Sunday, April 1, 2007

Handing down food traditions

Yesterday I led a NoshWalk in Bay Ridge, a neighborhood I really love. It's one of the few that's not being corrupted (yet) by any of the intrusive type sof developments that are ruining neighborhoods elsewhere, including the Lower East Side and Hell's Kitchen. I'm afraid that Greenpoint will be another casualty at some point. Areas of Harlem are being so rapidly gentrified, with small businesses replaced by Duane Reades and Chase Banks that they are losing their flavor (literally!). I'm thinking in particular of stretches of Frederick Douglass Boulevard, where new luxury buildings are making the neighborhood look like other areas of Manhattan - just as mediocre and anonymous! I realized recently that my favorite African restaurant is in a two-story building that coulde be very vulnerable... and I wonder where the owners would go if they lost that property.

Anyway, I noticed something interesting in Bay Ridge that I've been tracking elsewhere. Many of the local merchants on Fifth Avenue are Lebanese or other Middle EaStern and this is the case increasingly on Third Avenue, too. I like Cangiano's Italian Market on Third near Ovington Street very much, and I always love taking people to the back of the market, where the baking takes place. Cangiano's makes some really great bread and it's very, very cheap. Well, the baker was getting ready to go home; it was 3 PM and he'd been up since 5 AM. We bought a delicious prosciutto bread, which was $1.99, and I'm not talking about a roll but the size of a full-length Italian loaf, packed with enough meat to make several large sandwiches. I asked the baker where he was from, and he grinned: "Puerto Rico! Puerto Ricans make the best Italian bread!" His name is Jose.

At the cashier, I heard one of the men speaking in Arabic and I asked him who the owners were. I had a feeling... and was right... that he was the owner. He's from Lebanon, he told me, and bought the store six years ago. Since I was leading a tour, I didn't have enough time to linger, but would have liked to find out if he had partners and what other businesses he owned.

I'm interested in tracking how some of the great ethnic markets in NYC are maintaining their traditions even while the neighborhoods themselves change. Mt. Carmel Wines and Liquors in Belmont, Bronx, which carries a huge inventory of Italian wines and liquors, is now owned by Raymond Polanco, a Dominican businessman who knows his wine - and runs a gorgeous operation. Calandra Cheese, also in Belmont, is now owned by the Alcocers, a Bolivian family that used to manage it. Elk Chocolates in Yorkville, once owned by Germans, is now owned by Albanians. The phyllo dough used in Poseidon Pastries on 9th Avenue is made by Puerto Ricans who have learned this skill. And so on.

I'd love to hear from othner folks who follow this kind of thing...

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