Manhattan to Savour


The Italian-American, the Irish-American, the Spanish-American – all the hyphenated Americans together – are what give Manhattan its special flavour.

The Lower East Side is where this process began in earnest in the mid-1800s – and where it continues.A three-hour walk tells the story in a way no bus tour ever could. You could take the subway to Delancey Street and wander around by yourself. The area, once crime-ridden, is safe now and home to artists and media types. But the best way to take it all in, literally, is on the “Melting Pot Tour.” This fun and fact packed stroll of a kilometre or two, trails through the Jewish, Chinese, and Italian quarters with frequent stops for tastings of various ethnic specialties as you go.

Susan Rosenbaum,“the Enthusiastic Gourmet,” was my guide. Lively and knowledgeable, she tossed off nuggets of information on everything from the reason the Essex Street Market was opened in 1939 – to get the pushcarts off the streets – to what it takes to be kosher (don’t ask). I met Susan and my fellow tour members – a couple from Brussels and another from Amsterdam, plus a young woman from Philadelphia – at the Essex Street Market. This is a 15,000 square foot enclosed hall with the architectural appeal of a thirdworld bus terminal. But drab as the exterior is, the interior is a cauldron of colour and aromas and talkative people shopping for their everyday needs. In this neighbourhood at least, these can include items like yautia (a tuber from South America), quenepas (a Caribbean nut), octopus, banana leaves, or kosher wine. There are 26 vendors in the market, and we stopped for tastings at two of them: Rainbo’s, an unlikely combination of fish market and bakery, where we sampled only the extraordinary muffins.And the Saxelby Cheese stall which offered a knock-your socks-off introduction to what Americans can produce in the way of artisanal cheeses.

Then, walking backwards and sparking out more historical information at the same time, Susan led us to the Pickle Guys on Delancey Street, an open-fronted shop full of barrels of pickles and olives.There, green cucumbers soak in salt brine, garlic, and spices, for between a day and six months. Proper pickle people have their favourite: new, 1/2 sour, 3/4 sour and sour. We were briskly instructed in the skill of telling one from the other by sight, texture, and taste; they get yellower and softer with time, and more garlicky.

We followed that up with a stop at Kossar’s Bialys.A bialy, as the couple from Brussels knew – but which I didn’t – might look something like a bagel, and may sometimes be substituted for a bagel, but is no bagel. It is a Polish-Jewish delicacy that originated in the town of Bialystok where Bialy bakeries could be found at every street corner until the Nazis eliminated both the bakers and their customers.

Essentially, the differences are that bagels are boiled and baked while the bialy is simply baked and that a bagel has a hole in the middle where a bialy has an indentation. Each comes sprinkled with dried onion.
Standing in the incredibly busy bakeshop, we tasted them both and I now know that, given a choice, I’d go for a bialy over a bagel.

Yiddish shop signs were yielding to Chinese ones as we walked down Grand Street.Turning a corner, we were in Chinatown, and on our way to the Lucky King Bakery. Under dangling lanterns, we settled at a white plastic table while Susan ordered (in Chinese) our next tastings: steamed dumplings filled with pork and black sesame seed rolls. Novice ethnic epicureans, we discussed the offerings. I considered the dumpling filling delicious but the damp and gooey batter tasted raw. I privately noted that my neighbour’s teeth, and surely mine, were darkly freckled with sesame seeds.That’s all you really need to know about sesame seed rolls.

It was past noon (we’d started at 10) and we had only Little Italy to explore. My thoughts turned to wine.What, I wondered, would be the best accompaniment to blueberry muffins, assorted cheeses, pickles of three ages, onion-topped bialys, pork dumplings, and sesame seed rolls? Susan passed around bottles of mineral water, a fine choice.At Di Palo’s Dairy, a fourth generation shop specialising in imported cheese and charcuterie, we sampled Piave, a cow’s milk cheese from Veneto.At Alleva Dairy down the street, it was mozzarella meatballs and an olive from the olive bar.A Grande Finale? Standing in the shiny tile and brass interior of Ferrara’s Café, we sampled cannoli… incredibly delicious, crisp pastry tubes filled with sweetened ricotta cheese. And here the party ended.The others left, but I lingered behind for an espresso, and a second mini-cannoli, to round off the morning.

