November 2008

You are currently browsing the monthly archive for November 2008.

Thumbnail image for main_oysters.jpgSeveral years ago at a friend’s house in DC, we kicked off an annual habit of martinis and oysters before the big Thanksgiving meal. He and I shucked them ourselves — my first time to wield an oyster knife — and in spite of the fact that said friend sliced the side of his hand open that afternoon, we’ve repeated the habit every year since.

This year, for a much smaller dinner party, I ordered three dozen oysters from Wild Edibles: a dozen each of Wellfleets, Piper Coves, and Kumomotos (the former being hard to tell from one another, I thought, and the latter being almost a desert oyster — a tiny little pocket of oystery goodness — and a surefire crowd pleaser). The majority martini: a Plymouth Gibson.

Maybe it was the fact that we lived at the seaport when we first moved to New York, or maybe it was hanging out with a group of friends who occasionally got hankerings, around 2 a.m., to catch a cab up to Blue Ribbon in SoHo before they closed at 4. (Okay, we only did that once. More frequently we’ve stopped in at Shaffer City or, in our new neighborhood, Ed’s Lobster Bar, which has the best lobster roll in the city, hands down.) Maybe it was reading Joseph Mitchell essays about the seafood-fueled adventures of Old Mr. Flood one too many times, but we’ve made it a habit to acquaint ourselves with local and imported varieties, differences of East vs. West Coast, and to order them in other parts of the world: Amsterdam, the south of France, or imported from New Zealand when we’re in California. We’ve often lamented the days when New York’s own oyster beds ruled the local roost.

In spite of having read and even taught sections of Mark Kurlansky’s The Big Oyster — his entertaining and informative history of New York City from the bi-valve’s perspective — I didn’t realize that our current Thanksgiving tradition was merely resuming a long-standing tradition in New York and New England. Especially during the heyday of New York’s oyster production (during the late 19th and early 20th centuries the city’s waters produced around 700 million oysters a year) East Coast cookbooks unanimously and prominently featured oysters on the T-day menu.

Take this example from a turn-of-the-century cookbook, for instance:

Thanksgiving Dinner.

Like Christmas, Thanskgiving has its own bill of fare which has not been varied for many
generations. Roasted turkey, pumpkin, mince and apple custard pies are served in almost all parts
of the United States. A heavy breakfast, with chicken pie, and a late dinner are common rules. If
shell-fish are in good condition, serve oysters on the half-shell or oyster cocktails as first course; if
not, serve a clear soup. The turkey may be stuffed with oysters, or oyster sauce may be used in
place of giblet sauce, or scalloped oysters may be served as a side dish. Oysters seem to be a part
of the Thanksgiving dinner. Pumpkins, corn, nuts, fruits and bitter-sweet are the choice

Oysters on the Half-shell
Consomme a la Royal
Celery, Olives
Roasted Turkey, Oyster Sauce
Cranberry Jelly
Potato Croquettes, Cauliflower
Chicken Pie, Scalloped Oysters
Lettuce and Apple Salad, Water Thins
Toasted Crackers, Cheese

The food history timeline from which I took this menu first associates oysters with the Thanksgiving meal in 1620s, though the trend seems to have taken a real upswing in the Gilded Age and endured — at least in the cookbooks sampled — until around WWII. What happened then? They probably became too much of a luxury, I suppose, and in the city, the local beds were long since polluted and harvested into depletion.

At the moment, the reseeded beds in New York’s harbor are good for cleaning up the water only: we probably won’t see these beds yield edible oysters in our lifetimes. But as for me and my house, we’re doing our part to bring the oyster back to its traditional place on the Thanksgiving menu, even if it means expending a little fuel to get them there. 

Tags: ,


This photo, if the folks at Swapatorium are right and it was taken in 1932,  shows Felix the Cat at the ninth annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Felix, the first of the Goodyear-designed oversized balloons that helped make the parade famous, had debuted in 1927. In early years, the balloons were released at the parade’s end and the lucky souls who found them deflated days later could bring them to the department store to exchange for a gift.

For more on the parade’s history, including more of the Swapatorium photos (which were discovered at an estate sale in Texas a couple years ago), check out the Bowery Boys’ Thanksgiving podcast from last year. A bevy of other links on the parade’s history (including sneak peaks at 2008 balloons) can be found here. Info and advice on viewing this year’s parade here.

The city’s Department of Parks and Recreation has several family programs planned for the weekend, some of which will be historically oriented.

