Road Trip–Fallingwater Edition (continued)

          After our day in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, we lodged at a bed and breakfast a few miles away in the unromantically named Mechanicsburg and went to a restaurant that proclaimed it served an unknown cuisine to me, Ukrainian/Mediterranean food. We arrived at seven and were the only diners; when we left, there were two others. Our attractive young server, Mina, who had a slight accent I could not place, told us about appetizer specials, making quite a push for some special meatballs, which I ordered. She told us that the chef would tell us about the main course specials.

          Soon he appeared. He (I have forgotten his name) was a talker. He asked where we were from, and after hearing Brooklyn, he told us that he loved New York, visited frequently, and rambled on about how sad NYC was these days in the aftermath of Covid. Hardly pausing to take a breath, he told us that he was from Egypt, had been in the United States for thirty-nine years, and had met his wife, the namesake of the restaurant, in this country. She was from Ukraine, and then the origin of the unusual fusion cuisine became clear.

          He asked what we might be interested in eating. I said that I had seen a pork shank and a lamb shank on the menu. He interrupted and said that he had a special lamb shank that night. This was lucky because supply problems were making it hard to obtain this cut. “Even New York restaurants can’t get them.” Because of the present rarity, it was expensive–$49. When I said nothing in response, he started to write this down as my order, and I spoke up saying that was not going to be my choice.

          Unprompted the chef told us, “I did not vote for Biden. The government gives away money, and people won’t work.” He went on to complain that he could not hire staff. I bit my tongue. I did not point out that the restaurant was almost empty and did not look as though it needed more workers, and I did not say that the data do not indicate the extended unemployment benefits have been a significant cause of labor shortages. But I could not restrain myself entirely and did say, “This is a great country . . . if you are rich.” I could see Mina watching me with wide eyes, and I wondered what she was thinking.

          Mina later told us that she was from Uzbekistan and that she and her family had been in the United States for only a few years. I commented that her English was very good, and she looked a bit surprised. I asked how they had come to settle in this area. She replied, “We had no choice. We are refugees, and we were put here.” I did not find out what agency had settled them in the greater Mechanicsburg area, but when I asked why they had to leave her native country, she simply said, “A dictator.” I thought back to a Jewish Uzbek barber who had told me eighteen months ago that when he was growing up, thirty percent of Uzbekistan had been Christians and Jews but that now it was 95% Muslim. (See post of April 1, 2020. Search Results for “uzbek” – AJ’s Dad (ajsdad.blog). I wondered if this explained Mina’s refugee status.

I don’t remember what main course I did get at this restaurant, but it was a lot of food—the meatballs I had ordered would have sufficed. The spouse and I both had food left, and we quietly agreed that we did not want to look as if we had not enjoyed the cooking, so we had the leftovers packed up to take with us, even though we knew that we would not be eating them. We threw away the containers the next day.

          The next morning we went to an antique store in the modest downtown. I bought a Christmas coffee mug I did not need but will use in the festive season. Then, in a who knew? moment, we went to a Rolls Royce museum. A woman on the phone told us that it was not officially open and we could not get the usual guided tour, but we could stop by and look around. She was not there when we arrived, and a man told us that the museum was closed. We explained our phone conversation, and after a few moments while he fruitlessly looked for the visitors’ book to sign, he waved us in and retired to an adjoining shop area where a Rolls Royce was being restored. On display were a dozen or more vintage Rolls Royces and Bentleys. I don’t care much about luxury cars, but they were beautiful. As we slowly walked around each car peering in to see details, but never touching as we were cautioned, the man came out periodically from the workshop, told us some things about the car, explained the Rolls Royce drivers club was headquartered here, and said that the museum was part of the Rolls Royce Foundation. Who knew? A Rolls Royce Foundation. He indicated with no irony that this was a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization for automobiles for the ultra-rich.

          As we were nearing the end of our stay, the woman who had answered the phone returned from lunch. I have seen many women these days with purple hair, but this was the first time I had seen someone whose blouse perfectly matched her hair color. Did she change the color each day depending on what she was going to wear? Another question I will never have answered.

She brought us over to her favorite car—a relatively modern Rolls with a sparkly, blue finish. She explained that a cult leader in Oregon had his followers give him the expensive cars instead of money. When the guru was found committing crimes, he was deported back to India and the government seized his assets. The sparkly Rolls (frankly ugly), one of the dozens he had owned, ended up in the museum.

