Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Category: Food (page 1 of 6)

The Problem with the Tray at McDonald’s

One childhood ritual of mine that continues to this day is my method of eating French fries at McDonald’s. I spill the fries onto the tray, rip open two of those jagged-edged ketchup packets (one is never enough) and squirt the tomato delicacy into the empty zone situated between the fries and the edge of the tray. As most of you probably know, when I say “the tray” I don’t mean that I eat directly off of the dirty, plastic, dark-brown McDonald’s tray. No, I throw the fries on the paper “placemat” that is slid on top of the tray by the McDonald’s employee before the arrival of the food. These placemats tend to be colorful advertisements on the front, extolling the fun and community-mindedness of Ronald McDonald, while the back contains the nutritional information, hidden from the customer’s view.

My French fry eating method has one major drawback. Since there are no waiters or busboys at McDonald’s, the customer is expected to do his civic duty and bus his own tray. Several garbage receptacles are provided with swinging doors, so a customer could open one of them by pushing it inward with his tray, avoiding hand contact, and then with a mere shake of the wrist, empty the tray into the darkness of the receptacle. The cheerful customer would then place his tray on top of one of the gray, fake-linoleum receptacles, adding it to a neatly arranged pile of identical trays, ready to be cleaned and reused.

While I am sure this clean-up system works efficiently at the McDonald’s Engineering Lab at Hamburger University, my ritual of spilling out the fries and ketchup onto the paper placemat exposes a major glitch. My placemat always sticks to the tray itself, and no amount of shaking, or banging the tray against the side of the receptacle can ever release it from its greasy prison.

This unfortunate problem requires me to make some hard decision when I visit McDonald’s. Should I stick my hand into the receptacle and manually pull the paper placemat off the tray, potentially splashing ketchup all over my hand, arm, or even my shirt? Or should I just pass the problem off to others, by tossing the tray, with the sticky, stained, paper placemat, right on the remaining pile of trays.

Over the years, many of my friends, having the same difficult with the receptacles (after copying my technique of eating French Fries) chose the second route of action, rationalizing it by insisting that they, “cleaned it off as best as they could.” I could never sink that low. My parents raised me to do better.

But recently, as in many stories, a change in direction came from an unlikely source, forever changing my relationship with the garbage receptacles at McDonald’s. Last week, after my yearly checkup, my doctor told me that I had high cholesterol and sugar levels, and that I should probably stop eating at McDonald’s. A mere day later, another event occurred, adding more fuel to the drama. The Dominican Diner down the block closed down, seized by the State of New York for the non-payment of taxes. The closure of the diner left McDonald’s as the only place within ten block to grab a quick and inexpensive cup of coffee.

McDonald’s or not? That is the question. My decision was — I compromised. This week, I visited McDonald’s four times, but only to order a cup of coffee – no food. No breakfast burrito. No hamburger. No chicken wrap. Not even French fries. I noticed that because I only ordered coffee, the cashier skipped the tray, and just handed me the coffee, right into my open hand – even if I intended to drink it at the restaurant.

This not only enhanced my health, but revolutionized my handling of the clean-up. After drinking the coffee, I now simply push open the garbage receptacle with the paper cup, and toss it away. No more fighting with the unruly paper placemat grabbing hold on to the tray for dear life. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even start to bring my own cup down to McDonald’s and avoid using the garbage receptacle at all.

Truth quotient: 100%. This is the type of story you get when the truth quotient is 100%.

If Egg Dishes Were Like Women

If egg dishes were like women, scrambled eggs would be the practical one, the strong-willed and hardy tomboy who grew up on a Texas ranch and knows how to rope a steer as well as any cowboy.

Sunnyside-up eggs would be the beauty queen, blatantly showing off her assets for all to see, teasing her prey, but quickly running when you make your move.

The omelet would be the complex woman you meet at the museum, super-smart, and too expensive to order on a regular basis. There’s a lot going inside of her, none of which you can ever know until that first bite.

(written on iPhone at colombian diner, queens)

Dinner in D.C.

“I’m visiting Maryland next week” I emailed Laurie eight days before my trip. “You want to get together on Friday?”

“Sure. You want me to round up everyone who lives in the area?”

“Nah.”

