The only reason to feel comfortable writing this is that the star of the essay is too busy running her shop to read my writing. I know she would, but am thankful she doesn’t have time, so she won’t be embarrassed at my tribute to her company.
One of New York’s most beloved cheesemongers, she invited me to her place the other night for mussels and oysters. She called at 2. Dinner was to be at 7:30. She’d simply bought more shellfish at the farmers market than she and her brother Billy would be able to eat. I was free. Her apartment is the best of bike rides from mine: Henry Street, with a detour by brownstones to the wine shop on Smith.
When I first started working for the monger, not long ago really at all, I remember how she’d introduce me to everyone: “This is my friend Annie! She’ll be working here a few days a week.” We only knew each other through my interest in working behind the counter, but I was “her friend” from day one, and it meant something. The way it means something when a random acquaintance remembers your name. She always introduced me as her friend. Not to mention the fact that her shop is a place where one needs to be introduced. My new face and distinctly different stature from the cheesemonger herself prompted everyone to ask – Who is this? And I was welcomed, again and again.
The evening hours of our dinner were those of a hot, muggy Brooklyn day, when one had, since the warm morning, been able only to consider the limited possibilities for human existence: air-conditioned movie theaters, cool cellar basements, ice cream, and lemonade. It had been one of those days when sweat was a given, and it was just a case of who had the best fan, and whether a few more inches of open window would increase the impact of a breeze.
Mussels and cool white wine sounded wonderful.
We spoke of the blackout of 2003, when I’d drank free beer and nearly free, melting ice cream on the promenade, and she had lain in the sun on the hammock of her little roof in Manhattan. I met my neighbors that day – heard them for the first time, through my open windows – and she had noticed all the dinner parties on the surrounding rooftops. We spoke of cartoons from years ago, which I wasn’t allowed to watch. She asked Billy to bring back Mahi Mahi from Florida, where he was soon to go fishing with their father and uncle. We listened to everything from Tenacious D to George Gershwin. We shucked oysters (thankfully I had some experience, from a day of dozens in Tamales Bay), and we established that mussels were easier, as they opened naturally in their pot of boiling broth. We ate mozzarella made only a day earlier, by a man we knew by name. We spoke of our farmers with the knowledge (and appreciation) that they had done more than find spots of shade in the heat of the day. When I told her I’d be leading trips of students in the fall to sites where food is produced in the city, she recommended Tom the butcher from Marlow and Sons, and the mozzarella-makers at Alleva Dairy. The other people we mentioned I knew already: Ian from Added Value is the person who first introduced me to the cheesemongers’ shop, and Rick makes pickles that are often paired with her cheese. We considered off-the-book trips to our friends at Six Point and Brooklyn Breweries, and maybe to a few of our home-brewers’ homes too. Every time I see the monger, this night included, we realize we have more friends in common than we knew, simply because they are the growers, harvesters, and makers of the foods we eat (and the drinks we drink).
I’m not sure if I’m trying to say that you make friends when you don’t have air-conditioning, or that the revolution of good food-makers has begun. Or maybe just that I love Brooklyn, and the way the heat brings out everybody’s most worn-thin, memory-woven clothing, along with our old school summer stories. The central idea is about people. People who make things and share them, whether they draw cartoons, play music, or mold mozzarella. People who take pride in running a shop that doesn’t leave them time to read all the latest blogs. People who invite you to dinner cause the fridge is too full, and who marvel at the thunderstorm without worrying about when the dinner is going to end. You, the guest – you’ll get home. The rain’ll just add to the adventure.
This essay may not seem political or relevant, really, but I mean it to be. One’s pursuit of a certain happiness gets tangled up in other things, but depends very much upon the people in one’s life. The more I look into where my food comes from, the more people I have met – not the cold co-dwellers of apartment buildings, nor the silent sharers of elevators, but people who, within minutes, I might as well have known since grade school. People who work hard, but who can hang, and laugh, and share a meal. Not that you haven’t heard it before, but one more dinner prompts me to eagerly advise again: Meet the people behind your food. Cook that food yourself sometimes, and share it. Ask: Who owns your shops? Who picks the produce? Above all, Who are the makers? For friendship, and laughter, and life in this heat… I can’t recommend it enough.