We live in the suburbs now, and have the benefit of being near some very large and very good supermarkets; in fact these actually have a right to be called super. They have everything. They have more than everything. They have products I will never touch in all the time I will live here, but they are there and someone must be buying them or else the store wouldn’t stock them. They have already prepared fresh meals ready to just pop in the oven or micro-wave; frozen foods that have expiration dates long past my life expectancy, fruits and vegetables from countries I didn’t even know existed. Like I said- everything. All of which is quite a bit different than growing up in Greenwich Village in the 60’s. There was a supermarket, the local A&P (Atlantic and Pacific), once a powerhouse in the business, now extinct and Mom was a loyal customer, but she also was a New Yorker and that meant for your bread you went to the bakery, for your produce you went to the green grocer, for your fish you went to the fish monger, for your meat you went to the local butcher shop; you get the idea. The A&P was for cereal and toilet paper, that kind of thing. Now that may seem like a bother to some people, but I think it was great to have those individual specialty shops that specialized in one kind of food; the quality was usually better, you could get real good advice from the people that worked there, and you formed relationships with the owners who would go out of their way to make sure they took good care of you. There are still some left in New York City; every time I go now I go with a cooler so I can stock up on fresh Italian sausage from Faicco’s on Bleecker or fresh pasta from Raphetto’s on Houston, but their number is dwindling.
As a kid I used to love going to Zito’s for fresh bread, as Joey behind the counter would greet my Mom by name and tear off a piece of warm fresh Italian loaf and hand it to me when he saw me. Bruno’s bakery nearby would greet us warmly too and there I was handed a crisp biscotti. And each Eastertime, Mom and I would make the trek to Raphetto’s and come out with what looked like wrapped curtain rods but in fact was layer upon layer of the freshest, most satin- like home made pasta you will ever have the pleasure of eating. And then there was Faiccos. Well, Faiccos had that wonderful thin Italian sweet sausage that came in a spiral held together by small wooden sticks that allowed it to keep its spiral shape; that was usually Dad’s job – to bring home the sausage.
Each store was distinctive and delicious, and I miss them all. Sure I can get good bread here, and go to the Italian Market in South Philly for fresh pasta and the Reading Terminal has a wonderful sausage maker though in the German, not Italian style. But as good as they are, and they are very good indeed, they are not the same. I know a lot of that has to do with being familiar with what you grew up with; that’s powerful stuff, but I do believe that what made those tastes stay with me through all these years is because they were that special; unlike anything I have tasted since. And rest assured I have eaten a lot of food in the intervening years as anyone who takes a look at me these days can attest to. So I know a little of what I speak.
Besides the food of course were the stores themselves; small with high ceilings, white tile floors, wooden shelves virtually exploding with the smells of their home made products. Salamies hung from the metal hooks above, the warm bread was dumped in bins in the front window, steaming it up with freshness, flour from recently stretched dough covered the countertops and register. The real deal. Nothing vacuum packed; nothing shrink wrapped; nothing pre-packaged. Just good real food made by people whose grandparents taught them how to do it. Try going into one of those modern supermarkets I mentioned at first and ring the bell so that the never seen butcher wearing what looks like a hazmat suit comes out and ask him what his grandfather did, and I will guarantee you it wasn’t butchering meat. Or the guy behind the counter with the cloudy eyed fish staring out at you – ask him where he learned his trade. Odds are he would be puzzled by the question as it isn’t considered a trade to him; it’s just his job. And therein lies the problem. The shops I mentioned have been in business collectively for over two hundred years, and I bet you can find at least one person who is related to someone who is a descendant of the person who started the business years ago. They don’t have jobs; they have callings. And thank God they are still practicing their trade. But better give them some business soon, as that world is on the Dinosaur track and then we will be stuck with bread you need to be McGuyver to get out of the bag, and a cut of meat you think is what is says on the label stuck to the shrink wrap but you aren’t really sure, but you take a chance anyway. It’s all very hygienic, safe and healthy (95% lean 5 % fat).
It just has no taste.
You don’t remember the flavor of Pepperidge Farm Oatmeal bread; you just know it’s Pepperidge Farm so it probably won’t kill you and when was the last time a shrink wrapped package of Perdue chicken left an indelible mark on your food psyche? It’s not happening. But to this day I remember what it was like to savor Mom’s homemade ravioli made lovingly with that pasta we picked up on Houston Street, or the soft texture of the inside of a crusty loaf of bread from a coal oven on Bleecker Street, or the bewildering chorus of flavors that popped out at you when yo bit into an inspired fresh sausage made by masters of their trade.
When you take a bite of food you should be transported somewhere, somewhere really special; you should be filled with wonder that someone could actually create something that tasted that good. That’s what food should be about.
It’s not about fuel, or healthiness or calories; good food, really good food is a reason to live.
And we all need more of those.