When I was ten, I dreamed of becoming a chef and the owner of my own restaurant. Every time me and my older brother Darren went out with my father Jimme, I’d bring home some of the leftover garbage and used it to turn my part of our room into a miniature city with local bistros and other eateries. I took my Matchbox cars — fifty in all — and pretended that my city was populated with the adult version of characters from Schulz’s Peanuts series. Yes, even Charlie Brown had his own upscale restaurant, with steaks and shrimp that almost all could afford to eat. For the less affluent, Burger King and Mickey D’s were at the other end of this eatin’ and disco-in’ side of town.
My dream, of course, was hunger induced. It was ’80, the first year that my mother income-to-inflation ration had declined so much that we didn’t always have food in the house. Cereal had become a luxury we couldn’t afford, so I almost always went to school with only a glass of milk to keep me going. I ate on the free and reduced lunch program at Holmes Elementary, and dinner had become our main meal. After my mother and then idiot stepfather Maurice separated for the first time that October, we had even less food to eat. For Maurice had taken half of the frozen meats my mother had ordered — beef, chicken, ham, and a whole leg of lamb — with him when he left. All while my mother was at work.
I had few dreams about what I wanted to do in life prior to sixth grade. I think I went through the police office/firefighter phase all during kindergarten and first grade. Then, nothing. Divorce, shacking up, second marriage and baby brother Maurice was my home life. With the occasional sprinkles of Jimme about one Saturday every five weeks between April ’79 and April ’81. We didn’t take vacations. So between the school year, holidays, summer day vacations at Darren’s Clearview School for the mentally retarded, and Jimme outings, there wasn’t much to our drab lives.
Except for the rare time out on The Avenue (Fourth Avenue between West 1st and West 3rd Streets, a strip of shops, delis, a bodega or two and small eateries) or even rarer times in the city, that was my life. But when I did get out, the things I remembered the most were the sights, smells and sizzles of food. Eating at Papa Wong’s restaurant on Gramatan Avenue was a real treat for me even at seven or eight. They had great egg rolls, pork, shrimp and chicken fried rice. I loved the place. It smelled the way I thought a Chinese restaurant ought to smell. Ginger, sesame, soy, onions, scallions and garlic. It’s too bad the restaurant burned down suspiciously in ’82, with nothing to replace it with but a parking lot for nearly a decade afterward.
Or eating at Arthur Treatcher’s Fish & Chips on Prospect and Park before it closed down that corner for two years at the end of ’82. I loved their crispy chicken medallions with the chips — splendid! Carvel’s Ice Cream shop a block west on Prospect was also a good place to eat, even if the customer service sucked more times than not. I think I drove myself to lactose intolerance about five years early because of that place. Man, I miss those chocolate-on-vanilla ice cream sandwiches!
But nothing for my precious few dollars topped Clover Donuts. If you could take a Krispy Kreme glazed and genetically cross it with a Dunkin Donuts glazed, you’d end up with the best glazed donut ever! And that’s exactly what Clover Donuts sold. Not to mention those juicy, grilled and amazing Sabrett Hot Dogs. It was all a “kick in da head” for me growing up. On almost every visit I made after high school, I made a stop there for a glazed donut, their nuggety yet soft chocolate glazed donuts, and a hot dog. I might’ve not liked many things about Mount Vernon, but Clover Donuts was one thing I really enjoyed.
But by the time I hit my mid-teens, I realized that Mount Vernon’s food had changed, and not for the better. Papa Wong’s was long gone, and so was Arthur Treatcher’s. My home life at 616 meant that most of my shopping time was spent in Pelham at C-Town or in one of their inferior eateries. The pizzerias made slices that varied from sucky to pretty good, but were common and unimaginative enough that they blended together for me. At Mount Vernon High School, the deli in nearby Chester Heights easily surpassed anything I’d eaten sandwich-wise outside of the city.
Speaking of, going down to 241st in the Bronx, and then to Manhattan, changed my view of food for good. My years working with Jimme and Darren in Midtown, on the Upper East and Upper West Side, near Spanish Harlem on 90th and around Lincoln Center introduced me to great delis and bodegas. As well as a glimpse of what real upscale restaurants looked like. The best deli food I ever had from one at the crossroads between Broadway and Columbus between 65 and 66th Street, across from Lincoln Center. The smell of pastrami sizzling on the grill, the thick cuts of turkey and corned beef, the interracializing of cookies, my first taste of a blondie. It all happened there for me in ’84 and ’85, and sorry to say, I was spoiled by that food. Not to mention a place with a great Cuban pork sandwich, pizzerias with sauces that would make me want to bite the lower right corner of my lip, they were that good.
It’s safe to say that these experiences had have as much influence on what I eat and what I like to cook as growing up with a great cook in my mother at 616. From veal or lamb stew to matzo ball soup, from beef and broccoli to empanadas and Jamaican beef patties, and from fried chicken and corn bread to duck a l’orange to fettuccine alfredo with shrimp and chicken. I love it all, so it’s a good thing I work out and/or run three to four times a week.
Unfortunately, restaurants and eateries aren’t the same everywhere. It took me almost a decade to find the best deli, pizzeria and Chinese restaurant in Pittsburgh, and we moved two years later. It’s been ten years in the DC area, and Hollywood East Cafe — easily the best Chinese we’ve had down here — has been closed for almost six months. In this case, I can’t even go home again. But, I do have a skillet, a spatula and a mixing bowl!