Scarlett’s lips, Grable’s legs, and J Lo’s Patookey – my trip to Citifield

As I mentioned in the Nantucket post, one of the joys of travel is taking in an evening of local theater. I remember seeing a production of Annie Get Your Gun at some little community theater in Jackson Hole, Wyoming when we were moving out to California (by RV! We had two dogs, a cat, and two fish, and an RV seemed like the only sensible way to transport them). The production was made up of college kids on break from school around the west and gol’ dern it if it wasn’t one of the more fun evenings of theater I’ve had. It was some combination of the iconic setting and rock bottom expectations, but it can be amazing what you stumble across if you are curious and unafraid.

Incidentally, in the equivalent of a blog selfie, here is a blog I did of our second RV trip – yes, you read that right, we’ve done it twice.

When I travel in the U.S., I try to find a minor league baseball team for many of the same reasons. The quality may not be the same as the big leagues, but you get to sit closer, it’s cheaper, and every so often you see a diamond in the rough who will go on to great things. Some of the same conditions apply when one visits a New York Mets game, which I did the other day. I haven’t been to a Mets game in years. I’m usually too busy when I’m in New York, but since we have a little extra time on our extended visit, it didn’t feel like I had to give anything else up to go to a game. It was a beautiful day for baseball, but given how badly the Mets stink, I was able to grab a ticket on Stubhub that was about half of face value. They’re practically giving them away these days.

Many of you know that I’m something of a Mets fan. I’ve attended Mets fantasy camp twice, and I still play in a men’s hardball league in San Francisco. Fantasy camp is where middle-aged men travel to Florida, put on uniforms, and pretend they’re major leaguers. As mid-life crises go, this one is pretty tame. You can read about that little adventure here if you’re so inclined. (Yikes! Blog selfie #2!) Anyway, fantasy camp is amazingly silly good clean, fun.

At Mets Fantasy Camp

At Mets Fantasy Camp

Here I was in New York, home of my beloved Mets, so I endeavored to trek out to Queens to hope against hope that they would beat the excellent Washington Nationals and stay in the pennant race for just another day. Citifield is where the hapless Mets ply their mediocre trade.

At Citifield, with hope in my heart.

At Citifield, with hope in my heart.

It’s a lovely, well-designed, but soulless place. Architecturally, it’s the greatest hits of baseball stadiums. The façade and entrance rotunda are copied from Ebbett’s Field, the home of the late, lamented Brooklyn Dodgers. The right field bleachers hang over the field like the old Tiger’s Stadium. And there’s a food pavilion that’s stolen from the Orioles’s Camden Yards, and they are said to have appropriated features from at least four other recently-built stadiums. But something is not at all right. They seem to think that they could take Scarlett Johansson’s lips, Betty Grable’s legs, and J Lo’s tuchis, put them on one body, and that would be good. It’s like going to see the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower in Vegas.

On the plus side, there’s a Shake Shack (very good burgers from New York restauranteur Danny Meyer) and an outpost of the Manhattan restaurant Blue Smoke, a barbeque place that made a very edible chopped brisket sandwich. The sauce was smoky, sweet, and tangy, with a nice bit of mouth-numbing heat. Was that Sichuan pepper in there? It was served on a nice, fluffy bun with a few sweet crunchy pickles. Nice. In the old days, you got a dirty water frank with a packet of mustard.

(A non-baseball digression. For some reason, I find that I’ve been eating a lot of barbeque in New York on this trip. New York has never been much of a barbeque town, but the hipsters, with their mountain man beards and plaid flannel shirts, are making it so, and for that I am truly grateful. Go, hipsters! So far, I’ve been to Mighty Quinn in the East Village, Hill Country in Midtown, and Beast of Bourbon in Bedford Stuyvesant. I haven’t been to BrisketTown in Williamsburg yet, and there are a few others on my list, but my current favorite is Mighty Quinn, which made a brisket with such unapologetic unctuous fattiness and tenderness that I nearly wept. As did my cardiologist.)

