, sprawling compendium of texts and documents, Up Is Up, But So Is Down is a scrapbook of an era. The interesting thing about that time in that place is that while there were surely many individual “scenes,” one could also truly speak in terms of an overarching downtown scene.

Of course, downtown New York was always the hotbed of Bohemianism and experimentation. By the time of my downtown, however, Greenwich Village no longer had any real significance in the equation. I’d say that the downtown scene I worked within was born largely of the convergence of the sixties East Village counter-culture and the genre-crossing SoHo scene of the seventies (even if that was really just a heating up of things that had started brewing in the sixties). While collaborations among artists, writers and musicians had a long history in New York, in my downtown the distinctions between who was what had blurred. My downtown was a stew.

I moved to the East Village from Brooklyn in 1979. I had found the perfect apartment to be a downtown writer in. It was a dark, gloomy first-floor tenement apartment on East 10th Street, just west of Tomkins Square Park, on the block with the Russian Baths, a Ukrainian Church, and the Boys Club, not to mention Carlo Pittore’s Galleria dell’Occhio, the mail artist’s window gallery. My apartment had a bathtub in the kitchen, a tiny water closet, crumbling walls and a ceiling that once ended up on my floor. At least I had my own toilet. Some buildings still had shared toilets down the hall.

By this time I had been publishing my work in literary magazines for a couple of years and was also editor of my own magazine, Zone. I had moved to the East Village because all sorts of interesting things were happening there, and at age 23 I needed to be in the thick of it. Over the next eight years, which I’ll nostalgically declare the chronological heart of the downtown scene, things got out of control in all the best ways. New magazines and performance venues seemed to be launched every week. Writers and painters formed rock bands. Painters made performance pieces, writers made performance pieces, writers, painters and musicians collaborated on performance pieces. I started performing.

Zone cover by Michael Madore

My performance career was not really anything I had planned. It grew out of what was supposed to be a reading at The Performing Garage. I had met Liz LeCompte, Spalding Gray and The Wooster Group when I had documented their theater piece “Point Judith” for Zone. I think it must have been 1980 when they decided to do a reading series in the space and invited me to appear. I always loved doing readings, connecting with a live audience, and I had also become really interested in much of the text-based performance work that was happening at the time. Something clicked. Performing Garage, I thought; I can’t just sit there and read from the page. So I turned my texts into performance pieces. It worked, I was hooked, and for the rest of the decade I was a performer as well as a writer.

Some of the performance work I did was solo, but much was in collaboration with musicians. In 1981 I was introduced to the improvising multi-instrumentalist Elliott Sharp by a mutual friend. I was interested in working with music in my performance and Elliott was interested in working with text. We got together, worked up a bunch of pieces based on some of my texts, decided we were on to something and called it Sonorexia, because we wanted a name that sounded like a disease. Except it wasn’t a disease. The neologism means appetite for sound.

Sonorexia performed regularly at many of the major East Village and SoHo performance venues of the time, like 8BC, Darinka and Inroads, but we also did one-shots at the Mudd Club (on a bill with poet Bob Holman as “Panic DJ”) and CBGB (where Richard Hell slept on a table during our show). Gary Ray Bugarcic’s Darinka, on East 1st Street, was like a second home to me. I did countless performances there and also curated a monthly fiction reading series. Darinka doesn’t get the recognition it deserves in histories of the scene.

During that time I was working nights as a legal proofreader, a job that attracted many writers, dancers and actors. One of my favorite coworkers, Jim Moisan, was the creator of the comic book hero “Bill Dupp, SoHo Detective.” Keyboardist and songwriter Lee Feldman was another proofreader, and we became close collaborators, writing songs together as well as performing monologues with live soundtracks that we called “Movies for the Ears.”

