Sunday, July 09, 2017

Trout Fishing in Serbia. In Yiddish.


I am a fly fisherman. I fish for trout. I am not always successful in the catching part, but the fishing for part I can handle very well. Trout fishing is not about going out and collecting fish meat for the table. You want trout for dinner, go to your local supermarket and pick up some farmed rainbow trout and grill them up! I prefer to let the wild trout be, and for the last fifty years or so most fly fishermen have adopted the practice of releasing their catch. Our trip to the Gradac river in Serbia with Claude Cahn and his lovely family was strictly a catch-and-release operation. The Gradac is home to a healthy wild strain of brown trout, with some grayling. Careful management of the fishery has made the river able to produce huge fish without resorting to tossing in stocked fish from hatcheries, and the purity of the water is such that the insect life that feed trout is extremely diverse and viable. We stayed with master fly tier Sasha Bencun who runs the Rokafly operation and guest lodge on the Gradac. Sasha maintains the river as well as drives the tiny four wheel drive jeep that negotiates the narrow donkey path down into the canyon. Why do I love fishing for trout? Because you catch trout in the most beautiful, wild places. 

Fumie with a healthy Gradac brown trout.
I began fishing at five years old - dunking worms for sunfish from a pier - and, like any kid, I hated worms. Worms are disgusting, especially the horrific looking sandworms we used for catching flounder off the Bronx. You may not realize it, but New York is full of fisherfolk. It is surrounded by water, and that means its surrounded by free food. My Dad and his friends were dedicated ocean fishermen, working class Jewish New Yorkers in pursuit of the wily flounder of Long Island Sound off of City Island and Orchard Beach. After the Great Migration from the Bronx to New Jersey I found myself in a Boy Scout troop that went on fishing trips to catch bass, perch and pickerel, classic New Jersey lake fish - on worms. Say what you will about impaling living slime tubes on hooks, worms always catch fish. The grownups, however, used fly rods and caught these beautiful torpedo shaped trout, a fish that I knew only from outdoor magazines, and then they would stand around saying adult things like "Hey! Will ya look at those speckled beauties." Soon I got mixed up in the excitement of catching fish without having to vivisect worms!  Most of what I knew about fly fishing came from outdoor writers born in the early 20th century, like Ray Bergman, who fished wild brook trout in natural waters a few miles outside of New York City and used tackle that predated fiberglass rods and nylon lines. I'm still a luddite when it comes to tackle. I like to keep it simple and cheap.
Claude fishing in 1896. 
I used to throw huge size 6 Mickey Finn streamers and wet flies at the trout and - of course - never caught a one. It wasn't until I was in my twenties that I actually caught a trout on a fly. Once that happened, I was, ahem, hooked. I learned to tie flies (I couldn't afford to buy them) When I moved to Europe I was able to suppress the urge to catch trout for a few years, but once, while on a weekend Sixtus Kapolna pub retreat with Claude Cahn in North Hungary, we decided to (illegally) fish one of the few Hungarian streams reputed to hold trout. It did. We got away with the crime - this is Hungary, after all, and crime is legal - and since then we have been combing East Europe and Balkans looking for trout, and mucking through the sometimes arcane bureaucracy of getting a fishing permit in order to do it legally. We fished Slovakia a lot until Claude's job posted him in Serbia and he discovered Rokafly and the Gradac.

Removing a fish from the water before releasing it is actually a very bad idea. 
And so we found ourselves in western Serbia last week, at the bottom of a deep canyon knee deep in cold, clear water, casting fly lines at wild brown trout the size of my leg, locked in a complex duel of wits and skill with simple vertebrates whose brains are the size of a lentil. (Trout fishing resembles politics in this aspect.) We wrote last September about visiting Valjevo, where Sasha Bencun runs the Rokafly fishing lodge. Back then fishing was slower: late season always is. This year Claude - known in Talmudic circles as the Maimonides of the Dry Fly - booked Sasha's guest house for June, prime time for trout. We arrived at the tail end of summer's first heat wave, but the canyon shaded the river and the fish were still active.

Maimonides with a heavy Gradac Brown Trout.
The Gradac is said to be one of Europe's cleanest rivers, and the trout are wild brown trout that breed in the steam - no stocked rainbows here. There are Grayling as well - not as many as in the past, since comorants - fish eating ducks - have invaded the interior of Serbia. I do not like comorants: they have pretty much ruined the fishing on my favorite Slovak stream, the Revuca. The grayling are always their first victims. Grayling have mouths on the bottom of their heads, so they don't notice dangers from above, as the trout do who feed at all stream levels. They are also somewhat less skittish than trout and tend to form schools in shallow water, making these little goobers easy prey for dive bombing ducks, which can eat two kilos of fish in a day.


