I rode my bike into Manhattan yesterday (as I do 3 or 4 times a week, year-round.)
First I get on the Staten Island ferry, no charge, park my bike in the bike rack and sit working on a new little tea book for the 25 minutes of ferry-voyage.
At South Ferry I head along Water St. and up to Chinatown –about a fifteen minute ride– to buy some shrimp, ginger, and bok choy. I saw a Mark Bittman recipe recently in the NYT calling for shrimp, black beans, and bok choy (which I had never bought before). Mark Bittman, to my mind, stands out as a special food person; clearly pursues a consuming interest in food –was that pun intended, or did it just pop out and creep in under my conscious radar?– and how to cook it; and knows so much about food that he writes and teaches so well and so simply, and so encouragingly, that he seems absolutely devoid of affectation and posture and food-fashion. Confident in his own ideas, and absolutely open to all possibilities. I regard him as very much as a resource, a resident expert in my kitchen.
Typical of the generous and giving enthusiasm that he brings to his job, was a recent piece that he ran in the NYT: great suggestions for appetizers and snacks –little meals– that could be prepared very quickly. It was an elegant list reflecting the tastes of an educated and informed omnivore, bringing together ingredients that many cooks might not have encountered or cooked with –such as me with my bok choy– and mixed in with Bittman variations on standard oldtime Lower Eastside treats.
The thing about this particular MB piece seemed very much in character with the person himself: it wasn’t “a half dozen ideas” or 10 or a dozen, or even 25 ideas. This was a whole page, plus, of One Hundred and One Ideas for quick appetizing snacks!
101! And 90% of them were ones that had my interest. It struck me that you have to love your job, and want to do it very well, and be always on the lookout for new ideas, and new ingredients, and have a very definite dedication to serving your readers well, to make it 101.
By the way, you can often find a MB video on the NYT site dealing with a particular recipe. Again, his kitchen has that aura of visual elegance and well-functioning simplicity. To Mark himself, there’s a little bit of the vaudeville performer in there –he likes to entertain you; bounce a lemon off a bicep, sort of thing. But essentially it’s a fluid and engaging, and down-to-earth walk-through of a preparation that most people would find easy to follow.
(I had one very slight difficulty with the shrimp-blackbean-bok choy recipe. Having followed the easy-to-follow video it would have made life even easier if there had been a printout-able recipe.)
Anyway, thank you Mark. And readers, take a look at those videos.
The bike is the perfect way to get to Chinatown.
I head to Grand St. east of Bowery to my few usual stores.
“Ooo, bok choy” remarks my guy approvingly, my friend who has regularly served me over the years. Bok choy! It was as if finally I had uttered the secret password that got me in to some inner circle.
Across the way, the fish stand. Large, well laid out, fully stocked. A well-run operation, with fish utterly fresh. And the prices are so much better than anywhere else, though they are creeping up here too.
My fish guy is much older. It took him several years of dour, uninterested, perfunctory service to me before he clicked into something warmer, more personal. Now –sometimes I’ll even get something approaching a gruff, fleeting-but-definite smile. I address him, affably I hope, as “Sir.”
“Five dollars of the four-eighty shrimp. Sir” This way we both avoid that twenty-cent change transaction. Five dollars: I will split this into four portions and freeze three, and cook one tonight. That way I can prepare and eat a good meal for less than two dollars.
Thank you, Sir. And thank you again, Mark Bittman
After Chinatown, I head up the Bowery –no more CBGBs, a shiny new box of a New Museum, a fancy new hotel with that faux-Trump “elegance” ( take a look at Mark Bittman, Donald!)
Past How-ston, never Hew-ston. On Bowery, some cherry tree buds are about to explode. Give them another week, I think as I ride by.
Forking to the left at Cooper Union, I head for Union Square and the Green Market. I wonder if my plant lady Sue from upstate is there yet, or is it still too early for her (I have some questions for her). There are still about 10 days to “last frost date” in this part of the world. (The latter, it turns out: she will not be there for another week or so.)
