Monday, October 12, 2015

Remembrance of Things Past

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

This last week of my vacation included re-introducing Betty and Maggie, two friends from karaoke, to the Bronx Zoo. They loved it and increased my love of it by their reactions to the various animals – even the chipmunks scampering everywhere and the peacocks begging for food at the café.

On my continued foray down my basement I removed another bag of garbage and disposed of two 70-year-old carpets. These carpeted the floors of our former home in Astoria, Queens, before we moved. They were so thin I could tear them apart with my bare hands.

The only interesting discoveries were an old flashlight (that still works), an old-fashioned cartridge fountain pen, and a silver candlestick (when I cleaned it, the black tarnish came off willingly). Other than that, it was an adventure just making space out of clutter.

While I was at the zoo, I learned that my Dad had one of his unpredictable blackout spells where he winds up on the floor and has no recollection of falling except for the aches that follow. After taking him to his doctor, who was inconclusive, my sister advised me not to go to my usual Friday dinner and movie, and keep an eye on him. This is what prompted this rather long mémoire. Enjoy!

Films of My Youth

It was the 1950s. Doo-wop was in its heyday, though I was completely oblivious of its existence. It was the first 10 years of my life. All I knew was Lawrence Welk, Xavier Cougat, and German beer-drinking music, and those only on Sundays. But I was not totally insulated. Over that period of time, my parents occasionally brought me to the movies. Dad bought a bag of hot, fresh, soft pretzels and we were set. I remember these films from the big screen even though, at the time, I sometimes had no idea of the implications in the stories. Presented here are the memories I have of those rare treats and their impressions.

Lili (1953) – Leslie Caron as Lili Daurier, Mel Ferrer as Paul Berthalet, Jean-Pierre Aumont as Marc (aka Marcus the Magnificent), Zsa Zsa Gabor as Rosalie, Kurt Kasznar as Jacquot and Amanda Blake as Peach LipsAt the time, I thought it was a lovely story about a young French girl, a carnival, four puppets and a cute song, “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo.” I was just as naïve as the character Leslie Caron played. However, when I read the actual story, I was moved to re-view the film and enjoy it in a completely different way.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) – With James Mason as Captain Nemo, Paul Lukas as Pierre Arronax, and Kirk Douglas as Ned Land, I had no problem understanding this movie. Like my mother, I was already a fan of anything involving undersea scenes and this one had a great one with a giant squid attacking the submarine! It was still early in the development of special effects, but I was convinced.

Moby Dick (1956) – Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab, Richard Basehart as Ishmael, Leo Genn as Starbuck, James Robertson Justice as Captain Boomer, Harry Andrews as Stubb, and Bernard Miles as The Manxman. By now, I had read several books on animals and, though this was an exciting film for me, I just couldn’t comprehend the obsession of chasing an animal that didn’t exist. The white sperm whale moved convincingly and that was enough for me. I cheered for the whale. Later on, in high school it was explained that Moby Dick was an allegoric whale. But now, there’s a new movie coming out entitled In the Heart of the Sea that claims that the book was based on a real story. Maybe I’ll see it to find out.

The King and I (1956) – Deborah Kerr as Anna Leonowens, Yul Brynner as King Mongkut of Siam, Rita Moreno as Tuptim. One of my first musicals and, I thought, done in a grand style. The costumes and sets were so colorful and elaborate. I still love “Shall We Dance” and “March of the Siamese Children” though “Getting to Know You” was a little corny, even then. I loved it when Anna showed the King of Siam the actual size of his country on a global map. Geography was a favorite subject for me at that time. The only thing that confused me was the unexplained cause of death for the King.

The Ten Commandments (1956) – Charlton Heston as Moses, Yul Brynner as Rameses, Anne Baxter as Nefretiri, Edward G. Robinson as Dathan, Yvonne DeCarlo as Sephora, Debra Paget as Lilia, John Derek as Joshua, Cedric Hardwicke as Seti, Nina Foch as Bithiah, Martha Scott as Yochabel. Judith Anderson as Memnet, Vincent Price as Baka and John Carradine as Aaron. No matter how many times I see this movie I still see something I missed the time before. On first viewing it was a spectacle, full of amazing effects and supported by powerful music. My favorite scene was when the Angel of Death oozes down from the sky as a green mist and snakes through the streets. It was chilling. Now I see the hilarity of the miscast Edward G. Robinson in an improbable part. Today, I see The Ten Commandments as an arty series of tableaux interspersed with moderately good special effects and strong to over-the-top acting, but I enjoy it anyway.