I said “nah,” not because I didn’t want to see other people, but because I didn’t want to put Laurie out or appear rude to her, as if I was contacting her to be my social director.

But Laurie was insistent on inviting Sarah.

“She’d like to see you.”

“Sure!  I love Sarah!”

Later that afternoon, it was Sarah who contacted me, this time on Facebook.

“I just want to make sure that it is OK that I come see you too. I don’t want to be a party crasher.”

“Of course. I always like to see you.”

“I just heard that you didn’t want to tell other people that you were in town.”

“That’s not true.  “Please come!”

My message to Laurie was getting lost in translation.   I was being perceived as a snooty anti-social scrooge who hates humanity.

“And can I bring my husband too?” asked Sarah.

“Yes!”

“I won’t tell anyone else about it.”

“No, go ahead. Tell anyone you want!”

My trip was already beginning to freak me out.

I emailed Kris and told her that I was coming to town.   While on the bus to Maryland, I noticed Heather was on Gtalk.

“Where do you live now? Do you live in Washington?”

“Yeah. Why?”

I told her about our get-together.

“Why didn’t anyone tell me about this?” Heather wrote. I could sense her steaming on the other side.

“I forgot that you lived in Washington!”

“And why didn’t Laurie tell me?”

“I think I gave her the impression that I didn’t want her to tell anyone else.”

“So, are you saying that you DON’T want me there?”

“No. No. That’s not it at all.”

I quickly resolved the matter with Heather. I clicked onto Facebook to count how many other people I knew in the Washington D.C./Maryland area who I didn’t tell about my arrival in town, as if it was the second coming of Christ. I certainly couldn’t contact them NOW, only a few hours before the meet-up, because it would look like a last minute invitation, as if someone more important has cancelled and I was pulling out my “B-list.”

But this wasn’t a public meet-up!  I was just hoping to have a cup of coffee with Laurie after I arrived in town. Now I was in the middle of an event that would be TWEETED for all to see. Devra and Amie and John and Amy and twenty other online people from Twitter and Facebook who lived in the immediate area were going to wonder why I didn’t invite them to this amazing shindig.

“But no one cares, right?” I asked myself.  “How many times had there been blogger dinners in LA or NY where I haven’t been invited? Did I sit home and cry? (Don’t answer that)”

Anyway, the final group was small: Neil, Laurie, Kris, Sarah, her husband, Gabe, and Heather. The plan was to meet at Jaleo, a popular tapas bar in D.C. The restaurant didn’t take reservations, so whoever got there first, would make reservations for six.

I was the first to arrive, at 7PM.   The restaurant was already jammed. The bar area was overflowing with young single Washingtonians.

“I’d like to make a reservation,” I said.

I was told that we couldn’t get a table until 10:30PM, three and a half hours away!

I texted the others and said that we would have to make other plans.

The others arrived. There was much hugging.  I was ecstatic to meet the amazing Kris, who I have never met in person.   As I talked with her, Sarah went into the restaurant. When she returned, she told us that it would only be fifteen minutes until we would get seated.

I was dumbfounded. Why did we get such a drastically different answer? Was it because I looked a little ragged and unshaven from my long day?  Or was it because Sarah looked polished and upscale, someone who fit in with the restaurant’s demographic?

My thoughts quickly faded as I sat down with the others for an enjoyable meal, filled with great conversation and too much sangria. It was the perfect way to start my week long Maryland vacation, amongst friends (even thought I felt bad for Gabe, Sarah’s husband who was stuck there listening to bloggers gossip for several hours.  Luckily there was a lot of sangria for him to drink and ease his pain.)

Later in the week, I would recall that experience making the restaurant reservation.   While there is a good chance that Sarah got the table simply because one opened up, I also imagined the reason involving other issues such as class, gender, identity, pigeonholing, profiling, and our need to categorize each other (branding!), something that would be discussed over and over at the Theory of the Web conference at the University of Maryland. I would talk about this would Bon after the conference. I would also confront it — head on — particularly my own racial biases — as I switched buses several days later in Baltimore, home of some of the worst burnt-out, crime-ridden areas that I have ever seen.

More later.

Dill Pickles

4500 years ago
in Mesopotamia
the lowly cucumber
was pickled for flavor.

And life has never been the same.