I check through the market. Its very much an “early spring” market: flowers cut or potted, hyacinths, daffodils, pussy-willow branches, lots of apples, the goat cheese place, the grass-juice guy, the bread place (looks good but –four dollars?).
Not really the market yet.
There are a few people around. It’s early in the year. Over the years the “philosophical ethos” of the market has evolved, reflecting the myriad mini-eras that we are all passing through all the time (many of us unconsciously, which may not be a bad way to do it!) –be it organic; green; eco-this, eco-that; healthfood-healthfad; locally-grown (is that 25 miles or 250 miles?); bottled water v. tapwater; pesticides, chemical or benign (in the insect world do they ever get spiders or ladybirds on a pesticide rap?); seeds home produced/preserved or genetically altered. That’s not even the half of it.
Many of them are backed up with quite reasonable explanations. Many of them I have come up with on my own in the quietude of garden or bike-ride. But –as is apparently the case with all things, there is a rigid and intolerant near-religious stance to go with many of these ideas, which can turn one off faster than the ideas turn one on.
Not too many customers around. Wait a minute: what’s going on at that booth over there. A huge crowd around one table, two and three deep. I wheel over on my bike to see.
Ah. (And this, I believe, is revealing)….
Looking over the heads of the clamoring customers at the quickly diminishing pile of goods on the table, what do I see….but cookies, cookies, cookies, and more cookies, chocolate chip cookies as big as saucers, fudge brownies, with fudge squeezing out and swelling into their clear plastic wrappers….cookies, cookies, and more cookies.
Wait a minute! Wasn’t there a report recently…about people’s diets?…kids not eating enough vegetables? Some recommendation to put fruit and vegetable dispensers in schools; take out the nachos and stuff.
You can see I’m pretty vague on it. But –it strikes me– whatever changes they are recommending, and however many new vegetable dispensers they were putting in schools, that somehow, it was too late to catch this cookie-clamoring crowd.
And maybe not just in Union Square.
So, I tool around on my bike. There’s nothing that I want. Maybe I’ll go back to the plant place, and pick up a flat of curly parsley for $2.50. I haven’t done well in the garden with curly parsely for some reason. You would think it would be very easy to grow the ubiquitous garnish. Maybe if I get an early start.
I do my transaction.
The guy is talking to a woman. He looks like a farmworker who takes life at a rural pace; she is a smartly dressed young city dweller. But they seem to know each other. She addresses him by his name.
He continues to talk to her as he gives me my change. I hear him say “…I was thinking about going to Iraq. They give 8000 dollars and two….”
“To the war?” I interject. “Or is that doing security with Blackwater?” Eight thousand anything sounds more like Blackwater.
He wasn’t sure. He just wanted to go to Iraq.
I told him that I could not be more opposed to the war in Iraq; told him why not go to Afghanistan, if you must go to a war. At least there was some rationale to that war, even if it’s pretty much evaporated by now.
I went on about the war in Iraq in ways that will not surprise readers of this blog. I am conscious of not wanting to argue with him. I want to have a conversation with him. But I am still passionately against the war: the lies, the incompetence, the not caring enough about the soldiers to give them proper body armor, or give the wounded decent hospitalization, back home.
I tell him about my friend Bart and his men in Afghanistan. In my emails to Bart I spare him my anti-war sentiments because I don’t want to burden or distract him in the dangerous field or do anything to make him more vulnerable. He is where he has chosen to be, even though he has indicated that he often didn’t feel fully supported by the chain of command. He has lost a couple of men in the last couple of months, men he dearly loved. His tour will finish in a month: be safe Bart.
The fighting has become more ferocious.
My story seems to make a real impact on my friend who sold me the parsley plants. His woman friend joins is; she is against the war too. And makes her points caringly and strongly. She and I exchange a purposive look: we are on an antiwar mission.
Our friend is nodding. He says he has been troubled too by the cascade of lies, and by the lack of planning.
I plan to pop in and talk to him again in a few days.
I bike away with a strong sense of mission.