Monday, September 26, 2011

Food and The Windmill

More than halfway through my second year here, I can definitively say "I love New York."  Being from the south, for most of my life "New York" brought to mind only skyscrapers, purse snatchers, taxi drivers in turbans, and a green-faced lady with a big torch.  The maple trees, farmlands, wine country, and genuinely nice people in the upstate Finger Lakes region are some of the nation's best-kept secrets. 

I didn't know what cold was until I spent a winter here. But       compared to other regions in the northeast we have it pretty good- it can be a comfortable temperature in the summer when Buffalo is on fire, and we get mere inches of snow in the winter when cars are buried in New England.  The long summer days make the frozen tundra worth enduring in the colder months.

Adapting to the meteorological climate has been easier than warming up to its culinary counterpart.  The search for decent Mexican food, for instance, was an extreme challenge at first-  but eventually we discovered a few diamonds in the rough. . . where at least there was a tolerable amount of shoe polish in the salsa.

A lot of eateries in the northeast are seriously lacking in spice. 'medium' in Yankee, is marinara where I grew up.  Hot?  Hard to come by.  Even the red pepper flakes at the pizza joints seem dead.  Shake out enough onto a slice of pizza to make it crunchy and you'll still getting more fiber than fire.  Down south just a couple of flakes will light you up.  It may be that containers of the condiment here have aged 5 years on the same table, the flame going out over time since no one uses the stuff.

Even small-town diner menus are perplexing.  What on earth is "meat sauce?"  Texans are discriminating regarding our carnivorous capers.  We need to know the animal we're ingesting-  not his name and birthday, but species, please?  "Meat sauce" sounds like it could be dog bullion or horse gravy. 

The same cloud of ambiguity applies to seafood. . . or is it lakefood?  Every restaurant worthy of metal forks up here has a Friday Fish Fry (Irish Catholic tradition.)  I've partaken, and it's pretty good.  I can name several swimmers I'm sure I didn't eat, but as for what kind of fish I actually ingested?  Not a clue.  For some reason those specs never make it to the menu.  It wouldn't fly down south, where catfish is king (save us, David Beard!)

I could start talking about BBQ, but I don't want to cry myself to sleep tonight.  Let me just state what every grill-owner should know-  cooking meat outdoors does not instantly qualify as BBQ.

After recovering from the initial menu-shock, over time I began to realize that the northeast has plenty of it's own specialties.  The regional delicacy here seems to be chicken spiedies (pronounced 'speedys') -  super scrumptious sandwiches made with marinated chicken.  Breakfast pizza is a deliciously gut wrenching heart-stopper that you don't find down south.  Corned beef served with cabbage or on a Reuben is a surefire winner.  Burgers and hot dogs can be better here, because the protein is often laid out on nice fluffy "rolls" with more artisan character than Wonderbread-ish flour 'n paste "buns."

There is more great Italian, Irish, and Asian food here than you can shake a spoon at.  In the areas with greater concentrations of Petavegans, locavores, and warmists (like around Cornell) the trendy organic, free-range, grass-fed, locally grown produce is amazingly tasty, even if you have common sense.

There are at least 2 festivals of some sort within 30 miles of home on any given weekend from late spring through the fall in New York.  Naturally this state has a knack for festival food-  kettle corn, Philly cheese steaks, pierogis, and more.  Nothing comes close to Blue Bell's homemade vanilla ice cream, but all the roadside stands here that offer Perry's in the summer have been a satisfactory substitute.

I should know what to order and what not to by now, but sometimes nostalgia gets the better of me and I get burned. . . figuratively, of course.  On Saturday, Jenn (my wife) and I decided to finally drive over to the outdoor market place near Penn Yan, NY called The Windmill.  It's sort of like Canton trade days after rehab.  Located in Mennonite/Amish country there are plenty of interesting people in bonnets and straw hats peddling their crafts.

After browsing and ogling for a while, the hunger pangs kicked in.  Jenn had no trouble deciding what she wanted, and trotted over to a stand for some fall-off-the-bone grilled chicken.  I, on the other hand, can't bear to make a decision until I'm sure I'm making the best one possible.  An environment like that, with different booths hiding around every corner and offering such a wide variety of edible wonders, throws me into a culinary twilight zone of wafting scents and indecisiveness.

I trotted back through a couple of the pavilions to purvey my options and something I'd never heard of caught my eye.  "Stuffed Potatoes,"  the sign said.  I've heard of them baked, mashed, salted, hashed, steamed, au gratin, French fried, butterflied, and powdered. . . but never stuffed!  I couldn't imagine how to stuff a potato.  Just hollowing it out seemed like quite a feat.  I pictured a chef cutting a perfectly cylindrical channel through the center of a spud with a drill-press and auger bit.

I trotted over to the vendor's booth and asked him what a stuffed potato looked like.

"Well, yuh kinda have to order one. . . ."

A generous bystander intervened, offering to let me have a peek at his.  "Stuffed" apparently means "hacked into 8 pieces, then smothered."  What a letdown. . . . but I was tired of searching, and it didn't look bad, so I ordered one- with chili and cheese.  Of course it wasn't 2 seconds after I placed my order that I looked over my shoulder across a half-acre of picnic tables and saw The Polish Princess' Pierogi Palace, what have I done?!?  It was too late,  I'd fallen for New York's commercial chili again.

You see, in New York this is Chili** and it's pronounced 'chy-lye.'  Where I'm from, this is chili and it's pronounced 'chili,' as it should be.  My mutilated potato was defamed by a mass of tomato soup, ground beef, kidney beans, and plastic cheese.  It wasn't unbearable.  It was the vendor calling it chili that left the bad taste in my mouth. 

Just one trip to Terlingua to taste the real thing and he'd work with a paper bag over his head until the recipe changed, the menu item was renamed, or he found another line of work.  He wouldn't be able to call that stuff 'chili'-  no more than I, after living in New York for a year, can continue to call 30 degrees Fahrenheit 'chilly.'


**I have to give a shout-out to my good friend Nate-  he's a northern native that somehow bucked the trend and can cook up an excellent pot of red stew worthy of the name.  There are always exceptions to my generalities,  thank God!

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