The Pajama Game (1957) – Doris Day as Babe Williams, John Raitt as Sid Sorokin, Carol Haney as Gladys Hotchkiss, Eddie Foy Jr. as Vernon Hines, and Reta Shaw as Mabel. It was my second musical and a regrettably forgettable movie. I do remember the theme song and the “Hurry Up” song, which was slowed down (cleverly) when the workers at the factory staged a work slow-down as a form of protest to get a “Seven and a Half Cents” raise. I guess the tango was a fad at that time; otherwise the song “Hernando’s Hideaway” would not have been featured. Good thing it was. I love tangos. As far as it being a love story, however, I was clueless at the time.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) – William Holden as Shears, Alec Guinness as Colonel Nicholson, Jack Hawkins as Major Warden, Sessue Hayakawa as Colonel Saito. OK, I knew this was a World War II film and I understood that the major amount of characters were prisoners of war to the Japanese, but I had no idea it took place in Burma. I was frankly amazed that so many men could whistle the theme song perfectly in tune. (I can’t whistle, not then, not now.) But the movie had a really cool train wreck as it plummeted off the destroyed bridge.

Gigi (1958) – Leslie Caron as Gigi, Maurice Chevalier as Honore Lachaille, Louis Jourdan as Gaston Lachaille, Hermione Gingold as Madame Alvarez, Eva Gabor as Liane d’Extremans and Jacques Bergerac as Sandomir. My third musical and, for me, a definite top 10 rater as musicals go. Though the title song didn’t grab me (too sappy, and I didn’t like the way Jourdan sang it) there were much better songs and they were delivered with real feeling. “I Don’t Understand the Parisians” was almost atonally sung by Caron but with great emotion. My favorite song, “I Remember It Well,” the Chevalier/Gingold duet was charming and ultimately memorable. I could sing it entirely today. But again, the plot was obscured by the costumes and music for me. I had no idea that Gigi was being trained to be a courtesan. Re-viewing it recently opened my eyes. As I start senior-hood, the song “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore” has real meaning for me.

Vertigo (1958) – With James Stewart as John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson, Kim Novak as Madeleine Elster/Judy Barton, Barbara Bel Geddes as Midge Wood, and Tom Helmore as Gavin Elster, it was my first Alfred Hitchcock film, and one that made me a fan of his work ever after. At the time I had no idea what acrophobia was, but I knew I never wanted to experience it. Much later on, when I leaned over the rail at the top of the Eiffel Tower to take a picture straight down, I knew I didn’t have it. The film was undeniably exciting and no one can beat Hitchcock’s sense of timing and building suspense. And yes, I look for Hitch’s cameos in every movie.

The Vikings (1958) – Kirk Douglas as Einar, Tony Curtis as Eric, Ernest Borgnine as Ragnar, Janet Leigh as Morgana. Even though the three main male characters are totally unbelievable as Vikings to me now, they made being a Viking fun for me back then. I had to wonder how Moby Dick would have changed if Kirk Douglas opened the movie with “Whale of a Tale.” Some reviewers have called it a “Norse Opera” (Ha-ha!). But hey, it had a king, a beautiful princess, slavery and men brandishing swords. What else could a young viewer want?

The Alamo (1960) – John Wayne as Colonel Davy Crockett, Richard Widmark as Colonel Jim Bowie, Laurence Harvey as Colonel William Travis, Frankie Avalon as Smitty, Patrick Wayne as Captain James Butler Bonham. Though I knew the outcome of this historical film, it was exciting to see the interpretation of how events unfolded. At the time, John Wayne could play any hero and I would believe him. Now, not so much. On the big screen though, this movie had an impact. The dramatic cinematography, ferocious fighting and artful scenery shots made it a true blockbuster before the term was invented. I loved the song “Green Leaves of Summer,” and was humming it all the way home.

