Background foods and food discoveries

The spur: this brief moment from the NYT obit for chef, author, tv personality, and social critic Anthony Bourdain, by Kim Severson, Matthew Haag, and Julia Moskin, on-line on the 8th as “Anthony Bourdain, Renegade Chef Who Reported From the World’s Tables, Is Dead at 61”, in print on the 9th as “Anthony Bourdain, Renegade Chef, Dies at 61; Showed the World How to ‘Eat Without Fear'”:


He first became conscious of food in fourth grade, he wrote in “Kitchen Confidential.” Aboard the Queen Mary on one of the family’s frequent trips to France, he sat in the cabin-class dining room and ate a bowl of vichyssoise, a basic potato-leek soup that held the delightful surprise of being cold. “It was the first food I enjoyed and, more important, remembered enjoying,” he wrote.

As it happens, I had my own Vichyssoise Moment, at roughly the same age. The soup was such an extraordinary pleasure that I wanted to have more the next day, and then to learn how to make it. Throughout my life I’ve had many such food discoveries, wow moments: where have you been all of my life?

A list of a few favorite (non-sweet) foods I can remember discovering:

vichysoisse, beef stroganoff, okra (cooked and pickled), pickled herring in sour cream, lentil soup, pesto, fried clams, fried cheese sticks, bagels, spaghetti (especially pasta verde) with white clam sauce, Chinese food beyond American Chinese (lion head, Peking duck, potstickers, vermicelli Singapore style, crunchy green beans with shredded pork, scallops stir-fried with bok choy, Szechuan almost anything), oysters on the half shell, pepper pot soup, Indian food (lamb saag, papadums, raita, chana masala, lentil dal), sushi and sashimi, miso soup, paella, pho, hummus, baba ghanoush, kimchee, bibimbap, artichokes, moussaka, grits with cheese, gumbo, posole, pork carnitas with tomatillo salsa, spanakopita, cioppino, ceviche, jerk salmon

In contrast, there are a lot of background foods, foods from my Pennsylvania childhood that I took for granted, as just part of the culinary background. A list of a few favorite (again, non-sweet) foods of this sort:

clam chowders (both New England and Manhattan), grilled cheese sandwiches, Italian sandwiches from a particular shop in West Lawn, roasted chestnuts from a street vendor in Reading, soft pretzels from a street vendor in Reading, hard pretzels, potato chips, Cheez-Its, spaghetti sauce from Mom Chafee’s in West Reading (with meatballs), roast lamb, roast chicken, breaded veal cutlets, steamed lobsters, clambakes, Lebanon bologna, macaroni and cheese, pizza, wilted green salad (made with dandelion greens or curly endive), Swiss chard, chicken pot pie, eggplant parmesan, sweet and sour soup, Philly cheesesteak sandwiches, scrapple, corned beef sandwiches on rye, Coney Island hotdogs from the Crystal Palace in Reading

From this second list, two items associated with particular restaurants of my childhood: the marinara sauce from Mom Chafee’s Cellarette, cooked very slowly overnight and available for take-out in big glass jars; and the coneys from the Crystal Palace Hot Wiener Shop.

Mom Chaffe’s was founded in 1936 and is still going. When I was a kid, West Reading had a small but flourishing business district (with a movie theatre, even); its culinary keystone was the West Reading Hotel (source of the roast lamb of my childhood), on Penn Ave., the main street that ran west from Reading (a city then of nearly 100,000) itself, on through Wyomissing (home of the Wyomissing Industries, in particular the Textile Machine Works, and also a monied suburb), Wyomissing Hills, West Lawn (where I lived for most of my childhood), Sinking Spring (where my Swiss grandparents lived after their children had left home), eventually through Lebanon and Hershey to the state capital, Harrisburg. Also, on a residential street a few blocks north of Penn Ave., West Reading had Mom Chaffe’s:

(#2) Mom Chaffe’s Cellarette, 148 Tulpehocken Ave., West Reading

On the map:

(#3) Mom Chaffe’s on the map

Continuing east on Penn Ave. takes you over the Schuylkill River and into the city. The Vanity Fair Outlet Village is the repurposed Textile Machine Works; my dad grew up right next to it. West Reading is then in position to serve as a compact business district for the monied suburb of Wyomissing; in more recent years, it has developed into a flourishing restaurant (one site says it has 30 eating places) and arts district.

[Digression on other points of personal interest; some of you might want to skip this. At the west end of the map, north of Penn Ave. (now US 422), is West Lawn, with the street of my grade school and middle school years (Highland St.) marked on the map. North of it, Grandview Blvd. leads to Woodland Rd. in Wyomissing Hills. Halfway on Woodland Rd. to State Hill Rd. (where the Berkshire Mall is now), Lawndale Rd. turns off to the northwest. The first street it intersects is Valley Rd. (just before Wingert Rd.), the street of my senior high school years.