Of course, every baseball stadium in America now serves good microbrews, so our nation is making progress. After drinking nun’s tinkle for generations, Americans have finally discovered beer. Yay. I also noted the no smoking signs everywhere, which, believe it or not, produced mixed feelings. Whenever I smell a cigar, I am transported to Shea Stadium, the former home of the Mets, where I spent some of the happiest moments of my childhood. At Shea, some old guy would invariably be sitting in front of you huffing on the cheapest, stinkiest cigar you can imagine.

Shea Stadium was a dreary, rotten, ugly albatross of a place, but I loved it dearly. I remember the day that my father pulled me out of school without any warning to take me to a day game. It is my fondest memory of him, by far. On July 4, 1972 I remember watching Tom Seaver’s no-hitter broken up with one out in the ninth in the first game of a doubleheader (remember them?) by a journeyman outfielder for the lowly San Diego Padres named Leron Lee. Leron Lee, how I hated you for that! By the way, Willie Mays went 1 for 3 that day. It would take another forty years before the Mets had their first no hitter. And I remember pitching an inning on the Shea Stadium mound when our fantasy league had a day at the ballpark as part of our reunion.

Yes, that's me pitching at Shea Stadium. Citifield is rising in the background.

Yes, that’s me pitching at Shea Stadium. Citifield is rising in the background.

That was the last year before Shea was to be torn down, and the Mets, in all their cheapness, were avoiding even basic maintenance. I remember that there was a toilet off the visitors’ dugout that members of the opposing team could use during the game. The pipe from the urinal had rusted out but nobody had bothered to fix it. A nice touch. Welcome to Shea Stadium! It was a pit, but it was my pit.

With childhood nostalgia warming my little heart I made my way out to Queens to take in a game (Janine had to make a quick trip to LA to tend to some family matters). As I said, it was nice, but good gravy it’s boring out there these days, unless you happen to be rooting for the other team. The only thing palpable is the ennui. I mean it’s really quiet in there. I looked around and saw that people were sitting in all the sections, but they were scattered around, almost so they didn’t have to talk to each other. Mets fans don’t even want to commiserate any more – it takes too much energy.

One thing that teams do these days to attempt to generate excitement is to allow each player for the home team to select a song to be played when he steps up to bat. It’s fun to hear what players pick. Eric Young, Jr.’s song is “Young Forever” by Jay Z – cute. Daniel Murphy has a song by the Irish band Dropkick Murphys, which is fine, except the song was “I’m Shipping up to Boston,” which seemed like an odd choice. Jonathan Niese, who pitched that day, chose a song by Ted Nugent. The thing is, Ted Nugent is a lunatic. He’s issued a long list of unprintable things from various parts of his body about women and Barack Obama and people who don’t like guns. Here’s just one of many – “Apartheid isn’t that cut-and-dry. All men are not created equal.” I guess we can get into that old debate about whether you can like the work of bad people, but I dunno, Ted Nugent? Seems icky. Just curious, what song would you want them to play when you come up to bat?

The Mets lost 3-0 in typically desultory fashion, although they mounted just enough rallies during the game to fill us with hope yet again, only to dash that hope against the wall, yet again. Being a Mets fan is not as depressing as being a Cubs fan, but it’s pretty close.

And I enjoyed myself all the same. It was a beautiful day. The view from my highly discounted seat was excellent. The brisket was tasty. The beer was hoppy. There are worse ways to spend a Sunday.

Eat, Bicker, Love – Now with eating!

I know, I know. The blog is called Eat, Bicker, Love and I haven’t really talked about any of those things. I’m not sure I’m planning to chronicle the differences of opinion that my loving wife and I have, at least not in any particular detail. I have often said that we always agree on the destination and we never agree on the route. On the other hand, if you can find someone who will join you in quitting your job, selling your house, and traipsing around the world for the better part of a year, you should be willing to permit your lovely spouse to offer the occasional helpful suggestion. My wonderful wife is a very, very helpful woman, always eager to provide her guidance and wisdom about how a process might be improved.