You may have noticed that there are no films from 1955. My brother was born in 1954 and we were four children at that time, very close in age, which kept my parents pretty busy. Even though Lady and the Tramp came out that year I didn’t see it until it was re-released and we had moved from Astoria to Queens Village, when I was old enough to walk to the Queens or Community theaters myself with a group of friends. Unfortunately, these two movie houses, the Alden and Loew’s Valencia in Jamaica proper, were all converted to churches of various denominations and the next nearest to me, The Floral Theater in Floral Park went out of business and is still unleased. That left no theaters within walking distance. Now, I pretty much depend on theaters in Manhattan.

I have fond memories of my movie adventures with Mom and Dad and can appreciate the wonder of a child seeing Hollywood’s greatest creations on the big screen. Today, I call this amazed reaction the “Wow!” factor and look for it in every movie.

First Tastes

If you’ve been following my column, you’ve noticed that I have eclectic tastes in dining. It wasn’t always so. I was a picky eater as a child but was not allowed to refuse any food placed in front of me. Dessert never came until my plate was clean and we were not allowed to slip food to the dog. How picky was I? I stopped eating bananas for years after tasting a rotten one. I hated pasta for at least a decade after having had baked macaroni repeatedly on Fridays in Lent. My Aunt Katie’s Chicken Paprikras was raved about by everyone in my family but me. The undercooked chicken skin gave me nightmares and her tarnished silverware added a gross metallic taste to everything. I didn’t like anything cooked in a pressure cooker (still don’t) and today I know why. asparagus, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and spinach all come out of the cooker tasting like nothing and smell bad. Got the idea?

But then there came the day of my graduation from Manhattan Community College. Mom and Dad took me to my first restaurant, a Swedish smorgasbord at The Stockholm on 151 W. 51st St. in the Abbey Victoria Hotel in Manhattan. I never saw so much food I’ve never had before. Do I remember any of it? Not much, but I took to Swedish meatballs really fast and I loved cherry tomatoes. Not too long after, the Abbey Victoria was torn down and a new building stands in its place. The Aldo Sohm Wine Bar now occupies the address of my first dining experience.

When my sister graduated St. Michael’s Academy, I had my second dinner out. It was at the Cattleman Palace Steakhouse at 5 E. 45th St. I remember being impressed at the steaks and it was the first time I had a Wedge Salad – a quarter of a head of lettuce with dressing on the side. I loved it then, but you couldn’t pay me to order one now, too boring. The address is now the location of the Midtown Center for Pace University.

I discovered my favorite ethnic cuisine while directing a barbershop chorus in Flushing. The Indian restaurant Kalpana at 42-87 Main St. was a little hole-in-the-wall, but every dish was a new experience for me. The spices, the aromas, unique breads, and the strange, sweet desserts had me returning week after week. It was there I bit into a cardamom pod for the first time and was totally disgusted (it tasted like soap to me). Since then I’ve learned that cardamom is an integral part of Indian cuisine and am now used to it. I also learned that the first aroma I ever loved at Kalpana was from bay leaves cooking with onions. Kalpana too has left the world of gastronomy, and the address is now the Lu Xiang Yuan Chinese restaurant.

My first taste of real Italian food came at the famous Mama Leone’s at 361 W. 44th St. The bustling service and trays of cheese as pre-appetizers was mind-boggling; that is until I learned about turnover in a Theater District restaurant. The speedy service was meant to keep the flow of customers going. Mama gave way to an apartment house. Later, while with the same chorus in Queens, I experienced La Gioconda at 42-59 Main St., Flushing (strangely enough, only two doors away from Kalpana). I learned here that the restaurant name is the Italian title of the Mona Lisa and, indeed, they did have a copy tucked away in the back of the place. Each time I dined there I suggested that it be brought closer to the front, but, alas, they never moved it. It was at La Gioconda that I fell in love with cannelloni and concluded that not all pastas were bad. It wasn’t until much later, on my second trip to Italy, that I became addicted to pasta. The space that once was La Gioconda is now Xindeyi International Trade USA, Inc. While speaking of Italian restaurants, it would unfair of me not to mention Bacigalup’s (any Abbott and Costello fans out there?) where I discovered Al Arabiata sauce – a spicy tomato sauce made with crushed pepper. The Best North Dumpling Soup Chinese restaurant now occupies that space in the Golden Shopping Mall.

