September 30, 2010

Remembering St. Vincent's Emergency Room

I’ve spent time in many hospital emergency rooms, but my late-night visit to St. Vincent’s in January 2007 stands out. There were more crazy people, more cops and more drunk and deranged people than average, for one thing. Since I was in Greenwich Village very late on a Friday night, this shouldn’t have been surprising. Getting something as simple as a blanket took an eternity, and the nurses had a gruff, seen-it-all attitude. The place felt more like a scene from M*A*S*H than the sleepy scenarios I’ve witnessed at emergency rooms in Jasper, Alberta, or Toronto. The only one that comes close for sheer colorfulness was Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center’s ER, which featured a higher number of gunshot victims and patients chained to gurneys and guarded by police officers.

This St. Vincent’s memory came to mind because I’ve been speaking to people to get their “St. Vincent’s ER Saved My Life” stories for WestView. Many of them are elderly, and are understandably frightened that since St. Vincent’s April closure, the closest Level 1 trauma center on Manhattan’s West Side is St. Luke’s Roosevelt at 114th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. Their worry: What will happen if another life-threatening asthma attack occurs, or heart attack, stroke or terrorist bombing? The extra 15 minutes or longer, depending on traffic, it takes to get to Bellevue or St. Luke’s could mean the difference between life and death.

The level of complacency among residents here in the West Village is puzzling. As one senior activist in my building put it, “No one cares, because none of them go to St. Vincent’s.” That’s probably true. Affluent, newer residents have specialists and family doctors elsewhere, who did not have admitting privileges at the atrociously mismanaged St. Vincent’s. Perhaps they imagine themselves being expedited to New York Presbyterian’s ER via helicopter when disaster strikes.
Older residents—especially those who saw the pivotal and compassionate role St. Vincent’s played in the community during the 1980s AIDS crisis—recall nuns and nurses who were like angels, compassionate doctors and a sense of community at the medical center. By the time I got there, however, it was clearly a hospital and staff that had seen better days, and was just trying to hang on. The important thing, though, was that it was there, it was open, and it offered the community trauma, emergency and crisis centers, as well as the full range of medical specialists on the premises 24/7.

Walk-in urgent care centers are simply no substitute.

September 23, 2010

Hare with a pudding in its belly, and the future of cookbooks

I blogged recently about food historian Sandra Sherman's fascinating book, Invention of the Modern Cookbook, in which she explains how many cook and cookbook attributes that we think of as particularly modern (the incessant hype and marketing, the cult of the celebrity chef, the cunning methods of creating a market, etc.) were actually invented in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Last night I attended a lecture Sherman gave at the 58th Street public library on her book and was especially delighted with this example she gave of a 17th-century recipe:

Hare With a Pudding in its Belly

Gallon of flour, one-half ounce of nutmeg, one-half ounce pepper, salt, capers, raisins, pears in quarters, prunes with grapes, lemon, or gooseberries, and for the liquor, a pound of sugar, pint of claret or verjuyce, and some large mace.

Quantities peter out, and there is no mention of  cooking methods, times or the order of adding ingredients. I would be hard pressed to make the pudding, let alone figure out how to cook it in the hare's belly. Sherman's point was that it took a while for early cookbook authors to figure out how to write a recipe down. At least some things about cookbooks have progressed quite a bit since those early days.

Questioned on whether cookbooks will survive the abundance of free cooking advice, recipes, videos and other information on the internet, Sherman replied with the confidence of someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about them, "I'm sure that cookbooks will be the last books standing."

September 15, 2010

A visit with nose-to-tail eating evangelist Fergus Henderson

During my family’s recent visit to London, we visited the birthplace of modern nose-to-tail dining, St. John Restaurant, and its father, Fergus Henderson. The architect and self-taught chef opened his restaurant in 1994 and set down his philosophy in the now-classic Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking (Bloomsbury) in 1999, opening the book by explaining, “’Nose to Tail Eating’ means it would be disingenuous to the animal not to make the most of the whole beast; there is a set of delights, textural and flavoursome, which lie beyond the filet.”