During the day, those days, you could stumble into any of a number of East Village eateries and join a table of writers or musicians to ruminate on life and art and more mundane matters over a cup of Joe. Of course, when you’re in your twenties hanging out is a major occupation. A place called White Wave on Second Avenue was a favorite late breakfast spot of downtown musicians who straddled the genres of free improv, no wave and jazz. The more jazz-oriented of the bunch, like Phillip Johnston, Joel Forrester and Wayne Horvitz later worked with me on my Thelonious Monk project. From breakfast I usually went straight to a lunch engagement, then back home to do a little writing, then to my job, then to an after-midnight dinner at places like Baltyk, a Polish restaurant with a killer white borscht, or perhaps 103 Second Avenue. Then I’d go home, watch the news with Linda Ellerbee, get a little sleep, and roll back out to breakfast and the invigorating sustenance of chat.

I think the most prominent view of downtown writing of those years, and one that the anthology probably supports, is that it was dominated by raw, gritty work that was heavy on sex and violence of all flavors. Indeed, many of the writers fit into a gestalt that was heavily inspired by Genet, Burroughs, Hubert Selby, Henry Miller, and of course Rimbaud. But some of us were more interested in the prose piece (or more elementally the sentence) as object, mining territory that was much more informed by European avant garde traditions, Gertrude Stein, and older or near-contemporary American writers like Harry Mathews, Russell Edson and Walter Abish. Writers like Holly Anderson, Roberta Allen and the wacky dada minimalist Mike Topp are among those I feel a literary affinity with, but the great thing about that period was that regardless of approach we were, for the most part, a big extended family, often sharing readings at places like ABC No Rio and more often the pages of magazines like Between C & D and Redtape.

I mention those two magazines not only because they were the most quintessentially East Village or Alphabet City of the bunch, but because they nurtured that kind of extended family mode I’m talking about. I don’t think it would be hyperbole to call Between C & D a legendary magazine. It was the baby of writers Joel Rose and Catherine Texier, and was published out of their apartment on 7th street between, you guessed it, C & D. The magazine played ironically upon the Alphabet City location with a drug culture meets technology design aesthetic. The magazine was printed on fanfold paper on Epson dot-matrix printers, and slipped into ziploc bags. They had a bunch of these printers in the apartment, donated by Epson after someone at the company had read about the magazine. The din of printers churning out copies was the soundtrack to Joel & Catherine’s life. The great thing about the two of them, and the magazine, was the trust and respect they had for their writers. A number of us were regulars, appearing in multiple issues, and lots of different styles and approaches were represented. Among this crew were Patrick McGrath, whose work in Between C & D paved the way for his very successful later career, Dennis Cooper, Lynne Tillman, and Darius James, arguably the most significant African-American voice in downtown writing of that era. With Between C & D it was rarely an issue of waiting for acceptance or rejection, it was just an issue of which issue your piece was going to be in. For certain of us, at least, Joel and Catherine had implicit trust. If we thought a piece of ours was good enough for them to publish that was good enough for them. Michael Carter of Redtape worked in much the same way, if on a more erratic schedule. What a luxury that was for a writer.

A looming figure of the downtown literary scene those days, the booster par excellence, was poet and bookstore guy Ron Kolm. I first met Ron when people started telling me about a guy at a SoHo bookstore who would buttonhole customers and insist that they buy my book Bagatelles. Ron was responsible for my appearance in a number of magazines and anthologies, some of which he published himself and some for which he acted as a sort of agent without portfolio. Ron is a pack rat and his extensive archive formed the nucleus of the Downtown Collection at NYU’s Fales Library, which in turn inspired the compilation of Up Is Up, But So Is Down.

My other significant publishing associations of the time included those with Benzene magazine and Purgatory Pie Press. I had met Allan Bealy and Sheila Keenan of Benzene in 1980, just before they published their first issue. It was at a party I threw with my Zone co-editor Dennis DeForge at a Bowery Loft where we had hoped to open a gallery and performance space. The Zone Gallery never happened, but a fruitful association and lasting friendships grew out of that party. My work appeared regularly in Benzene, and the press published my short prose collection Condensed Book in 1986. Benzene had a more SoHo/Tribeca aesthetic than an East Village one. Its multimedia focus was served well by its large tabloid format. It was one of the major publications documenting the era, and it had an important influence on the later direction of Zone magazine. Dikko Faust and Esther K. Smith of Purgatory Pie Press are the edgiest letterpress printer/publishers I know, and they’ve done three books of mine, two of them hybrid verbo-visual works, all out of print.