My second favorite cuisine was an interesting first. I knew French food was generally expensive, especially in Manhattan, and that they generally required one to dress for dinner. My sister gave me all that information when she dined at La Cave Henri IV at 227 E. 50th St. with her French Club from school. 53rd Street on the east side of Fifth Avenue has always been a French enclave and I chose Le Quercy at 52 W. 53rd St. It was a great opportunity to use the French I learned from high school into college. I didn’t order escargot that time, but I did get adventurous enough to try Cuisses de Grenouille (frog’s legs) and I loved it. They were garlicky, tender and the texture of delicate chicken meat but without the chicken flavor. (Don’t let anyone tell you that anything, besides chicken, tastes like chicken.) What happened to Le Quercy? It’s now an apartment building. Later on, I dined at La Cave Henri IV and enjoyed it as well. An apartment building took this French restaurant’s place as well.

My Dad introduced me to Chinese food when he brought home those unique combination cans of Chun King dinners, the ones with the gluey goop in the bottom can and the crisp Chinese “noodles” in the top one. Just add rice and you’ve totally deluded yourself about Chinese cuisine. In 1965, I had some money of my own and decided to have dinner at the Chun King Pavilion at the 1964-65 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows. It was a little better than the canned stuff, and it piqued my curiosity. Later, while in my second year of college, I went to my first real Chinese restaurant, The Lotus Eaters, at 182 5th Ave. This was an eye opener. There was actual, recognizable food served here, with delightful flavors – nothing like what I was used to. It started me on my love for Chinese food and spurred my trying strange, new flavors. Peking Duck is now tops on my list of dishes and the strangest? Jellyfish. Yes, those creatures without bones or brain that go ballooning through the ocean. (They don’t taste like chicken either.) What I had was crispy, translucent strips, with the main flavor being garlic. The Lotus Eaters has succumbed to a Bikram Yoga salon upstairs over a 7-Eleven.

If the lead in my quartet is reading this article I’d say, “Chef Chet, you can skip this paragraph.” He doesn’t accept Mexican food as a cuisine. But he’s never been to the places I have. The tacos at a drive-through Jack in the Box franchise got me interested in Mexican. They were spicy, difficult to eat without them crumbling all over you, and made the car smell bad the next day. Much later, on a mystery plane trip to Louisville, Kentucky, I dined with friends at Chi Chi’s (another franchise) and was amazed. I loved their enchiladas mole (chili and chocolate sauce) and sought out that recipe at every Mexican place since. It’s only too bad that the Chi Chi’s in Manhattan paled in comparison and went out of business. The one in Manhasset, Long Island, was great. Eventually, I settled on El Coyote at 774 Broadway while I was rehearsing with the Mixed Nuts quartet. I got to love Blue Margaritas there. Douglas Elliman Real Estate offices are now where El Coyote used to be.

In the early years of my working career a number of people I worked with sang the praises of Soul Food. And, second only to Sylvia’s restaurant in Harlem (now closed) which was also beyond my adventuresome territory at the time, there was Jack’s Nest at 310 3rd Ave. After having had ham hocks, black-eyed peas and collard greens cooked in fatback, I understood. The sweetness of this artery-hardening cuisine gave me such a sugar buzz I felt I could take over the world. It’s great food, but a steady diet of it was decidedly dangerous to my waistline. Jack’s Nest is now a residence hall for New York University.

When my Dad started researching our family tree and actually found direct relatives in Germany (both sides of my family go back to the same country), I understood why I loved my mother’s sauerbraten. It took forever to marinate and prepare but it was excellent. Where to find German cuisine in Manhattan? I started with a franchise called Zum Zum on Fulton Street downtown. But instead of my mother’s cooking, they stressed the sausage side of German recipes with sauerkraut (of course). It was good, but it was not the whole story. 