So no, we did not eat any of these fish. Instead, Sasha's wife Biljana cooked up some of the best farm-fresh Serbian food imaginable: our first day lunch was a platter of grilled meats, cevapcici, chicken, and cutlets, pickled red peppers, clotted cream kaymak, cheese, salad, and fresh loaves of somun bread. Nobody would want to eat a fish instead of a Serbian grill feast.

Light lunch
Sure it isn't everyday you see two Jewish guys out fly fishing. (In Serbia this is even more rare.) Traditionally, fly fishing is a sport of the gentile elite, of English gents and Wall Street bankers, of Wyoming ranchers, guys who answer to names like Chip, and Wiley. That's what I love about fishing in the Balkans: nobody cares that the cast of Fiddler on the Roof is double hauling dry flies to the mayfly hatch at 7 AM. I don't wear much identifiable fishing gear: no waders, no fancy vest, just a baseball cap from Katz's deli. I talk to the fish in Yiddish: kim zhe arayn, reb fishl! nokh a bisl mer, reb fishl!  Claude, however, is a Yekke and speaks perfect High German. He  looks like the Orvis fishing company took out an advertisement in Der Sturmer.



And yet, the 19th century father of genteel British dry fly fishing, Frederic M. Halford, was Jewish. According to no less of an authority that Wikipedia,  "Frederic Halford, whose first book,Floating Flies and How to Dress Them, was published in 1886 and took the upper-crust world of British fly-fishing by storm...Halford was born Frederic Michael Hyam into a wealthy Jewish family of German ancestry in 1844 in Birmingham, England." 


Hymie.
Halford established the English obsession with using dry flies exclusively, and corresponded with the American outdoor writer and fisherman Theodore Gordon who imported the idea - and the flies - to the Catskill Mountains a few hours north of New York City. The Catskills region has since juggled two influential cultures: the gentleman fishermen who pursue trout in streams like the Nevesink and Delaware, and the millions of New York Jews who went to spend their summers in hotels and bungalow colonies. To this day, there are Hasidic summer colonies throughout the region. If a Jew is involved with trout fishing, it probably started in the Catskills. Our family friend, Frank Plotnik, a Warsaw Ghetto partisan veteran , taught me about bass fishing in the Catskills on vacations at the Tamarack Lodge - including the information that fish speak Yiddish. Trout are not, however, the most Jewish of fish. A Jewish fish is something you can haggle for in a fish market, something you can take home alive and keep in a bathtub until the time comes to kill, cook, and eat. Carp is a Jewish fish. Pike is a Jewish fish. The entire genus of overgrown bony minnows called  "whitefish" are Jewish fish. Basically, if something is a beautiful sport fish that you can eat freshly filleted, it is not a Jewish fish. A Jewish fish is a bony, fatty fish gets chopped and denatured and extended with bread or matzoh, formed into gelatinous balls. and stuffed back into the fish skin, a practice still observed in East Europe and Turkey. The "stuffing" lends the fish its name: gefilte fish. Nowadays we more modern Jews leave out the re-stuffing of the fish skin and just eat the stuff from jars.

The Memorial to Reb Fishl.
The Talmud doesn't require any special ceremony or incantations when you dispatch a Jewish fish - just whack it on the head and begin the process of boiling, chopping, and deflavoring. The reason is that cows, sheep, or poultry are animals that live on land - and they require a shekhter - a kosher slaughter - to purify them of the baser elements that go with things that live on earth (such as Fox News, Domino's Pizza, Ebola virus, and Senator Paul Ryan.) Fish, living in purer water, merely need to be "gathered." No blessing, no pricey rabbinical presence, just scale 'em, fry 'em, and you are good to go.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Three Minutes from my Door: Klauzál Market, Budapest

The boundary of my universe.
If you have been keeping up with the news lately, you have probably worked up an vicious appetite. Nothing gets me in the mood for lunch like reading about the evaporation of democracy in Hungary, the land in which I have lived for nearly three decades. Last week our feisty Prime Miniature got his ass handed to him by the EU after deciding to shut down CEU University. The Hungarian news is overwhelmed with the Prime Munchkin lashing out at billionaire philanthropist George  Soros, echoing Orwell "Snowball is the Enemy! Four legs good, two legs better!" Meanwhile, back in the Old Country World Wrestling Federation sponsor Donald Trump kayfabes his way into a de facto coup against American democracy. I have no place left to run. At times like these, it is good to shrink one's perspective. If I can't run, at least I can hide! I've become very local. Like what is within a few minutes of my front door local. If I don't have to, I don't leave home.