Later that same evening, the question was: where would dinner carry on the US theme and be served early enough to cope with post-cannoli hunger at say, 6pm? The answer was the funky, retro Ellen’s Stardust Diner. This is literally as American as apple pie, or a meat loaf blue-plate special or a mountainous ice cream sundae. It’s also a great and sometimes raucous evening out as the waiters and waitresses, in outfits harking back to the 50s (red and white poodle skirts or bowling shirts) sing and dance their way from the kitchen to your table, sometimes nearly onto your table. They are good, too.“Many a production on Broadway includes someone who’s worked at the Stardust,” our waiter informed me between songs.“It’s the perfect job for actors as we’re free to go on auditions, and after the run, it’s a place to come back to.” I’d go back myself.


The Enthusiastic Gourmet

Tel: +1 646 209 4724;

The Essex Street Market

120 Essex Street at Delancey Street

Ellen’s Stardust Diner

1650 Broadway and W.51St.
Tel: +1 212 956 5151;

While you’re there:

For an unforgettable glimpse of the harsh reality behind the American Dream, visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum on Orchard Street. Built in 1867, it was one of thousands of run-down overcrowded buildings in which newly arrived immigrants fought for a foothold in the Promised Land.

The Tenement Museum offers tours of the various apartments in the building, bringing the life and times of these new Americans vividly, hauntingly, to life.

 The Tenement Museum. To book a tour in advance and for full details visit

For tickets for same-day tours, apply at 108 Orchard Street every day but Friday.
The office is open between 11:00 and 17:30 Monday, until 19:30 on Thursday and until 18:00 the other days. Tel: +1 212 982 8420 

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Houston Calling

SHORT of moving to Houston, Texas (and an average of 200 people a day do just that) it’s hard to imagine how you could begin to see it all. It’s not just that it’s such a big city  – although it is the fourth largest in the USA -or such a sprawling city with 10 major business districts, it’s that it’s such a diverse, quirky, upbeat city which seems to have spawned an awesome number of unmissable attractions, many of which you’ll nevertheless have to miss in the length of an ordinary holiday.So it’s a question of priorities.

Because I was there at the same time as the annual Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, that was top of my list. Run by thousands of volunteers, it’s the biggest rodeo in the world, attracting a million or more spectators and raising multimillions for scholarships and educational programs. In Houston’s vast Astrodome, the world’s top broncobusters, ropers, bare back riders and steer wrestlers compete for the rodeo circuit’s biggest purses. (Even the losers win. In each event, the competitor with the worst luck, as chosen by audience applause, limps off with the consolation of free air travel from Continental Airlines! ) Afterwards, the sawdust is swept up and the best country music entertainers take over the arena. it could be anyone from Destiny’s Child to Garth Brooks.

A parade through downtown Houston kicks off the event with marching bands, mounted officials, chuck wagons, horse drawn carriages plus hundreds of the 6,000 or so trail riders who converge on Houston for the rodeo from up to 400 miles away. Add tens of thousands of spectators, balloons, clowns, flags, the occasional skittering horse and dumped rider, and there’s wild excitement in the air. It’s a time when Texans, and particularly Houstonions, celebrate their cowboy roots. 

For them, part of the fun is sporting their best Western gear. For this visitor, part of the fun was gaping at the outfits. One perk of being a Texan, male or female, is the right, and the nerve, to wear fancy boots and a big brimmed hat, jeans and a fringed leather jacket on a city street, in a restaurant, in a nightclub any time you like, but always during rodeo.

If you should be tempted to join in, there are plenty of Western clothing stores where you can transform yourself, but watch the price tags. I saw crocodile boots for $6,500, (customdesigned ones can cost a very great deal more ), a Stetson cowboy hat for $3,200 and an 18-carat-gold and ruby studded hatband to dress it up with at $2,600.

But who’s counting? After all, thanks largely to oil, Houston is a rich city .

It didn’t start out rich, though. It wasn’t until 1901 that oil gushed up at Spindletop. Three-quarters of a century earlier, Houston had begun as a hard-sell development scheme marketed by two speculators, the Allen brothers. Having acquired over 6,000 acres of swampy bayou headlands they managed to convince land-starved people from elsewhere in the States and from Europe to come there to settle. You can still see for yourself the kind of land that was on offer by visiting the Armand Bayou Nature Reserve.

Miraculously untouched, between an industrial park and the Space Centre, lie these 2,500 primitive acres of Texas, an extraordinary ecological time capsule.