I lived in the East Village from 1979 to 1987. This was my most productive period as a writer, but I was, after all, in my twenties. Without a doubt the work I produced was greatly influenced by the hothouse nature of that time and place. Graham Greene wrote a novel titled England Made Me. Well, downtown made me. The East Village went through a lot of changes in those years. When I first moved to 10th Street there were abandoned buildings used by junkies as shooting galleries. A few years later Patti Astor’s Fun Gallery had opened on the block, but the East Village art gallery scene was a short-lived phenomenon. By the time I left in ‘87 real estate prices had skyrocketed. I used to say that when I moved into the neighborhood people came in limos to buy dope, then they came in limos to buy art, and finally they came in limos to buy apartments. The Tomkins Square riots happened the year after I left, and for me that conveniently marks the end of an era. But maybe that’s just because I was gone.

I’ve left out a lot of people, venues and magazines, but I’ve gone on too long already.


Village Voice Review of Up is Up
Cynthia Carr on the scene in The Times

Elliott Sharp and I will be performing together as Sonorexia for the first time in over 20 years on January 4, at the Bowery Poetry Club, as part of an event celebrating Up Is Up, But So Is Down. Don't worry, I'll remind you in December.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Food Aromas

There are plenty of foods that taste better than they smell. Walk into the lobby of an apartment building full of Eastern European immigrants; you'll forget for a minute that cabbage can actually taste good.

Wake up and smell the gorgonzola.

On the other hand, there are some foods that have aromas so wonderful they can stand on their own. They can be enjoyed for the olfactory sensation even if you're not eating the item in question. I want to talk about those aromas.

Everybody has favorite food aromas. Many of them bring back childhood memories in Proustian Madeleine moments. Lots of people seem to love the smell of fresh-baked bread. For some reason that doesn't do much for me, maybe because I grew up on Wonder Bread, and even worse, Taystee Bread, which had a weird, soft, spongy consistency and no taste whatsoever.

I have two contenders for my favorite food smell: coffee grinding and garlic frying. To me these are the two most seductive, erotic food aromas. If I go into a place where coffee is grinding or garlic frying I'll stand transfixed and breathe away. Breathing can be one of life's great freebies.

Speaking of breathing, I once lost thirty pounds on the sniffing diet. No kidding. I ate plenty of steamed, fibrous vegetables, like broccoli, to fill up, and got my enjoyment from smelling foods that I would resume eating post-diet. I suppose I had a lot of willpower, but for me sniffing was better than nothing, and the smells didn't send me over the precipice into actual consumption. My favorite free smell during business hours was an italian sausage stand near my office. The guy had a grill where he cooked sausages and onions, like the kind you get at street fairs. I lurked, trying not to look conspicuous. I understand that the onions have a lot to do with the pleasurable odor sensation. Apparently street food hawkers know that the smell of onions cooking casts a wide net and draws people to their stands. Sausage and onions certainly makes my aroma pantheon.

And who can resist the smell of bacon frying? I've never asked orthodox Jews or Muslims or vegetarians how they react to the smell of bacon. Is it repulsive on principle, or is there something universally appealing? Similarly, how do Indian Brahmins who don't eat garlic react to its aroma?

Being an inveterate traveler, food odors often evoke travel memories for me. These are my Madeleines of the nose.

Seville is one of the best-smelling cities I've ever visited. The air is redolent of a combination of frying fish and oranges. There are orange trees everywhere you look, perfuming the air. Lord Byron wrote that Seville is "famous for oranges and women." Indeed, Seville is a feast for the eyes as well as the nose, and in addition to the women it has some beautiful architecture.

