Cookbook gets to core of the Big Apple

February 14, 1993|By John Tanasychuk | John Tanasychuk,Knight-Ridder News Service

NEW YORK -- Imagine a community cookbook that represents more than 7 million people. Imagine that the cookbook was written by a journalist and former chef who not only knows her food but also has an insatiable curiosity about the people who cook it.

The result might be something like Molly O'Neill's "New York Cookbook" (Workman, $19.95 paper, $27.95 cloth). It's a community cookbook because the 450 recipes represent just about every element of the city of New York.

In this one book, there are ethnic contributions such as Vera Mallis' Brooklyn version of Turkish meat pie, and Jamaican beef patties from Allan Vernon of the Bronx. There are recipes like Mrs. Simpson's bacon toast points, apparently a favorite of the Duchess of Windsor and still popular among those on the Upper East Side cocktail circuit. Thrown in are recipes from some of the finest chefs, some hotshot celebrities, plus recipes from church suppers and street fairs.

This is not just a cookbook, but a food directory filled with recipes and profiles of the people behind them. The book takes us into the real neighborhoods of New York City and goes far beyond the typical Manhattan-only guides showing tourists the way to the Russian Tea Room and Le Cirque. Indeed, if a city's food is a kind of societal guidepost, then Ms. O'Neill is a culinary Margaret Mead.

"It was like a task force in getting to know the city," says Ms. O'Neill, food columnist at the New York Times Magazine, of the five years it took her to write the book. "I literally went to every church that had a church supper, every precinct that had a kitchen. I had three graduate students working for me, going up and down city blocks with notebooks in their hands, writing down every single street cart vendor, his name, his address, his phone number,what he does, why he does it. It was just an incredible blitzkrieg."

Workman Publishing Co. originally saw it as a small, 250-recipe cookbook, but Ms. O'Neill saw to it that it got bigger and bigger as she got deeper and deeper into the real food world of New York.

She found it in people like Lou Singer, who has been giving tours in New York for 23 years. A profile of Mr. Singer opens Ms. O'Neill's book, and there's a recipe from his wife, Leona.

Mr. Singer's most popular tour is called "Noshing in New York," on the Lower East Side. This piece of Manhattan has been home to almost every wave of immigrants to have arrived in the United States since the Dutch and English first farmed the area in the late 1700s.

The Lower East Side has become what Mr. Singer calls the "equivalent of the old country."

L "Before a holiday, you can watch the cars pull up," he says.

"You will see Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, plus a sprinkling of farther places."

It's here you still can buy quality smoked salmon, homemade kielbasa and fresh mozzarella from the Jewish, Polish and Italian descendants of original merchants. Mr. Singer knows most of the folks who run these places. Ms. O'Neill didn't. "It's not like I'm Lou Singer and I have 10 generations of knowledge of New York City," says Ms. O'Neill over lunch at the Second Avenue Kosher Delicatessen. "I'm a voyeur."

A typical tour might start at Ben's Cheese Shop, where folks come for homemade farmer's cheese. Mr. Singer calls it cheesecake without calories.

Mr. Singer knows the city so well that he taught a history of Brooklyn for four years at Brooklyn College. Not bad for a high school dropout.

This spring, Mr. Singer is starting "Hollywood in Brooklyn," a tour of areas that housed the movie industry before it moved to California.

Mary Pickford and Fatty Arbuckle once lived in Brooklyn. And Mr. Singer will show people some of the places where the more recent "Prizzi's Honor" and "Moonstruck" were filmed, and Sophie's house from "Sophie's Choice."

To Mr. Singer, it's all just one big adventure.

"How many men of my age -- short, fat and bald -- can step on a bus with 50 ladies and, for six hours, perform for them and at the end of that time, not only have them applaud me but pay me besides?"

Ms. O'Neill says she was attracted to New York for the all same reasons most of us are. "I was really pulled to the image of New York, its grandeur, its art, the brilliance, the intellectual life."

But as she worked on the book, she realized that the people of New York, the people who make and eat the knishes and the mozzarella, are what make the image work.

"I've been intimate with about five places in my life," she says. "With some of them, you can really tell a lot by their food. And New York is one of those places. You can tell a lot about the city and the people that are in it. The way we eat here tells the story of this culture."

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