Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Happy St. Patrick's Day from the Tossed Salad

As a kid, St. Patrick's Day was a big deal in a kind of odd sense.

Growing up in a typical Jewish-Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, the Irish were exotic beings.

They had different customs, habits and accents and, by the invisible delineation known as a neighborhood, were even physically removed from our daily lives.

This made them kind of mysterious and totally cool. 

And speaking of cool, the annual parade up Fifth Avenue -- which turns the subdued color palette of a city still in the final throes of winter to a festive sea of green -- was the coolest. It was a gift to us all from St. Patrick himself, no matter what corner of the city we called our own.

Who didn't want to be Irish on St. Patrick's Day? I know I did.

Until my oldest son established his own annual tradition of skipping school and attending with his friends, my family never actually went to the parade. We were, as a group, kind of crowd-phobic and besides, the best seat in the house was on the floor in front of the TV in the living room with Grandpa.

From that spot, I would watch the tall and charismatic pipers with their fabulous hats and incredible posture. I'd marvel at the endless waves of police and firemen marching proudly, many sporting green carnations in their lapels and jaunty tam 'o' shanters in place of their usual headgear.

I loved the music and the bouncing curls of the high-stepping colleens in colorful costumes and soft-soled shoes. It seemed that March 17 had more that its' fair share of cold rainy days and we'd shiver sympathetically as the girls would dance by the reviewing stand with bare arms and legs visibly reddened by the still-wintry chill.

Soon after the parade was over, still humming our favorite Irish tunes, we'd  convene at the kitchen table to eat dinner together....something traditionally Hungarian.

The vast majority of our meals were very ethnic--Hungarian soups and stews. We even traveled, in a snarling pack, to the Yorkville section of Manhattan to buy vats of deep red paprika (Hungarian crack) at Paprikas Weiss---a famous Hungarian import store and landmark that, sadly, is no longer there. My grandfather had "come over" with the original owner and would often slip away for a quick game of cards in the back.

I go through several of these a year.
Be still my heart.

We also had, thanks to the dozen or so fantastic Italian bakeries within walking distance of our front door, developed a great love for Italian baking and dessert was often some variety of delectable cookie or cake, always served with strong, hot coffee despite the hour of the evening.

Even as a kid, the contrast wasn't lost on me.  And I loved it. We'd listen to the pipers on TV, eat Hungary afterward and enjoy Italy at the meal's end. It was a world tour in the comfort of the brownstone I called home.

I think about it still -- all our differences thrown together, not into a melting pot but into a big salad bowl -- every ingredient maintaining it's identity but getting along. In the perfect world of my childhood recollections, edges softened by time and a rapidly shrinking cerebral cortex, the tomatoes had no bone to pick with the green pepper and the onions were more than happy cuddling up to the cucumbers. New York City was, and remains to be, a glorious tossed salad.

We like each other. We are used to each other. Sometimes we piss each other off mightily but, when it counts, the tomatoes and the green peppers can still make it work.

As we migrated from that Brooklyn neighborhood of Boro Park, our horizons widened on their own. Suddenly our neighbors had different accents and traditions. And, on open-window days, the smells wafting from their kitchen were new and enticing. 

My friend from Pakistan made me delicious dishes with cilantro, coriander and fresh lime. My Chinese landlady prepared dim sum from scratch and brought them downstairs in a steaming bowl to share with delighted, hungry tenants. My Lebanese sister-from-another-mother across the street wooed my taste buds with sesame encrusted Arabic bread slathered with lemony humus or creamy baba ghanoush.

Does anyone actually eat these?
But once a year year, the beer ran green in the local pubs, green bagels filled the bins in the front windows of the bagel stores and the Green Oak, the bar down the street, stayed open till 6 am the following morning.

I seem to have come full circle. Today, I will be watching the parade on TV, seasoning our dinner with a huge dose (lethal to those who have not built up a tolerance over the years) of paprika and hoping someone drops off a canoli or two for dessert.

May the luck of the Irish not only be with you today but with us all, in every neighborhood (even in the trendy, hipster neighborhoods where the new locals want to make artisanal cheese while wearing skinny jeans), every remaining ethnic stronghold in every city in America, to your front door and far, far beyond. 

Have a great St. Patty's Day, everyone!
'Tis himself.

1 comment:

  1. This made me emotional! As the magical new Android commercial puts it so eloquently: "Be together. Not the same."