For more T-day history flashbacks, check out this clip of the 1984 parade, featuring Tim Conway pimping Cabbage Patch Kids, which had stormed the holiday markets the previous year and would bring in something like $2,000,000  in ’84 alone. Warning: this clip may scare small children. Or their parents.

Final tidbit: Did you know New York was the first state to make Thanksgiving an annual holiday? Happened in 1817. Take that, New England! More on T-day general history via the History Channel.

Tags: , ,


Did you know that New Yorkers love hot dogs so much that they spend over $100 million a year consuming them? That’s what Padma Lakshmi (above, center) told us while introducing the “quickfire” challenge at the start of the second episode of Top Chef last week. I take it this figure includes store-bought hot dogs as well as hot dogs bought in restaurants, stands, and ballparks. An NPR story from May 2007 cited the $100 million dollar figure, but wasn’t any more specific.

Who has the best hot dogs in the city? According to Top Chef, one of the contenders would be the world-famous Dominicks and D’Angelo’s hot dog stand in Queens,” and they brought out Angelina D’Angelo (above, right) to set the standard against which the fifteen remaining chefs would compete. According to a 2005 New York Times article, D’Angelo “serves a terrific steamed natural-casing Sabrett with sautéed onions. (Her husband, Gary, makes an estimable grilled skinless Sabrett dog with great grilled onions and peppers at another truck, D’Angelo’s, about 100 yards south on Woodhaven Boulevard.)”

This week’s guest judge was New York restaurateur Donnatella Arpaia (above, left). The winner? An Indian reinterpretation of the hot dog by chef Radihka Desai, who created a kabob-style lamb sausage with caramelized onions, cucumbers, and tomato jam.

I may have to make a pilgrimmage to Woodhaven Boulevard one of these days … 


On_the_Town.jpgThis morning’s Times reviews the current revival of the musical On the Town, playing through the weekend at City Center as part of a city-wide celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s 90th birthday. Originally on Broadway in 1944 — in the midst of the Second World War — the musical follows three American navy men through a 24-hour shore leave in the city. They are eager tourists, quick to orient themselves (“the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down”) and to make hot pursuit of the reigning Miss Turnstiles, whose picture is prominently displayed in the subway.

In the opening lecture of Writing New York we show a montage of film representations of the city, including a clip from the 1949 feature film adaptation of the musical. Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munchin play the sailors:

(Later in the semester we show the final sequence from Tim Burton’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which quotes the line about the Bronx and the Battery when Johnny Depp introduces Christina Ricci to a fabulously overdrawn 1800 New York.)

Considering this production as a WWII artifact (the current revival, like the wartime original, begins with the Star Spangled Banner) has me thinking, too, about the figure of the tourist in New York City literature. In lecture, I’ve often talked about the figure of the tour guide — the Virgilian character, the flâneur, the person who provides access to the city’s darkest corners for armchair tourists reading urban fiction. I’ve thought often as well about representations of tourists in the nineteenth century, from the country rube Jonathan in Royall Tyler’s The Contrast (who has various tricks played on him by some scheming city servants) to the country cousin in Benjamin Baker’s Glance at New York (a working-class entertainment), who also gets fleeced at every turn to the delight of the audience.

At what point, though, do we witness a shift that places the tourist figure center stage, as in On the Town? What is the particular appeal of that trope? Would this shift possibly signal the moment when urban entertainment in the city becomes a tourist industry rather than a pastime or entertainment for locals?  Or is there something appealing in being a local, seeing the city on stage (or page, or screen) through a tourist’s eyes?

The sequence from On the Town reminded me of one of the most touristy things I did last holiday season.  A relative who’d been planning a trip to town had to cancel  at the last minute and as a result we found ourselves with half a dozen tickets to the Rockettes’ Christman Spectacular, something we probably never would have gone to on our own. One of the pieces in that exquisitely bizarre production that transforms a family-friendly leg show in an instant into a nativity scene (with the dancers now in drag as bearded wisemen hauling live camels across the stage to find the baby Jesus) is a ride on a tour bus that echoes, faintly, the Bernstein number:

Watching this live I had no doubt that we were witnessing something like the Las Vegas version of New York, absolutely designed for tourists to reassure them that they had, indeed, seen all the important sights. Why else use one of those obnoxious buses as a prop, except to remind the audience that just yesterday they were doing the same thing?