Thousands of pickles
from cornichons to gherkins
are served today
in Germany and Jacksonville

I despise sweet pickles
because they taste like children’s candy.
and I’m a man.

Half-sour pickles are for fools
who lack commitment
and enjoy half-baked bread.

I don’t care about the pickle’s crispness.
or the snap of the crunch.
I just want my pickle so sour
that it turns my hair green.

I want my pickle soaked in the brine for years.
I want every moment of dill, mustard, garlic, and pepper
flooding my tongue until my eyes are tearing from the pleasure and pain.

Midnight Train to My Blogging Roots

Sometimes it is important to pack your suitcase, climb aboard that midnight train, and head home. To get in touch with your roots. To remind yourself of why you started this arduous journey so long long ago.

In blogging terms, this means riding in the bumpy passenger car for several hours, watching the scenery out the window, traveling past all the monetization, the jealousies, the giveaways, the fighting over labels and conferences and cool kids, chugging over the mountains of who did what and when and why, into the tunnels of the time before the rules were set of what an online writer can and cannot say.

Yes, in blogging terms, this means — talking about what you had for lunch. Those were the days!

Remember those early days, when writing about your lunch WAS the point. We were all so naive back then, so primitive, like the apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey. We had just discovered the giant monolith, and did what was natural — we used stones as simple tools, that is until one of the smarter of our tribe realized that the rocks were better served as weapons to hit each other over the head.

No One Cares What You Had For Lunch.

I despised the title of this book the minute it came out several years ago.

Today I ate a tuna fish salad sandwich. It was a mediocre sandwich. Why? My mother has this terrible habit of buying low-fat mayonnaise (the store brand) which has this off-taste, almost metallic on your tongue.

I was especially excited as I created my sandwich because I had bought rye bread at the supermarket, and this type of bread always reminds me of my grandma’s tuna fish sandwiches, pieces of perfection in which dill and onions were delicately mixed in with the tuna. The bread was always sliced diagonally, and a red toothpick was stuck in each half. A dill pickle sat at the side, balancing the plate.

Alas, this supermarket rye bread was a fake. It didn’t have any caraway seeds inside or along the crust, which made the bread the equivalent of a Hooters’ girl without cleavage.

I drank a glass of Snapple Diet Green Tea with the sandwich. It was way too sweet, chock full of Splenda.

All in all, the lunch was a disappointment. But I don’t want to leave this post as a downer. Although the rye bread was bleh, it reminded me of how tasty a GOOD good rye bread can be (not this one), and I vowed to go on a trip this weekend to a decent bakery on Queens Boulevard and pick myself up a decent rye bread, proving that it isn’t always the specific lunch that is important, but the journey.

The Gratuity

The last time I was in New York City, I went upstate with my two friends, John and Eric, for the sole reason of having dinner at a famous culinary institute.

It was my idea.   John and Eric are self-proclaimed “foodies,” guys who consider going to Zabar’s or Trader Joe’s a “night out on the town.” Whenever I come to New York, we always meet one night and they take me to some hot new restaurant.  This usually means an establishment where the portions are small and the prices are exorbitant.  I’m not much of a drinker, but they are, so by the end of the night, it is not uncommon for two bottles of wine to be consumed, and two bottles of wine at these pricey New York restaurants can cost as much as 1,375 pancakes at IHOP (don’t bother to check. I worked it on the iphone’s calculator.)

This well-known culinary institute is located two hours north of the city. The graduates of the school go on to work in the restaurant, catering, and hospitality fields.  In order to give the students some real life restaurant experience, there are three fine dining establishments right on the school premises – a French restaurant, an Italian restaurant, and an American restaurant.  Each can be very popular at different times of the year, and it is very difficult to get reservations to your first choice of restaurant.  We were lucky enough to get a seating at the French restaurant.

Each of the school’s restaurants is overseen by professional chefs, but the students work in various roles.  A round robin method of teaching ensures that to every student gets a taste of what it is like to work in a restaurant.  One day, a student can be in the kitchen, and the next day he can be a waiter or a busboy.  Because these restaurants are part of a teaching environment, the price for a fine meal here is much less than a comparable restaurant in the city.  It is not inexpensive, but that you can hopefully manage to leave the premises with it costing more than $100 a person.

