Episode Nineteen: Food
I read the words “jelly glass” and “sugar sandwich” the other day, in someone else’s memoir. The writer was describing being poor in Houston in the 1950s. That took me back to my own childhood experiences with jelly glasses and sugar sandwiches.
In Canarsie, we drank out of jelly glasses at our regular meals. Jelly glasses were the jars jelly came in, usually decorated with scenes from Howdy Doody, Yogi Bear, or other cultural icons. You bought the jelly, and the jar was free. A lot of people on East 93rd Street drank out of jelly glasses.
We also ate “bread ‘n sugar.” It was a real treat when Mom would take a slice of bread, coat it with a thin layer of butter, pour some sugar on it, and cut it into four pieces with the crusts off. Wow! Every once in a while we’d have “bread ‘n honey.” It was the same basic treat but with honey instead of sugar. And Mom didn’t cut it up, so the honey wouldn’t ooze everywhere. I loved bread ‘n honey. I thought that meant we were living like kings.
Maybe we were living like kings; we owned a palace free and clear, with two yards if you count Isaac’s half. You could stand at the front fence and look back to the tree line that separated our property from the House of the Rising Sun’s parking lot, and you’d think you were looking across Jamaica Bay.
I remember the first time I heard Richard Harris sing Jimmy Webb’s The Yard Went On Forever.
There was a frying pan
And she would cook their dreams while
they were dreaming
And later she would send them out to play
And the yard went on forever
That was our house. That was 1304. We were rich!
But we ate Spam sandwiches. We enjoyed sardines right out of the can. Dessert was a drop of honey on lightly-buttered white bread. And the yard went on forever.
Food was a cultural expression in Canarsie. You could walk around on Thursday afternoon and the smell of baking lasagna seeped into your nostrils. On Fridays half of East 93rd Street smelled like the Fulton Fish Market. The scent of gefilte fish and other Jewish delicacies completed the olfactory world tour. On the Parkway and other major streets, fresh-baked bagels and bialys competed with pizza and veal parmesan sandwiches for nose space.
At our WASPish house it was more like pot roast, baked chicken, and pork chops. We’d have steak every once in a while, but it never tasted as good as at the Flame. I think it was the cut of beef. Mom pounded and pounded the meat, but it was never quite to submission. Still, it was steak, which not all our neighbors could afford.
We ate our dinner every weekday evening at 6:00. That was ten minutes after Pop arrived home from his office in Manhattan. I don’t recall Pop demanding that dinner be served precisely the same time each evening, but that’s when he got there and that’s when Mom had the food ready. Saturday was different. We ate around the same time, but in the summer Pop might cook on the grill outside. In other seasons he’d make pancakes or waffles on Saturday nights. Since we’d often go to Grandma and Gramps’s house after church on Sunday, Mom pretty much had weekends off.
We ate on blue-green melmac plates using stainless flatware. We drank out of jelly jars and white glass coffee cups. In the summer, Mom brought out the “deer” glasses for iced tea. They were tall green glasses with white images of deer on them. I’ve drank a lot of iced tea over the years, but none tasted as good as the stuff in the deer glasses. They had their own coasters too; pale blue lids that proclaimed the cottage cheese they originally packaged. I’m not sure Mom ever really bought a drinking glass.
As did many Canarsie women, Mom had inherited a set of china and a box of silverware from her mother. It came out at Thanksgiving, at Easter, and on whatever Sundays we didn’t go to Grandma's. It didn’t mean we or my grandparents were rich. It’s just what people had in those days. My brother inherited the silverware. I got the china, which I’ve since passed along to my daughter. People don’t have much use for china and silver anymore.
We ate at home a lot more than my family does now, but that doesn’t mean we never went out. Sometimes on Sunday, half the church would pack into Lum’s Chinese restaurant. Occasionally, Pop would spring for a trip to Wetson’s or Farrell’s for hamburgers. I went to P.S.114 with one of the Farrells, so that made it more cool. The biggest treats, however, were White Castle and Sears.
No one ever believed White Castle’s claim that what’s in their tiny burgers is 100% beef. It doesn’t taste like beef; it tastes like, well, it tastes like White Castle. I find nothing inherently wrong with that. It’s a good taste; for me a down home taste.
New York kids, and probably those in Chicago and St. Louis and Indianapolis, made White Castles a rite of passage. When you could down a dozen at one sitting, you entered manhood. Keeping them down was not required.
Lunch at Sears was an even bigger treat than White Castle, at least for me. Our nearest Sears Roebuck—they went by the full name back then—sold hot dogs cooked on stainless steel rollers. They came out perfectly brown all the way around, and they were fully cooked inside without being hot enough to burn a young mouth. In short, they tasted exactly like a hot dog is supposed to taste.
Only one thing could make a Sears hot dog better; and Sears, which sold just about everything, had that one thing: a giant keg of Hires root beer. No flavors ever blended as well as a Sears hot dog, yellow mustard, and Hires root beer from an artificial wooden keg.
