Yesterday, while I was stirring my fish stock, my mind embarked unexpectedly on one of those wide-ranging ambles through the past. Come along, but be forewarned that an amble is just a ramble with one letter burned out.
In 1998-99, Laurie was going to grad school at Teachers College of Columbia University, and we rented a student apartment at 121st and Amsterdam. Supposedly this is a dicey neighborhood, but that’s what they say about our present Seattle neighborhood, too. I think people see dicey neighborhoods where they want to. That said, I did once impress a guy who was boasting about living in “crackhead central,” by which he meant off Washington Square Park. “Really?” I said. “I used to live at 121st and Amsterdam,” letting him take home the implication that I was a street-smart Harlemite. But it’s probably not hard to impress a guy who thinks the West Village is a tough neighborhood.
Anyway, the whole New York experience seems like a dream now. It was just before the dot-com implosion, and I had three tech jobs over the course of the year with successively higher salaries and less work. At one point I was hired as a Windows NT Server administrator even though I had never once used Windows NT Server. “We’re not really worried about that,” said the guy who hired me. The office was infested with politics, but the other tech guy and I had an office downstairs where we could laugh at the backstabbing from a safe distance. We had those IKEA Poang chairs for when we needed to think hard about a technical problem or take a nap.
Once, two of the upstairs employees got into a fistfight, and the loser quit. They were both women. The boss was a total caricature, a raving bigot who seemed to have a problem with every ethnic group and sexual minority. This can’t have been much fun in New York. He also used to eat every week at the Old Homestead steakhouse (the one on 9th Avenue with the big plastic cow on the facade) on expense account. Eventually the CEO flew over from England and fired him. There wasn’t excitement like this every day, of course–mostly my fellow tech guy and I would sit around in the Poangs and eat Hunan Beef from the local Chinese place, which was called King Food. Hunan Beef, with a can of Coke and free delivery, was five bucks.
One day I hopped the L train to Union Square during lunch and had a burger at the bar at Union Square Cafe, something I’d read about in a book. I wore a dress shirt, hoping I’d blend in, and everyone at work figured I had a job interview. I was too embarrassed to tell them the real reason.
My office was on West 14th Street, in the meatpacking district, which was just starting to gentrify. Our window literally overlooked a giant dumpster full of festering cow discards. But you could walk out the front of the building, take a right onto 14th and another right onto Hudson, and find yourself lost in the intricate street pattern of the West Village, stumbling across a surprise every time. There was the English shop, Myers of Keswick. Magnolia Bakery is down there somewhere, as is the White Horse Tavern, best known as the place where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death.
Right near the White Horse is Pepe Verde To Go. It’s part of a small chain of cheap Italian restaurants that includes other Pepes such as Rosso (the original), Giallo, and Viola. One night Laurie met me after work and we had dinner at Pepe Verde. I ordered the penne alla vodka, something I’d heard of but never had before, and it turned out to be one of the most spectacular pastas I’ve ever eaten: my favorite pasta shape in a tomato-cream sauce with lots of pancetta, served in a big white bowl. I love big bowls. It was $7. (The Amateur Gourmet blogged about it last year.)
“I could probably make this at home,” I mused to Laurie as I ate my pasta. This was not the first time I’d said this, but it was the first time I was right. I used my favorite jarred pasta sauce, a slug of cream, cheap vodka, and some pancetta purchased at Faicco’s Pork Store on Bleecker St. (I know you don’t care where I bought my pancetta, but I like saying “Pork Store.”) It came out almost exactly like Pepe’s, and we’ve been eating it at least once a month since then. I even sold an article about it to the Seattle Times. This was a great return on the $7 I spent on research.
Not only was Penne alla Vodka the best thing we made that year, it was, with one exception that I’m getting to, the only thing I can remember making. We had one of those New York kitchens with a fridge smaller than the beer cooler you had in your dorm room and an underpowered 24-inch gas stove, and no matter how many times I tried to convince myself that I was like one of those old Italian women who produce big rustic dinners from a San Marino-sized kitchen, the fact is that I’ve never been an old Italian woman. So we ate out almost all the time.
This didn’t stop us from spending plenty of money on groceries. Every Saturday morning, a charter bus would pull up in front of our building and drop us at Fairway’s uptown location, a store so remote that it’s not actually on a named street–it fronts on the Hudson at 132nd Street. It’s one of the world’s greatest supermarkets. I’ve forgotten most of what we bought at Fairway, but I know we’d usually start by grabbing a cheese danish from the bakery counter. They had Desert Pepper salsa, one of the best jarred salsas, at very low prices. The De Cecco pasta that I used in my penne alla vodka was about a dollar a box. I was surprised to see Red Hook ESB, the popular Seattle craft beer, for $4.50 per six pack, but it turned out they’d recently opened a brewery in New Hampshire. The produce was pretty pathetic, but that’s true almost everywhere in the city–the average supermarket in Seattle has better produce than most gourmet markets in New York, or at least it did in 1999.
What I really remember about Fairway is the cold room. You’d put on one of the supplied jackets and step into a giant refrigerator (10,000 square feet) that was the fish, meat, and dairy department. Meat trays were piled high on shelves in the middle of the room. The price of butter went up while we were in New York, but somehow the higher-fat Plugra brand stayed under $3/lb, so we’d buy a red brick of Plugra. I think I also started eating that Yo Crunch yogurt around this time. Their cheese section, which was not in the cold room, was christened the Cheese Cave, and Laurie and I made up a jingle that went, “Step into my cheese cave!” and we sing it to this day.
Finally, I’m coming to the punchline of this very long story. One of the things we noticed in the Fairway cold room one day was a big package of chicken wings that cost maybe $3. “These would be perfect for making chicken stock,” I said. And we did, in fact, buy some chicken wings and throw them into a stockpot with some vegetables and, for no other reason than that I had some around, sliced jalapeÃ±os. No surprise: jalapeÃ±os make a very spicy stock.
So, seven years later, I’m standing at the stove, skimming foam from the top of my fish stock and wondering: why did I make chicken stock in New York? Did I end up using it for something? Did someone on the Food Network put me up to it? It’s not like there was even room to put the stock in our fridge.
Maybe I never made the stock. Maybe the whole year was a dream, and there is no Pepe, no cold room, and–would it were so–no such thing as Windows NT.