John drove us upstate in a rented car.   As we pulled up to the culinary institute campus, we quickly noted that the school looked like any other east coast college. There were ivy-covered academic buildings and dorms for the students. The main center where the restaurants were located looked like a student union.   Inside this main building were long hallways and photo displays of famous alumni.  The hallways split into branches, leading to the different restaurants.  From the hallway, everything seemed very “collegiate,” but once you walked through the door to one of the restaurant, and saw the elegant seating, the wine cellar, and the formal maître de, you were transported to a five star restaurant.

Our table was ready at the French restaurant.  There was only one seating per evening. Jackets and ties were required.  I forgot to bring a sports jacket from LA, so I borrowed one of Eric’s tight, ill-fitting tweed jacket, which made me feeling like a very preppy sausage.

Our meal consisted of several courses.  The food was rich, very French, and very good, but to be honest, I have no recollection of what I ordered or ate during the meal.  The truly memorable part of the meal was the service. It was at a level that I had never experienced. Our doting waiter was Carlos, a senior at the school. There were at also three assistants at our beck and call, all wearing black pants and white shirts, who hovered around us like helicopter parents. I’m sure each of these assistant’s positions had a specific name, but I recall them as “the guy who constantly refilled our glasses,” “the guy who brushed the crumbs off of the white tablecloth in between courses,” and “the girl who exchanged our silverware at least seven times.”

We also had a sommelier, who looked all of twenty-one years old, but spoke in that affected, pompous tone of a mini-Tim Gunn.  After the sommelier suggested the best bottle of wine to complement our dishes, we asked him how he learned about wine at an age when most kids are drinking Miller Light.  He replied that he was always fascinated by wine, but doesn’t drink much of it when he goes home. He preferred a “good martini.” I thought this young sommelier was an asshole.

As we enjoyed our meal, John and Eric congratulated me on my excellent idea of coming to this restaurant.  We were getting a lot of food and drink for our buck.  We could eat well, but not be bankrupt for the rest of the month.  When Carlos brought us bottles of the culinary institute’s own “pure well water” when we asked for glasses of water, we politely refused, and requested tap water instead.  I noticed the tinge of disappointment at that moment on Carlos’s face, as if we didn’t deserve to be served by him.

I didn’t feel quite at home in this restaurant.  Although the staff worked hard, the constant attention and attitude was anxiety-producing.  Who were all these young Top Chef-wannabees? Were the students being brainwashed by the school into looking down at their own patrons? Or was this just youthful enthusiasm, much like I sneered at my parents when I was newly-minted freshman in college and, during my Christmas break home, learned that they had never read Plato’s Symposium, or even cared to.

One of the busboys, probably the most down to earth one of the staff,  told us that this was the last meal of the semester, and that they were being graded by their teacher as they served the meal.  We learned that the stern, white haired maître de was also the class teacher.   He carefully watched his class from his position in front of the room, making notes on a tiny notepad. The girl who constantly changed our silverware went from bubbly to pale and frightened as the teacher marked something in his book.  Did she bend over on the wrong side as she exchanged our forks – to the right of each guest, rather than the left? Despite the elegance of the décor and the excellent food, being a guinea pig in a five star culinary laboratory was about as restful as a chaotic Passover Seder at my aunt’s home.

Finally, the bill arrived. As Carlos handed us the billfold containing the bill, he gave a small disclaimer.

“On the bill, there is a 20% gratuity added. It is purely voluntary,” he said.   “The gratuity is not for me, but for our school’s scholarship fund to help other students in need.  If you would rather not leave this gratuity, please tell me, and I will bring the maître de over to take it off the bill.  As for the service, especially my role in your meal, I hope it was all exemplary.”

As Carlos walked away, John, Eric, and I discussed the situation.

“What you think he meant by that statement — “I hope my service was exemplary,” asked Eric.

“I think he wants a tip.” said John.

“A tip for the scholarship fun AND a tip for him?!  We’re not going to give TWO TIPS!” I muttered, my cheapness showing its colors. After all, the whole reason we drove two hours upstate was to save money!

“Neil’s right,” said Eric. “Let’s not give the gratuity to the scholarship fund.”

“I agree,” said John. “You tell him, Neil.”

“Me?!” I shouted, startling the well-heeled couple at the next table. “Me?” I said again, this time in a persistent whisper.