Cochin, in the state of Kerala, in southern India, is a major spice-producing area. Walking through the streets full of spice warehouses one is greeted by the exhilarating aroma of peppercorns in a concentration and intensity most people have probably never experienced.

A favorite food smell of mine that might not have such universal appeal is that of oily fish, like mackerel or sardines, grilling. When I was in Tokyo I stayed near Ueno Park. Nearby is an area full of pedestrian-only alleys where bars with outdoor tables serve charcoal-grilled sanma, pike mackerel. I didn't stop and eat, but I stopped and sniffed.

Some smells probably have general consensus. I'm betting that most people, like me, are suckers for coffee, garlic and bacon. Other favorites are probably much more personal, and surely many have interesting stories behind them.

So I'd like this to be an audience participation piece. Please leave a comment and let us know what food smells you're crazy for. And if there's a good story, tell it.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

3 Midtown Chinese

As my midtown consulting contract was coming to a close last month, I made it my business to get to several Chinese eateries I had previously missed, mainly because they were a bit of a walk from my office at Sixth Avenue and 51st Street.

I had been laboring under the misconception that Phoenix Garden, on East 40th Street, was the phoenix-like reincarnation of the Chinatown Phoenix Garden of days gone by (a Calvin Trillin favorite), but I was set straight by the staff. Regardless, this Phoenix Garden is a rara avis–a Hong Kong-style seafood restaurant outside of one of New York’s Chinatowns. Dim sum items are available as appetizers, and the shu mai were pretty respectable. The oyster casserole with bean curd and roast pig was excellent. It is a favorite dish of mine, but I hadn’t had it in a number of years (the best I ever had was at a defunct Chinatown place called Tindo, a funny little triangular place at a three-way intersection). The casserole featured the freakishly large oysters that I’ve only had in Chinese dishes. I was a bit disappointed by the salt-baked squid, as the breading was thicker and crispier than I prefer (Great NY Noodletown has a light, almost Platonic version). It’s nice to have a real Hong Kong/Cantonese option in midtown, and the prices are not much higher than at comparable places in Chinatown.

Having been bowled over by Wu Liang Ye on 48th Street, and impressed by the one on East 86th, I had to try the third branch in the triumvirate, on Lexington between 39th and 40th. Based on my benchmark sample of dan dan noodles and ma po tofu, this location is decidedly inferior to the other two. Both dishes seemed spicier and less subtle than at the sister branches. In retrospect, I don't know if they were spicier, or only seemed so because the strong red chile flavor was too one-dimensional. If there were Sichuan peppercorns in these dishes, I didn't notice them. The ma po tofu had a heavier sauce with less meat than at the other branches, and an unpleasant over-saltiness rather than a brown bean accent. The dan dan noodles did not have enough of a vinegar component to balance the flavor of the hot pepper. If this had been the first branch I had tried I might have become the Wu Liang Ye booster I am today.

Much better was Szechuan Gourmet, on 39th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. The ubiquitous cold sesame noodles, like those at Wu Liang Ye on 48th, were satisfyingly spicy and relatively light–unlike the leaden peanut-butter monstrosities one finds in most “Szechuan” restaurants. The dry sauteed long green beans were mildly spicy and had an appealing nutty, roasted flavor. Interestingly, there were a number of dishes that are not on the menu at either Wu Liang Ye or Grand Sichuan, Manhattan’s main Sichuan contenders. The house special baby rib pot featured a fairy light brown sauce with a nice blend of star anise and Sichuan peppercorn as primary spices, though the ribs themselves were a little scant in the meat department. The waitress tried several times to give us an escape clause from the “Beef Chen-Du Style (Very Spicy).” The dish had four peppers next to it on the menu, the spice equivalent of a XXX rating. The waitress said, “Very spicy, you sure you want?”

“Yes, no problem. That’s fine.”

Still, she returned several minutes later to give us a last chance. “Chen-Du beef. Very spicy. It’s OK?”

“It’s OK.”

