Tapping Brooklyn's Ethnic Roots

October 09, 1991|By Andrew L. Yarrow | Andrew L. Yarrow,New York Times News Service

New York -- At once a densely and diversely populated chunk of New York and a complex tangle of stereotypes and myths, Brooklyn evokes many images to the world beyond its famous bridge.

It's the Dodgers and "The Honeymooners," the faded, honky-tonk luster of Coney Island and the elegance of Brooklyn Heights, and, sadly, the violence and racial tensions now known by code-words like Bensonhurst and Crown Heights.

But with all due respect to Nathan's venerable franks and Junior's mega-calorie cheesecakes, haute cuisine has never exactly sprung to mind when thinking about Brooklyn.

Nonetheless, there is such a thing as "Brooklyn food," at least according to Lyn Stallworth and Rod Kennedy Jr., the authors of a new book that is roughly one part social history and two parts cookbook.

"What makes it special?" they ask in their introduction to "The Brooklyn Cookbook" (Knopf, $23). "What makes our food is, in short, attitude and memory."

Whereas most cookbooks would not toss together such recipes as Grandma Edie's Brisket, Valerie Haller's Lemonade for the Masses, Okra Fish Cakes and Jamaican Beef Patties, few also aspire to make the kind of sociological statement as this compendium of multicultural consciousness.

The reasons that a Brooklyn cookbook is plausible and, say, a Manhattan one is not have a lot to do with the demography, history and attitude of that 82-square-mile slice of New York known as Brooklyn.

With 2.5 million residents, Brooklyn proudly calls itself the nation's fourth largest city, a place where one in seven Americans can trace their roots, and what remains in many ways an oversized small town with a polyglot assortment of neighborhoods.

"We wanted to portray a place through food and cooking," Mr. Kennedy said in a recent interview. "It's a nostalgic portrait of Brooklyn, like an oral history."

With ethnicity and neighborhoods the basic organizing principles their cookbook, Ms. Stallworth and Mr. Kennedy wend their way from chapters on "Brighton Beach: Little Odessa by the Sea" and "Polish Greenpoint" to "Middle Eastern Spice" and "The Caribbean Connection."

Other sections are devoted to foods of Brooklyn's Italian, Jewish, Scandinavian, black, Hispanic and Irish cultures.

Each cluster of recipes includes stories about who created them and the cultural microcosms in which they were created.

While the cookbook places an emphasis on gustatory remembrances of things past, the authors also take note of new Brooklynites and their foods.

Using the Flatbush section as a clear example of a "changing" neighborhood, with recent immigrants from Haiti, Pakistan, Nigeria and Southeast Asia, the authors include recipes like Pakistani rice and chickpeas with raita and Laotian salad.

Mr. Kennedy, who has collaborated on several other books with other authors, created Brooklyn posters and is now manufacturing a line of miniature reproductions of sports stadiums, interviewed hundreds of Brooklynites in search of what he called "Damon Runyan characters" who also knew their way around a kitchen.

While Mr. Kennedy did most of the interviewing, Ms. Stallworth, a longtime food editor and author, tested and refined every recipe in her Park Slope kitchen. "Try as they might, civilians don't know how to write recipes," she said. "Often, ingredients were missing or they would just say 'add some meat.' I'd have to go back to people and do a lot of reconstruction."

In the book's Italian section, Dolly De Simone recalls the all-day, post-World War II block parties along President Street in what was then an Italian-American section called Gowanus, but has since, in the aftermath of gentrification, come to be considered Park Slope.

"Each house put up a table in front of the door and set out the food," she said.

Culled from these memories, she re-creates such recipes as squash blossoms with anchovy, Mama's steak pizzaiola and tripe President Street-style.

For Gabrielle Greenstein, another contributor of culinary memories, her recollections of growing up in the Borough Park section, now a predominantly Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, VTC include her Bubba's gefilte fish.

A very different taste of Brooklyn is offered by Dee Dee Dailey, who describes her roots as being in "both the Spanish- and English-speaking Caribbean."

Saying that Caribbean cultural and gastronomic influences include "African, Dutch, English, Danish, Spanish, French, East Indian and what have you," she offers recipes for rice and pigeon peas, a legume in the same class as black-eyed peas or kidney beans that is widely used in the Caribbean and West Africa.

Although the authors steered clear of the combustible politics of race and ethnicity, they acknowledged that Brooklyn neighborhoods have radically and rapidly changed.

"Formerly Scandinavian areas of Bay Ridge are now heavily Asian and Palestinian," Ms. Stallworth said. "We heard a lot of how 'We used to get along.' "

"But we addressed people head-on, not only as African-Americans or Russian-Americans or whatever, but as Brooklyn-Americans," she added. "It's interesting that groups will stick to their ways with cooking. And food is a happy subject."


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