By Larry Levine –
BROOKLYN, JULY 2019 –
It’s the hot dog.
It’s the grill.
It’s the legend, the lore and the location.
It’s all these and more.
“It” is Nathan’s Famous, the 103-year-old hot dog shrine at the corner of Stillwell and Surf, Coney Island, Brooklyn New York. Destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, rebuilt and re-opened in 2013, the current structure looks much like the original and there is no mistaking the crowds standing three and four deep throughout the day as they line up for a frank with kraut, or shrimp and chips, or Nathan’s Famous clams. And, by the way, the crinkly French fries are just about as famous as the hot dogs.
Jennifer and I kicked off our latest travel adventure with a visit to Nathan’s our first full day in Brooklyn. The occasion? Our son Lloyd had phoned the Brooklyn Cyclones’ baseball organization and arranged for me to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before a Saturday night game to commemorate the 75th anniversary of my first ever baseball game, a Brooklyn Dodgers vs. Cincinnati Reds double header at Ebbets Field in 1944.
I forgot to order sauerkraut on my first two hot dogs, so I downed them with mustard only and had to go back for two more with kraut and mustard. Jennifer had the fried shrimp and fries and proclaimed them the best fries she’s ever eaten. Four hot dogs may be all I’m capable of now, but it is far from the record 13 each my Dad and I ate when I was 15 years old in 1954 and we made our first Nathan’s pilgrimage on our first return to New York after moving to Los Angeles five years earlier.
The subtitle of my book Cooking for A Beautiful Woman (www.larrylevineauthor.com) is The Tastes and Tales of a Wonderful Life. The four days we spent in Brooklyn are evidence that the wonders continue to pile up even now that I have passed my 80th birthday.
Before we arrived at MCP Park for the baseball game and ceremonial first pitch, Lloyd and I spent the day strolling through the first three chapters of Cooking for a Beautiful Woman. He had heard stories of my formative years in Brooklyn and was hungry to see the places where it all happened. We visited my old neighborhood, the apartment building cited in the first sentence of the book, the street that closed down for the block party on VJ Day, the elementary school where I became enamored of three 9-year-old girls who were classmates of mine. Lloyd and I rode the train to Grand Army Plaza and walked to the site where Ebbets Field once stood. When he sent me some photos taken at the Ebbets Field site, Lloyd wrote:
“You are barely visible in all of these photos. But I feel there is something profound about them. This is hallowed ground to many people, you included. I find it remarkable that 75 years ago, you took the same walk, from the same subway station with your dad to the SAME EXACT place. But more than that, I think it also has to do with the fact that unlike so many stadiums and arenas which are paved over and visually altered, this place is almost the same. There was a ballpark there, that ballpark filled every inch of the land and butted right up to the streets on every side. And the only thing that is changed is that they tore down the ballpark and built this apartment complex. And that is it. There have been no other changes. The dimensions and look of the block are the same. And that apartment is the exact building that replaced the stadium and only one generation removed from the stadium. It succeeded the stadium on that spot and has stood ever since. There is something profound about that, and you standing in that spot looking at that building, almost as if no time had passed.”
The day after The Pitch, Lloyd and I strolled through the fun zone and along the Boardwalk at Coney Island and he had his first-ever Nathan’s Famous hot dogs at the original Nathan’s. We downed two each with mustard and kraut, two orders of fries, and two very good lemonades.
I passed this way before. I spent the first 10 formative years of my life in Brooklyn. It’s beyond gratifying to know my 50-year-old son cares enough to learn about my life this way. When it comes to The Tastes and Tales of a Wonderful Life, these four days in Brooklyn will remain indelible. And profound.
CANADA, JULY 2019
The blue flame of Kirsch danced on the meringue atop the Baked Alaska we ordered at Geneva on the Lake in the Finger Lakes area of up-state New York. We stopped there to break up the drive from Brooklyn to Toronto Canada. Before this night, I had Baked Alaska once in approximately 35 years, and that was on a cruise through the Panama Canal.
In my bachelor years, the late 1950s through the 1960s, Baked Alaska once was a show-piece dessert in many up-scale restaurants – sponge cake soaked in liqueur, topped with ice cream and browned meringue. Kirsch drizzled over the meringue and then set aflame with a candle.
Alexis, the waitress who served us and presented the Baked Alaska at Geneva, explained the resort owners have kept the dish on the menu as a salute to days gone by.
The Canada leg of this vacation was inspired by a desire to visit our cousins, Beverly and Barry Wellman, two renowned educators who live in Toronto. I knew the east coast in July could be oppressive, but I didn’t realize it would reach north into Canada. Temperatures were high and the humidity higher.
