5.30.2009

The Diner


brooklyn, ny

As a rule, I don’t eat burgers. Not because of some lofty ideals about the implications of eating meat. True, most of my meals are more vegetable than animal, but I’ve eaten meat most of my life. At certain points, lots of meat. It’s just I have very strong feelings about ground meat. It’s probably the most un-American thing about me. The whole concept of taking something that is perfectly lovely, juicy and well, meaty, and grinding it up just to pack it back together makes no sense at all.

Don’t even get me started on meatloaf.

Of the half-dozen times in my life I have eaten a burger, it’s always been off my brother’s plate. He stacks a meat-jus soaked bun with lettuce, tomato, ketchup, mustard and mayo with the kind of reckless gusto I can't seem to embrace on my own. He just makes it look like so much fun.

“One bite?” I always say, and that’s usually all it takes. One bite, and I’m satisfied.

So, when Andras and I headed to Marlow & Sons in Brooklyn last night for Date Night, burgers were the last thing on my mind. In fact I was barely hungry. I thought I might have a plate of local cheeses and try to soak up some Williamsburg cool.

Andras is magnetically drawn to meals that don’t require him to wait, so when the wait at Marlow & Sons exceeded five seconds, we ended up at Diner (same owners) next door, at the counter in front of a menu that read like this:

Appetizers

Crostini, Goat Cheese Salad, Soup

Entrees

Grass-fed Beef Burger with cheese

Sides

Potatoes, French Fries

I love a restaurant that makes my choices seem easy, particularly because choosing, especially at a restaurant where everything is good, feels like making the choice between door number one or door number two on The Price Is Right. What if I make the wrong choice? Or worse, what if the person next to me makes the right choice and there is nothing I can do to get what they have. That kind of anxiety can make even the best meal miserable.

Andras, on the other hand, has a cheetah-like ability to act instantly where a meal is concerned, making menu reading easy for him. That skill, coupled with the fact that he’s been a vegetarian since he was 12, might imply that our choice was in fact very simple. Neither of us would get the burger, leaving us to make a meal out of soup, salad, crostini and fries.

Just then the barmaid dropped off a slip of cashiers tape with a dozen or so hand written specials. It included a market salad with black-eyed peas that sounded just like me—healthy, responsible, and a little retro.

I ordered it. And then I got the sudden sick feeling that I had made a drastic mistake.

“For some reason, the grass-fed burger just sounds so good to me,” I said to Andras.

“Order it!” Andras said.

“I can’t remember the last time I had a burger. It could be years.”

“Just order it!”

“No, you know the last time I ate something so rich I felt sick afterward. I mean, it is grass-fed, but…..really, the salad sounds great. Just perfect,” I said, and happy to have one more decision behind me, I relaxed into our shared pint of beer.

Suddenly, the barmaid returned with two plates piled high with burgers on soft buns and placed them in front of the couple sitting right next to me. I lost focus. Andras was smiling and talking, pulling me in closer, but I couldn’t concentrate on anything he was saying. All I could think about was whether or not the guy next to me would possibly let me have just one bite. Just one? That’s all I needed, one bite, I reasoned. My eyes darted around the room. There were burgers everywhere, and people happily devouring them.

I called to the barmaid.

“I’m so sorry to do this, but I just can’t stop thinking about the burger. Is there any chance I can change my order?”

“I already put it in, but let me see what I can do.” She said. She smiled, made a few drinks and then mosied down the bar toward the kitchen.

“That’s good,” I said turning to Andras. “If she doesn’t get there in time, it wasn’t meant to be.” But all I could think was RUN!!!

Ten minutes later, my burger came. Two minutes later, I was finished. It was perfect.

I was suddenly giddy as a school girl, smiling and pouring myself all over Andras, who, never one to judge my carnivorous fits, allowed me kiss his face all over, despite the ring of beef juice that circled my mouth. I felt a sudden and inappropriate level of adoration for the barmaid. I wanted to kiss her, tell her how much I loved her tattoos and her plaid shirt.

“I love you,” I blurted out to her. “That was incredible!”

A few minutes later Andras’ nettle risotto came. He fed me one delicious bite—but it only confirmed my suspicion that for once, I was the one who had chosen best. My satisfaction slapped away any smidgen of regret as I thought about how he would get up at 5 AM the next morning for his usual 60-mile ride, and burn off all the calories I had consumed. I sighed, knowing I would probably sleep in, read a little, and maybe push myself to do an hour of yoga. I decided I could live with that.

The next morning, when his alarm went off, Andras pushed snooze while I sprung from the bed with boundless energy. I rushed off to The Yoga Room and came back after two arduous hours of hot yoga to find him still in bed.

“You are so lovable,” I said crawling back in next to him, so happy that imperfection runs in our family.

5.25.2009

Storied Seeds

When it comes to matters of wine and seeds, I'm anything but practical (well, when it comes to most matters, I'm anything but practical). There was a time, when I served wine from his & her cellars as a private chef in St. Tropez, that my choice of wines was dictated by the components of a dish, a Wine Spectator rating or the fashionable wine region d'jour. These days, I'm guided by admittedly more emotional principles. Namely beauty (a winemaker who has the good taste to create a lovely label must certainly care about the quality of their wine), narrative (a captivating story or name) and vintage (...the best improve with age).

