One of my first New York apartments was in Greenpoint, so there was a time when I was eating Polish food pretty frequently. But then I moved away and kind of forgot about it. That’s how it is in New York: Whether you realize it or not, the subway line(s) nearest to your house end up shaping the places you go, the things you do on the weekend, and even the romantic relationships you’re willing to have (“Too many subway transfers–this will never work”). Before I knew it, it had been five years since I’d eaten at any of my old Manhattan Avenue haunts.
Fortunately, they are still there. One of them, Krolewskie Jadlo (“King’s Feast”), has found such success that it’s expanded into Woodside, Queens. The restaurant has also started putting out free platters with every meal laden with light rye bread, chopped half-sours, and a lard spread called smalec. This was my first encounter with the spread, which has to be cognate with the Yiddish “schmaltz” (that version, of course, eschews pig for chicken), and in flavor and consistency is a cross between Ukrainian salo and French rillettes de porc. Fatback isn’t an expensive ingredient, but the complimentary breadboard still feels very generous. A New American gastropub could plausibly charge between 8 and 11 dollars for such a thing, with a bit more bread and pickle for padding.
Our remaining novelties both come in sealed jars. After two months of uphill sourdough battles, I am now baking fairly good (and naturally leavened!) bread, and so am constantly in need of nice new things to spread on it; a Polish grocery store has delivered two such items.
One is a plum butter (ingredients: plums, sugar) that is spectacular on my morning sourdough toast. I worried that it might be sweet and flat, like apple butter sometimes is, but instead it’s racing with fresh-plum acidity, not weighed down with pruniness. The other tub is a farmer’s cheese called twaróg, more or less identical to the Russian cheese I know as tvorog, only the Russians have never, to my knowledge, been inspired to flavor it with horseradish. Very good stuff, and nothing nasty in the ingredients. I put it on my own lightly ryed sourdough, with or without the fine kielbasa that I bought fresh from a Polish meat market, and it is savory and sharp without any overt aggression. Each of these spreads costs just $2.19 (how imported foods without any of our usual American garbage ingredients can cost so little never ceases to amaze me), and is definitely something to pick up next time you’re in Greenpoint.
I thought at first that these were those Keurig cups that everyone seems to either be fanatically in favor of or attribute the global landfill crisis to. (I don’t drink coffee. I have no opinion.) It turns out they’re potions from Saladit’s “Real Skin Salad Bar” line of baffling face treatments. You all know my feelings on Korean food-themed cosmetics of questionable efficacy, so I’ll just say that they come in Cabbage, Strawberry Yogurt, Mango Pudding, Honey, Cereal Dressing(?), Acorn (??), Broccoli, Cucumber, Kiwi, and Avocado varieties. And then I’ll say “Cabbage” and “Broccoli” again, because that is completely nuts.
There are many reasons to avoid fast or industrially-prepared food. I don’t think I need to list them. But I have my own reason for trying to limit my consumption of 100-calorie packs and all that McJazz, and it’s quite separate from animal welfare, human welfare, nutrition, or even flavor. It owes something to a fictional boy named Charles Wallace, a character in the Wrinkle in Time books by Madeleine L’Engle, and his fierce independence of mind.
Do kids still read those books? They certainly did when I was growing up in the 80s, but the series is more than fifty years old now. Well, if you haven’t read them, or you read them so long ago that you’ve forgotten them, let me give you a bit of background.
In the first book, Meg Murry’s scientist father has gone missing; awkward, bespectacled, teenaged Meg, accompanied by her five-year-old super-genius brother Charles Wallace and her highschool classmate (and secretly sensitive jock) Calvin O’Keefe, travel through the universe to rescue him. (At some point in the fabric of space and time, Meg takes off her glasses and, prefiguring a thousand teen movie makeover scenes, Calvin remarks that she has “dream-boat eyes.”) It turns out that Mr. Murry is being held on the planet Camazotz, a world literally masterminded by a huge pulsating brain with legions of dark-smocked men to do its evil bidding.
When our exhausted, hungry heroes make it to Camazotz, a sinister welcome committee offers them a hot meal. Acknowledging that the food is synthetic, they nevertheless promise that a “slight conditioning” is all it will take to give the illusion of a roast turkey dinner. Dubious at first, Meg and Calvin easily make the mental adjustment; it’s Charles Wallace who can’t quite get there:
The table was set up in front of them, and the dark-smocked men heaped their plates with
turkey and dressing and mashed potatoes and gravy and little green peas with big yellow blobs of
butter melting in them and cranberries and sweet potatoes topped with gooey browned marshmallows
and olives and celery and rosebud radishes and—
Meg felt her stomach rumbling loudly. The saliva came to her mouth.
“Oh, Jeeminy—” Calvin mumbled.
Chairs appeared and the four men who had provided the feast slid back into the shadows.
Charles Wallace freed his hands from Meg and Calvin and plunked himself down on one of the
“Come on,” he said. “If it’s poisoned it’s poisoned, but I don’t think it is.”
Calvin sat down. Meg continued to stand indecisively.
Calvin took a bite. He chewed. He swallowed. He looked at Meg. “If this isn’t real, it’s the
best imitation you’ll ever get.”
Charles Wallace took a bite, made a face, and spit out his
mouthful. “It’s unfair!” he shouted at the man.
Laughter again. “Go on, little fellow. Eat.”
sighed and sat. “I don’t think we should eat this stuff, but if you’re going to, I’d better, too.”
She took a mouthful. “It tastes all right. Try some of mine, Charles.” She held out a forkful of
Charles Wallace took it, made another face, but managed to swallow. “Still tastes like sand,”
he said. He looked at the man. “Why?”
“You know perfectly well why. You’ve shut your mind entirely to me. The other two can’t. I can
get in through the chinks. Not all the way in, but enough to give them a turkey dinner. You see,
I’m really just a kind, jolly old gentleman.”
“Ha,” Charles Wallace said.
The man lifted his lips into a smile, and his smile was the most horrible thing Meg had ever
seen. “Why don’t you trust me, Charles? Why don’t you trust me enough to come in and find out what
I am? I am peace and utter rest. I am freedom from all responsibility. To come in to me is the
last difficult decision you need ever make.”
“If I come in can I get out again?” Charles Wallace asked.
“But of course, if you want to. But I don’t think you will want to.”
Maybe it’s silly, but I’m almost fanatical about preserving an independent palate. My beliefs, my values, my story of who I am is all tied up in the foods I reach for, prepare, and feed to others–if the dark-smocked men get in my palate, they get in my head. What, you don’t think I like McDonald’s dollar-menu cheeseburgers? I’m not Charles Wallace, I’m Meg. I like them a lot.