It was very OK. My lunchmates were a bit worried when they saw the dry crushed pepper coating on the beef slices, but actually it wasn’t as spicy as the ma po tofu at the Lexington branch of Wu Liang Ye, and the flavors were much more complex. The dish featured a nice mix of vegetables, including enoki mushrooms.

Another good midtown south choice, though one I haven’t been to for a while, is Evergreen Shanghai, at 10 E. 38th.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Book Link: Rupert Hughes on Eating in New York, 1904

The other day I was fishing around Google Books, looking for free goodies. I wanted to see what I could find on dining in old New York, so I did a search on Luchow's, the legendary 19th-Century German restaurant that I had visited in its final days, in the 1970s, for a Christmas goose dinner (back when 14th Street was still in its long period of decline). The search led me to a 1904 book called The Real New York, by Rupert Hughes. The name sounded familiar, but I didn't really know who Hughes was. Further research revealed that he was a renaissance man who has been relegated to the status of a footnote to American cultural history. He also happened to have been an uncle of Howard Hughes.

Rupert Hughes (1872-1956) was a historian, novelist, playwright, film director and screen writer. His three-volume biography of George Washington was noted for its non-hagiographic approach. He also wrote popular, scholarly and reference works about classical music (including The Love Affairs of Great Musicians). Incredibly prolific, he published over 60 books and was involved in over 50 films as director or writer. He wrote in an endearing, breezy, witty, conversational style.

I was pleased to learn that Hughes was a fellow antireligionist. In 1924 he published the controversial article, "Why I Quit Going to Church."

The Real New York is a hybrid work, a guide to the New York of 1904 in the form of a novel. The simple premise that frames the book is that Gerald De Peyster, a native New Yorker, meets several travelers on a train to the city and undertakes to show them the real New York while carrying on a flirtation with the pretty young woman from San Francisco. Chapter XIV surveys New York dining. If you're interested in the New York restaurant scene of 100 years ago, do take a look.

Link: The Real New York, Chapter XIV

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Falling in Love with Florence's

A West African restaurant in Harlem was the site of my most memorable dining experience of recent months, and for more than just the food.

Florence's, at 2099 8th Avenue, near 113th Street, serves the cuisines of Ghana and neighboring Ivory Coast. The foods of these countries have similarities with other West African cuisines, like Senegalese and Togonese, such as the use of peanut sauces, fermented grains and fufu (the glutinous, gooey cassava & plantain-starch thingy that can be best described as a blob), but there are also national specialties.

The family that runs the restaurant is Anglophone Ghanaian. It's a small, cozy place and the proprietors are a delight. The atmosphere was enlivened by the great music ranging from vintage highlife to contemporary African hip hop as well as the cute kids, clearly all of the family, ranging from toddler to adolescent, hanging out, chatting and playing. It was like being a guest in their home, and we indeed felt like guests. For me this is a great restaurant experience: to feel like a guest rather than a customer.

Our waiter was very helpful with explanations and suggestions. For an appetizer we had kelewele, small cubes of ripe plantain with hot pepper, ginger and other spices, fried until they get a slightly caramelized coating. The kelewele, apparently a very popular Ghanaian street food, was absolutely addictive.

The majority of the dishes are soups and stews, served with your choice of meat and grain. We had a peanut soup with goat meat, with fufu on the side. For me this was the least successful dish, though the goat was tasty and not at all gamey. I found the peanut soup a bit on the bland side, and I'd forgotten that I'm not fond of the consistency of fufu. As I review the menu, however, I'm not sure whether we were served the Ivorian arachide or the Ghanaian peanut butter soup.

We had the Ivorian okra soup/stew (gombo: does that sound familiar?), with chicken. The dish is long cooked until the okra melts down and creates a thick soup with the broth and spices. I noticed a familiar flavor component reminiscent of some Malaysian dishes, and confirmed with the waiter that it was indeed dried shrimp. Overall the gombo had an interestingly smoky, slightly spicy, slightly funky flavor.

