(Blogger’s Note: Every Friday an excert from the soon to be published book, Faux Pas is French for Restaurant appears on this blog.)
The Crocus Hill Market was an oasis in the center of St. Paul´s culinary desert. I had been spoiled by a decade of decadence while living in the epicurean heartbeat of the planet, the food capital of the universe. Not only did I learn the basics of the business in New York, but my awareness to food preparation and presentation was raised to new heights eating out nightly in some of the best restaurants in the world. Even bad restaurants in New York are better than some top restaurants elsewhere.
The move to St. Paul resembled a ride in a time warp. Once there, this transplanted New Yorker was no longer in the late 80´s but had quickly been dropped into the 1960´s. Roaming around the land of the hot dish didn´t bode well with the pleasures of my palate. Within two weeks of becoming a St. Paulite I realized I had been spoiled by fresh food prepared nightly. There were no corner vegetable stands where to purchase produce 24 hours a day. And the choices for dining out in the Twin Cities were both good.
The people of St Paul couldn´t be faulted for this. They were a conservative bunch back then. They had been brought up on the entrees of the Church Supper. Special occasions were often celebrated at the VFW or Elk´s Hall or at the one great restaurant in St. Paul, The Lexington.
And, The Lex was a fine place. Mahogany walls, red leather banquettes, and a bar with real standing Martini glasses all helped raise its ranking to the number one spot in St. Paul. It was just a short walk or drive from The Crocus Hill Market up Grand Ave. to the corner of Lexington Ave. where the building resembled a funeral home on the outside and a New York broker´s club within.
Hot dish was king in the Twin Cities at that time. Turkey Tetrazini, String Beans and Mushroom Soup Casseroles topped with Durkee Onion Rings proved to be the highlight of the buffet lines in most church basements.
Culinary Adventure was best defined as exploring what lay below the first bread crumb layer of a casserole. Church supper dining was not only an event and an experience, but a lifestyle.
When friends in New York asked if we missed the theater, the ballet, and the museums of The City, feelings of homesickness came over us. We missed the food experience of New York. The hub of the heartland had yet to discover the ingredients for modern dining.
The constant craving for Pastrami from Katz´s Delicatessen was haunting. I was experiencing dirty water dog withdrawals. The corner Sabrett cart didn´t exist. Illegal in St.Paul. Sidewalk contraband. Small trattorias, cafes, and the people en masse had instantly disappeared. No Balducci´s. No Zabars. Just Wisconsin Cheddar and cheese curds. No ribs. No corned beef. No delivery.
The absence of delivery tricycles, aluminum boxes between the rear wheels parked in front of my apartment was a mere vision. Where was the sound of the little bell, ringing madly from the handlebars of the vehicle steeping in wok flavored steam, as you stepped off the sidewalk, challenging a man with a bike and a mission. Delivery in 70 degree below temperatures was out of the question in St. Paul. But I still missed it.
I wanted to hear Mike, the doorman´s annoying voice immediately following the static laced sound of the buzzer. Opening the door and having Lee hand me the bag of shiny laminated white cardboard pint and quart boxes, wire handles perfectly crimped so the overflowing containers od Szechuan goodness wouldn´t open on the bumpy ride up Third Avenue, was only a memory now. The aroma of the Szechuan Kitchen, once fresh in my mind had faded. Every Monday morning the wok laden smell of the building´s carpeted elevator broadcast the meals of the night before. Mrs. Goldberg had chicken. O´Reilly, Chow Mien. Harris had the Won Ton, his wife, egg rolls. And, although your suit smelled like the back room of the restaurant´s kitchen until you walked a block or two you didn´t mind as the air around you reminded you of the weekend just past. But that was all gone.
Welcome to St. Paul.