The pickle shop has, alas, closed down.It was... upstairs...
Luckily, I live in the seventh district of Budapest, in Klauzál tér, which means that I live in the exact center of the universe. Klauzál tér (tér means square) is traditionally the center of Budapest's Jewish community. The neighborhood was walled off into the Budapest Ghetto in World War II - the last remaining bit of wall is located down the street beneath my bedroom window. Today Bollywood and Kung Fu films shoot their "European" scenes on the street below me (Jackie Chan's crew was out last weekend!) where at night French hippie tourists scream and howl while crawling from bar to bar. Unlike many of Europe's touristic Potemkin Village "Jewish Neighborhoods" (Kazimierz comes to mind) we still are a Jewish nabe full of living, breathing Jews, although there is little to show tourists if you don't know what to look for. There are Hasids living along the street, a mikvah nearby, about four shuls with five blocks, and the kosher butcher is just down the street - I get my beef hot dogs there.

The Kosher stamp of approval.
And the building I live in, like most of the buildings around here, was designated a Yellow Star building during WWII, meaning that Jews were allowed to officially reside in it. The park across the street offers a bit of open space, a playground, a dog walking area, and a mass grave dating from the Arrow Cross massacres of 1944.


The Jewish spirit of the area do not mean that you can't find anything unkosher: this is Hungary, after all, and Hungarian Jews are probably the largest illicit Jewish comsumers of pork outside of... well... Brooklyn? And besides, Hungarians live here too, lots of 'em, especially Roma people, who have no - absolutely no - aversion to pig meat. After WWII a lot of the local apartments were left empty - their Jewish owners had been killed in Auschwitz or survived and left Europe for good. Roma from Eastern Hungary were brought in to do the heavy drudge labor of clearing the bomb rubble from the streets of the city and were allocated the newly empty flats: before 1945 Gypsies were not given residence permits to live within the boundaries of Budapest itself, with the exception of Roma employed as musicians (which explains the large Roma communities in the suburbs just outside of Budapest in Fót or Pomáz) This led to the unique social mix of the seventh district: a Jewish-Gypsy social alliance (that means they fucked a lot)  that played out in music, family ties, food, and a particularly Budapest subdialect that layered Hungarian syntax with mixed Yiddish and Romani vocabulary.

Right across the street from us is the Klauzál tér Market. We have been shopping daily there since the day it reopened in 2014. The lower level shops and fresh vegetable stalls do a brisk business, while the upper level is a hopeless life-sucking black hole for small businesses. Local politicos seem to be involved in the operation of the place, which explains why many of the smaller businesses that open up here seem to fail within a month or two: The "Specialities of Békes County" shop that offered bags of shitty dried noodles and paprika, the Fresh Squeezed Expensive Juice shop.... lasted a week, the World's Saddest Fish Store not even that long. A promised poultry retailer was represented by a single xeroxed paper stuck to a wall announcing "Poultry Store opening soon" before  it gave way to a shop selling pillows, which lasted a week. The Lángos stand seems to be the only thing that has managed to stay open upstairs, inexplicably popular with the howling French hippies we mentioned before. A new place opened up in the Invisible Corner of Retail Death on the upper level, a butcher shop from Debrecen offering quality meat and house made debreceni sausages and other butcher goodies to take out or eat in: I haven't tried it yet, because to get there you have to pass by Palibácsi's Étkezde, the lunch place that has stolen my heart.

$5 light lunch for two. 
Palibácsi- "Uncle Paulie" - is a real, old school Hungarian butcher, the kind that has strong opinions on what makes a good kolbász or a hurka and what a Magyar likes to have for lunch: meaty, greasy, fatty and delicious, The difference is that  he produces certified organic meat, which he used to sell in the weekely organic market in posh Buda. In Klauzál market he runs an étkezde in the far corner of the first level offering a selection of the traditional Hungarian lunch house fare: stews swimming in paprika red sauce, funky peasant noodle dishes that would never soil the menus of a fancy downtown restaurant, and best of all, real artisanal hurka.
Egy májas és egy vére- a liver and a blood sausage, please.
Hurka are the meaty link that tied me to Hungarian identity while I was growing up in New york. Every few months or so my mom would take us to Yorkville, the now vanished Hungarian neighborhood of Manhattan along the east 80s on Second Avenue, to stock up on paprika and other essentials at the legendary Paprikas Weiss Hungarian delicatessen shop, and while there we would visit one of the many Hungarian butchers in the neighborhood, bringing home goodies like kolbász and hurka. Besides my Mom, I was the only one who would eat hurka. Fun fact: the two things that brought me to Hungary back in the 1980s were essentially unlimited supplies of hurka and goatskin Hungarian bagpipes. I wasn't in search of high culture.



