The last time I made anything I wanted to blog about, it was challah bread with ube jam weaved into the pleats. I mentioned that Ashkenazi Jewish Cuisine is one of the “Five Flavors of New York City”. I said “more on that another time”. Well guess what? It’s another time. So here’s more on that.
New York is made up of five boroughs that coexist with a county. Brooklyn (Kings County), Manhattan (New York County), Bronx (Bronx County), Staten Island (Richmond County) and Queens (Queens County). I’ve lived in two boroughs, worked in three, and have touched ground on all five. Each borough has it’s own unique swag and style some of which is a nod to a swag in another borough. For example, Bed-Stuy and Harlem have similar brownstone rowhouse styles, but the vibe is entirely different. The Bronx, Queens and Staten Island have this one-family house mini-lawn game that somewhat mirror each other, but has no place in Brooklyn. Each borough contributes a different air to breathe, a pace to one’s step, and a flavor to behold.
But this isn’t about which borough has the best bite- that is another conversation for another time. I want to share my personal view of the five flavors that make up New York City. Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine, Italian food, Chinese, German flavors, and of course, Puerto Rican food.
What? I said it was according to me, after all. Have a seat and listen, will you?
Here’s why Eastern European Jewish, Italian, Chinese, German and Puerto Rican foods are the five flavors of this wonderful, yet occasionally punk-ass city that I love.
You can find these flavors anywhere in the city. Literally anywhere.
Let’s use my beloved borough of birth- Brooklyn as the example. Breakfast time- walk into the deli or bodega- get a bagel toasted with butter or cream cheese, coffee. Lunchtime? Go back to the bodega for a kaiser roll with turkey, swiss, mayo, lettuce and tomato, some plantain chips (the ones in the green bag that you had to rip off the tape to buy) and a bottle of seltzer. Oh, it’s three o’clock and I need a quick snack-go down to the hot dog cart and get a hot dog with sauerkraut and mustard. Happy hour at the bar- I’ll pick up a greasy egg roll from the take-out joint across the street from the bodega. Dinnertime? The diner has matzoh ball soup and spaghetti… meh why not? Late night dining? That cuchifrito place is open until 2:00, yo.
Most longtime New Yorkers know off the top of their head their go-tos for each of these tastes. Each borough has an influence of the cuisines mentioned- mostly because of the waves of immigrants that came to make and take their place in this big city. German immigrants flocked to the Ridgewood and Bushwick areas of Brooklyn and Queens which later became the homes for a blossoming Puerto Rican population. There are current and historically Jewish neighborhoods in every part of of the city, many of them in Brooklyn. Chinese immigrants settled in Chinatown, and expanded to other neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, but corner take-out spots pepper every neighborhood in every borough. And across the street from said Chinese Take-Out spot? There’s always a pizza joint… and I’m talking the old school pizza joints that sold knishes, beef patties, sausage and pepper rolls, chicken rolls, and generally had an electronic card game, and the fountain drinks that were often just sugar and water.
During my five years living in Hawai’i, it was impossible for me to find a decent bagel anywhere. The hot dogs tended to have a weird red tint to them. Kaiser rolls at Safeway and Foodland seemed forced. The pasteles were not bad, but I was looking for something I couldn’t name. Making sausage and peppers was a real treat because bell peppers were mad expensive. And despite it’s own unique flavor and taste, the Chinese food in the Hawaiian islands never did grow on me. (Hawai’i left a different culinary impression on me, one that I cherish deeply.)
The reason for all that is these foods weren’t just “ethnic” or “mainland”. They had the swag of the city that I left but continued to love. Ham and Swiss with mayo, lettuce and tomato taste like sitting on the stoop of a row house. Bacalao salad smells like an open fire hydrant in August, with La Mega playing from someone’s fire escape. Food has more stories than a gaggle of elderly ladies eating bagels on a bus to Atlantic City. And all of the above tastes trigger my memories and love for this city.
There are few local supermarkets in New York City where one can’t walk in and find matzoh ball soup mix, soy sauce and duck sauce, a can of Goya brand gandules- all in the same aisle! And if you walk up the aisle, you’ll see hot dogs, in the meat section and around the next aisle is all the canned tomatoes and pasta.
These are at least, my five flavors of New York City. When I visited Puerto Rico a few years back, every bite of mofongo was a reminder that I was born and raised in Bushwick before it became trendy to live there. The old school diners and luncheonettes that have survived the changes of New York still serve matzoh ball soup- a giant ball of matzoh soaking up chicken broth. Hot dog carts are still on the corners, and one of these days, I will find the original Ray and take a selfie with him out of gratitude for all the pizza he provided this city.
Maybe other longtime New Yorker’s will respectfully disagree and have their own five flavors of New York City to share. My mother, a lifetime New Yorker sans a brief stint in Hawaii (notice a pattern?), would probably differ and include soul food in place of something. My husband would probably have a totally different lineup, and with 15 years of living in this city, he has earned that right. I’m not going to argue with anyone if the tastes bring them instantly to this land.
The diversity of flavors in this city grow and change with each generation. Some of these flavors are hard to imagine going anywhere (particularly bagels, hot dogs, and NY pizza). Sadly, as the neighborhoods of my early years as a New Yorker gentrify- the erasure of the cultures, communities and cuisines continues. I wonder if the local Shanghai/China/Lee/Jade Garden will survive as the bodega across the street from it. Each of these cuisines has a community and the community has a story. And these communities and cuisines have contributed to my story as a New Yorker.