I imagined the entire scenario of what would happen.  I would tell Carlos that we didn’t want to leave a gratuity to the scholarship fund. He would sneer at me and head to the front to fetch the maître de . Heads would turn as the eagle-eyed maître de would leave his perch and strut over to our table.

“Can I help you?” he would ask.

I would be forced to repeat my statement about not wanting to leave a gratuity to the scholarship fund for needy students. An evil grin would form on Carlos’ face as he enjoyed my humiliation. The maitre de would take the billfold and head back to the front to take off the charge. As he walked, he would hold the check in the air, attracting the attention of each patron at every table he passed.  They would all turn towards me, knowing EXACTLY what had just happened.  They would shake their heads in pity and disgust, as if they had just seen me urinate in my wine glass.

“I’m not telling Carlos,” I told my friends. “I get nervous just handing a two-for-one coupon to a server at the Olive Garden. You do it, John.”

John paused for a second and then refused.

“I’m not going to have the maître de walk all the way here in front of everyone to take off the gratuity.”

Clearly, John’s vision of the scenario was similar to my own horrific one.

We all sighed.  We would give the “voluntary” gratuity for the scholarship fund.

“What about Carlos?” asked Eric.

We looked towards the kitchen door.  Carlos was standing there like a statue, his hands folded, waiting, clad in black pants and perfectly ironed white shirt, his chin held high, dreaming of a time when he would own his own restaurant, a day when he could stop acting nice and could openly torment his staff and his customers like an American-born Gordon Ramsey.  As a senior at the culinary institute, this would be the last time serving a meal as a student.  Now he was on his way into the real world.   Would he be a sous chef on Park Avenue or a server at Burger King in Bayonne, New Jersey?  Who knew?

“We have to give him a tip,” said John.  “What kind of message would we be giving him about his future career if we stiffed him on his last meal?”

Eric agreed.   I was the only hold-out.

“He’s a student!” I protested. “This is part of his learning. It’s a school.  Did anyone ever tip you for turning in a well-written English Lit paper on Charles Dickens?”

I was outvoted.

Next week, I’m going to be in New York.  I’m sure I’ll meet up with John and Eric.  We’ll have  dinner at some fancy new restaurant that was written about in the New York Times. I’m sure it will be expensive.  But I doubt it will be half as expensive as our last outing — to the culinary institute two hours away, considering the car rental, the gas, the meal, and the 45% tip.

Iron Chef, Los Angeles

Any fans of the original Iron Chef? I loved that Japanese cooking show because the chefs really took the competition to heart, as if their honor was at stake. The American version is lazy because you know Bobby Flay doesn’t give a flying crap whether he wins or not. The original show had drama, because I was always half-expecting Chef Masahara Morimoto to stab himself with a carving knife in Kitchen Stadium after losing the artichoke battle of skills.

A few years ago, they opened a sushi bar down the block from my house in Los Angeles. It was fairly expensive for dinner, but they offered a bento box luncheon for seven dollars. It included some spicy tuna rolls, salad, soup, salmon, and rice. It was a good deal. Sophia and I used to go two or three times a week. The chef, Paul, could be perfectly cast in a Hollywood movie as a old school sushi chef. He stood tall in his white unform, and rarely spoke, concentrating on his work behind the counter. He would call out a greeting and farewell in Japanese whenever a customer entered or left. His wife was one of the servers. If he was in a good mood, he would serve little treats in decorated seashells to select customers, or give away some sake. It was our favorite restaurant.

The Japanese are big on honor. On the wall behind Paul was a multi-colored chest with compartments for sturdy, bright chopsticks. Each pair of chopsticks was in its own elaborate box, each with a traditional design. Each box had the name of a customer assigned to it. These chopsticks were for the “high-rollers,” those who came for dinner and said, “Serve me WHATEVER,” and had no problem spending $200 for dinner. The ordinary diner just got the regular chopsticks wrapped in paper.

After about a year of eating lunches at the restaurant, Paul came over to our table. This was very unusual, because we never saw him leave his position behind the bar. In fact, he could have been without pants for all this time, and we would have never known.

“This is for you,” he said.

He handed us each our own chopstick box. The special boxes! Our first names were written on the side. He presented it along with some unique appetizers. All of the other customers looked our way in envy, especially the Japanese diners. This was SHOCKING to them! No one gets the special chopsticks for just ordering the lunch special!