Strangely enough, Jack’s Nest prepared me for my favorite German dish, which I found at two places, Rolf’s (281 3rd Ave. – still there today) and The Happy Wanderer at 6405 Stanley Ave. in Niagara, Canada (also, still there today, hurray!). It was, and still is, Eisbein (pig’s feet). Zum Zum changed hands many times and is now a souvenir shop.

On my mother’s mother’s side of the family we are Hungarian. In my early years, my only exposure to Hungarian cooking was my mother’s half-sister, Aunt Katie. I adored her stuffed cabbage and zsiros kenyer (another artery-hardener consisting of pork fat soaked rye bread topped with sautéed onions and peppers and salt – translated as “greasy bread”). But once again, it’s not the whole story. While was on a trip to a barbershop convention, a friend took me to Csikos at 3601 Connecticut Ave. NW in Washington, D.C. Good thing he was there. I would not have known that the garlic clove was there for rubbing on the bread (instead of butter). I now have a new appreciation for Chicken Paprikas – it was excellent, well cooked, and with perfectly polished utensils. Unfortunately, Csikos went the way of so many others. It’s now an apartment building.

While we’re in Eastern Europe, Austrian cuisine is an interesting one. It’s not a totally unique style, not quite German, not quite French, a lighter, gentler combination of both (though Austrians will never agree to that description). My first acquaintance with it was at Wienerwald (Vienna woods) another franchise, this one at 1650 Broadway. They served the standard Wiener schnitzel and various other preparations of pounded veal as well as a wurst platter. OK, but neither here nor there. In subsequent Austrian forays, I learned that it is the dessert course that defines the Austrian cuisine. Austria knows chocolate and how to serve it. My fondest Austrian cuisine memory was Christmas with Helene at Danube (30 Hudson St., New York) which is now an upscale Japanese restaurant called brushstroke. And Wienerwald? It’s now Ellen’s Stardust Diner, home of singing (loud) waiters and waitresses – they’re excellent singers, I just don’t like being forced to acknowledge them.

When I started my work career in 1973, Delphi was long in business at 109 W. Broadway. This fabulous Greek survivor was always there, even after 9/11. Their souvlaki was superb, their kebabs were succulent; even their salads were something special. I ate there for lunch several times and the quality never flagged, but dinner was amazing. The owner cued me into exohiko (lamb shank) and I’ve been a big fan of this dish ever since. Though I’ve dined at good Greek restaurants, particularly the estiatorios, I still mourn the loss of Delphi. Suddenly one day it was gone. And just as suddenly Super Linda, a Latin-American restaurant, was in its place. It was very good, but it was not Delphi. In about two years after, the space was empty and is currently unleased.

I had to ease into Japanese cuisine, as the stories people told me were never positive. But Dosanko, at 19 Murray St., was a safe orientation. They had great soups, with the curried one being my favorite. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. My good friend (and surrogate big brother) Tony introduced me to sushi at a small eatery in the food court at the White Plains Galleria. We sat at a counter as the various sushis traveled by in little plates on a stainless steel conveyor belt. Tony explained to me what each fish was and I tried several. I couldn’t believe that fish could taste so good uncooked. Now I’m spoiled. But I never have sushi at anyplace less than reputable. It could be dangerous, especially the Fugu (a poisonous blowfish requiring expert preparation) I eventually ate at Morimoto in Philadelphia. Dosanko is Tribeca Eye Physicians/Optometrists today.

When does Seafood become a culinary adventure? I’ve had flounder, tuna, swordfish and shrimp at home before the price became prohibitive. But for me, there was one memorable standout: Smitty’s, at 5 Gold St. The seafood normally was great there but then I discovered shad roe, a dish only available in late March and early April. The chef at Smitty’s wrapped the crescent-shaped egg case in bacon and the result was incredible! Once I got over the look of the dish and the slightly fishy taste it’s a great audience shocker. I vowed to have it once a year and tried to remember when the peak season was.

