a culinary commute

When I swing through the revolving doors and leave my over-air conditioned office lobby, I’m immediately greeted by street signs dotting the sidewalk which promptly inform me that there are MEN WORKING ABOVE, as if I’m supposed to walk with my head cocked upwards to dodge any stray nails or hammers.

I step to the beat of the drills buzzing around me, and I hold my breath every time I’m forced to walk through a plume of who-knows-what coming from who-knows-where. I mutter excuse me as I cut through a group of construction workers huddling in a circle like they’re at a sixth grade dance, and when I’m a safe distance away I pause to stand on my tiptoes, juuuuuust managing to peek above the barriers encasing the wide open swaths of new developments, surprised at just how startled I am by the expansiveness of absolutely nothing that lays before me. A new hotel someday. Or luxury apartments, maybe. What’s that saying again? Oh yes, a place to live, work, and play. That’s Hudson Yards. Branded as an exact microcosm of the city of New York. 

But I don’t dwell for too long—my stomach telling my brain to tell my legs to continue walking. After all, there’s still 40 minutes to go. 40 minutes to recall what’s hiding in the depths of the refrigerator drawer. What produce is on its way out. How many cans of tuna I have left. If the bushel of parsley is still edible. What cuisine I’m craving. Whether I’m going by-the-books and following a recipe, or free-for-all.

I have 40 minutes to think about what I’m going to make for dinner. I better start.

A taxi driver once told me that the flowers don’t smell in Manhattan like they do in his home country of Morocco — like they’re olfactorily modified in some way in order to even survive in New York. I can’t say I’ve ever crouched down to catch a whiff of the tulips planted outside my office building, but I’m inclined to take his word for it.

What I do smell, however, is the waft of searing onions from the halal truck on the corner, crackling and spitting against the oil as they’re aggressively tossed with peppers and dark-meat chicken. I round the corner before everything comes together on a bed of fluffy basmati rice stained with turmeric, before the wisps of romaine and half-moon tomato slices are piled on top, before the mysterious white sauce makes a zig-zag appearance.  

I’m long gone by that point, walking down ninth, replaying that fierce onion sizzle in my mind, wondering if I have kidney beans and salvageable celery on hand for an onion-forward, pseudo-pasta e fagiole. I shush the voice in my head as it conjures up worst-case scenarios of all the ways the scaffolding above me could come furiously crashing down, and instead focus on making a beeline for the light at the end of the tunnel. Fixing my gaze on the next bodega to propel me forward, I imagine the smell of onions and celery searing in tandem, the calming muffle of adding canned tomatoes, and the patience required to wait for pools of oil to appear on the surface before tossing in the beans—liquid and all. Or is it beans before tomatoes? At the same time? I’ll have to check that.   

 

My natural walking pace, I have been told, is that in-between speed on the treadmill where you can’t comfortably walk, but you also haven’t yet hit your stride in a full-fledged run. It’s the awkwardly unnatural power walk. Like you always have to pee. That’s me. But slow walkers don’t bother me, really. In fact, envy is probably the better adjective to describe how I feel about leisurely flâneurs strolling the island of Manhattan on your ordinary Tuesday evening, not anger. Somehow they’ve managed to resist the pre-set speed that the New York treadmill is stuck on, and I haven’t. But I won’t fault them for it as long as their sense of spatial awareness is intact. It doesn’t need to be perfect — I’ll settle for it existing at all so I don’t have to break into a potty dance shuffle to swerve around them, as I find myself doing to make it around the man in front of me — who I thought for a second might actually be deaf but who I then realized was just listening to music. So THAT’S why he didn’t hear me the three times I said excuse me. Bless AirPods. 

I immediately regret my decision to make a left on 30th as soon as I hit the swarm of Penn Station and Madison Square Garden, making a mental note to keep walking south towards Chelsea before cutting east next time. My pace quickens as I aggressively cut through tourist crowds stopped in the middle of the sidewalk to look at Google Maps, spinning in circles to orient the directional arrow and gazing up to locate the cross-street with zero sense of urgency—like they’re birdwatching in the idyllic countryside. I pretend not to hear the scalpers asking me if I want Billy Joel tickets for tonight, and I try not to breathe too deeply as the oppressive heat radiating off the blacktop brings with it the unmistakable stench of summertime Manhattan.

By the time I make it to seventh, I’m practically jogging, which always makes me crave something low and slow for dinner. A chance not to rush, to taper the speed on the treadmill to a brisk walk, to create something in direct opposition to how I am existing in the world right now. 

I make a sharp right on seventh and am immediately hit with oversized images of over-styled food on the Panera window: perfectly pressed paninis oozing with melted cheese, creamy soup—looks like cream of broccoli—studded with wisps of cheddar, crisp romaine salads doctored up with corn, avocado, tortilla strips, and—is that blue cheese? Doesn’t sound right. But back to the broccoli. That’s what catches my eye, consuming my seventh avenue stomach space. 

Maybe I can make pasta with broccoli? And oh! OH! I have dandelion greens, too. And garlic, and extra-virgin olive oil. I swiftly pass by Panera, and continuing walking south past Potbelly Sandwich Shop, Starbucks, a dollar-slice pizza joint, brgr, and Chipotle without registering much. I’m far too occupied musing over my go-to pasta staple that I thiiiiink I can pull off tonight. 