We are now back in Brooklyn after our lovely weekend in (or on) Nantucket. Gone are the topsiders, the tomato pants, the yachts, the whale-themed everything, and the clams. (Actually, we still have clams. I’m not sure whose bright idea it was, but we carried the clams in a little cooler on the plane back to New York. I would think that carrying clams on a plane so close to 9/11 would have troubled the authorities, but apparently there have been no clam-based acts of terrorism to date, and we always seem to be fighting the last war.)

We have swapped the gentle tradewinds of Nantucket for the gritty clamor of Brooklyn, a borough that has seen its good times and its not so good times. When I was a kid, I was never very fond of Brooklyn, which I saw as a little full of itself. Between Welcome Back, Kotter and Moonstruck, Brooklyn struck me as a bit precious about its Brooklyn-ness. Living in Queens, (now THERE’S an unpretentious borough!) there were many years that I stayed out of Brooklyn on principle. What I knew about Brooklyn you could put on the head of a pin. I didn’t know Bay Ridge from bay rum. And yet times change and people grow. Now, I am not just a Brooklynite, I’m a Bushwicker. We’re staying in Bushwick with our dear friend John. This isn’t Brooklyn Heights or Park Slope or some other hoity toity part of Brooklyn, its Bushwick, where people sit on the stoop, without really moving, for weeks at a time. Seriously, there are these two guys on our block who just sit there all day long and, well, I don’t actually know what they do. They have big, bushy, un-ironic mustaches and everything. Bushwick is still a solidly working class neighborhood, although it is now seeing its share of tattooed, ironically mustashioed, multiply-pierced pioneers who have been priced out of Williamsburg.

The upside is that you can get beer brewed by blind albino monks and bacon that was cured with nun’s tears from pigs that were sung to sleep each night by Audra McDonald. Life is actually pretty good in Brooklyn. I’m beginning to get into the rhythms of Brooklyn, which are just a little slower and a little more sane than the throbbing scrum that is Manhattan. Don’t get me wrong, I love Manhattan, but like a big boy, I’m learning to appreciate other stuff.

Speaking of food, I thought I would use this time to finally get to the “Eat” part of this blog’s title.

We have done our share of eating, and I figured I’d give a rundown of the culinary highlights to date.

First off, let me extoll the wonders of Raffetto’s, this ancient little pasta shop on Houston Street in Greenwich Village. They sell fresh pasta by the pound. When you order it, they take out the dough and cut in on a machine that is over a hundred years old. I’d pay just to watch them cut the pasta.

It’s also really, really good stuff.

A few words about Wylie Dufresne’s two restaurants. I had been dying to try WD-50, Dufresne’s place on the Lower East Side. He’s one of the country’s better-known purveyors of what has come to be known as “molecular gastronomy” or “modernist cuisine.” Rather than try to define it, a good example of this sometimes whimsical approach to cooking was the hangar steak tartare, which actually wasn’t raw at all. It was cooked sous vide (basically boiled in a bag at a temperature that keeps the steak really rare), then chopped fine like steak tartare and served with a bearnaise ice cream. Bearnaise ice cream, for heaven’s sake! You don’t eat that every day. That was by far the most inventive of the dishes we tried. Dufresne is closing his restaurant rather than give in to a rent increase, and I was expecting him to pull out all the mad scientist stops, but I found the menu surprisingly restrained. Everything was terrific, but it wasn’t all cooked steak tartare with bearnaise ice cream either.

We then went to his other, somewhat less expensive place, Alder which turned out to be more inventive than WD-50. We had a lamb shepherd’s pie tartare that was indeed raw lamb served with the other components of shepherd’s pie. My favorite dish was  rye pasta with pastrami shavings on top. Get it? Pastrami on rye! How about that! There was also a really out there dish of pickled beets with coconut ricotta and thai basil. The basil had been turned into dehydrated crunchy balls of some kind. Really kooky and delicious.

Now, a word about service. I’m no snob, but hoo boy do these kids need to learn a thing or two about how to wait a table. Janine and I both waited our fair share of tables once, so it’s not like the profession is beneath us. Damn, it’s hard to find a decent waitperson these days. If you are shelling out a couple hundred bucks for dinner, at the very least you want the person bringing the food not to act like they hate you. My pet peeve? Your waiter drops the check and you say “Thank you!” in your chipper-est, happiest voice and they say “No problem” in that disaffected, eye-rolling way, like the world’s crankiest teenager. Really? No problem? Why would taking my money be a problem? I would settle for a simple “you’re welcome.” We don’t have to become besties, I just want a little human kindness. Is that so hard, youth of today, or is it a problem?