Without a doubt the highlight was the attieke poisson braisse, whole tilapia, perfectly prepared, topped with onions, tomatoes and peppers, and served with a wonderful, incendiary hot pepper sauce known as shito. Attieke is a starch made from fermented, grated cassava that went very well with the fish. Unlike many of the other sides, which are found all over West Africa, attieke is very specific to Ivory Coast.

Poisson Braisse with Shito

Florence's was a huge hit with my dining companions Peter Wortsman, who is never miserly with his enthusiasm, and Jill Schoolman, Peter's publisher from Archipelago Books. This time I was trumped in the travel department, as both of them had spent time in Africa.

Florence's is a B.Y.O. place, and if I remember correctly our tab came out to under $15 per person. Most dishes are in the $9-10 range, and the wonderful kelewele is $3 an order.

I love Florence's. I want to hang out there again. I want to try everything on the menu. I want to take all my friends.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Food for the Eyes

You may have noticed that my Food Links blogroll is fairly short, and not all of the links are to other blogs. In general, the blogs I list are either New York-oriented or deal with culinary curiosa. I've decided to feature only blogs where the writing is thoughtful and professional, the perspective compelling, and the features consistently mouth-watering (well, maybe mouth-drying in a couple of cases). NYC nosh is one of the better New York City restaurant review sites, and I find that the bloggers Nosher and Hungry Man seem to have pretty similar tastes to my own. In addition to the excellent writing, the blog features some really wonderful food photography. I just looked at a bunch of the photos on Flickr (there are 816 of them), and right now my mouth is way wet. Give your eyes a treat and take a look.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Food for the Ears

I've recently discovered a radio program called Good Food, on KCRW, an L.A. public radio station. I was alerted to the program by Eddie Lin's blog, Deep End Dining. Eddie, always on the lookout for extreme comestibles, is one of my favorite food bloggers. He's also an occasional contributor to Good Food, a weekly, hour-long program. Some of the features are Southern California-oriented, but many are of universal foodie interest. The programs, which air on Saturdays at 11 AM Pacific Time, are archived for streaming audio and also available as podcast downloads.

On a recent Good Food program, Eddie Lin explained that cooked bull's penis* is generally tasteless and pretty rubbery. If you consider that essential knowledge, pay a visit to Deep End Dining.

* Eddie has tried live lobster sashimi, but to my knowledge he has never eaten bull's penis tartare. I'm confident, however, that if such a thing were available in Southern California Eddie would surely bite the bullet.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

This Little Piggy Went to Market

I love Philadelphia. I try to get there at least once a year. It’s the quickest, easiest urban getaway from New York. Philadelphia has a wealth of history, a vibrant, revitalized Center City, one of the country’s top art museums (with an especially strong modern European collection), a solid local jazz scene, and the Reading Terminal Market, one of the few world-class covered markets in the U.S. I recently took an overnight trip in order to eat my way through the market. Of course, over two lunches I could only make a dent.

Philadelphia is a serious food city, with its greatest strength in populist fare. In 2004 Saveur magazine named Philly the most underrated food city in the U.S. Many of Philadelphia’s local specialties are represented at the market. The Reading Terminal Market is run by the Philadelphia Convention Center, and no national chains are allowed. In addition, in order to keep it a true working market rather than a tourist attraction, no more than 40% of the stands can sell prepared foods.

On day one, a Tuesday, I arrived at 12:30 at the Market East commuter rail station, which is actually in the Reading Terminal, formerly home to the Reading Railroad of Monopoly fame. The commuter rail is my preferred way to travel from New York. For $33.50 round trip you take NJ Transit to Trenton, then switch to the SEPTA line. It takes about an hour longer than Amtrak, but it’s less than 1/3 the cost. I rushed up to the market and got right down to business.


My first bite (actually slurp) was the snapper (turtle) soup with sherry at Pearl’s Oyster House. Turtle soup is a specialty of Philadelphia’s legendary Bookbinder’s, which according to all reports has seen better days, but the soup’s popularity in Philadelphia goes back to colonial times. I’m afraid the snapper soup at Pearl’s was hardly fit for the founding fathers. It was overly salty, overly tart, and unappealing overall. I probably should have ordered the oyster stew instead.