Not that our readers are the chattiest bunch, but I wonder if others can think of stories or plays that put tourists in the lead roles. When would this tradition have started? And is it designed purely for the pleasure of tourists themselves?

Tags: , ,

Top Chef NYC


Aspiring Top Chefs chopping apples on Governor’s Island as Padma Lakshmi watches.

The fifth season of Top Chef is now underway on Wednesday nights at 10:00 p.m. on Bravo. Before last week, I’d never watched it before, though my wife has been a devotee for the past few years. She also likes Project Runway (which comes from the same productiom team) though in general she has little patience for so-called reality TV. I think what she likes is watching creative people performing their vocations and their passions under pressure, as opposed to trying to “survive” on an island while passing a series of man-made “natural” tasks. (She also likes food and clothes.)

But this year’s edition is set in New York City, so I felt duty-bound to give it a look. Last week’s premiere episode brought seventeen chefs from around the country and from Europe to Governor’s Island by ferry. Co-hosts Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio and immediately set them competing for only sixteen slots. Their task: peel apples, quickly and well. The first nine to finish up with well-peeled apples got spots. The remaining chefs had to chop up a bunch of apples and fill a copy. Four more spots gone. The remaining four chefs were given some ingredients and a few minutes to whip up a dish on the spot. Tom C. didn’t like one of the salads as much as the other: good-bye chef.

Before leaving Governor’s Island, each of the sixteen contestants chose a knife inscribed with the name of a neighborhood in the city: Astoria, Brighton Beach, Chinatown, Jamaica, Little India, Little Italy, Long Island City, Ozone Park — two contestants per neighborhood. The challenge: Cook a dish inspired by your assigned New York neighborhood and compete head to head with one the other contestant who drew your neighborhood.

You can see what happens tonight at 9:00 p.m. when last week’s episode is rebroadcast. And maybe you’ll ask, as I did: “Is Jamaica, Queens, really known for Jamaican food”? Maybe Top Chef is more like Survivor than I think.

Naked Steel

gwb.jpgThe renaming of the Triborough Bridge and a recent outing with a group of students to see the Broadway musical In the Heights got me thinking about the bridge that I saw everyday growing up : the George Washington Bridge. My parents lived near Columbia University on Riverside Drive facing the Hudson River, and you could see the GWB from their window. Even as a child, I knew that there was something unmistakable about that bridge, something distinctive about its look. After college, I worked at IBM in White Plains before embarking on a long trip in February of 1984. I was living with my parents, and I remember looking forward to the sight of the bridge as I drove home during late fall and early winter evenings, backlit by the reddish glow of the sun setting behind the Palisades. The light would shine through the criss-crossed bracings of the bridge, and I would drive directly under it on my way to Riverside Drive.

In fact, it’s precisely those bracings that give the George Washington Bridge its distinctive look. Here’s what I just learned: they weren’t intended to be left exposed. The bridge was begun in 1927, and the original plans called for the towers to be encased in granite and concrete. But financial concerns and the fact that many people simply liked the way the exposed steel looked led to a change in plans.

When it opened in 1931, the bridge had one deck and four lines. Two more lanes were added in 1946, and in 1962 the lower deck was opened. People referred to it as “Martha.”

The set of In the Heights features a representation of the bridge as part of its central backdrop. The musical takes place in and around 183rd Street.

Heights60.jpgIf you’re interested in my thoughts on the musical, take a look at this post from The Common Room, the blog of NYU’s  University Hall.

[Photo from the New York Times.]


moby_first_edition.jpgSpeaking of Moby-Dick . . . Barack Obama’s favorite novel was published one hundred-fifty-seven years ago today — November 14, 1851 — by Harper & Brothers. The book had been published a month earlier in London with the title The Whale (the book’s working title). Melville had found the proofs for the British edition to be riddled with errors, some of which he chose to correct and others of which he left alone, allowing them (as he later put it in Pierre) to provide “a rich harvest” for future “entomological critics” poring over the book.

Unfortunately, many of Melville’s revisions to the proofs were ignored and other, unsanctioned changes were made. For example, the Extracts (intended to serve as a kind of overture to the novel) were placed at the end, and the Epilogue, which tells us how Ishmael survived the wreck of the Pequod, was omitted altogether. Many British reviewers were puzzled, therefore, by the fact that the novel was being narrated by someone who was ostensibly dead; many cried foul.

The edition that Harper & Brothers published had the Extracts and Epilogue properly in place, but by then American readers had already learned about the negative British reviews and were predisposed to find fault with the (correct) ending that they read.