Hurka comes in two forms: stuffed with either liver (májas) or blood (véres) with rice and spices, or in the case of German Schvab style hurka, with bread crumbs.The problem with hurka these days (and yes, there is a problem with hurka) is that nearly all places selling it get it from one of the giant meat processing plants, and almost all taste the same and almost all are crap. You have to search the markets to find butchers who make their own and take some pride in their product. I have nearly given up on finding an edible debreceni sausage in Budapest anymore: the modern product is a mere orange hot dog, nothing like the meaty, spicy sausage I remember from my youth in 16th century Hungary. 



The thing we love about the Klauzál market is that we have gotten to know almost all of the folks we buy our food from. We are in there nearly every day. The vegetable sellers know us, the butchers inquire as to our health and take our special orders for oddball cuts to use in Asian recipes, and the bakery knows our daily order even before we get to the counter. 



One day Palibácsi came to our table to ask us what we thought of the next day's menu: did we prefer meatballs in vegetable and sour cream sauce (NO!) or beef stroganoff (YES!). The next day both were offered. Like a lot of the places around Klauzál tér Palibácsi's Étkezde is only open for lunch. Almost next door to the market is the legendary Kadar Étkezde, and on the other side if the fantastic Serbian Cevapcici and Pleskavica shop Pola Pola. We will be revealing their secrets in short order as well. I realize that while I travel a lot, there has been less info on this blog about what to eat well in Budapest itself, For that you have to know the butcher's secrets. How, you may ask, do I know the guarded secrets of the Hungarian Butchers. Well.... my grandfather was one, my uncle was one, and my brother is one. While I can't actually dismember an animal myself (beyond peeling the skin off a goat for bagpipes) a lot of my family members could. My Grandfather was a quartermaster - a regimental butcher - in the 19th Jasz-Kun Husszar Regiment of the Austro-Hungarian army in WWI. Yes, WW One. You ate what you could find and you liked it, even if it was a moose shot someplace on the frontline in Galicia.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Passover: A Week Without Bagels.

Bagels: fresh, heavenly New Jersey bagels.
Passover begins this evening, and if you are a Jew of even middling observance, you don't eat chametz: anything made of leavened bread. Think of it as the Atkins Diet Week of the Jewish religious calendar. Most importantly, this is the one week of the year that Jews do not eat bagels. We eat matzoh, which is rather like eating cardboard, although if you soak carboard in eggs and scramble them you can make a tasty carboard matzoh brei. I'm speaking of Ashkenazic Jews here, of course, because Sephardim get to eat all kinds of goodies (rice, beans) during passover that are considered off limits (kitniyot) to us bagel munchers. But for a week.... no bagels.

Big-holed Montreal Bagels: The only legit bagel tradition outside of New York.
It has been a month since we returned to Budapest from New York and I already miss the lovely urban cesspit I was raised in. I love the NYC as well as its evil doppleganger - New Jersey - but there are things I missed there from Hungary that really make life worth living. Tomatoes that taste like tomatoes. Pork that tastes like it came from a pig. Chicken that actually once lived the life of a chicken. Mineral water with natural fizz. Mineral water with natural fizz mixed with wine. But of all the things I miss most about New York City, bagels top the list. There are no bagels in Budapest. I have heard rumors about "artisanal" bagel bakers popping up in Budapest, and there are foodie experiments at marketing various round bread things with holes in them, but there simply ain't no bagels in this town.

Bagels at Kossar's in NYC.
New Yorkers, on the other hand, do have bagels. Montrealers have bagels. Towns and cities within a six hour commute of those places may have bagels. Other places do not have bagels. They may have bread balls with a hole in them, but not bagels. Bagels are originally a Jewish food, but in New York it has become an identity item that defines anybody who lives within a hundred miles of the city. New York Jews run the spectrum from the ultra orthodox black hats of Brooklyn to the atheistic socialists of uptown Manhattan, but all generally agree on one thing: we have great bagels. The best come from small, dedicated bakeries that churn them out fresh daily in small batches: my favorite is our local Teaneck Road Hot Bagels, in Teaneck, NJ. New Jersey has a lot of Jews: you won't get far selling an inferior bagel here. Ignore the plastic bags of supermarket bagels on sale everywhere and look for the little bagel bakeries you find in strip malls or hidden on grotty suburban shopping streets. There are gems waiting to be discovered.

