A few weeks ago, my Brooklynite girlfriend forwarded me an email about a food tour. Wanna join us? she asked. Come up for a few days? One thing led to another and last Saturday, my daughter-in-law, younger daughter, and I piled into my parents’ car (they loan it out for long trips since it gets fantastic gas mileage) and set off for the city.
I’ve been to NYC quite a few times (mostly for Fresh Air meetings) but I’ve always traveled in via bus, train, or plane, so driving in felt nerve-rackingly physical, like I was bushwhacking my way in versus tessering. But shocker: it was ridiculously simple! My daughter-in-law is a whizz navigator and we pulled into my friends’ driveway just six hours after we left home, easy as pie. I couldn’t get over how close NYC was, and so accessible, too. I had no idea.
This was the first time I’d ever been inside a NYC home.
Our friends’ apartment is the first flour of the house; the owners live upstairs, and both families share the basement. The three of us slept in the spacious guestroom in the basement, and that same weekend two extra families were sleeping in the upstairs apartment. The house is huge!
After we arrived, we spent the afternoon walking around the neighborhood. They took us to see all their haunts: the elementary school, the library, their previous apartment, their favorite little stores, Prospect Park, the art installation that a friend did (and my friend helped with). That night we joined the upstairs’ folks for a potluck Friendsgiving — just loaded up our arms with plates and food and padded up the stairs in our stocking feet to their apartment. How cool is that?
While the adults visited around the table, the kids had free range of the house, all three floors.
In the morning, the three of us walked to a local Farmers Market to check prices on eggs and vegetables and raw milk cheeses. There were pastries, too, and, ever the dutiful baker, I had to do research.
So far, I’ve yet to find pastry that’s better than Magpie’s (which both surprises and delights me).
We only ate a few bites of our pastries, though, since we had to save room for the main event: the food tour.
This was my first time on a food tour and I had no idea what to expect. Turns out, food tours are amazing, pretty much the best way to eat out EVER. Pay money ahead of time (for this one, $80/person) and then spend 5-plus hours walking around town with a group of food-loving strangers listening to a “professional eater” (his term) wax eloquent about the political, economic, and gustatory history of the place, and eating a whole heck of a lot of good food in the process.
I mean, seriously, what’s not to love?
This particualr “eating history” tour centered in Sunset Park, which is not a park, as I first thought, but rather a neighborhood in southwestern Brooklyn. To start, we all gathered on a street corner, and our guide, the dynamic, entertaining, and knowledgeable Arun Gupta (French-trained chef! Political activist! Food writer!) passed around a box of Finnish cookies before disappearing into a Fujianese restaurant to order our peanut noodles and dumplings.
Arun, in the blue jacket
We ate indoors at a couple places, but for most of the time we spent the afternoon in the frigid cold, waiting while he ordered the food, and then standing around on the street eating and getting to know the other participants (school teachers, social workers, community organizers, movie producers). I’d been worried that I’d get uncomfortably full but since the eating was interspersed with lots of walking, I never felt stuffed, or even full, really.
Finnish pistachio cookies
Fujianese dumplings: her favorite
steamed bao: the most unusual food (to me) on the tour
Portuguese egg tarts
tacos: I had cabeza (head) meat
papusas: a whole variety
The whole experience was delicious and rich, invigorating and relaxing. It was such a treat to have a food expert pick out all the best things and then feed them to me. (When he was taking orders for the taco place, I told him I’d eat whatever he wanted to feed me. “Tripe?” he teased, and I was like, “Except tripe.”) Note: Arun gave us a whole list of all the restaurants and why they’re good, so if anyone wants to create their own Sunset Park eating adventure, let me know!
Towards the end of the tour, a bunch of us slipped into a panadería to warm up and ended up buying pastries, and, back home, we sat around the table and drank tea and ate pastries.
As though we needed more food!
Oh, and on our way back to the house (and other times throughout the weekend) we swung by the local Turkish-owned grocery store for goodies, like Turkish candy and fresh fruit.
Our friends had work and school, so the three of us headed into the city for the day.
My daughter-in-law wanted to go to a Japanese bookstore and my daughter wanted to see the Christmas tree and I wanted to get coffee, find pastries, and hit up Murray’s cheese shop.
at the Rockefeller
As soon as I walked up to the counter at Murray’s, an employee — I later learned her name was Elizabeth — approached me and asked if she could help. “Well, yes,” I said. “Here’s the situation,” and then I explained that I make cheeses at home and I wanted to buy as many different kinds as possible, especially the ones I was less familiar with like blues and b.linens, so I could better know what I was aiming for. Also, I had about 100 dollars to spend so could we please try to wring the most out of my money?
We started with the blues. I showed her a photo of my Full Moon Blue and we were off, trying to find similar yet different blues for me to sample. From there, we went to the b.linens — I picked out a spruce-wrapped one and when I asked if that was the kind that’s supposed to be eaten with potato chips, she all but whooped, thrilled with my cheesy nerdiness.
Elizabeth, it turned out, is an executive something-or-other with twenty years of experience at Murray’s (HOW LUCKY AM I?!) and she knew everything about the cheese: the names of the cheese makers and where they lived, which cheeses were made which months of the year, how the cheeses were aged, which cultures were used, etc. She asked me pointed questions and gave me little insider tips, such as “I’ve never seen this particular lactic-acid set cheese made with cow’s milk so I bet there’d be a market for this if you want to develop a similar recipe.”
Twenty (or was it forty?) minutes later, I’d exhausted my budget and had to call it quits.
The grand total? $99.57 — about 3¼ pounds of cheese. We did good!
After the cheese shop, we popped into a Thai restaurant for lunch and then hit some more subways with a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge in the middle of it all.
That night, after a delicious family supper of lentil soup, bread, and cheese…
my girlfriend, daughter-in-law, and I went to a bar for live music and hot toddies and cider.
We drove home. The end.