Return of the Native

I am back from New York. The City. I left there about seventeen years ago, and have only returned three times since – once for a wedding, once for a funeral, and once after a divorce. New York was my home from the time I was fourteen years old till the time I left, basically – except for a few travels here and there – but I always returned.

I left New York to be married. To have children. To grow a family. And I have done so – though not exactly in the way I supposed I would, with a husband by my side, but rather without a husband by my side. That’s another story, for another time perhaps.

I returned to New York this time with my daughter. My daughter headed herself towards the city without any urging from me. It is where her heart has led her at the age of sixteen, to study art at one of the best schools that exists for studying art – and in one of the most challenging programs.

There is pathos in this picture, for the similarities between the way my daughter entered the city to begin her life there (if only for this month of summer school) and the way I entered the city to begin my life there are just about as different as day and night. But this is not about that, this is about the food.

It’s hard to get a grasp on the picture of a person through food, really. It can be drawn, a picture, of anyone – with food. The hidden meanings of the food can be brought forth, the adjectives and verbs tossed into the picture as if with a charcoal pencil, to ink out a personality. Quite useful, very entertaining. Often false. The delicate vegetarian can hold a heart full of driven hate and the meat-gnawing potato chip chomping pagan just might turn out to be a gentle soul cautious of ever saying the least offensive thing to anyone at all who may cross his path.

So I’m not going to try to do that – to draw a picture with food. Nor am I going to draw a picture of food. Instead I’ll just tell of a walk down a street in Brooklyn Heights that has something to do with food.

My daughter and I walked down the street in Brooklyn Heights. I showed her the apartment I lived in, before there was a person called my daughter, who now walked beside me. I pointed to the building where I’d knocked on my father’s door (the address of which I’d found to my great surprise in the phone book)(and to my even greater surprise found that he lived in the same neighborhood I had landed in) for the very first time ever to introduce myself to him without warning, at the age of fourteen. There were several restaurants whose doors had remained open all these years in the neighborhood that I’d lived in (a rare thing in the city) but we passed them by.

We walked way down to the end of Henry Street, and entered a narrow-fronted brick building. After all these years, during the time I’d grown a daughter, this restaurant had remained open. This was the first restaurant I’d ever eaten in, when I was around my daughter’s age – that made food something which held a sense of artistry within it, and a depth that went beyond my perception of what food was – or what it could be.

We sat at a table, and I looked up and saw the same guy cooking as had been cooking at the line all those years ago. It did not seem real, but it was. The menu had changed somewhat, but still had the fine touches but not glaring spotlights that spell a deft touch without a vaudevillian edge.

The food was good. It always was.

But I must say that any food pales in my mind and heart in comparison with that simple walk down the street to get there, with my daughter. One fourteen year old runaway had come back to the city she’d entered with a duffle bag full of clothes and forty dollars. That’s me. And she’d brought her daughter to go to art school, and to eat at the restaurant that had first inspired her to think of food in such a way that led to becoming a professional chef – Henry’s End.

Is this about food? I’m not sure. But if you ask me about food and my trip to New York, this is what comes to my mind.

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12 thoughts on “Return of the Native

  1. Loved your essay. Did you find going back a bit like having amnesia? Somethings seem very familiar while other things feel strange. I lived upstate in in Rochester while I was in college from ’67 to ’69 and ’72 to ’74. In 1988, I had occasion to return on business. I arrived a day earlier so I could reacquaint with the town. So much was the same and yet so much was different.

  2. Lovely essay, Karen. I returned back ‘home’, too, after many years and also found it very nostalgic. Things and people were there and were the ‘same’ – but not really. And of course I, too, had changed.

    Let us know how your daughter does!

    Diana.

  3. What a wonderful essay. When memory speaks, there is such a beautiful and haunting sweetness, with a dash of sadness and surprise. I can see it, K & k walking the streets of Brooklyn Heights, guided by nostalgia… What a memorable day.

  4. Sonia, Maria, Diana, Peter – thanks. πŸ™‚

    For me, Peter, it wasn’t amnesia-like at all. Perhaps the difference was just time spent . . . twenty years in a place makes more of a real home than four maybe. And this thing was like a circle completed. The place was drenched, saturated in memories. It was raining, pouring solid sheets at times, as it does in NY – we had to keep running into doorways – and the sun kept shining through it. The streets were transparent and glittering with the rain and the brutally gorgeous sun was pouring down over the river from lower Manhattan and hitting the streets through the green leaves of the trees . . . it was all rather like the opposite of amnesia.

  5. After owning a successful restaurant for almost 25 years, I have had the opportunity to do many things that are memorable and close to my heart– hosting joyous family events, and somber memorials, seeing families come in with young children and now those children coming in with their children, and being the place where couples had their first date and are now celebrating their 20th anniversary here.
    I can now add your beautiful story to the list of things that make being in this business so satisfying and rewarding.
    Mark Lahm, owner- henry’s end

  6. I too have memories of Henry Street. “My” Henry Street is on the lower east side of Manhattan. I spent the first five years of my life on Rivington St. not to far away from Henry St.

    When I revisited many years ago before my children were ready to “fly the coup,” I felt a sense of yearning. A desire to know what brought me back. Why did I want them to see this place? Tales I suppose. Stories of Henry St. only remembered over Christmas dinners, and family gatherings. A need to share roots I suppose. But, whose roots?

    I’m leaving New York and Long Island. I’m on my way to PA. My son lives there. Ah roots, vines are so easy to propagate. As are people I suppose. Perhaps, your daughter will stay, perhaps not. My father too lived in Brooklyn. I can’t knock on his door any longer. Too bad. He will never know that Brooklyn is where my plate is set, not Manhattan…

  7. I’m not so sure about the roots and vines being so easy to propagate, Louise. I’ve lived places where the soil was either very rocky and impermeable or alternately perhaps the PH levels were not right for the type of planting desired. There are good fits and ones not so good, I think. πŸ™‚

    Mark. πŸ™‚ Though I didn’t introduce myself the other day, I’m guessing it was you at the door. It should go without saying that to have a restaurant in NY run successfully for 25+ years is something just short of a miracle. But of course it’s a miracle closely managed in the zillion details that the people at the tables never explicitly see. I had the pleasure of seeing Henry’s End grow pretty much from its inception, and really how beautifully it has grown! My only regret as far as Henry’s End goes is that I was too busy feeding my own particular group of people right across the river to be able to spend as many evenings dining on Henry Street as I would have liked to. Well, that and the spinach salad. Every time I think of that spinach salad that used to be on the menu I pretty much salivate.

    Your note reminded me of something that all the very best restaurants have at their core, and it’s not one often thought of in the hubbub and the buzz and the flash and the tastes. Every restauranteur (or chef, or cook, or server) of any serious stature whatsoever knows that what they are doing, at its core – is an honorable thing – when done right and done consistently.

    See you again sometime!
    Karen

  8. I was so touched by your intimate post Karen. I think I was trying to convey a more positive note. As you so eloquently pointed out, “soil” conditions among other things do matter:)

  9. I just hope that wherever I get planted next they don’t decide to start a compost heap on top of me, Louise. πŸ™‚

  10. Corn and cowshit. That’s all I could see and smell driving through half that state last week.

    I hope where your son lives is in a different part. πŸ™‚

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