The reserve is criss-crossed with walking trails, one of which leads to a turnof-the-last-century farmhouse. You can wander in forests of oak, elm and ash to the bayou where blue herons nest and alligators drift, their eyes just above the green water. They share the habitat with hundreds of species of bird, fish, insects, mammals and reptiles, including some impressive snakes. The centre also preserves one of the country’s last remaining prairies, 900 acres of grass and wildflowers where, after 200 years, bison can again be seen. The reserve was recently presented with two young steers, rare pure-blooded descendants of the vast Great Southern Herd of American Bison that roamed the area thousands of years ago.

From time capsule to space capsule is just a matter of a half-mile in Houston. That’s all the distance there is between the haunting, lost world of Armand Bayou and the glitzy, Disneydesigned visitor centre of Nasa’s Johnson Space Centre. It’s Houston’s number one attraction and you’ll need to budget at least a full day to see it. In fact, nearby hotels offer a discount for overnights and, particularly if you have children with you, that’s an idea worth considering. A 90-minute guided tram tour leaves the centre at regular intervals during the day, wending its way through the facilities of Nasa. In addition to actual space craft like the Gemini and Apollo capsules, you’ll see Mission Control and the Space Environment Simulation Laboratory where astronauts may be in training for an upcoming mission.

Back at the visitor’s centre, you can touch a real moon rock, explore a fullscale mock-up of a shuttle cockpit, watch a demonstration of daily life in space, check out the space suits worn on previous missions or blast off at a space journey film in the largest IMAX theatre in Texas. Telephone for the schedule and you could time your visit to meet some astronauts in person at a briefing session.

Clever interactive exhibits in the Kids Space Place let them experience the sensations of jumping on the moon, flying the shuttle or launching a rocket.

And you don’t have to be a child to enjoy it, either.

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A Christmas in Brooklyn Heights

…..One Christmas Truman Capote decked my halls with boughs of holly. It was sometime before he wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) but after he wrote the Grass Harp (1951). In those days Capote was just one of the famous people I very nearly knew.

I was living in Brooklyn Heights, a small neighbourhood across the East River from Manhattan. It’s an area where 18th and 19th-century houses line quiet streets with old-fashioned names such as Cranberry and Pineapple. Not surprisingly, considering how close the Heights is to New York City, a number of celebrities lived there.  More surprisingly, I lived there too, and that’s how I happened to nearly know a few of them.

To be precise about the hall decking, they were not boughs of holly but boughs of pine made into a long, thick garland lashed with red ribbon and ornamented with silver balls. Even more precisely, I did the decking, not Truman. But it was definitely his garland. I had found it the day before Christmas, abandoned outside his basement flat around the corner from mine. He lived downstairs in an elegant Federal style building belonging to Oliver Messel, who designed the sets for the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady. You could see straight down into Truman’s bedroom. His coverlet was printed with violets.

I salvaged the garland, toting it like an awkwardly bristling hosepipe up to my apartment. Sadly, I had to leave Capote’s Christmas tree behind. It lay on its side, the baubles hanging sideways as if drawn to the earth by magnetic force. The star on the top pointed towards the East River like a crossed eye. I suppose there had been a pre-Christmas party and Truman was by now heading for the Mediterranean and someone’s yacht.

I stretched the garland over the cornices of the window of my sitting room from which you could see the Statue of Liberty to the left and the Brooklyn Bridge to the right. The garland seemed to embrace lower Manhattan with the compliments of the season. It didn’t even begin to drop its needles until well into the New Year.

Famous as he was, Truman wasn’t the most newsworthy of the famous people I nearly knew at that time. Norman Mailer ranked higher. He had become a big name in 1948 with The Naked and the Dead. By the time we were next-door neighbours he had written Barbary Coast and The Deer Park. They say it was because these got such hostile criticism and bad reviews that he became increasingly belligerent.

The more aggressive he became the more coverage the tabloids gave him and the more famous he became. Every fight in every restaurant or bar was good copy. So were his parties. I could hear them so well, even through the thick, brick walls of our adjoining houses, that it was like being there, only safer.

Eventually he stabbed his third wife, Adele, after a night of drinking. More than 30 years later she wrote about it in a book called The Last Party.