School lunches fell far below the status of “treat.” For one thing, I was the proverbial “picky” eater. Mom learned the hard way that it was best just to pack the same thing in my Roy Rogers lunch box every day. (I’d stopped eating school-cooked lunches after the hat-in-the-soup incident.) One year I ate nothing but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. For two whole years I ate only liverwurst sandwiches. How could anyone be considered a picky eater if he ate liverwurst?
While in elementary school at P.S.114, there was one break from the lunches Mom packed for me. Occasionally, I’d have to walk to Grandma’s for lunch. Perhaps Mom had someone to drive to the doctor or supermarket that day, and she didn’t have time to pack the liverwurst. On those days, Grandma was the backup. Bologna sandwiches were her usual fare; or sometimes tuna fish. They were always paired with a little dish of mandarin oranges. I didn’t know they had a technical name. I just thought they tasted oddly sweeter than the oranges I got in my stocking at Christmas time. I still have weird feelings about them, at least the ones that come in the cans like Grandma used to open.
New York City has a well-deserved reputation for being a center of world cuisine. Each neighborhood has its own culinary niche. There’s Chinatown, Little Italy, Hell’s Kitchen. Okay, you may not find diabolical dishes there, but I’m sure you’ll find some great places to eat. My brother’s neighborhood in Queens features some of the best Caribbean food north of Montego Bay. The aromas emanating from each neighborhood reflect the best of its cooking. If you had walked down any of the major thoroughfares of Canarsie in the 1960, you’d have encountered two distinct scents: bagels and pizza.
You can’t find real bagels in the refrigerated displays at the supermarket. As much as I love my favorite bagel shop in Richmond, Indiana, what they serve there is not what they sell at any bagel bakery in Brooklyn.
New York bagels are boiled before baking, the texture taking on the chewy-crispy consistency for which they are known. If topped at all it’s with the simplest of ingredients: salt, poppy or sesame seeds, or onion. You eat them with schmear—cream cheese for purists, and maybe with lox and capers if you’re really hungry. I love my Indiana bagels, don’t get me wrong; but if I ordered a sun-dried tomato, Asiago cheese, or pumpkin spice bagel in Canarsie I’d be laughed all the way to Gowanus.
Salt bagels were my standard fare. Every day during eighth and ninth grade I ordered two salt bagels from the shop across Flatlands Avenue from Bildersee Junior High, and I washed them down with a chocolate shake from the Carvel next door. Never tired of that combo. I’d eat it again in a minute, perhaps with only one salt bagel to go with my shake. I’m not that skinny kid anymore.
I have similar feelings about “real” pizza. You can get real Chicago pizza at a Chicagoland pizza place. I will never begrudge Chicago that distinction. But the only other real pizza in America is found in New York City and in a few places in Philly.
Again, I don’t want you to think I avoid other-than-NY pizza. We have a small chain in eastern Indiana called Pizza King. They serve a somewhat overpriced but delicious pie topped with a spicy tomato sauce, just the right amount of cheese, and some great toppings. It tastes wonderful, but it’s not real pizza.
It’s the crust. American pizza chains have tried everything to make their crusts more palatable. They add garlic. They stuff their crust with cheese. I’m sure somewhere there’s a pretzel crust pizza. But without the gimmicks their crusts are tasteless. New York pizza crust tastes like… it tastes like pizza crust. It has a flavor. If your sauce or toppings don’t make it from one edge to the other you don’t complain because those last bites of pure crust are more than edible. You can still taste pizza in them.
Armando’s was also the scene of a quintessential New York parking space theft on the day some years ago when I took my kids to their dad’s old haunt. I needed to go east on a business trip when Stephen and Kellyn were still young enough to care where Dad grew up, so I flew them to New York with me.
We found Armando’s to be exactly as I’d left it 25 years earlier. Armando still owned the place. Everything was as delicious as I’d described so many times to my family. As we were getting ready to leave, a white Chevy was preparing to exit its parking space right in front of the restaurant. What happened next is pure NYC.
As the Chevy got ready to edge into Parkway traffic, a silver Toyota stopped to let it out and to claim its prized space. The Toyota exercised uncommon patience as the Chevy slowly pulled away from the curb. The red Mazda Miata behind the Toyota was not so patient. When the Chevy was gone and the Toyota pulled next to the car in front of the open space, preparatory to executing a perfect parallel park, the little Miata jumped the curb—the sound of undercarriage grating against the concrete—dashed across the sidewalk, and dove headfirst into the unoccupied space.
The Toyota jammed on its brakes. Words and fingers were exchanged, and then the silver sedan sped up the Parkway, most likely planning its revenge against the next little red sports car it came upon. Stephen and Kellyn just stood there taking it all in. I beamed, never so proud to be their dad, or a New Yorker.
The Baisleys’ automobile of choice was the humble Ford. From Pop’s 1936 coupe to my 1964 Galaxie, we were a Ford family. Sometimes that spelled trouble, as you’ll see in next week’s episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.