Henderson advocated a return to offal, the humble organ meats and gristly parts of the animal that make many people these days say “ewww,” though they were once common dishes in parts of the world. Henderson included in his book recipes for warm pig’s head, as well as pig’s spleen, tails, trotter, cheek and tongue; grilled, marinated calf’s heart; boiled ox tongue, and four ways to prepare lamb’s brains. The chef’s voice is a large part of the charm of his cookbook; it’s whimsical, encouraging and kind. Of tripe, he writes, “Do not let the tripe word deter you, let its soothing charms win you over and enjoy it as do those who always have!”

Henderson became a culinary cult figure, and incongruously, given his gentle personality, spawned dozens of macho, tattooed aspirants who never had pig’s trotters lovingly braised by grandma, as many a European chef has. Nose-to-tail cooking and eating was new to the younger generation, but it was an idea that was in sync with today's ethos of low-waste, sustainable farming. Plus, there was the bonus outlaw aspect of extreme eating. A sequel to Henderson's cookbook, The Whole Beast: Nose-to-Tail Eating was published in 2004.

We were one of the first lunch guests of the day in the plain, all-white dining room, an abattoir-like environment appropriate for its location near the Smithfield meat market. St. John’s deep selection of offal dishes is rounded out with simply prepared but delicious English dishes such as cold roast lamb, green beans and anchovy, brown crabmeat on toast, and Welsh rarebit.

Henderson appeared at our table, looking like an overgrown, rumpled school boy in a pink Oxford shirt and corduroy suit (it was late summer, but London at this time of year felt more like fall in New York, only humid and changeable). In round horn-rimmed glasses and with a soft voice and diffident hand gestures, the chef told us that he had actually been in our own West Village neighborhood on several occasions in the recent past, to cook at April Bloomfield’s gastro-pub The Spotted Pig at West 11th and Washington Streets, and at a neighborhood favorite of ours, Jonathan Waxman’s Barbuto on West 12th Street. Both The Spotted Pig—which serves a more toned-down down version of Henderson’s offal-centric British fare—and Barbuto—the casual open-air restaurant that turns out a simply and perfectly roasted chicken—make congenial homes away from home for Henderson’s earthy cooking.

Although an assistant sent me a press release and pictures of the minimalist and modern St. John Hotel that Henderson plans to open in London’s Chinatown in October, Henderson is hardly the type to engage in the hard sell. There are no rave reviews plastered at the front of his restaurant, no mention of his Michelin star shoved in your face as you enter the restaurant. When asked if his new hotel would be party to any of the hotel designations that tourists look for (the Leading Hotels of the world, for example), he replied, “We’re not very good at joining things,” and pointed out that many of these lists involve payment in exchange for inclusion.

Although Henderson admitted that he did, as a trained architect, enjoy having a hand in designing the 15-room hotel, on site of a former London theater landmark, it was “more fate” than anything else that had led to this venture. He and business partner Trevor Gulliver had planned to build a hotel in Beirut, but that fell through. When the Chinatown space became available, they jumped on it. The hotel will include a bar and a restaurant that will stay open until 2 a.m.

Henderson talked briefly about his battle with Parkinson’s disease, referring to “my ropey left side.” The tremors have sidelined him from daily kitchen cooking, though he says that what is being served is still very much his food. “I’m here every day so if the chefs go crazy, I’ll pull them in line again,” he told us. In 2005, he underwent a procedure called deep brain stimulation, in which a wire fitted with electrodes was surgically implanted in his brain tissue and connected to a pacemaker-like control device in his chest. His symptoms have vastly improved, but are probably at play in those diffident hand gestures, controlled but still visible. Although the chef may at one time have hoped to return to the kitchen, he’s kept his status as the guiding creative force and public face of the restaurant.