Okay, just a few more and I’ll take up more restaurant reviews later.

Russ and Daughters Café. Russ and Daughters delicatessen is a smoked fish emporium on Houston Street that has been there since 1914. No fish cured in nun’s tears for Russ and his daughters. Well, certainly no nuns. When I was a kid in Queens, the local supermarket also sold smoked fish. I remember piles of these brown, desiccated things called chubs that looked absolutely inedible. Well, it turns out they’re edible. And Russ and his Daughters finally got smart, just this year opening up a café on Orchard Street to so people can sit down and eat their shmabulous smoked fish and other delicacies. And they know what they’re doing, too. Your bubbe and Uncle Morty are not coming to the café to eat a hundred bucks worth of caviar. Who’s going to do that? All together now…hipsters. Yes, there are cocktails and seats and lots of subway tile at the café, but who are they hurting? Hipsters have to eat too. We went for breakfast and I had kasha varnishkes, which is bow tie pasta with salty, chicken-y buckwheat groats topped with an egg.

Kasha Varniskas

This is just the world’s best damn breakfast ever.

And oh my sweet jesus was it delicious. I could eat that every morning of my life and be very happy. Everything else is good, too. We watched the counterman slice the lox so thin you could read the newspaper through it. This guy clearly moonlights as a mohel (although one is happy that he practices first on the fish). Oh, and our waiter, Larry, was a saint (well, in the Jewish deli sense). He was a lovely little man in one of those elegant white coats who looked like Bob Balaban only happier and who not only seemed thrilled to see us, but he seemed happy for us that we were eating such delicious food. “That’s going to make a wonderful snack later!” he said with barely contained delight when we asked for a little to-go container. I wanted to take him home with us just to have him around to make us feel good about our decisions in life. “Excellent choice of bathroom tissue!” I’m sure he’d exclaim to us at the supermarket. “Nice job brushing your teeth!” “Where DID you learn to tie your shoes so well?”

I miss Larry. That kid at Alder should go to Russ and Daughters, order the kasha varnishkes, and watch Larry do the job the right way. Punk kid. Get off my lawn.

I think that should do for now. While I’ve got you, my friends, do you have any recommendations for restaurants we should try in New York? I’m getting hungry.

 

There once was an aunt from Nantucket…

I really have an aunt on Nantucket. She’s not actually from Nantucket (she’s from New Jersey – it could happen to anybody) but she has lived there for twenty years. Given that we are on the east coast, and that we seriously owed her a visit, we endeavored to travel to Nantucket to see Aunt Valerie. Thus, we fled the melty humidity of New York and arrived in breezy, lovely, Nantucket. This place is so rich and famous that it makes Robin Leach feel out of place. If you sneeze, a dozen millionaires catch cold. Scions, heirs, and oligarchs swoop in on their private jets and yachts to take in the charm of the only quaint whaling village where you will find a Louis Vuitton bag at the thrift store.

With all that, it’s really very charming and it’s always fun to go to Nantucket.

Now, a word about my aunt and how I came to have an aunt on Nantucket.

My Aunt Valerie married my beloved Uncle Joel several years ago. Uncle Joel was a terrific guy. At my wedding, he stood in for my father (who died when I was eleven), and I’ve always had a particular fondness for him. He passed away from cancer three years ago, but we’ve stayed in touch with Valerie. I’m not sure exactly what to call her, though. Aunt doesn’t quite fit. We may need a ruling from the relative-naming officials, but I think maybe she’s my Aunt Emeritus. Anyway, Joel retired from his job running one of the two banks on the island at a very young 60. He traveled with his new wife, spent time working on his very cool house, and lived his life. It was cut short, but I can’t imagine that he regretted his choices for a moment. I really don’t want to become maudlin, but it’s in that spirit that we are taking this journey. You only live once, as the kids today are fond of saying, although for them that’s more or less an excuse to hook up and sniff glue.