          Before leaving, we stepped into a separate room—an art gallery—containing hyper-realistic oil paintings of vintage Rolls Royces, including one adapted for desert use by Lawrence of Arabia, who in real life was not nearly as handsome as Peter O’Toole.

          I won’t say that that this is a destination museum, but if you are in the area, it’s worth a detour.

Our Lunch with André – Secrets Revealed

I plan to make something new for Thanksgiving—an onion tart. This is partly because I like onions and tarts made from them, but also because the recipe I plan to use brought back warm memories of an encounter with a famous man.

As a young couple, the spouse and I wanted to explore more foods. At a time well before baba ghanoush, hummus, pita bread, and lamb kebabs were staples in restaurants and grocery stores, we discovered that Mideast restaurants and bakeries were in abundance on the street behind our apartment. They were inexpensive and allowed us to bring in our wine, and we enjoyably explored.

We soon learned that affordable neighborhood “ethnic” restaurants dotted Brooklyn and the rest of New York City, and we searched out Polish, Chinese, Mexican, Peruvian, German, Uzbek, Ethiopian, and both red sauce and Northern Italian restaurants. (Alas, I found no Lithuanian places.) But our penury prevented us from going to dinner at the City’s culinary nirvanas because those restaurants just put too much of a dent in our budget from fellowships and starting wages.

Then, however, we learned that many of these exclusive restaurants, while still expensive, were often much less stratospheric for a weekday lunch and often had a bargain fixed price lunch, which of course was labeled prix fixe. We began once or twice a year to treat ourselves to what we saw as a mini-mini-vacation. We would free up an afternoon and meet at La Caravelle, La Grenouille, the Coach House, or Le Cygne, dine luxuriously and then spend the rest of the afternoon at nearby art galleries whose staff did not seem to mind that we were only gawker/browsers. We knew that we are not experiencing the full evening dining experience but were still able to sample the food and ambiance of the best of New York in a way we could sort of afford.

Finally, we went to what many had told us was the pinnacle of New York City restaurants, Lutèce. At a time with few celebrity chefs, André Soltner, the chef-owner, was famous because his restaurant was repeatedly named the best in the country. Situated in an eastside townhouse, the dining room was elegant. And so were the patrons. The spouse and I were nicely dressed, but the women and the men all seemed to be regulars in designer dresses and bespoke suits. Even so, the staff, while incredibly professional, made us feel comfortable and welcome, something not always true at other expensive restaurants.

I don’t remember what I had to eat; I think that I would remember if I had the signature Alsatian onion tart. We both recall vividly, however, that the spouse had salmon. She kept exclaiming quietly to me throughout that main course that it was the best salmon, the best fish, perhaps the best dish she had ever had. We were lingering after we finished our meal, hoping to extend for a few moments more the experience. The dining room had mostly cleared. The door to what we assumed was the kitchen swung open, and a thin man wearing a toque and assurance entered the dining room. We watched as the legendary André Soltner stopped at a few tables to exchange greetings and pleasantries with those remaining few who must have been regulars. And then he mystified us by coming over to our table and said to the spouse, “I heard you liked the salmon.” The spouse was taken aback, but then realized that a waiter must have told Soltner about her pleasure and enthusiasm. After the briefest of pauses, the spouse replied, “Yes, yes. I loved it.” He continued in his Alsatian accent, “Would you like to know how I make it?” He sat down and went on to explain his preparation in detail but so clearly that the spouse learned it and prepared it many times for dinners afterwards, always impressing our guests.

André Soltner’s graciousness was all the more surprising when it had to be clear that we were unlikely to be frequent diners at Lutèce and, indeed, might never eat there again. (In fact the restaurant closed before we were able to go again.) And we were surprised by another thing. Soltner stressed that the secret of the dish, what pushed it into the extraordinary, was that the salmon was cooked in bacon fat.

This experience came back to me when I recently saw printed in The New York Times Soltner’s onion tart recipe adapted by Gabrielle Hamilton, who is both a gifted cook and a gifted writer. She was the chef at the extraordinary restaurant Prune. She is the author of Blood, Bones, & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, a book about much, much more than just cooking, catering, and restaurants. (Both AJ and AJ’s Dad highly recommend it.) In this book, she records that her sister cooked an omelet with Soltner. He did not showily crack open the eggs with one hand. “With two hands, he split the egg open and deposited its contents into a bowl. With each thumb, he reached into each half of the shell and scraped out the remaining albumen that tends to cling to the membrane until he had thoroughly cleaned out the egg. He said, ‘When I was growing up, this is how my mother got thirteen eggs out of the dozen.’”