Next I moved on to Delilah’s Southern Cuisine for macaroni and cheese. Normally one would order the mac & cheese as a side with one of the meat courses, but I had a lot of eatin’ to do, so I was pinpointing specific items. This one made my list because Oprah declared it her favorite macaroni and cheese. Though I never watch Oprah, she surely has eaten plenty of macaroni and cheese in her lifetime, so I figured I’d give it a try. I must say $4.95 was rather pricey for an 8-ounce serving of mac & cheese, but I bit the bullet for the readers of Word of Mouth. It was damn good. My only complaint is that the macaroni was too soft and mushy. But the cheese, which surely had some egg for company, was moist, fluffy, tangy, peppery and delicious. I’ve never cared for creamy, gummy cheese sauces. Oprah, how about starting a blog club?

Dinic's Brisket

After Delilah’s I moved on to Dinic’s for the main course. Dinic’s is famous for its hot roast beef and roast pork sandwiches. Like the cheese steak, the Italian roast pork sandwich with greens is a South Philly specialty. I had roast pork on my agenda, but then I saw a sign announcing that Dinic’s brisket sandwich had been voted best sandwich in Philly by the readers of the City Paper. I’m a brisket man, so I couldn’t resist. I was glad I had succumbed, as it was a stellar sandwich. The brisket was hearty and savory, with the flavors of tomato, garlic and onion. Here my minor complaint is that the meat was too lean, so the larger pieces tended to be a little on the dry side. The mushy parts with the tomato broth and onions mixed in were more satisfying.

That pretty much did me in for solid food, but I did stop by Termini Brothers’ bakery stand and pick up some biscotti that looked interesting – orange-hazelnut and chocolate-cherry. I tried them with my coffee the following morning and they were pretty bad, with a medicinal aftertaste, much better on paper than on the palate.

After I left the market I had one more food stop to make. A short walk away, on South 13th Street, is Capogiro’s Gelato. They make fantastic, though overpriced, gelati and sorbetti. A small cup of gelato, with two flavors, set me back $4.55. After a taste I nixed the Mexican chocolate–the spices are much more appropriate to hot chocolate than gelato. I ended up with toasted almond and Madagascar Bourbon vanilla. The Bourbon refers to the French Bourbons, not the Kentucky ones. This vanilla bean, considered the world’s finest and now mainly grown in Madagascar, originated on Reunion, the French Indian Ocean island formerly known as l’Isle Bourbon.

I left Capogiro’s and headed to my hotel, The Hyatt at Penn’s Landing. I had landed the room for $66 through Priceline, and even got a river view. An invaluable resource for Priceline bidding is, a Priceline users’ message board. After I had settled in I set out for one of my favorite pastimes, a stroll around the charming, genteel Society Hill neighborhood. Then I made it over to Cuba Libre, on South 2nd, for drinks. In recent years the Old City area of Philadelphia has experienced quite a revival, and now South 2nd Street abounds with trendy bars and eateries.

Designed by Kevin Hale, Cuba Libre is a beautiful place, a bit of Old Havana in Old City. I’ve eaten brunch there several times, and the food was excellent, especially the Tortilla Especial (Fluffy three egg omelet filled with thin slices of serrano ham, chorizo, slow roasted pork leg and Swiss cheese. Served open faced on pressed bread) and the Duck Frita Salad (Duck legs braised until tender with guarapo and aromatic spices, shredded and crisped with mojo de ajo. Served warm on farm greens, arugula, hearts of palm, banana chips and an orange-saffron vinaigrette). The bar makes fantastic mojitos with fresh guarapo (sugar cane juice). They also carry over 50 different rums, one of the bar’s major attractions. Aged rum is the Caribbean Cognac. I treated myself to an Appleton Estate Extra, from Jamaica, post-mojito.