Beverly is an excellent shopper and cook, so we were able to stay anchored to their condo for two of our four dinners and they were the best two of our time in the city. My favorite way to eat salmon is poached and Beverly’s poached salmon is tops. That was our first night dinner.
The next day I joined Beverly for visits to three of her stand-by stores – a salumeria, a greengrocer, and a butcher shop. At stop number one we picked up Jamon Iberico from Spain, some of the most delicious prosciutto I’ve ever tasted, a couple other Italian meats, and mozzarella made with cows’ milk. The greengrocer yielded wonderful heirloom tomatoes, a huge papaya, cantaloupe to remind of Italy, Yukon gold potatoes, a couple of bananas, and fresh basil. The traditional, old fashioned butcher shop was the source of four lovely chicken legs.
Most people don’t shop this way anymore. For most it’s one stop at the supermarket. Not for Beverly. Just a few days before, while Lloyd and I were walking around my old Brooklyn neighborhood, I showed him were Abe’s appetizing store, Harry the butcher, and the greengrocer at which we shopped used to be. I have to confess I don’t shop that way today either. I know where to find a butcher shop and I have my favorite Italian grocery store. But I never heard of a greengrocer in Los Angeles. The Sunday farmers’ market is as close as we get. As we drove from store to store, Beverly and I talked of food and cooking.
After four days in Toronto, Jennifer and I moved on to Montreal, where again it was exceedingly hot and very humid our first two days, before cooling off for our last day. Thanks to a recommendation from Beverly and Barry, our second night dinner was at L’Express on Rue St. Denis. It’s one of the long-time gems of the city and has served local and national dignitaries for decades. Foie gras was a must for my starter, as we can’t get it anymore in California. Jennifer started with a winner of a roasted beet salad. Then we each had two delicious roasted quails. Jennifer asked for hers with mashed potatoes; I went for the wild rice as listed on the menu. An apple tartin with vanilla ice cream completed the meal.
CHEZ SUZETTE, JULY 2019
Lunch our last day in Montreal was at Creperie Suzette on Rue St. Paul. We each ordered a dessert crepe listed as La Sonia. It was sinful and worth every mouthful. Sliced bananas, strawberries, ice cream, caramel sauce on Jennifer’s, chocolate sauce on mine, and all on top of two perfect crepes.
We passed this way before, 23 years ago, after our son John’s graduation from University of Massachusetts at Amherst. It was John and son Lloyd, Jennifer and me. That time, we included Ottawa and Quebec City in our itinerary. It was late spring and nowhere near as hot or humid.
THE NEW ENGLAND COAST – JULY / AUGUST, 2019
They told me I shouldn’t do it, that I’d be disappointed, that you can’t recreate the past. “Hold the memory,” they said. I heard it all, the warnings that things never are as good as you remember them. But we went ahead did it anyway, and they were wrong.
Twenty-three years ago, Jennifer and I, along with sons Lloyd and John, stumbled upon Nunan’s Lobster Hut on Cape Porpoise near Kennebunkport Maine. The lobsters we ate there three consecutive nights were etched in my memory through all the years since.
In chapter one of my memoir with recipes, Cooking for a Beautiful Woman / the Tastes and Tales of a Wonderful Life (www.larrylevineauthor.com) I wrote:
“On a vacation trip that included a visit to Maine after our son John’s graduation from the University of Massachusetts in 1996, Jennifer and I and the two boys – what else do you call your adult sons – put a major dent in the local lobster population at a place called Nunan’s Lobster Hut. It’s a shack, with a red and white awning, right on the water in Cape Porpoise just outside Kennebunkport, with picnic tables inside and a menu that offered steamers (Ipswich clams), boiled lobster, and Maine Wild Blueberry Pie. (They have since expanded the menu.) The men in the family ran the lobster boats; the women ran the restaurant. If you ever get up that way be sure to stop in. Lobster in Maine will spoil you for lobster anywhere else.”
It’s still that way today, 66 years after the opening of the original Nunan’s. The grandsons of the founders run the lobster boats and at days end they will be in the kitchen cooking their daily catch for hundreds of diners. Their wives run the restaurant and bake the same Maine wild blueberry pies that have been part of the menu for 66 years.
The chapter in my book is titled She Made the Music Start. It’s devoted to my mother, who taught me to eat and love lobster at Lundy’s at Sheepshead Bay in New York when I was a youngster. In the 23 years since Jennifer and I and our sons first came upon Nunan’s, I’ve written and spoken of the restaurant many times and I’ve longed to return.