Melville gave Hawthorne a copy of the book right away, and the older author read it immediately. He wrote a letter, now lost, praising the book. Melville responded:

Your letter was handed me last night . . . I felt pantheistic . . . A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your having understood the book. I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as a lamb. . . . I shall leave the world, I feel, with more satisfaction for having come to know you. Knowing you persuades me more than the Bible of our immortality

Hawthorne offered to write a review of the novel, but for some reason Melville asked him to keep his praise private. In retrospect, that may have been a mistake: when the reviews began to appear about two months later, many of them were scathing, although there were some positive notices (in contrast to the reception of Mardi two years earlier, which was universally panned.)

The poor notices cast a pall over Melville’s career, and he never got over them. He inserted sections into his next novel, Pierre, lambasting the literary establishment. He even proposed to Harpers, who had reduced his royalty arrangement in the aftermath of Moby-Dick‘s poor sales, that the new novel might do better if it were published anonymously. By the end of 1852 (according to a letter written by one of Hawthorne’s cousins) the Harpers came to think of Melville as “a little crazy.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Call Me Barack

I know the election is over and we’re supposed to be getting back to history as usual, but there’s no way we’re not blogging this.

Yglesias thought what set him apart was his comic book collecting, and I’ll agree that’s cool. (But Spidey? Conan? Not earning points with this DC kid.)

What makes this man great is his choice for favorite novel: Moby-Dick.

[Begin weird English professor victory dance.]

Tags: , , ,


One week from today the Triborough Bridge will officially be renamed the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge. To make sure that the name change sticks, the MTA is spending a big chunk of change: it will cost the MTA $4 million to change all the signs directing traffic to the bridge, and an additional $4 thousand to rename the signs on the bridge itself. The change of name was proposed in this year’s State of the State address by former governor Eliot Spitzer.

Oddly enough, the bridge’s construction began in 1929 — on Black Friday — and immediately fell into financial trouble. Robert Moses revived the project, and the bridge eventually opened in 1936. Its construction cost more than the Hoover Dam’s.

“Bridge” is actually a misnomer. The Triborough — sorry, the RFK — is actually actually three bridges,
a viaduct, and 14 miles of approach roads — all of which connect three boroughs: Manhattan, Queens,
and the Bronx.

Governor Hugh Carey first considered renaming the bridge after the late Senator Kennedy in 1975. Guess who blocked it then. None other than Robert Moses.

2.jpgThumbnail image for 3.jpg

Common-place, the online journal of early American history and culture, has a special issue up this quarter on early American politics. Among its features is a joint interview with Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg, a prolific historian couple formerly of University of Tulsa and now of Louisiana State. Burstein recently published a biography of Washington Irving, focusing on the political context for the emergence of his career; Isenberg recently published a biography of Aaron Burr. The Common-place interview focuses on ways in which the two men’s histories and careers, both based in Manhattan, were entangled. It begins:

How does one speak of Aaron Burr and Washington Irving in the same breath?

Burstein: First of all, they shared the island of Manhattan
for a good many years. Washington Irving was the youngest in a large
family of merchants with both literary and political ambitions. The
brother with whom he was closest, Peter, ran as a Burrite for the New
York Assembly and was the editor of the Burrite newspaper, the Morning Chronicle.
The oldest Irving brother, William, served two terms in the House of
Representatives as a Republican. John Irving, a lawyer and later a
judge, hung out his shingle at the Wall Street address that Burr had
recently occupied. Washington Irving, trained in the law, briefly
worked there, too. Just before his first voyage to Europe, in 1803,
twenty-year-old Washington had breakfast with Burr and absorbed his
advice on how to profit from his time abroad.

Isenberg: Burr’s appeal to the Irvings was the same as his
appeal to other young New Yorkers looking to rise in society by
attaching themselves to a politician sympathetic to their ambitions.
Burr was a patron of the arts–the patron, for instance, of the
well-known artist John Vanderlyn; Washington Irving was an incurable
theatergoer and theater critic in his New York years and would pal
around with painters and poets all his life. His brother William, the
congressman, belonged to a literary society and wrote doggerel poems
that formed companion pieces to his soon-to-be-famous brother’s
occasional pieces. In a letter to his daughter Theodosia, who was
Irving’s age, Burr, when vice president, eagerly praised the young
writer’s satirical essays about Manhattan society.

For the rest of the interview click here.

Tags: , , , ,

« Older entries