This was a highlight of our dining lives.

As we ate our feast, Sophia noticed that Paul had different “good luck” symbols on his back wall, not only Japanese oriented, like the waving cat, but examples from other cultures. Were they gifts? We decided to give Paul a gift for his honor, as is expected. Sophia went online and ordered a Hamsa (hamesh) hand amulet that is still used for “magical protection” by both Jews and Arabs. Paul proudly put it on the wall, next to the other gifts.

hamsa

This was about a year and a half ago. As readers of this blog know, I have been bouncing back and forth from New York for the last year. My life with Sophia has been unstable. We have not had the time or inclination to go out to sushi for lunch. Today, I suggested that we go to our favorite spot. Sophia said she hasn’t been there since I left for New York, since she doesn’t like eating out by herself.

We walked into the sushi bar and immediately saw Paul behind the counter, busy at work making his famous volcano rolls. He did not yell his traditional greeting. Sophia called out to him.

“Hello, Paul!” she said.

Nothing. That was strange.

Sophia turned around and noticed that our hamsa was off the wall. His wife came over and gave us a sympathetic smile, and then placed two cheapo paper-wrapped chopsticks in front of us.

After not showing up for lunch for a year, we had been demoted from being special customers. There were no free appetizers. Even our lunch portions were smaller. And he charged us extra for the rice. We were dead to him. Paul is a true Iron Chef.

Matzoh Brei

matzoh

During Passover, you’re supposed to eat matzoh, symbolizing how the Israelites ran out of Egypt so quickly, they didn’t have time to leaven the bread.

The best Passover meal is not during the seder, but the next morning.  Matzoh brei is incredibly easy to make.  It is a cross between French Toast made with matzoh and an omelete.

I love matzoh brei.  If, for example, a beautiful woman invited me up to her apartment this week, and we made passionate love all night in her bedroom, I would wake up early the next morning to make her some Passover matzoh brei for breakfast, and after taking one bite, she would no doubt be praising the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Of course, since she praised the Lord several times last night in bed, when I went under the covers, maybe SHE should wake up early and make me the matzoh brei!

(Gimme a break!  Like the rest of you don’t promote yourselves all the time on your dumb blogs?  —  I wrote a book!  I went to a conference!  I met Dooce!   Blah Blah Blah.  — It’s time for me to promote myself!)

Caramelized Onion and Mushroom Matzoh Brei
(via Melissa Clark)

Time: 20 minutes

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup diced onions
1/2 cup sliced mushrooms
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 boards(about 2 ounces) matzoh, broken into pieces
5 large eggs, lightly beaten

1. In a skillet over low heat, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter. Add the onions and cook, stirring, until caramelized, 5 to 7 minutes.
2. Add the mushrooms and raise the heat to medium-high. Continue to cook, stirring, until the mushrooms are soft, about 5 minutes. Season with plenty of salt and pepper.
3. Add the remaining tablespoon of butter to the pan and let it melt. Add the matzoh and cook, tossing to coat the matzoh in butter, for 2 minutes.
4. Pour the eggs into the pan and season them generously with salt and pepper. Cook, scrambling the mixture, until the eggs are set, about 2 to 3 more minutes. Season with salt and pepper and serve.

Serves 2

Goat Stew

goat

I went for breakfast at the Dominican diner down the block.  I’ve written about this place before.  They have two menus combined in one folder — traditional Dominican cuisine and the gringo menu for those who want burgers and BLTs.   During my first few visits there, I went the safe route, ordering boring veggie burgers and turkey sandwiches.   Three blogger friends, Miguelina, Astrogirl, and Victoria of Veep Veep, all women with some part chica latina, scolded me for being so vanilla.

“Try something different, white boy!” said Astrogirl.

I ordered the goat stew.  It was delicious.   Tender, spicy, in a unique sauce.   Since then, I have ordered it countless times, as well as ordering other unfamiliar delicacies, such as cassava instead of potatoes, with my scrambled eggs.

At first, the staff was unfriendly to me, but once I ordered from their side of the menu, they accepted me as one of the community.   They yelled my name when I walked in, like Norm in Cheers, and they gave me the best table in the corner.  I talked to them about the Dominican music playing on the speakers; we chatted about life back in the old country.