Historic note

Speaking of seafood always makes my melancholic for the loss of Sweet’s Restaurant (2 and 4 Fulton St.): A true piece of the history of New York City, Sweets was founded by Abraham Sweet in 1842 was the oldest seafood restaurant in New York for many years. Owner and Manager Lea Lake died at 89 in 1988 after 55 years on the job, and I had thought her son didn’t want to take up the business. But Sweets lasted until 1992 when a destructive “Nor-Easter” storm sounded its death knell. I still remember the Finan Haddie there and have found it nowhere else.

But wait! What about Spanish cuisine? Long ago (well, it seems like long ago) I met my good friend Renate at the ritzy Chateau Madrid at 48th Street and Lexington Avenue. I’ll never forget it. The restaurant had a “jacket-required” rule. I was not aware and was not wearing one. I was politely led to a coatroom and the only jacket that fit me was a white plaid. Great! Except I was wearing red plaid pants. The two screamed at each other. After Renate and I stopped laughing, I heard the band start a tango. No one was on the floor and I asked her to dance. “Are you kidding?” “The situation is not going to get any sillier. Let’s take advantage of it.” We danced beautifully and didn’t laugh once. Then, while we talked and I enjoyed my first Sopa de Ajo (garlic soup) the Flamenco group “Kids from Spain” took the dance floor. She later introduced me to escargot at the Café Valois 95-26 Queens Blvd. in Rego Park, an obviously Spanish restaurant with a very French name. Alas, Renate moved to Florida and I think about her at every Spanish restaurant (and on the rare occasions I’m under-dressed).  The Chateau Madrid is now Raffles Bistro in The Lexington Hotel and the Café Valois is Andy’s Seafood and Grill, a Taiwanese burger joint.

I cannot forget Cajun, that spicy cuisine from the Arcadians who moved from Maine to Louisiana. My first was at La Louisiana at 132 Lexington Ave. I never would have thought that I could like catfish, or crawfish etouffée, much less a sandwich called a “Po Boy” or a side dish called “dirty rice,” but now I love them all. On a trip to New Orleans I had alligator in three different ethnic restaurants and enjoyed it, especially sided with dirty rice. Back in New York I was glad to have had the privilege to have dined at K-Paul’s, Paul Prudhomme’s restaurant at 622 Broadway. Though it had strange rules, like every diner at the same table must order something different; and when you clean your plate (as I did) you get a gold star. (And, I did, and the waitress stuck one on my forehead). They offered Cajun martinis by the pitcher (whoopee!) made with jalapeno infused gin or vodka and garnished with a radish. La Louisiana is now an apartment building and K-Paul’s is Rockstar Games, an electronics store.

Spanish cuisine led me to Portuguese, Brazilian, Argentine, Peruvian, Colombian, Ecuadorian, Salvadoran, Latino, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Jamaican and West Indian. The French resulted in experiments in Belgian, Basque, Haitian and Moroccan. Greek was logically followed by Turkish, Lebanese, Iranian, Israeli, Armenian, and yes, Libyan. Soul food went to Ethiopian, Egyptian, South African, and Ghanian. Chinese and Japanese were followed by Philipino, Tibetan, Burmese, Thai, Cambodian, Malaysian, Laotian, Vietnamese, Indonesian and Polynesian. The logical consequence of Indian was Pakistani, Afghani, and Bangladeshi. And of course, German led to Netherlandic, Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish and Danish. Italian cuisine followed the map to Swiss, Romanian, and Russian. 

After 2,691 restaurants I cannot consider myself a picky eater anymore, though I’m still selective where I order apple pie (I like it occasionally.) and there are many dishes I haven’t tried. The Chinese have two good examples: 100-Year-Old Egg (just the concept is stomach-turning), and Sea Cucumber (the answer to the question, “What’s green and slimy and smells of fish, and dares you to eat it?”). I don’t consider myself a gourmet, mainly because the term has been seriously misused as an adjective too many times. I prefer connoisseur or just omnivore. What’s that? Would I try entomophagy (eating insects)? Maybe, if it doesn’t look similar to what it looked like alive.

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