Teaneck Hot Bagels
Teaneck is host to a large Modern Orthodox Jewish community. The Modern Orthodox community is relatively recent manifestation of Jewish atomism which has, over the last forty years has fused the Jewish piety of Rabbi R. Soloveitchik with the annoying geekiness of Jerry Lewis. Neither as isolationist as Hasidic Jews nor as prone to eat ham and marry Lutherans as Conservative Jews, the Modern Orthodox are uncompromisingly Kosher, and Teaneck is home to over 50 kosher eateries and food shops. Which doesnl't mean the food is good - just that it is kosher. The main drag, Cedar Lane, is crowded with kosher food outlets, each outdoing the next with miserable kosher pizza, laughable kosher BBQ, soggy falafuls, and disastrously sad delicatessen food for the pious and palate-impaired.

With lox and cream cheese. Tip: don't order this at delis, make it fresh at home on Sunday mornings. 
A couple of years ago I described Teaneck this way:  "I went to High School in the late 14th century. If you had to eat lunch outside of school you could afford pizza, a cheapo burger, or a deli sandwich. Jersey used to have a lot of decent delis. Teaneck had an excellent deli in Tabatchnik's on Cedar Lane. Tabatchnik's is now called "Noah's Ark" and has been reborn as an Israeli kosher place serving the modern Orthodox congregations - people whose main culinary concern is limited to "which rabbi declared the food kosher?" Overnight the identity of "Jewish" food switched from Ashkenazic Jewish to Israeli Kosher, from food to fuel. 


Slinging honey dipped bagels at St. Viateur Bagels in Montreal.
The corned beef sandwich and kugel gave way to the falafel and chicken shnitzel, and the knish was re-purposed into a healthful vegetarian option. Knishes are not supposed to be healthy. Deli food is not supposed to be healthy. If I wanted healthy I would not be seated in a deli, popping sodium-packed pickles at a doctor-defying clip while balancing a salted cut of fatty beef in my other hand. The loss of Tabachnik's served as a emblematic lesson in the decline of Jewish delis in America in David Saxe's outstanding book about the deli tradition "Save the Deli." There still are a few great delis, but real estate prices and the rising cost of beef are gradually changing delis from a cheap worker's lunch into high priced "artisanal" ethnic dining. Feh! Bagel bakeries, however, can be found everywhere - in cheap strip malls or side streets, and in many places you can still get a world class food item for less than a dollar.
Kossar's: 367 Grand Street on the West end of  Chinatown.
With good bagels still found all over New York, the bagel's regional ancestor, the bialy, is getting harder to find.  The bialy used to be the unique indentity food of the Jews from Bialystok, right in the grey zone between Poland and Belorussia that was the original home of so many Jewish immigrants to the Americas. Once common throughout New York, now only two bakeries still produce real bialys. Kossar's, on the Lower East Side, is considered the last holdout of the real thing. I have always loved bialys. They have no hole. They are not glazed, like a bagel, nor parboiled, like a bagel. Essentially, they are rolls of pizza bread. Eat them fresh or they go stale in an hour or two, although they change into something altogether delicious when toasted after dunking them under water a day later. There are more old yiddish baked goods to be found deep in Brooklyn's kosher shops as well. Things like the pletzl at Kossars: essentially a Polish Jewish version of focaccia that was once commonplace but is now only be found being served for the salami sandwiches at Wilensky's Quick Lunch in Montreal.  I love bialys: unlike bagels, you can make a decent sandwich with them. you can eat them spread with butter and nothing else and be happy. You can eve use old ones as small frisbees. But just not on passover. Never on Pesach...


Bialy.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

God Bless the Bronx.

The Bronx, that most maligned bit of New York City, paradoxically marooned on the mainland of the United States, deserves a lot more respect than it is given. The Bronx was the birthplace of Woody Allen, Lauren Bacall, Louis Farrakhan, the NY Yankees, hip-hop music, Ed Koch, and most importantly, me. The Bronx is where I grew up, and although my family moved to NJ when I was ten, they may as well have moved to an alternative universe - one filled with bike paths and football fields and parking lots and strange non-Catholic churches. As soon as I was able I rode the buses back across the GW Bridge to the Bronx, to drink its egg creams and buy reggae singles at Jamaican record shops.