I very nearly knew Arthur Miller and his pale wife, Mary, too. I passed their house every morning on my way to work. Sometimes I saw him walking their little white dog. Arthur Miller looked like Abraham Lincoln would have looked if Abraham Lincoln had smoked a pipe and worn horn-rimmed glasses. Miller was already famous as the author of Death of a  Salesman.  Soon he became much more famous as the lover and for while the husband of Marilyn Monroe.

While their affair was going on, before Arthur divorced Mary Miller and Marilyn divorced Joe Di Maggio, they were sometimes spotted together in our neighbourhood. One evening I saw them myself, rounding a corner in the glimmer of a streetlight. She was wearing sunglasses and a scarf tied under her chin, so at first they didn’t look like a famous playwright and a famous film star but like Abraham Lincoln and Heidi, if Heidi had worn sunglasses.

One Christmas it was rumoured that she was going to attend a publisher’s party with Arthur Miller. A friend of mine worked for the company and put my name on the invitation list. I spend ages figuring out what to wear… as if, in the same room with Marilyn Monroe it was going to matter.  On the night, however, it turned out that Arthur Miller didn’t show and neither did Marilyn.

That was the bad news. The good news is that I looked really great, the Christmas party was perfect and Marilyn Monroe will always remain, like an angel on a Christmas tree, at the very top of my list of famous people I very nearly knew.

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Another face of the USA

The USA has been called a ‘melting pot’ probably because ‘stewing pot’ sounds rather rude. But after all these years of simmering, there’s not been that much melting and many of the main ingredients retain a good deal of their original flavour. Outstanding example: the Plain People of Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Descended from persecuted Swiss Anabaptists who found religious freedom in Pennsylvania in the 1680s, the Plain People still speak a form of German and refer to outsiders as ‘the English’. On family farms, which are outstanding by any standards, they live and work without benefit of electricity. Their ploughs are mule-powered their buggies horse-drawn.

While the Amish are the most famous of the Plain People, the Mennonites and the Brethren are Plain People too. The more conservative of the sects, the Old Order Amish, practice ‘visible non-conformity’ to American culture in order to preserve their traditional values. So in the country which gave us the Barbie doll, women of the plain people still pin their traditional aprons to their traditional sober-coloured dresses, fearing apron strings might lead them into vain displays of bow tying.

Some plain people are less plain than others, and allow paying tourists to visit their farms and others will ride in your car, giving you a guided tour. Through the Mennonite Center in Lancaster Pennsylvania I arranged for a guide to ride with me and tell me something of the Amish way of life. My guide’s name was Fay and in common with 50% of the less strict Mennonite sect, she wore ordinary clothing, in her case a tweed jacket and skirt.

We embarked on a tour of the narrow back roads that intersect lush, rolling Amish farms. Frequently, one of the horse drawn buggies was ahead of us setting a very slow pace indeed so there was plenty of time for Fay to fill me in on the Amish. Some of the things she told me:  Many Amish believe a photograph is one of the ‘graven images’ forbidden by the bible. So be careful where you point your camera. You can identify an Amish farm by the absence of electric lines leading to it and often by green window shades. Some Amish keep telephones in sheds in the field for emergency use. . Boys and girls attend one-room schoolhouses for eight years, all the formal education considered necessary for life on the farm.

The average number of children in an Amish family is seven. Drugs and drinks are causing a problem even in this community. In old age, the Amish are taken care of at home. They neither accept nor contribute to old age pensions. The Amish don’t worship in churches but take turns holding services in each other’s house. They help others unstintingly. When the barn belonging to Fay and her husband burned down, their Amish neighbours promptly built them a new one.

We reached Fay’s uncle’s flourmill and clambered through the stone buildings where a creaking water wheel still grinds the grain in the old way. We went on to a ‘supermarket’, a low, dark structure where Amish ladies, their white bonnets glowing in the light of the overhead gas lamps, pushed their shopping carts. Long rows of shelves held household cleaning supplies, baking ingredients and health foods. The Amish shopkeeper spoke to them in their own dialect of Low German but spoke to me in the English she learned in school.

Our last visit was to a craft shop where a silent Amish woman patiently unrolled quilt after quilt for the inspection of two tourists who were about to pay fancy money for an example of Plain People workmanship. An Amish girl worked out the sales tax on a pocket calculator by the light of the gas lamp, and then filled in the American Express card docket.