Later that evening, in keeping with the Philly specialties theme, I went out for a cheese steak. Now let me tell you, I think I had only tried a cheese steak once before, about 20 years ago, also in Philly. Cheese steak places have been popping up in New York, but I haven’t felt compelled to try them. My first cheese steak hadn’t done anything for me, and I never sought them out on subsequent visits to Philadelphia. Still, I figured it was time to give the cheese steak another chance. There is a cheese steak place at the Reading Terminal, Rick’s, but I had heard that one of the best places in the city for the real deal is Jim’s Steaks, on South Street.

Rick at the market is the Grandson of Pat Oliveri. Pat was the inventor of the cheese steak (1930), and Pat’s in South Philly has had a long-standing rivalry with nearby Geno’s, a relative newcomer (1966). Though the cheese steak was born in South Philly, Jim’s, on South Street (which despite the name is in Center City), is considered to be in the same class as the other two. As a matter of fact, Geno happens to be Jim’s son. While the cheese steak is ubiquitous in Philly, two family dynasties truly dominate. Jim opened his first shop in West Philly, in 1939.

I wasn’t about to schlep to South Philly for a food I was pretty sure I wasn’t crazy about, and Jim’s on South Street is a short walk from the Hyatt, so Jim got the Word of Mouth cheese steak business by default. Though one can get a cheese steak with provolone, the traditional version is made with Cheez Whiz. I wanted to go traditional, but I had a real block against ordering, and paying for, anything with Cheez Whiz. Still, these are the sacrifices food bloggers must make, so I ordered a steak wit (with onions), with Whiz. I brought it to a table upstairs and dug in. Considering my limited experience, I have no way of judging whether this was a great cheese steak, but I’ll be happy to wait another twenty years before I try my third.

I arrived at the market the next morning just before ten in order to take the Philly food history and market tour. The first thing I did was stop by Fisher’s Pretzels for one of their fantastic soft pretzels. This was a Wednesday morning, and the Amish vendors only come to the market on Wednesdays through Saturdays. I was saving my appetite for lunch, so I avoided one of their breakfast rollups–eggs, cheese and bacon or sausage baked into pretzel dough. I have had them in the past, and they’re as good as they sound.

The tour was given by Helen Hwang, a food stringer for the City Paper, who was pinch hitting for the writer who usually gives the tour. The mix of Philly food lore and market history was quite interesting. Among other things, I learned about Philadelphia’s ice cream history. Breyer’s started in Philly in 1866, but Bassett’s beat them to it by five years. The stand at the market is Bassett’s only retail outlet. They make a pure vanilla bean vanilla, which was Bassett’s innovation to avoid the spoilage issues associated with eggs and extracts. I also learned that Philadelphia cream cheese was never made in Philadelphia.

After the tour I stopped by the Rib Stand, an Amish establishment, for some really delicious potato wedges. It was hard to tell whether they were roasted or fried. When I asked, the woman said fried. They were coated with a very tasty spice mixture.

Then it was back to Dinic’s, this time for the roast pork. I ordered it with greens, which turned out to be sauteed spinach with flecks of crushed red pepper (apparently Tony Luke’s, in South Philly, uses broccoli rabe, which sounds fantastic). This was another world-class sandwich. In fact, I’d easily place Dinic’s on my short list of great sandwich spots. When it came time to pay, Joanne, the counter woman, asked if I had cheese on my sandwich. “I never eat cheese with my pork,” I told her. “It’s not kosher.”

Much to my disappointment, I was now full, and I couldn’t bring myself to try anything else at the market. Before I took the train back to New York, however, I went to Capogiro’s again, this time for sorbetto. There’s always room for sorbetto. I nixed the pineapple-mint, which didn’t quite work for me, and went with the pear and the carambola (star fruit)-lime. Capogiro makes great gelati, but I think the sorbetti tend to outshine them. The flavors are amazingly intense and vibrant.

I think I’ll be back in Philly, and the market, sooner than later. There are a bunch of sandwiches at Dinic's I still have to try, and I haven't even started with the ethnic eateries.