Foods That I Grew Up Eating For Lunch In New York
“The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why, and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question ‘How can we eat?’ the second by the question ‘Why do we eat?’ and the third by the question ‘Where shall we have lunch?” Douglas Adams
When I was a kid, we did not have the lunch choices that are available to our children today. Lunch usually involved two pieces of bread. There were two or three small delis on a block. If you lived in an Italian or Chinese neighborhood, there were several of those restaurants on the block as well. New York’s wealth of immigrants honed our eating habits and favorite foods.
Coffee shops and luncheonettes were on every street. Coffee shops were what we now call casual dining restaurants. Despite that these places primarily sold sit-down meals and not just coffee, you were usually welcome to sit in one for hours while ordering nothing but coffee with free refills.They had a lunch counter in the front with round stools and small tables in the back. They served burgers, grilled cheese, BLTs, pancakes and scrambled eggs. No lattes, almond milk or farm to table eggs with a side of avocado and chicken sausage. If you wanted fresh fruit it was half a grapefruit or cantaloupe and cottage cheese. No smoothies or green juice. Cottage cheese was the diet food of diners and luncheonettes. If you didn’t want grease and carbs, the diet plates were cottage cheese and cantaloupe, cottage cheese and tuna or cottage cheese and a burger patty.No one there had ever heard of kale.The coffee shops were often owned by Greek immigrants and had Greek specialties on the menu.
The egg cream is the iconic growing up in New York drink. Everyone has a best egg cream story from a lunch counter somewhere. There is no egg in it – only chocolate syrup, seltzer and milk. The seltzer should be fresh from a soda gun . The most important thing is the correct ratio of chocolate to seltzer to milk and the frothy head with flecks of chocolate syrup at the top of the glass. U- Bet is the chocolate syrup of choice for egg creams.
The Hebrew National Deli in my neighborhood was part deli and part convenience/grocery store. I think it had a few tables in the back but we never sat there. We usually got grilled frankfurters with mustard and sauerkraut to go and walked and ate them. Hot Dogs are the original street food in New York and sold out of carts on corners in Manhattan. I always found it odd to sit at a table in LA and eat a hot dog with my kids.
The deli was located across the street from Mrs Stahls legendary, dingy knish store on Brighton Beach Avenue under the elevated train. A knish is baked dough with a filling. I remember cheese, kasha or potato. I’m not a knish fan. The smell would hit you when you got off the train and I would often find one in my hand from my mother who thought I should be eating more.
Sometimes we rode our bikes on Sundays to Nathans in Coney Island. We had hot dogs and fries. The hot dog popped when you bit into it with a perfect blend of meat and spices. The fries were not thin but thick, crinkly cut and fried to perfection. Nathan’s was located on the corner of Surf and Sillwell Avenues in a neighborhood where you stayed aware of your surroundings. My parents went as kids when the mobsters and film stars frequented the place. By the time we got there, Coney Island was a shabby version of its former splendor. We still rode the Cyclone and Ferris Wheel but it was before the hipsters and gentrification.
New York had such a large Italian immigrant population that pizza places were everywhere. Everyone had their favorite but they were all good. A New York pizza is traditionally hand tossed and I have memories of some seriously skilled pizza tossers. High gluten flour and NY water are credited with giving the crust its unique taste. It is made with tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella cheese and traditionally cut into eight slices. The New York way to eat a slice of pizza is to pick it up and eat it flat to get the full flavor. You can fold it when it gets messy but a knife and fork will immediately peg you as an out of towner. The crust is not paper-thin. It’s not thick like Chicago. It is in between. There are no chicken and sweet sauce or pineapple toppings . It was sausage, pepperoni or red peppers.
When I wasn’t having pizza for lunch, I would be eating a meatball hero sandwich. It was meatballs with tomato sauce topped with melted cheese between two slices of Italian bread. I have never seen meatballs served like that in Italy. It was a NY Italian American spaghetti joint meal. The Italian restaurants in my neighborhood were Sicilian. There was always a lot of red sauce, shellfish, pasta, bread, red wine and cannolis. We sat in restaurants with red and white checked tablecloths and posters of Italian tourist attractions eating those very messy sandwiches.
Blimpies was the original submarine sandwich fast food chain. It was shredded lettuce with tomatoes on cold cuts with red wine vinegar and oil. A salad on a sandwich was unheard of in Brooklyn and people used to line up to get them.
I still eat all these foods for lunch. Living in LA, it is more about turkey burgers and turkey hot dogs. I’m trying not to eat gluten – unless I’m eating pizza. I ate Subway sandwiches with my kids when they were young. I wouldn’t attempt to find a good egg cream or cannoli in LA. Your environment teaches you what comfort food is. Pizza is still my favorite food. Every once in a while I will go to Carneys, wait on line at Pinks or order the meatballs at Jon and Vinnys for a taste of my childhood.