Also on the map are the locations of all the schools my dad and I went to (two for him, three for me) as we were growing up. And on Reading Blvd. in Wyomissing, the house I lived in during the summer of 1961.]

The Crystal Palace Hot Wiener Shop was right downtown, just a block and a half from the city center, 5th and Penn Sts. (My parents’ little costume jewelry shop was just a few doors north of the center on 5th St., and the Reading Eagle newspaper offices, where I worked, just a bit west on Penn St.)

For some reason, in my memory the Crystal Palace was on N. 6th St. The memory is vivid, and just wrong. It was at 56 S. 6th St., and it closed on 1/1/15 after 82 years of offering coneys for lunch. Just as Mom Chafee’s was a piece of the great migrations from southern Italy to the U.S., so the Crystal Palace was part of the great migration of Greeks.

This coney is neither rabbit, pika, nor hyrax — not a small furry mammal, but a hot dog, and one with a very tenuous connection to Coney Island. (But there’s a rabbit connection. From Wikipedia on the island: “The first documented European name for the island is the Dutch name Conyne Eylandt, or Konijn Eiland using modern Dutch spelling, meaning Rabbit Island. The name was anglicized to Coney Island after the English took over the colony in 1664, coney being the corresponding English word.”)

On the Coney Island association of the hot dog, from Smithsonian Magazine on 6/30/16, by Erick Trickey, “The Origin of the Coney Island Hot Dog Is a Uniquely American Story: They also have very little to do with the New York City amusement park”:

(#4) A pair of coneys

This July 4, as with every July 4 going back to the 1970s, an all-American display of gluttony will feature rubber-stomached competitive eaters once again gorging themselves in the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest on Brooklyn’s Coney Island. This year’s gastronomic battle, at the corner of Surf and Stillwell avenues, will honor the 100th anniversary of the founding of Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs at the same corner in 1916.

It’s a patriotic event, and not just because it’ll be echoed at holiday barbecues across the country. The hot dog, that quintessential American food, has been associated with Coney Island, America’s most storied amusement resort, since frankfurter first met bun. But Nathan’s century-old triumph of entrepreneurship is only part of the Ellis-Island-meets-Coney-Island story. Thanks to immigrants from Northern and Eastern Europe alike, the name “Coney Island hot dog” means one thing in New York, another in the Midwest and beyond.

Historians disagree on the hot dog’s origin story, but many credit Charles Feltman, a Coney Island pie-wagon vendor, with inventing the fast food, serving hot dachshund sausages in milk rolls as early as 1867. The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council says Feltman opened a hot dog stand on Coney Island in 1871 and sold 3,684 sausages that year. Wieners took Feltman far. By the turn of the century, he’d gone upscale, with Feltman’s German Gardens, a huge complex of restaurants and beer gardens on Surf Avenue that employed 1,200 waiters. Though seafood became Feltman’s specialty, he still had seven grills dedicated to hot dogs, which he sold in the 1910s for ten cents apiece.

Nathan Handwerker, a Polish immigrant with a day job as a restaurant delivery boy, worked Sunday afternoons at Feltman’s German Gardens, slicing rolls. According to Handwerker’s 1974 New York Times obituary, Jimmy Durante and Eddie Cantor, who worked as singing waiters on Coney Island before they found fame, encouraged Handwerker to strike out from Feltman’s and sell hot dogs for a nickel instead of a dime. In 1916, he did just that, opening a small hot-dog stand at Surf and Stillwell with his wife, Ida. The subway’s extension to Coney Island in 1920 brought countless New Yorkers to his stand. “Society people, politicians, actors and sportsmen flocked to Nathan’s,” the obituary recalled, “brushing shoulders with truck drivers, laborers, and housewives.” Franklin D. Roosevelt famously served Nathan’s hot dogs at a 1936 lawn party for Britain’s George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth (mother of the now-reigning Queen Elizabeth II).

Meanwhile, outside New York, the Coney Island name evokes an entirely different hot-dog tradition. In Michigan, “Coney Island” doesn’t mean an amusement park, but one of an estimated 500 diners in the Metro Detroit area alone  that serve Greek food and “Coney dogs” — hot dogs smothered in chili or ground beef, plus mustard and onions. There are plenty more elsewhere in Michigan, across the Midwest, and beyond.