The Bronx has a bad reputation for poverty, violence, and urban ugliness that is not entirely unearned, but not entirely of its own making either. Like a lot of New York’s outer boroughs, until the 1960s the Bronx functioned pretty well as a city unto itself, sharing services with the rest of NY but with its own political machine. Then came Robert Moses. Moses was an incredibly powerful, yet unelected politician appointed as “Master Builder” to spend Roosevelt’s New Deal money on bridges, tunnels, and most of all, highways to transport the suburban commuters of the future. He loved cities, but he hated people, especially people who were not white and rich. Annoyed at the power wielded by established neighborhood political machines in Brooklyn and the Bronx Robert Moses simply blasted massive highways through the neighborhoods, creating cement canyons that cut parts of the city into new, socially isolated mini districts. The Cross Bronx Expressway and Major Deegan Thruway may be a boon to commuters but they were a death sentence to the neighborhoods of the Bronx. 


By the 1970s many – including my family – had fled the Bronx as the city began shrinking services to the borough and – secretly – colluding with developers to buy up the rapidly devaluating property cheaply. Drugs fed on the hopelessness, and gang culture flourished on the drug trade. Landlords found it easier to burn down their buildings and collect insurance money than to rent them. By 1980s the Bronx had become the backdrop for films like Fort Apache The Bronx and The Warriors (actually based on XenophonAnabasis which portrayed the Bronx as a scorched earth zone of racist nightmares. 



The low point came in 1990 when an arson fire at the Happy Lands Social Club killed 87 people, mostly Garifuna (Black Carib) immigrants from Honduras. After the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 and the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995, it is the third largest loss of life by fire in US history. It also brought attention to the neglect of fire regulations in the Bronx and the growing demands of the immigrant communities to be treated on an equal footing by the New York municipal authorities.

What? Your subway metro system doesn't have live Mexican accordionists?
We passed the Happy lands site while driving around the Bronx with Bob Godfried – musician, researcher, accordion repair expert, social activist, High school shop teacher – who was born and bred in the Bronx and is a deep well of knowledge of all things Bronxian. Over the years we have done a lot of exploring in the Bronx and Jersey with Mr. Godfried, and he is not letting retirement slow him down at all. When the time comes for all the Jews in the Bronx to leave, Bob will be the one who turns off the light. 

Two feral Bronx Jews captured in the forests of central Bronx.
Luckily, that time won’t come soon. There are still quite a lot of us in the Bronx, along with Africans, Chaldeans, Irish, Albanian, Macedonian Gypsies, Dominicans, Jamaicans... you get the idea. Many of the New York traditional music scene folks I knew when I lived in the USA have moved out to the suburbs, especially to upstate New York and New Jersey. Not Bob. He stays local, fixing the oddball accordions of Mexican Norteno musicians, Irish box players, and most recently, the harmoniums of the Indian community. Not many harmonium tuners in New York competing with him. 

Bob Godfried in his natural element.
A day trip with Bob is basically an excuse to talk to somebody on my frequency: a normal conversation may start by discussing early minstrel banjo construction, then contemporary Iranian Kurdish cinema, the evil calumny of Robert Moses, and then winding up furiously linking the newer Hohner accordion reeds with the fall of civilization. Bob also knows all the Oaxacan and Puebla taco shops in the Bronx and exactly where to get a Donald Trump piñata for your next quinceñero party or bar mitzvah.

Trump piñatas are literally flying out of the shop.
The Trump piñata was found in a Mexican party supplies shop in Yonkers, about a mile north of the border with the Bronx but close enough for irredentism. Yonkers is home to a large immigrant community from Mexico, and so we stopped in for a lunch of tacos and tamales at Fonda de 5 Mayo

Carnitas tacos.
Across the street, we browsed a Botanica which specialized in a deeply orthodox Yoruba expression of Santeria. The North Bronx and Yonkers is the center of New York’s African born Yoruba community, but there are lots of Ghanaian, Malians, and Senegalese up here as well.  Just down the road was the last of the Puerto Rican “cultural centers” – the Taino Mayor Record Shop. 

Rincon Center (A bad pun if you are Japanese, a good pun if you are Boriqueño.)
The shop is more of a neighborhood hangout than a commercial concern. Guitars and drums lay around waiting to be picked up and played. An old guy wearing Puerto Rico shaped sunglasses stands outside making comments about everybody who passes by. Nobody spoke English, so Bob spoke in Spanish, which long ago replaced Yiddish as the second language of the Bronx. Stuffed to the ceilings with Puerto Rican flags, CDs, cuatros, guiros, Boriqueno key rings, and even tamborines with dancing Jews printed on them, I think they were surprised when I actually purchased a CD of plena music. Most of the Bronx Puerto Ricans have moved out of the city, assimilated, or moved back to the island.