I read Hamilton’s take on Soltner’s onion tart classic, and memories of our lunch flooded back. Her instructions told me that while baking the dough, I should slowly caramelize the yellow onions over a medium-low heat in a wide pan in…yes, bacon fat.

Another Haircut (concluded)

          Four months after I got my haircut by the man from Uzbekistan, I went for a haircut in a newly opened place a few blocks from my house, an offshoot of a barbershop a mile away where I had previously gone. I was immediately disappointed when I walked in. I saw the prices. The new shop charged more than the old one–$27 compared to $20. This was slightly above my borderline for what I am willing to pay, but I was already inside, and there was no waiting time, so I went ahead. (pun?)

          The haircutter was a handsome, young man born in Albania. His family seemed to have had some money. His grandfather had owned an Albanian textile factory but lost it in “the war.” The war. I did not know what he was talking about. My mind went searching, coming up empty, but somehow, I learned as he talked that he meant an Albanian war with Serbia in the 1990s. The way he talked, it sounded as if Albania was still recovering from those events, but without much specificity he also talked about the corruption of Albania, which he conceded held it back. His family still lived there, but he did not seem particularly attached to Albania and had no intention of returning  except for a visit. He was much more committed to bringing his brother over to the States.

          He had learned his quite good English from watching movies. He was fascinated with Hollywood and wanted to get to California. It was not clear if he was dreaming of some role in the movie industry or whether he just wanted the beaches, the sun, the hills, and the canyons. I am not sure that he had thought much beyond getting to Melrose Place or Santa Monica Boulevard.

          He lived in the Bronx. This surprised me because it is a goodly distance from the shop, but he told me that he lived in a neighborhood where most of the Albanians in New York live, a place that was formerly solidly Italian. And, thus, I learned a bit more about New York, an inexhaustible topic.

          Five months later I got the hair cut again. Old joke. A baseball manager, whose team is not doing well, takes a chair in the barbershop. The barber asks, “How would you like it cut?” The manager replies, “In silence. Total silence.” And that was my feeling when I last got my hair cut at that place a mile from my house. I was not in the mood for talking. I used the time to close my eyes, count my breaths, and meditate. A barber chair is a surprisingly good seat for that.

          Soon, however, my hair will even offend me again enough to do something about it, but, of course, this is a time of “social distancing.” And although I worry about these small businesses and all the workers who probably work from paycheck to paycheck and from tip to tip, I won’t be going to a barbershop. Instead, I will ask the spouse to give me a trim. She is quite good at it. (I admit a conflict here. She edits this blog, and I am grateful. She makes it better and helps cut down the too many mistakes I would otherwise make. So, she will read this. But that is not the reason that I praise her haircutting ability. I swear and affirm that she really and truly does a good, excellent, amazing job trimming my hair.) She, however, is not, like those other haircutters, a first generation American to learn from. On the other hand, her roots (pun?) are from Alabama. That’s alien enough to me so that she might have some amusing, informative stories as she snips.

Another Haircut

Another Haircut

          I could use a haircut. This is generally true for me. I don’t go to a haircutter often. Among the reasons for this reluctance may be my boyhood when I was made to get a crew cut or, even worse, a flattop and go to the barber every two weeks whether I needed to or not. Then, when a bit older, it was the time of rebellious, shaggy hair, and a haircut was an act of bourgeois conformity. Soon hair stylists started to replace lowly barbers with costs that my frugal lifestyle and income could not afford. Finally, my hair started thinning (a kind way to put it), and I knew no matter what was done to it, at best my hair could look kempt but not particularly attractive. That my seldom-cut hair would not have been acceptable to those who admired or wore a Brooks Brothers suit, which I never have, did not bother me.