The Coney dog was spread across the eastern U.S. by various Greek and Macedonian immigrants in the 1900s and 1910s. The restaurateurs were part of the great wave of Greek migration to the U.S. – 343,000 people between 1900 and 1919 – who fled the economic desolation caused by Greece’s 1893 bankruptcy and a crash in the price of currants, then Greece’s main export. “Many of them passed through New York’s Ellis Island and heard about or visited Coney Island, later borrowing this name for their hot dogs, according to one legend,” wrote Katherine Yung and Joe Grimm in their 2012 book Coney Detroit.

They settled first in port cities along the east coast (where they remain), then worked their way west, bearing with them Greek-American food (Greek salad, souvlaki, and so on, but for fast food, hot dogs with meat sauce, chopped raw onions, and yellow mustard).

In Reading, a number of coney places, with the Crystal Palace reigning as queen for 82 years:

(#5) The long, narrow Crystal Palace

Food prepared in the back. You ate at one of those red upholstered chairs (my choice), at a table, or standing up at the counter in front. The smell was fantastic.

I read that the neighborhood is now dirty and dangerous. Not so in the old days, when an 11-year-old kid could get a fine coney dog for lunch there. In the company of construction workers, salespeople, secretaries, and office workers.

Sexual slang bonus. Yes, yes, I know about the sexual slang coney / cony etc. (historically /kʌni/, but also /koni/). From GDoS:

noun cony (also coney, conie, conny) (< SE cony, a rabbit): 1 a term of affection for a woman [from 1517 through 1659] … 2 in sexual senses (cf. cunny n.) (< the stereotyped sexuality of rabbits + the pubic hair is supposedly reminiscent of the rabbit’s tail + play on cunt n.) (a) the vagina [from 1538 through 1925] … (b) a prostitute [from 1610 through a1700] … 3 (also cunny) a dupe, the victim of a confidence trick, of card-sharping etc. [from 1592 through 1891]

One of the great pieces of slang from the 16th century, now apparently no longer used. Coneys are now visual phallic symbols, but cony / coney used to have vaginal reference.

5 Responses to “Background foods and food discoveries”

  1. julianne taaffe Says:

    Thank you for writing this. The food lists, the restaurant memories, the maps: it all made me happy.

  2. julianne taaffe Says:

    And I think I’ve heard cony/cunny in contemporary movie or two? I seem to have a visual memory of an old (Irish) woman saying it. Is that possible?

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      The ‘rabbit’ and ‘rabbit fur’ senses of coney/cony are still alive; plenty of cites in OED3. Ah, I now see that OED3 (March 2014) under cunny (coarse slang for ‘the female genitals; the vulva or vagina’) has modern revivals of that usage, after a long gap in cites: with the spelling coney in 1960 and 2009, with the spelling cunny in 1973 and 2003. So your movie memory might be accurate.

  3. chrishansenhome Says:

    Thanks for posting your food reminiscences. One of the difficulties that I have found in living in a foreign country for 25 years now is that many foods I grew up with are either unavailable, unrecognisable, or unaffordable. For example, the Coney Island hot dog. Frankfurters here are mostly pencil thin when found in the supermarket (there is one brand that is not but my favourite supermarket doesn’t carry them). Those sold in street hot dog carts are inedible, greasy, indescribably malodorous. Hot dog buns, when you can get them, are inevitably smaller than the hot dogs they’re meant to contain. American mustard (French’s) is available, but not relish of the sweet pickle variety, except perhaps at the very pricey American supermarket in Holland Park in West London, where the prices of the food are as eye-wateringly high as the real estate values. So I have to hustle around to find hot dogs that I can eat. HWMBO hates hot dogs, so I have to eat them at meals when he is not around.

    New England Clam Chowder is unavailable, mostly. A kind houseguest a few months ago brought 6 cans of Snow’s Minced Clams, so I’ll be able to make my own soon, although salt pork of the variety that should be used in clam chowder is not normally available and really can’t be packed away in a houseguest’s luggage.

    Lipton’s Onion Soup to make Onion Dip is also not available here. Thus many packets were hauled here by said houseguest. To accompany them she brought three 1-lb bags of Fritos. We’d eaten two before she left, and are saving the third for a special occasion.

    Oh, and pastrami. I think I could get a real pastrami sandwich on rye bread with mustard up in Golders Green. But when I saw a pastrami sandwich in Tesco’s (big supermarket) I snatched it up, only to discover that it was on white bread spread with mayonnaise. I was crushed.

    So I shall have to trek to the other supermarket to get the US-style hot dogs and buns and have a feast this week. Perhaps I’ll make a clam chowder. And thanks for posting about your food memories, but they’ve made me lust after real American hot dogs. “Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Meyer weiner…”

  4. News from West Reading PA | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] as I noted in a section of my 6/15/18 posting “Background foods and food dscoveries”, Mom Chaffe’s Cellarette, an Italian […]

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