Had it not been for Lloyd and the graciousness of the Brooklyn Cyclones, none of this trip would have happened. But as long as we were going to be on the east coast and had time to spare, Jennifer and I were determined to reach out to touch a special memory from 23 years ago at Nunan’s.
The building has changed. It’s about five times larger than it was back then; the red and white awing remains but the picnic tables are gone. And my memory played tricks on me; the building is not right on the water. But the lobsters still are matchless. We were there three consecutive nights in July with our cousins Beverly and Barry, who joined us from their home in Toronto Canada. Each night, I downed an order of steamers. The first night the waitress convinced me to have two lobsters, 1 1/8 pounds each, with semi-soft shells. The next two nights I went with what I know best, a 1 ¾ pound hard shell. I topped off all three meals with a slice of Maine wild blueberry pie. They truly were lobsters for the ages.
After eating at Nunan’s 23 years ago, I couldn’t bring myself to order a lobster anywhere else for many years. That will happen again. I’ve never had a lobster anywhere else to match Nunan’s and I most likely will not try.
One morning in Kennebunkport, a thought occurred to me: the waters of Maine yield upward of 1.2 million pounds of lobster each year to be sold locally and delivered to distributors around the world; if all lobsters in every local restaurant come from the same ocean and are randomly caught in the 40,000 or so lobster traps that line the ocean floor, why are the lobsters at one restaurant better than the others? All these lobsters live in the same water and feed on the same diet. With 3,200 licensed lobstermen and women in the area and some 5,800 statewide, and each permitted up to 800 traps, any individual lobster might wander into any of the traps.
Pat, who owns The Yellow House bed and breakfast at which we stayed in Bar Harbor before moving on to Kennebunkport, had an explanation. She and her husband Chris once owned a restaurant in town and served plenty of lobsters. She said the difference comes after the lobsters leave the ocean waters, things like how long has the lobster been out of the water before it arrives at the restaurant, how long is it kept in a tank at the restaurant before it is cooked, how and how long is it cooked.
My mother always ordered her lobsters broiled. She believed those boiled or steamed held too much water. So that’s how I learned to eat them. Twenty-three years ago, during our first visit to Nunan’s, I was told the only way they would cook a lobster was to boil it. I told them I’ve always found boiled lobster to have a lot of water inside. They explained that the longer a lobster is out of the ocean the more the meat shrinks away from the shell, leaving room for water. In a truly fresh lobster, the meat is tight against the shell. Even the tanks in which lobsters are kept at markets are not protection against shrinkage.
At Nunan’s, lobsters are boiled for 20 minutes. The tail is sliced cleanly lengthwise and the claws are cracked to make it easier for the diner to deal with.
All this seems to make sense until you consider four people at the same table in the same restaurant, each ordering a lobster theoretically caught by the same lobsterman or woman, supplied by the same distributor and cooked in the same pot of boiling water. Why would the tail of one be tougher than any of the other three? Why would one be less sweet than the other three? These are not like cattle grazing in different parts of the field or being fed different feed. These come from the same ocean, etc. Jennifer suggested the answer probably lies in genetics of the lobster. Perhaps at Nunan’s it also lies in the fact that lobster traps are stacked behind the restaurant, evidence of how recently the lobsters were pulled from the ocean.
Before landing in Kennebunkport, we warmed up at Bar Harbor, where I had steamers, lobster and blueberry pie three out of four nights. One lobster was mediocre, two were fair. By the time I hit Nunan’s, I was primed. (The fourth night Jennifer and I each had a delicious rack of lamb in the Reading Room restaurant at the Bar Harbor Inn.)
After Kennebunkport, Jennifer and I moved on to Rockport on Cape Ann in Massachusetts. A friend suggested it as a good place to relax and decompress before heading for home after nearly four weeks of travel. Cape Ann is a bit north of the more well-known and crowded Cape Cod. Its restaurants run more toward fried shrimp, fried clams, fried haddock, and some very good mussels and clam chowder. It’s a lovely area, calm and quiet. There are lobster traps in the waters of Massachusetts and plenty of restaurants touting lobster dinners. Some, no doubt, are good. We’ll never know for sure, because after Nunan’s, we aren’t anxious to find out.
WE PASSED THIS WAY BEFORE
There you have it – Brooklyn, Toronto, Montreal, Bar Harbor, Kennebunkport … we passed their way before, and this time we added Rockport. Will we pass this way again? I doubt it. There are too many other places we want to go. Brooklyn always will call me back. Nunan’s, too. But how could I hope to match the four days of this trip in Brooklyn, and Nunan’s is too isolated as a solo destination.
Jennifer and I love to travel together, and we will. There are new places to see and memories to make. But I will carry the memories of Brooklyn with Lloyd and lobster at Nunan’s with me always.