It occurred to me today that I apply the same principles to choosing seeds for my garden. I give an almost romantic significance to the name, origin and story of each herb or vegetable before I decide to give it a home. With seeds, it is the narrative that seems to win in the end. My imagination is easily fed by the epic names of many Heirloom (seeds introduced before the 1940s) varieties, like Russian Giant (garlic), Purple Beauties (Peppers) and Sultan's Crescent (beans), that seem to harken an Edenic paradise I pine to create.

My latest acquisition, a Raphanus Sativa from the gardens of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, is a perfect illustration of impracticality. May weather dictates that radish season is almost over, and my garden has not an inch of spare soil for growing them until the fall. Yet I couldn't resist. The timeless illustration on the seed packet had me captivated, as did the fact that the seeds hail from the curatorial collection of Jefferson's 200-plus-year-old gardens that included 330 varieties of vegetables. Add to that the name, China Rose (Winter Radish), which conjures an Audrey Hepburn delicacy, and I'm taken. Completely and utterly without the will to resist.

It's all I can do to actually plant these seeds, and risk tarnishing the little packet with my dirty fingers. I'd far rather frame them, immortalize them along with a half-a-dozen sentimental wine labels that include a bottle I drank with my brother on a rooftop in Athens, the pink champagne from my 21st birthday and the first bottle of Chateau Neuf du Pape my father gave me that we drank on the eve of my wedding. But Jefferson, though poetic, was a man who wrote canons for practicality. Practicality dictates that I will plant the seeds, and in time, they will become a part of a simple, satisfying meal for my beloved and me.

In the meantime, I'm happy to walk my fine line between food and fairy tale as I discover new seed sources like Seed Savers Exchange, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and Twin Leaf (the label behind the 50,000 packets of seeds produced at Jefferson's Monticello). And, as it turns out, my principles aren't altogether impractical after all. Heirloom seeds (aka. Vintage), which produce the kind of ugly beauties that romantics go crazy for in farmer's markets, are often more flavorful and heartier than modern-day seeds, having survived centuries of natures wrath. A practically perfect reason to stick to my principles.


5.01.2009

A Movable Feast {Pedaling, part i}

When I first moved to New York City, I fell in love with a New Yorker who seemed to have sprung from the stories I’d read growing up in the Midwest. His traditions—like his annual Peking duck dinner in Chinatown on Christmas Eve—were uniquely New York, and a chic juxtaposition to the stuffed bird and buttered potatoes of my family table back home.

Committed to becoming a New Yorker, I spent the next few years tucked into Chinatown’s tiny stalls tasting sweet sticky rice and soup dumplings, hand-formed dumplings and dim sum, looking for new traditions of my own. Those flavors were great fodder for my culinary tales, but still, I never quite felt I belonged.

Then I met András. One sleepy December Sunday, just months after we’d met, our afternoon bike ride through Chinatown came to a halt outside a bustling shop called Mei Lai Wah. András ducked behind the shop’s steamy windows, promising delicious fuel for our ride home. He returned with two paper bags, wet with steam. I peeled back the paper with frozen fingers and devoured hot roast pork buns until I was laughing with satisfaction. How he (a vegetarian who seemed to consider food merely fuel for his next ride) knew about something so good was beyond me, but I loved him for it.

We began to frequent the bun shop, eating buns—coconut for him, pork for me—sliding our little Chinet plates across the aged formica bar for more with nods and smiles. Afterward, I’d peek in the kitchen, where thin men stood around giant woks, poking buns and gabbing like sisters. They’d shoo me away as if I were a spy instead of a loyal customer, which made me laugh and return even more faithfully. This was my Chinatown.

After 8 years living in New York, I forfeited my holidays at home for the first time in my life and András and I booked dinner at a famed three-star city restaurant. The meal was refined, festive, delicious—and heartbreaking. As we finished, I burst into tears. I longed for sweet potatoes smothered in bruleed marshmallows and for my family.

At a loss for how to comfort me, András took me to our bun shop. I was soothed by a stack of steamy buns and familiar faces that always greeted me with ironic half-smiles that made me feel at once welcome and amused. This food, this family, was mine as well.

Last summer, Mei Lai Wah’s doors closed without warning, and just as suddenly they reopened again. Rumors of new ownership had us weary to return and when we finally did, our fears were realized. Everything familiar was replaced by something newer, cleaner, brighter. A sleek wooden countertop stood in place of the formica bar we once considered the best seat in the house. We took a seat instead in the booths in the back and I sighed and bemoaned the passing of our favorite tradition. But just as quickly I remembered that it was progress that brought me here -- and our beloved buns, now served by younger faces with bigger smiles, hadn’t changed. They still deliverd the same comforting flavors that always manage to somehow validate my choice to call New York City, and these adopted traditions my own.

*{This piece was originally published in the Winter 2009 issue of 360 magazine. I love this piece, because this tradition marks the beginning of the edible life I now share with my husband, András. }


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New York City, United States
Sarah Copeland is a food and lifestyle expert, and the author of Feast: Generous Vegetarian Meals for Any Eater and Every Appetite, and The Newlywed Cookbook. She is the Food Director at Real Simple magazine, and has appeared in numerous national publications including Saveur, Health, Fitness, Shape, Martha Stewart Living and Food & Wine magazines. As a passionate gardener, Sarah's Edible Living philosophy aims to inspire good living through growing, cooking and enjoying delicious, irresistible whole foods. She thrives on homegrown veggies, stinky cheese and chocolate cake. Sarah lives in New York with her husband and their young daughter.