Waiting my turn I scanned a few brochures. ‘Take a ride in an Amish buggy owned and operated by Plain People’,’B and B Dinner with Amish Family Arranged”, ‘Enjoy shoofly pie in an Amish kitchen’. The Amish are quaint but they are not backward.

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Foraging in Central Park

Twenty of us, including five Japanese, a Frenchman and a mother with a child named Isis, gathered just inside the 103rd Street entrance to New York’s Central Park on a sunny Saturday. We were waiting for  Wildman Steve Brill; each prepared to invest four hours and $20 ($10 for Isis) searching with him for edible roots and berries in the heart of the great metropolis.

 On the dot of 2:30, the Wildman arrived, glinting glasses and grizzled beard, pith helmet and backpack, looking like an illustration in a children’s adventure book. A brief greeting, a pause while we signed waivers absolving the Wildman of responsibility for our wellbeing, and we were off to explore the flora.

WSB set a brisk pace but then we had a lot of ground to cover. Central Park is 50 blocks long and three blocks wide, its 843 acres stretching from Fifth Avenue to Harlem. A complex Victorian landscape of man-made lakes and fields, lawns and woodlands, it’s normally avoided on foot because of some highly publicised crimes, but much admired from afar. Buildings with a view of the park command some of the city’s highest rents.

The first strike came almost immediately. “Lambs quarter!” WSB plucked a leaf from a dusty bush growing beside the path and nibbled it thoughtfully. “Use this in a salad,” he advised. Leaves were passed around. Considering all the things that I feared it might taste of, growing as close to the path as it was,  I was relieved my sample tasted like spinach.

The next discovery, conveniently adjacent, was ‘poor man’s pepper seeds’. The Wildman stripped a handful of the tiny pellets from a stalk. They tested like pepper-flavoured ball bearings. He intoned a recipe for ‘poor man’s pepper seed mayonnaise’ and a woman who explained she ran a restaurant jotted it down. Epizote (‘a hot and spicy Mexican herb’) was another find for her notebook as were the foxtail seeds (‘add to pastry’) that were spotted near the park’s baseball pitch.

In the course of a sunny afternoon, with Manhattan’s skyscrapers glittering in the distance against a pale blue sky, we glimpsed the pristine ‘great lawn’, trudged under and around many of the upper park’s 26.000 trees and skirted the 106-acre reservoir. We sampled enough edible seeds and berries to have kept Little Red Riding Hood alive for a week in the woods. At the foot of a flagpole, there was mallow (tastes like cheese) and a few steps further on chickweed (tastes like maize which is why chickens like it). Also Hawthorn fruit, ripe and red on the ground near the reservoir, which tasted like mango.

We picked small dark cherries from the trees and cracked black walnuts with a rock. The Wildman enthused over the taste of a shark’s tooth fungus snapped from an oak tree, but there wasn’t enough to go around. My personal favourites were hackberries. You spit out the centres, but what’s left tastes like M&Ms.

The high point of the afternoon came in the shape of a tall, forlorn looking weed found growing just off the bridle path. Burdock. “The Irish made a poultice of the leaves to cure ringworm, ” the Wildman announced with a glance in my direction, “but the root can be boiled and tastes like potato.” He produced a short-handled spade from his backpack and with considerable difficulty pried up a knobbly six-inch long root, like an anaemic carrot. “Ah so! Gobo!” the Japanese chorused, awe struck as children who have just seen a rabbit pulled from a magician’s hat.

“Gobo is worth its weight in gold in Japan,” the Wildman explained, handing it over to them.

On this high note the safari came to an end. Anyway, Isis had picked some poison ivy (a skin irritant) mistaking it for ground ivy (use as tea) and wanted to go home. The Frenchman and the restaurant lady were discussing having a coffee together. The group dispersed in ones and twos, most carrying little plastic bags filled with leaves and seeds.

Before heading off with my cache of nature’s M&Ms, I asked the Wildman if it wasn’t a bit iffy to be digging up roots and picking berries, in effect, removing park property. “As a matter of fact,” he admitted,” I was arrested once on that charge by two undercover men posing as tourists. “They made their move when I ate a dandelion. All the papers ran pictures of me in handcuffs. It made the city a laughing stock and they backed down. Since then I’ve been written up in the National Geographic. I wouldn’t advise you to go harvesting on your own, but they turn a blind eye to my groups now”.

To book your own outing with the Wildman, visit Bill’s website: