LES → QNS: Some Thoughts on Food and Memory

In my Twitter feed today, I noticed that a thoughtful writer had linked to a New York Times restaurant review from 2008. Reading it for the first time today, it turns out to be one of the best pieces of food writing that I have ever encountered.

The review describes the time that Frank Bruni, Nora Ephron, and Ed Koch converged on the Second Avenue Deli to sample the foods they most closely associated with the Jewish Deli and to share stories and memories of a shared, beloved past. In it, Bruni writes:

I realized that we weren’t so much eating in a specific restaurant as passing through a communal storehouse of memories, on a bridge of babkas from the past to the future.

The article is especially touching today on the occasion of the passing of former New York Mayor Ed Koch, but it engages with a broader theme too, how the places we most closely connect to family, history and memory are in danger of fading from view throughout New York City. And I sometimes worry that the wave of nostalgia for these places that fill the pages of blogs and newspapers is really just a long goodbye.

Liking the Bruni review so much, I posted it to my Facebook wall and immediately received a stunning reply from an old college friend, Dave. He writes:

This is exactly how I feel when I eat in a real Jewish deli. I love thinking about how my grandparents would have grabbed a bite in one of those places, with the same food. Quick sort of related story: my grandmother used to tell me about growing up in a Jewish neighborhood in Newark and how there was a separate store for everything: pickles, fish, meat, veggies. How each store had a unique smell, worn into the wood floors. She loved the pickles and fish stores (in the latter, since they didn’t have a fridge, they would buy a live fish and let it swim in the tub in their apartment until it was time to kill and eat it). Anyway, I grew up in the suburbs and land of supermarkets, so I never knew what any of that was like until I lived in New York and went to Russ and Daughters. The smell of that place struck some genetic chord that rang through time – I walked in, smelled the air, and it immediately seemed so familiar even though I’d never been there before. I felt like I was home.

Dave’s vivid description, along with Bruni’s review, filled me with optimism, a necessary reminder that the food and places most closely linked to memory continue to have a deep and honest relevance to us. One of the things I like best about living in Queens is that there are still so many of these places – one of a kind specialty food markets from nearly every place on earth, Jewish and Italian Delis, Butchers, Bakeries, and I could go on – that connect us, meaningfully and authentically, to our individual histories and collective pasts. Why not visit your favorite one today, because what is better than feeling at home?

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