I was eating my breakfast late today.  It was 11:30 and customers were now coming in for lunch.   Three burly Russian guys sat at the adjacent table.  They wore grey uniforms, and I assumed they were involved in some contruction or painting project nearby.  They were earthy guys, looking hungry.  One of the men — short, barrel-chested, and sporting a mustache — called over the waiter in a booming voice.

“Over here!”  he said.

His tone might have sounded rude coming from someone else, but it was clear that this mustachioed Russian spoke this way with everyone.   He also displayed a disarming smile that made you like him.

The Dominican waiter came over.   He told me his name once, and it sounded like “Chi,” so I will call him Chi.

“So tell me, my good man,” says the thick-accented Russian to Chi.  “What’s good here to eat for lunch?”

Chi looked nervous answering this question.    I studied the situation.   It was unclear if he concerned about his boss hearing his answer or giving the wrong answer to the three Russian guys?  Maybe these men were members of the Russian Mob and Chi was sweating in his boots?

“Fried chicken is good.” said Chi.

“Nah.” replied the Russian.

Chi tried again.  “Chicken parmigana.”

“No!   Nyet!   No chicken.  I’m sick of chicken.  My wife only makes chicken.”

Chi leaned against the wall, deep in thought, his eyes flickering back and forth from the back door to the kitchen.  I was completely involved in this drama, not quite understanding either the situation or the mystery.

I decided to help both Chi AND the hungry Russian trio.

“You should try the goat stew!”  I said, proud of my multi-cultural culnary knowledge.  “It’s excellent.”

This outburst was not a usual activity for me.  Sophia might have done this, but not me.  I rarely give advice to people I don’t know, strangers sitting at the next table.  I usually read the newspaper when I eat alone, or play on my iPhone, ignoring others.   But this story was so involving, I felt like I was part of it.  The three Russians turned towards me, hearing my advice, then quickly back to Chi, waiting for his response.

“No,” said Chi to the Russians.  “Don’t eat the goat stew here.  Have the chicken.”

For lunch, all three Russians ate fried chicken.

As I left the Dominican Diner, I noticed that nobody was eating the goat stew, even the Dominicans.

Lunch at Lenny’s Clam Bar


Commercial for Lenny’s Clam Bar from the late 1970’s

So, it was like my mudder’s birthday on Thursday and… that’s right, my muddah. What the f*ck is wrong with you? You don’t got no muddah? Just shuddup and listen to my story before I f**kin’ take a baseball bat to your head. Vaffanculo!

It was one of those Jewish holidays on Thursday, and you know how those friggin’ Jews are a pain in butt — non mi scazzare i coglioni — so we had to celebrate her birthday on Friday instead. So, we got a couple of her buddies and ding dang dong, before you know it, we are cruisin in Howard Beach, Queens to the famous Lenny’s Clam Bar. Now that is a f**kin’ place that knows how to treat a grosso calibro with dignity, not like that demeaning friggin stuff you get at the fake Goomba Olive Garden, where their manicotti is as hot and sticky as my balls and their garlic bread is as hard to bite as a .45 automatic.

Sure, when we first walked into Lenny’s, the lying maitre de told us they didn’t have no stinkin’ lunch menu when they really did, un bastardo, but whatcha expect? Times are fuckin’ tough. Even the Wall Street guys don’t want to pay a hooker two hundred bucks for un pompino! You want a lunch menu, take your big ass over to one of those places where that Chinaman puts who knows what merda into his chop suey. Vaffanculo a Lei, la sua moglie, e’ la sua madre. Lei e’ un cafone stronzo. Io non mangio in questo merdaio! Vada via in culo! (You, sir, go fuck yourself–and your wife and your mother. You are a common turd! I’m not going to eat in this shithouse. Fuck you!) from the book Merda! The REAL Italian You Were Never Taught in School by Roland Delicio © 1993 from Penguin Books.

But let me tell ya, the food at Lenny’s — la cena era deliziosa. Just like mamma used to make. And everyone’s been there. Frank, Frank Jr., Rocky Graziano, the “Family,” all the Sopranos — they love the shrimp and the clams!

Oh, by the way, the waitress at Lenny’s — una bella fica (very nice ass). It was a memorable birthday for my muddah, and for me.

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