Saturday, October 15, 2011

Food for Thought...Thought for Food

When folks from the old neighborhood gather together—in the cozy confines of virtual reality—to share their memories of all that transpired once upon a time, a heaping helping of food for thought is quite often the by-product. In fact, I’ve learned that more than a few former neighbors of mine, who worked in local eateries a long time ago, did some rather unsanitary, and occasionally downright disgusting things. For starters, they dropped food on floors, put it back on plates, and served it to customers.

That teenagers working in not especially well paying and largely unpleasant work environments will do such things is hardly surprising. My family rarely dined out while I was a boy. Foremost, there wasn’t sufficient surplus disposable income to make a habit of it—with five mouths to feed—and, too, it was considered positively sacrilege to waste money by paying through the nose for meals, when there were competent cooks at-the-ready on the home front. With respect to restaurants and take-out joints, from Chinese to fast-food burgers to pizza places, it was drummed into us all: “You don’t know what goes on behind the scenes and in their kitchens!” I must admit this homespun wisdom had a certain bite to it—food for thought then as well as now.

My one beef with this self-evident truism was that home kitchens, and the cooks therein, sometimes were as a bad, or even worse, in the Sanitary Department than even the nastiest restaurant transgressions reported on by this cross-section of primary sources—on the memory boards—and, too, from my first-hand experiences.

Okay, so my favorite pizza guy for so many years cleaned out his oven with the very same mop he used on the floors of his shop. In his defense, he claimed the extreme heat of the oven destroyed any and all germs and bacteria. I had heard about this mopping thing while I was a regular patron of the place. I just chose to accept my pizza guy's science. We had roaches in our Bronx apartment kitchen back in the 1960s and 1970s—a lot of them as a matter of fact. They were ubiquitous in the old neighborhood. Mice even found their way through a gas pipe into our kitchen stove—where my mother stored cereals and snacks—on one occasion. We never went hungry, though, and the kitchen stayed open. No city bureaucrat showed up to close it down.

It’s really all relative, I suppose. Fifteen or so years ago, my brother and I were in our all-time favorite diner for breakfast. And when he poured his maple syrup, from the small pitcher brought to him, onto three slices of French toast, several dead roaches peacefully floated atop them. They had evidently gone for an evening swim in the sugary Shangri-La, we surmised, and, alas, drowned in the process. It was a shocker for sure—we were briefly stunned and in a state of suspended animation—but since the place meant so much to us, it didn’t much matter in the bigger picture. We returned for another day—for a second act—and the syrupy-special roaches became part and parcel of a richer lore.

The moral of this story—if there is one—is that we make all kinds of allowances in this thing called life. I’ve always found it interesting that so many people in the kitchens of home sweet home pass judgment on eateries for both their real and, sometimes imagined, lack of cleanliness, but choose never to look in their own mirrors and their own pantries. All I can say is that with the NYC Health Department unleashed as it is today—inspecting with abandon and dispensing A, B, and C grades to food businesses one and all—I can’t help but wonder how many of my favorite cooks’ kitchens in homes and apartments, and countless others throughout the five boroughs of New York, would pass muster. I suspect many of them would be shut down for being downright unsanitary and outright health hazards.

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