Pathfinders in the Thain Forest
Most casual visitors to the Bronx are either there for jury duty or are headed to the Bronx Zoo. Good choice, but almost across the street is the Bronx Botanical Gardens. When I was a kid I never wanted to visit there. Why see a tree when you could see bison and screeching monkeys flinging poo. But I am older now, and Fumie wanted to see it, and guess what… it is an vast island of nature smack dab in the center of the Bronx. Not only that, but it is home to the last untouched forest in New York, never logged or farmed, a parcel known as the Thain Family Forest. It is also probably the only remaining virgin hardwood forest in New York that has its own gift shop.


For about ten years the forest was off limits to visitors in order to weed out invasive species and soften environmental impact, but now it has clear paths and for a moment you can stroll through an old growth Hickory forest convenient to a NY transit metro rail stop. It is an unworldly feeling to be surrounded by 200 year old hickory and oak trees while hearing a city bus farting to a stop a few yards away. Hidden deep in the woods there is even a rarely visited  waterfall on the Bronx River.

The Botanical Gardens are brought to you by... a rich corporation!
By this time it was time to find dinner, and Pere Godfried's interior cultural map of the Bronx did not fail us. After visiting an African grocery and inhaling the aromas of deeply smoked and salted goat meat for a while, we felt that something lighter might be in order. 

Jerome Ave, near Kingsbridge Station on the 4 line.
Back in the mid 1970s when the US was settling refugees from Vietnam, the decision was made to scatter the resettled South Vietnamese communities around the country so that none of them would grow into an enclave with enough local political power to effectively control politics, as had the Cuban refugee community in Florida. (Ever hear of Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio?)  Thus, New York did not really receive many Vietnamese, and those that were sent here were plunked down in the Bronx, where Bob G. was teaching wood shop in the High Schools. That's where he met the kids whose family run the Com Tam Ninh KieuVietnamese Restaurant. The menu is split between noodle soups and rice plates.

Add your bad pho pun here.
This was some of the best pho I have had in the states. Not delicate, clear broth, but a hearty, packed soup with tripe, tendon, with a small botanical garden of its own served on the side. The Bronx: some of the best eats in New York, if you know where to look.



Monday, February 06, 2017

I Love New Jersey.

It's not that I'm universally loved. We know I'm not in New Jersey. But what they do say in New Jersey is, 'We like him, and we think he's telling us the truth.' I think we need to have that type of politics on the national level.
Chris Christie, Governor of New Jersey


Ferry street, Ironbound district of Newark
I'll come straight out and say it: I love New Jersey. I wasn't born here, in fact, sometimes I think nobody was. New Jersey is the ultimate immigrant state: you move here, then you move away from here. Close enough to power but far enough away that you can afford to live there. New Jersey is Donald Trump's nighmare: it is here he ran his casinos into the ground, and it is here that one could find immigrant labor to staff them at the shit wages he paid. Without immigrants you wouldn't be able to eat, shop, or breathe in this state. Immigrants kept Trump's Atlantic City Casinos alive as busloads of Chinese waiters flushed their meager earnings into the septic maw of his bank accounts. 



New Jersey gained fame when Governor Chris Christie, blocked the entry lanes to the George Washington Bridge, taking gleeful vengeance against the people of Fort Lee for having the temerity to trust in democracy. Christie's defensive opera of lies in caught the eye of that most glib of Lying Assholes, the Trumpster his self, who then dragged Christie along the campaign trail only to dump the Governor when appointments were being handed out, reportedly because Trump didn't want any fat people in his cabinet. So where is the discarded Christie now? He hangs on as the acting Governor of New Jersey like a shriveled tumor on a dog's scrotum. But, looking on the positive side, that scrotum has amazing Columbian food, Beautiful beaches, the second largest waterfall east of the Missisppi, and plenty of free parking in the back! As we so often say: Ya gotta love new Jersey.


Yes, we moved here and I moved away, like everybody in New Jersey. But I do return, and it has taken years but I have come to love this grimy, absurdist corner of America. In fact New Jersey is the place that I have resided less than anywhere else in life, but it is where I spent my teen years and it made me into the proud, dumb asshole that I am. Jersey is not pretty, and we know it. Jersey is not smart, and we know it. New Jersey has long been a byword for political corruption - as my Dad says  "New Jersey has the best politicians that money can buy." 