For lunch, Henderson recommended that we try the grouse, at the time in season and visible on select menus throughout London. Henderson’s version is a small, whole roasted baby grouse from the moors of Yorkshire. “It’s so tender it almost melts in your mouth, and has this wonderful musky undertone,” he said, adding, “People always tell you’re the grouse is terrible this year and then they charge you a fortune for it. This year, they’re saying it’s actually a good year, and then they charge you a fortune for it.” We opted for an order of Henderson’s celebrated roasted marrow bones, parsley salad and sea salt; the grouse, which came with a side of liver (or was it duck heart, which Henderson is also partial to?) paste on toast crisped in duck fat; an order of witch sole and tartar sauce, some lightly braised spring cabbage and boiled new potatoes. All were astonishingly simple and flavorful. Desserts of a sublime, currant-stuffed Eccles cake with Lancashire cheese, honey roasted figs on toasted brioche and chocolate pot rounded out our meal, leaving us feeling that we had, at last, tasted British cooking at its elemental best.

St. John Bar & Restaurant Smithfield
26 St. John Street
London, England
Reservations 020 7251 0848
For details on St. John Bread and Wine, Spitalfields:

September 11, 2010

Remembering 9/11

It's a beautiful day in the Village today, just as it was exactly nine years ago. The good weather brought strollers out in force Here are a few 9/11-related remembrances I spotted. This giant flag on the wall of the now-closed St. Vincent's on 7th Avenue is accompanied by a sign that reads:

Although we are gone
The Family of St. Vincent's
Will Never Forget

It's a reminder of the role the hospital played in administering to the wounded that day, and of the hole in trauma, cardiac, crisis and emergency services left by its closing.

Like most pedestrians, I tend to walk right by the Tiles for America on 7th Avenue and Greenwich Avenue, but stopped today to take a closer look. The tiles are fading, and the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation is trying to save them.

In front of Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square, this sign responded to the recent Koran-burning story and  critics of the proposed community center and mosque near Ground Zero, quoting George W. Bush:

September 2, 2010

Pagliacci on Coney Island: the high-low art of Mercury Opera

Last night I attended a terrific opera that has to take the show-must-go-on prize for overcoming mountainous obstacles.  Mercury Opera Artistic Director Daria Parada somehow managed to stage an offbeat yet artistically accomplished version of I Pagliacci in the building that usually houses the Coney Island Sideshow.

It was the perfect venue for the production, since Parada’s interpretation of Pagliacci transposes the Ruggero Leoncavallo favorite to the amusement park boardwalk on the day of the Mermaid Parade. The Banff School of Fine Arts and Mannes College of Music-trained singer launched her company in New York City in 1999. In 2005 she relocated to her hometown of Edmonton, Canada for love, to marry musician Boris Derow. Parada first staged Pagliacci to rave reviews at the Edmonton Fringe Festival, but from the moment she first clapped eyes on Coney Island in 1992, bringing the production to the actual boardwalk that inspired it was her ultimate goal.

Parada held a competition for singers, and planned to stage the production in a tent on the Thor Equities lot on Coney Island. But a reduction in the number of seats she was allowed made the production financially untenable. After first considering cancelling the show, Parada thought of the Coney Island Side Show building on Surf Avenue and 12th Street, the original inspiration for her Pagliacci. Miraculously, despite the Side Show's busy summer schedule, its owner granted Parada use of the facility for one night only. Meanwhile, the tenor who had won the competition dropped out, the conductor walked out, and another singer was dragging the cast down by his lack of preparation.

 Somehow, the persuasive and plucky Parada managed to lure two top-notch performers to fly out from Phoenix and Niagara Falls to fill in, and Boris, her husband, did a superb job in the role of Beppe.
The event was a giant hit with the packed audience. Parada envisions Pagliacci becoming like a Cirque du Soleil production or a traveling Broadway show, constantly in production somewhere in the world. At the moment, she's in conversation with the Coney Island Side Show about doing an actual run there.

The last item in the evening’s program fittingly captured the miracuous quality of the evening. It was a quote from Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love: “….Allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster. So what do we do? Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well. How? I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”

For more information, contact:,917 757 1849
9320-106 A Avenue Edmonton, AB Canada T5H 0S7.