There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about this recipe. It’s not Instagrammable, nor is it sophisticated, really. Then again, not everything is. But if I cook this dish like I mean it, I find myself marveling at the peaceful pleasure of something that is exceedingly, overwhelmingly normal—finding joy watching the garlic dance in the olive oil, and reminding myself to move slower as the water boils, and the pasta gently cooks underneath the buoyant broccoli bobbing at the top. I remember to take the time to listen as I tear the fibrous dandelion stems in half — at once lazy and reluctant to dirty a knife and cutting board, and simultaneously relishing in the primal, imperfect satisfaction of tearing something apart with my hands. 

It’s low and slow weeknight cooking at its finest, which is exactly what I could use a dose of as I commence my less-than-graceful shuffle to beat the light across 26th and seventh, backpack flailing side to side, narrowly dodging a speeding cyclist, and jumping over a stay garbage bag. 

I make it down another three blocks before turning left onto the wide sidewalks of 23rd, continuing until I can spot peaks of green cutting through the concrete horizon: Madison Square Park. Outback Steakhouse on my right—not going to work, I didn’t take the ground beef out of the freezer this morning. Indikitch on my left—curry? I take mental stock of my spice pantry as I envision myself grabbing a turmeric-stained wooden spoon to stir creamy red lentils laced with coconut milk, ghee, and speckles of wilted spinach. I get all the way to the aggressive amount of cilantro I would pile on top before Eataly takes me elsewhere.

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Crossing fifth, I decide to veer right on Broadway. Distracted by the swarm of dogs heading in the opposite direction towards the dog park (or Shake Shack), I don’t realize that I’m standing in front of Maison Kayser until it hits me: the whiff of freshly baked baguette—a smell that will forever make me go slightly weak in the knees. 

My mind races through the recipes I learned living in France—buckwheat galettes, Nicoise salads, omelettes, coq au vin—but to no avail. I’m far too distracted by the visceral taste memory of a crisp, golden brown crust cracking under little pressure to reveal the warmth of the doughy, cream-colored pores. I stare for one second too long at the couple seated outside, wondering what they ordered. What they’re talking about. Whether leisurely Tuesday evening dinners al fresco are normal for them. 

And then I make a left onto 20th: the home-stretch. 

I read somewhere that the second New York turns you bitter, you have to leave. The second you find yourself taking personal offense to a subway delay or emitting an effusively demonstrative sigh every time the commuter in front of you just can’t manage to swipe his metro card at the right speed through the turnstyle, it’s time to run for the hills. 

I like to think that when (or if) this happens, I’ll be self aware enough to notice and course correct, but in the meantime I actively will myself to engage in what I can only hope is a prophylaxis against the tragic undoing of my relationship with my city: looking up. Because every so often, when I least expect it, New York will dazzle me and rekindle our romance—as it does when I pass the Brooks Brothers on the corner of Broadway and 20th, and I see the sun reflecting at the perfect angle to cascade down the ornate, cast-iron fire escapes on the Art Deco facade.

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Imbued with renewed energy, I continue towards Park until I hear the buzz of laughter and boisterous conversation emanating from Barbounia—the Mediterranean-Middle Eastern restaurant I went to for my 24th birthday that also happens to be single-handedly responsible for the steep chunk of my paycheck that feeds my tahini addiction. 

I consider roasting vegetables until they toe the line between well done and charred, then dousing them in some sort of lemon-tahini-nutritional yeast dressing. I also consider homemade hummus spread on a thick slice of sunflower flax sourdough that I’m about 65% confident I still have a remaining slice of in my freezer. Topped with on-their-way-out tomatoes, maybe? That must constitute a tartine. 

My thoughts temporarily deviate from dinner as I pass Gramercy Park which, regardless of the time of day, always seems eerily calm. A touch too manicured for Manhattan. And I always—every. single. time.—peek through the gates. Sometimes I close my eyes for an extra beat, occasionally emit a big, yogic exhale. But then I’m off. Almost home. 

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I pass by a dad just outside of Baruch Junior High School. Toddler in one hand, bag of Chinese takeout (and a dog leash) in the other, and I’m suddenly hit with a twinge of nostalgia for the frenzy of school nights—surprised at just how viscerally I ache for that back. 

I miss the light to cross first, so I wait, gazing left and right so as not to miss a precious J-walking window to dash across the street. Beads of sweat pool in the space on my lower back where my backpack sits comfortably. I remind myself not to wear these shoes again otherwise my blister will never go away. 

I’m immune by this point to Hane, the pictures-of-food-on-the-menu sushi restaurant that’s always crowded with families flocking from Stuy Town. Despite the endless permutations of streets and avenues that I can wind down, up, and across on any given evening, passing Hane is unavoidable. I can’t help but rubber-neck as the waitress serves sushi rolls arranged diagonally across the large plate, or salmon doused in a sweet, sticky sauce. And I’m always surprised by how savage it looks to watch people bite down on edamame, pop out the beans, and then pull the pods out of their mouth and proceed to continue talking. 

By the time I make it to my apartment, I fling off my shoes and head straight into my bedroom to turn on the A/C. I peel off my clothes in favor of an oversized t-shirt and make my way to the kitchen. Someday I’ll become the kind of person that can come home from work and sit down first to chill for a second before starting to cook. But not today. Simultaneously exhausted yet teeming with pent-up energy and inspiration—a dichotomy only New York could deliver—I open up the refrigerator and take a deep breath. The world awaits. 

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