Back to Nantucket. Apart from being the inspiration for limerick writers the world over, it is a rather fancy place where people like Jack Welsh and John Kerry and Steve Forbes all stumble over each other at the private jet terminal at Nantucket Memorial Airport, known by its call letters, ACK, which is the sound my cat makes when she’s horking up a hairball, but whatever.

It is also a place where grown men wear shorts in the inexplicably popular island color, a red that approximates a Brandywine tomato or pasta alla vodka. If you wear socks with your topsiders you will be hauled in for questioning.

The Famous Tomato Pants of Nantucket

The Famous Tomato Pants of Nantucket

Okay, enough joshing on the gentry. Just as there is a lockjawed landed upper crust that yacht-hops in the harbor, there is a year-round community for whom this neat little piece of real estate is actually home. My uncle (and my father) came from very rugged stock – Uncle Joel was the only one in his family to graduate from college. His father was a plumber. Aunt Emeritus Valerie is a social worker and clinical therapist. So there are real people out there, and we had the chance to meet a few this weekend.

For example, if you are in the neighborhood in Siasconset (called ‘Sconset by the locals) on the eastern edge of the island, you will likely see Tom Mulholland sitting in front of his house with a falcon named Houdini and a red-tailed Hawk named Shaka Zulu. With his long, white beard, Tom might stand out at the Angler’s Club.

Tom Mulholland and his red-tailed hawk.

Tom Mulholland and Shaka Zulu.

But just go up to him and ask him about his birds and you will be invited to sit down and talk about hawking and falconry, and you may just learn a bit about Tom’s views on the government (intrusive, mostly) the release of feral cats on the island (very bad – they’re wiping out the native pheasant and grouse population) and ISIS (very, very bad). If it’s hunting season (it isn’t, which is bumming Tom and his birds out at the moment) you will have the rare opportunity to see nature at its most basic. But go – Tom is generous with his time, giving lectures to schoolchildren on falconry (but not politics, which he reserves for the adults), and he’ll stop whatever he’s doing to talk to you about his birds if you are curious enough to ask. The sight of them just sitting on their perches is impressive. They are simply spectacular creatures.

Houdini

Shaka Zulu

We experienced another uncommon pleasure of Nantucket – free clams. Valerie has a small motorboat that she uses to tool around the harbor, and she took us to one of her favorite clam spots, which coughed up an astonishing bounty.

Our clammy beach

Our clammy beach

And this was not hard work. There was a little raking involved, but we also found tons of clams that were just lying around and we more or less picked them off the beach.

Not hard work

Janine and Aunt Emeritus Valerie Clamming

We hauled in about twenty five pounds of clams the first day and nearly forty pounds two days later. The Fresh Lobster Company of Gloucester, Massachusetts will happily ship you a pound of clams for $10.25. At that price, we raked in (har!) over $600 worth of clams. Subtract the price of the clam permit and you are still way ahead of the game. We ate clams for days and still had a bunch left over. And my good jesus they were delicious. Sweet and salty – the peanut butter and jelly of the sea.

Our Haul

Our haul of clams

We also took in a play at the local theater company, the White Heron Theatre. Whenever we travel, we try to see some local theater. Since there are always talented actors hanging about on the island, you’re likely to see something pretty good. We saw a new play called Small World, by Frederick Stroppel, which explored what the meeting between Walt Disney and Igor Stravinsky might have been like as they prepared to make Fantasia. It was a little Saving Mr. Banks-y, but it was well-acted and well-directed and we had an exceedingly good time. If Stroppel was first with the idea about a story about Walt Disney talking a cranky foreigner into working on a Disney picture, I bet he’s pissed. Oh well, at least he’s pissed in Nantucket.

The next time you visit Nantucket, go pay Tom Mulholland a visit. Here’s his website.

Or go clamming, or go to the theatre. Definitely go to the thrift store.

Or buy yourself a pair of tomato pants and just walk around without socks on. Nobody will notice.