I returned from my spontaneous Stateside trip earlier in the week with a bout of food-related illness that I attribute to an ill-timed visit to Veselka in Manhattan. Otherwise a wonderful last minute dip into authentic New-Yorkism with dear friends Ashley and Emy, perhaps a bowl of Ukranian Diner borscht was not the best choice two hours before boarding an intercontinental flight. Further details really not necessary. But suffice it to say that during the last days the only holiday dishes that have been on my wish list have been white rice and vegetable broth.
Before I foray into my New York holiday impressions, I will share with you some gift suggestions for the food-lover in your life, whether that be your great aunt, boss, sister, godson, best friend, brother-in-law or significant other. These are products from around the world that will not only impress during the holidays, but will also pay their rent all year round. I love food-related gifts: they’re unpretentious, (usually) won’t break the bank, and will never end up unused in the bottom drawer.
So, here goes:
For your sister, perhaps: Riess Cookware, edition Sara Wiener. This playful, yet sophisticated set of bakeware is designed by notable Austrian chef Sarah Wiener.
For your great aunt, perhaps: spice grinder by Menu. Danish design that keeps it simple, featuring a ceramic mill, grippable silicone finish for finishing off the dish right.
For your best friend, perhaps: Mast Brothers Cookbook. Best friends are always chocolate fiends, right? Or at least they should be if they are any best friend of mine. Try this new cookbook by Mast Brothers, Brooklyn-based chocolate manufacturer. The recipes run from savory to sweet to insane.
For your boss, perhaps: Seagull Tiffin lunchbox. He or she loves cooking, so why not encourage the gift of homemade lunches for the New Year with this practical and plastic-free tiffin.
For your little godson, perhaps: Sabadi Hot Chocolate Set. With these adorable and tasty hot chocolate sticks, you just need to add hot milk and stir. Fun for kids, and healthy, too, made from raw chocolate and local Sicilian herbs and spices.
For your brother-in-law, perhaps: Four Grain Bourbon from Hudson Whiskey. This is the bottle I brought with me when I spent a summer alone in the Norwegian countryside. It’s that good. Your brother-in-law will think so too, neat or on the rocks.
For your significant other, perhaps: notecard from Rifle Paper Co. My boyfriend and I never exchange Christmas gifts. Best possible from your significant other is a sweet note, on an equally sweet card.
And…why not. For yourself, perhaps: Shirt Collar Apron by Aiste Nesterovaite. This Lithuanian designer makes the only apron I know that is neither folksy nor industrial. It is simply elegant, made from thick fabric, and with an air of formal attire. If you’re hosting a dinner party in 2014, this apron will outshine whichever outfit is underneath.
Now that a few days have passed and I have a bit of perspective my recent trip, I can reflect on the whirlwind that is New York as a visitor. I lived in New York for about five years, with many longer visits over the last three, which makes eight years of intense relationship with that huge apple. Given the fact that my visits have become less frequent and I no longer have a real ‘home’ there, my perspective on the city has changed immensely. Naturally, living in a much smaller and tamer city like Berlin will make the contrast even more stark, but there are a few things in particular I noticed this time that I found to be a new degree of shocking, dreadful or delightful.
1. No other city smells as great as New York during the holiday season.
I was walking down the subway platform in a dingy Midtown station and was suddenly overwhelmed with a surprising smell. No, not of trash, armpits or rat urine (though that wouldn’t be all that surprising), but of balsam, pine tar and forest! The multitude of tree and wreath vendors throughout the city might take up precious sidewalk space, but the intoxicating aromas extend even down through the subway vents and underground.
2. That place is expensive.
I know you know. But, no, really: It. Is. So. Expensive. It was the first time ever since being in New York that I essentially ate all my meals out or on the go. Even being as thrifty as I am, with an occasional dumpster dive, it was shocking.
3. Since when did it become appropriate for a server at a restaurant to ask you to leave after an hour at dinner so that they could have the table for another party?
This one really gets me. I know, space is a premium in New York City, and that includes restaurants. Places are tiny and hype is rampant, making waits for a table border on intolerable. But in the very short time I was in the city, this push-and-shove happened to me THREE times. The most appalling was on a weeknight at a small, popular Brooklyn restaurant (apparently one of Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s faves, I later found out.) After my friends waited outside for more than an hour, we sat down at a table for four and placed our order reasonably quickly. Since the place is BYOB and the menu is small, this was relatively uncomplicated. We dined in two courses, the second being slower as we became more full. The server tried two or three times to remove an unfinished platter of shared food from the middle of the table. We stopped her at all instances, but finally she just said outright: “I’m really sorry, but I have to ask you guys to leave. We have a party of four that’s been waiting outside for an hour.” As if we hadn’t. It was later in the evening, and as I glanced around the dining room, I spied three tables for two lining the far side. Empty. It would have been tight, but had I been in her position, I would have pushed two together and made it work, rather than very rudely asking paying customers to leave their table after no more than an hour and a half. Not to mention the fact that I hadn’t seen my friends in over a year, and all we wanted was to sit in peace and talk. We were all so taken aback by the request that we just stared, slack-jawed, and complied, but on the subsequent walk back to the subway I deliberated the alternative ways we should have behaved.
4. Those Salvation Army Bell Ringers went out and got themselves some SASS!
If you come from the US, you’ve seen them on city street corners in December, ringing their bells, calling for your loose change to fight poverty. While charming, the fundraising routine of the Christian charitable organization has started in recent years to seem, well… tired. With so many other distractions, not to mention our space phones, we barely look up if something doesn’t REALLY call for our attention. Well, on the streets of New York, those Bell Ringers just got younger and got some serious moves. They are no longer just ringing bells, but also lip-synching pop songs, singing and dancing to wrestle our attention away from our mini screens. And it works!
5. Where has the middle class gone?!
I am exaggerating certainly, but more than ever before I noticed an extreme wealth discrepancy in the city. Perhaps it’s the holiday season that brings in the tourists, but I have never seen more people strutting along 5th Avenue with Bergdorf Goodman bags and, conversely, more people begging or helpless on the streets. The unbridled consumerism of December only reemphasizes the stark contrast of New York’s haves and have-nots.
6. Music is EVERYWHERE.
For better or worse, I’ve become used to silence. Silence while I sleep, silence on the train, and best of all, silence while I buy my groceries. I think it’s a quintessentially American thing to pump music at high decibel into every possible corner of commercial space. Case in point: while picking up a couple of snacks at a Manhattan Whole Foods, rather than checking out some new products that could potentially be tasty or fun, I suddenly felt like I was suffocating. I had an irresistible urge to run for the exits as fast as I could. Why? Ahhh, yes, the music, if that’s what they call the cheesy techno-pop that pounds throughout the gourmet emporium. What’s so bad about a little quiet while deciding between the Lacinato versus Siberian kale?
Whether or not you live in New York or have been to New York during the holiday season, I hope you can relate to some of these observations. Give thanks for those that you experience yourself. Or, better, those that you don’t have to experience!