          My standard has been to get a haircut when the hair sticks out above my ears and on top of my head (I don’t see the back of my head, so why would I care what it looks like?) so much that it has been bothering me for weeks. This usually is a period of at least four or six months from my last tonsorial visit. But even then, it takes me still a while longer after I have determined it is time to get it cut to do so because I do not have a regular haircutting place. Instead, in my travels around the city I look for an establishment where the service is inexpensive. It amazes me how much the price of a haircut varies, at least for my hair. It can be two or three times as expensive in one place compared to another, and my eye can’t tell the difference in the result. So, I look for cheap. If the price listed in the window is right, I then look to see that I will not have to wait for more than a minute or two before I can get into a chair. Even though I am almost always carrying a book to read, I hate waiting to get my hair cut. These demands and routines mean that I have gotten my hair cut in many different places in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and I have gotten it cut more than several times in only a few establishments.

          Although I do it infrequently, I enjoy getting my hair cut. I enjoy the sound of the scissors and electric razor. I love hot lather on the neck. I like being brushed off and the apron swung to the side. I even like getting into the chair. And I often find the person clipping away to be interesting.

          Most often the haircutter is a first generation American. When I first came to New York, the cliché was the Italian-American barber who came from some small village in Abruzzi or Apulia. Now it is different. I recently had my hair cut by a Palestinian who told me how hard it was for him to go home, flying to Tel Aviv and then having to cross over into Jordan. To my surprise, he indicated that it was easier for him to deal with the Israelis than the Jordanians on his trips home. Most often, however, the person cutting my hair these days was born in a communist country. This has been true even when I get my hair cut in the country during the summer. There the barbers have been Polish-American, and from one I learned the strengths and weaknesses of the Polish delis within a half hour drive of the Poconos house. She even told me of her favorite place to get Polish food. It was unlicensed and in someone’s house. It seemed to require an introduction and several passwords. I would like to report how good it was, but I was too chicken to try it.

          Some of my recent haircutters in New York City have come from former parts of the Soviet Union. That was true thirteen months ago. I was in the Gramercy Park neighborhood of Manhattan. The shop’s sign said a haircut cost $20, my kind of price. A barber was sitting in one of the three chairs reading a newspaper. My kind of wait—none–and soon I was seated and covered, and he was snipping.

          He told me that he owned the shop and that later in the day his son would also be there. He said that he grew up in Russia. I asked what part and he said Uzbekistan, which he said was now independent. I did not ask him, but I wondered, why he said that his birthplace was Russia instead of the Soviet Union since Uzbekistan is not Russia. Maybe it was because Americans are easily confused about this part of the world, and he hoped to simplify.

          He had come to the United States in 1997 and had been in his shop for nearly as long. He said that he had heard that the area had once been dangerous, “a lot of drug dealers.” He credited Rudy Giuliani’s mayoralty for making the neighborhood safe.

          He lived in Kew Gardens, Queens, about which I know little. I did not know if this is where a lot of Uzbeks lived, but I knew there were several Uzbek restaurants near Coney Island and Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. He told me they were all good, but, if I understood him—his accent was thick–they all served the same food, and it did not matter which restaurant I went to.

          Although he had grown up speaking three languages, he had no English when he came to America. He immigrated with two children, aged nine and five, and his wife, who did speak English. She is now a paralegal in the Queens Family Court. I could see his pride when he said that she was labeled the best Family Court paralegal, “not just in Queens, but in all five boroughs.”

          As I paid and was about to leave, he told me for no apparent reason that he was Jewish. I asked why he had not gone to Israel. He said that it was “too hard.” He had relatives in both Israel and the US, and when he had the chance to come to New York, he did. I don’t know if he was referring to all of Uzbekistan or just his region, but he said that it was 95% Muslim now, but that it used to be only 70%. I asked about a Christian population. I did not understand his answer.

          When he began the haircut, he had asked me if I had seen the State of the Union address, which had been the night before. He apparently had watched it and was confused why so many women were wearing white. I tried to explain that it was the hundred-year anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment and about the suffragettes and their white clothing, but I am not sure that he understood. He may have had no history of his own that related to those events. Other than that, I avoided the State of the Union address and other political topics. Perhaps if the subject had arisen after we had talked for a while, I might not have tried to steer the conversation elsewhere. It might have been interesting to hear what a Jewish person from Uzbekistan who ran a small business and had immigrated here twenty years ago thought of our president and other politicians.

          As I was almost exiting the door, he told me his name was Mark and asked for mine, which I gave him.

          Twenty dollars for a haircut. And an education. Plus, a generous tip. (No haircutter makes much money from me, so I think I should overtip.) Not bad.

(concluded April 3)