Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Finger-licking Good Times

With its rigorous restaurant and food-related inspections—and now letter grading campaign—I cannot help but feel the New York City Department of Health goes too far sometimes. Its rules and regulations are, without question, excessive and punitive, particularly to struggling small businesses, I remember decidedly less regulated times.

Let me turn back the clock to 1976 and visit the old neighborhood: Kingsbridge in the Bronx.  Every Sunday morning after Mass at St. John’s Church, it was the tradition of an awful lot of us in the area to call on Pat Mitchell’s Irish Food Center near the northwest corner of Kingsbridge Avenue and West 231st Street. Above all else, Sunday mornings meant fresh donuts delivered from the Willow Sunny Bakery in various trays, including makeshift beer box trays, and, if memory serves, one especially large one nearer the floor than the counter top. The latter accommodated the heavily powdered sugar mini-jelly donuts, crullers, and crumb buns, while the former contained young fan favorites: frosted chocolate and vanilla donuts.

I suspect the contemporary health department bureaucracy would be less than keen on this retail arrangement. For starters, the donuts were completely exposed to the store's hustle and bustle and, I will concede, the place wasn’t noted for its cleanliness. With open mouths and assorted body odors, men, women, and children alike crammed into tiny Pat Mitchell's after Mass and jostled one another in their pursuit of donuts and fresh rolls—a recipe for contamination.

One Sunday, I recall handing several frosted chocolate donuts from an aforementioned beer box tray to a neighborhood kid working behind the counter. He grabbed hold of the donuts with his two bare hands. Just like that—from my bare hands, which weren’t likely the cleanest, to his. Yes, the same hands that had been conducting numerous transactions that morning, including taking customers' money and making change for them. Evidently, there were no disposable plastic gloves around back then. In fact, this teenage employee of Pat Mitchell's even left his fingerprints in the frosting upon dropping them into a paper bag—no wax paper for me. He then did something that some people might consider beyond the pale. Even from my youthful perspective of very high tolerance for inappropriate behaviors, this closing act at Pat Mitchell's took a healthy bite out of my Sunday morning breakfast. Just before he took my money, he licked the chocolate frosting off his fingers. Next! While the times were slightly less sanitary than today, they were nonetheless finger-licking good.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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