New Jersey is known to much of the world through the TV series The Sopranos, which was filmed here and reveled in presenting new Jersey culture in all its corrupt, run down, big-haired glory. But the decades of uneven development - farmlands becoming industrial towns becoming slums and bordering brand new suburbs - has also made New Jersey a place where you can experience cultural and social diversity unlike anything you might find in, say New York's northern suburbs or out on Long Island. (New Jerseyites have always maintained a vicious sense of superiority towards Long Island. Long Island, as everybody knows, sucks.) 


Big Bazaar on Newark Ave in Jersey City
Immigrant diversity is the norm in Jersey. If I drive to the supermarket from my parent's home in Teaneck I would pass a 17th century Dutch Farmhouse down the road, then a Muslim Medrasseh, a Korean Church, an Orthodox Jewish synagogue, a Swedish delicatessen, an Afghan and Pakistani neighborhood, an Italian neighborhood, a Filipino grocery, an Indian-Chinese Restaurant, and then finally find the Farmer's Market, a Korean owned, Mexican staffed market offering frozen guinea pig meat to the Peruvians, Mexican sausage, nearly inedible bony milkfish beloved of Bengalis, and Turkish flatbread. Dinner is served. Yesterday, dinner was served in Jersey City, at the Sapthagiri Indian Vegetarian Restaurant, which we first discovered a few years ago and it remains one of the best bargains for food in the state of New Jersey. 


South Indian, North Indian, Vegan, and Gluten-free thalis at Sapthagiri Jersey City, NJ.
Jersey City used to be a run down, forgotten armpit of a town, run into bankruptcy by corrupt mayor Frank Hague from 1917 to 1950. Lack of services and crime left it a low rent place that only the poorest immigrants would find themselves in, and of course, they improved the place. Today there are significant Indian, Filipino, and African communities there and Newark Avenue, near the PATH station to Manhattan, is the hub of the Indian community centered around India Square. Many come from South India, where vegetarian diets are more common. The Sapthagiri is unique in that it offers excellent dining for all kinds of diets: Jains (who don't eat onions) gluten free, vegan, and it also gained official kosher certification - a local rabbi actually comes in daily to light the oven pilot lights. There are all kinds of savory rice cakes - idly, uppadam, and dosas, which I love but the mixed platter thalis are such an amazing bargain that I can't help myself. 



Four or five different dishes, sauces, dessert, rice, chapati, and if you run out on a favorite the waiter comes and refills your bowl. Like much South Indian food, the cuisine is not particularly spicy hot: for that I ordered a plate of "cut mirchi", chili peppers deep fried in chick pea flour in a dry onion and tomato sauce. 



Not all Indian food is spicy: that is what the spiced achar pickles and peppery side dishes are for. I want to try some of the other Indian restaurants along Newark Ave, but the Sapthagiri is so good that it keeps drawing me back, and I am not a vegetarian by any means. You see a lot of packed vegetarian restaurants in this area. The food is simply that good. And not that far away was the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark. By simply driving through Hamilton, NJ and crossing the lethally polluted Passaic River we got to the Ironbound and parked on Ferry Street. We arrived twenty minutes before the Super Bowl kickoff, and the streets were nearly deserted. We were here for Teixera's Bakery, home of the best Portuguese egg custard tarts in North America.


Pasteis de nata
This being Super bowl night, the bakery was doing a brisk business in boxing take out TV snacks and the pasteis de nata were flying out of the shop as fast as they could bake them. I grabbed the last dozen of one batch, a cup of coffee, and settled into one of the spacious tables. Pasteis de nata were introduced all over the Lusitanian world, including the Chinese colony of Macao, where the inspired the Hong Kong Chinese egg tart, but these are a world apart from the Chinese version. Light, with burned caramel custard on top, and crispy when fresh, nothing like the heavy, eggy yellow pastry that ends a dim sum meal. 
Teixera's Bakery, Newark
We usually go to the Ironbound for the Portuguese restaurants, usually Seabra's Seafood nearby, after which I can't usually muster the appetite for a dessert, so I was glad we made the pilgrimage right after our veggie lunch. This is the perfect immigrant neighborhood: Portuguese, Azoreans, Brazillians, Mexicans settled here because the Ironbound is almost like a village. You can find anything you might want - from a supermarket to a Baptism - within a twenty minute walk of home. On a summer evening the cafes and bakeries set out tables on the streets,futbol blasting from televisions, kids running in the alleys, and old ladies gossiping over coffees. There is probably no other neighborhood in the USA that feels more like a European city than this corner of Newark. If you are in New York and have an evening free, take the path train to Newark and walk south along Ferry Street from the station some evening. Its like entering another country. There is a lot more to Newark than an airport.