Sunday, December 20, 2015

Zany Tidings of Comfort Food and Joy

It is that enchanting season in New York City where the urban landscape is transformed. Ordinary steel and cement is transfigured amidst a dazzling display of twinkling lights. The urban landscape resembles storybook illustrations. In a fascinating, and somewhat frightening phenomenon, department store buildings literally break into holiday song. Tourists clog the streets and gridlock overtakes most intersections, making it a challenge to get anywhere efficiently. And tantalizing aromas fill the air. It’s beginning to look a lot like … dinnertime!

It is several nights before Christmas, and I am running a little late for a planned holiday adventure with Zany.  Dashing through the streets, I must navigate a hoard of revelers, a life-sized Elmo who is carrying his head under his arm, and a guy on a street corner with his own live menagerie on display, which seems to include several rabbits, two turtledoves and a partridge in a pear tree. It’s all part of the magic of Yuletide in New York.

We are scheduled to rendezvous at the Bryant Park Winter Village, an enchanting Christmas Town that magically appears behind the New York Public Library about the time of Halloween and then vanishes like the Spirit of Christmas Past sometime in January.  One can find a dazzling selection of high-end shops, impossibly athletic skaters performing the occasional triple axel leap across the ice rink, and most important, a maze of tantalizing food stalls.  
We have planned to meet under the Bryant Park Christmas Tree, its boughs heavy laden with holiday baubles. I circle the tree once, and Zany appears before me, full of the holiday spirit.

“We’ve got an international smorgasbord here,” she says with a twinkle in her eye.  “Let’s get started!”

She tugs me towards the Saj Mahal booth, which features of selection of Israeli inspired flatbreads with a twist.  The flatbreads are sizzling on large metal drums.  We consider the menu selection and choose our appetizer – a flatbread layered with olives, roasted red peppers and green guacamole – perhaps not traditional, but certainly the right color scheme for the season.  
We sit by the skating rink, devouring our flatbread and watch the Zamboni buff the ice until it resembles shimmering glass.  In the distance, I can hear Judy Garland singing, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”  

Feeling in a festive mood, we head for the seasonal residence of my old pal Pickle Me Pete. Pete’s a former accountant who abandoned the corporate world for a life of brine. He looks like a right Jolly Old Elf, bedecked in pickle green from head to toe and his handmade artisan pickles shimmer like green jewels in the barrels before him.   
But it’s not the fresh pickles we’re after…

“This woman’s a fried pickle connoisseur,” I tell Pete. “We’d like one order of your amazing fried pickle chips.”

“All of our dipping sauces are vegan,” Pete explains to Zany.

She gives him the stink eye.  “Well, I’m not,” she says curtly. “We’ll take the Ranch dressing on the side, please.” We return to the skating rink for our second course. 

“Have you heard of the Christmas Pickle tradition?” she asks me. Most of Zany’s fondest memories and traditions seem to center around pickled foods and condiments. In fact, I am familiar with the Christmas Pickle.  It’s an old custom and no one really quite knows how it got started, but some suspect it was a marketing ploy by an ornament company.  A glass ornament in the shape of a pickle was hidden among the branches of a Christmas tree. The first child in the family who discovered the pickle got an extra present.  Go figure.  Next thing you know they’ll be trying to convince us that the Wise Men brought gold, frankincense and pickles to Bethlehem.  While we can’t verify the source of the custom, we decide to start a new tradition – gorging ourselves on fried pickle chips with Ranch dressing under the Christmas tree.  Pete’s fried pickles are hot and crunchy, and in our minds are far superior to chestnuts roasting on an open fire.
Our next visit is to La Sonrisa Empanadas. We split a scrumptious Coconut Curry Chicken Empanada seasoned with Caribbean curry and sweetened with coconut milk.  We are in agreement.  This hot little hand pie would make a perfect stocking stuffer.   

We wander the food stalls considering our main course and find ourselves drawn by a beacon of bright canary yellow to the window of Super Mac & Cheese.  Talk about tidings of comfort food and joy!  
A brief debate ensues when Zany spots a “V” symbol next to the company logo. “What does that stand for?” she asks suspiciously.  “Is there such a thing as vegan mac and cheese?” 

I spot a nearby group of women scarfing down paper cups full of the golden noodles.  “Nope, it’s the real thing,” I reply and we dive in.  The Super Mac & Cheese is silky, tangy and delicious.

And, what would a holiday adventure be without visions of sugarplums?  Since we’re not really sure what a sugarplum looks like, we settle on French macarons instead.  The Woops both features a dazzling spread of colorful macarons, and even a macaron holiday tree.  We feast on an eclectic selection of flavors that include Lemon Poppy, Peanut Butter, Chocolate Chili and Cookies and Cream.  

While our tummies might be full, we are not yet filled with the holiday spirit, so we make a quick stop at the historic Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station for some decidedly adult holiday spirits…a Negroni for her and a Manhattan cocktail for me.  It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!
Some days later, I find myself in a cooking store in Virginia where I discover the perfect gift for Zany.  Back in New York, I arrange a meet up.  The holidays are now in overdrive and we can only manage a five-minute rendezvous outside Zany’s office before she dashes for a train. 

I push my way through the multitudes to meet her.  The Saks 5th Avenue building is regaling holiday shoppers with a booming rendition of “Christmas Is Here!” 

Zany is already out on the street.  I hand her the little box, which she opens with a distinct sense of anticipation.  Inside, nestled in tissue paper, is a glass holiday ornament in the shape of three perfectly cut, glistening, emerald green pickle chips.
Zany throws back her head and literally howls with laughter. “The only thing it’s missing is a side of ranch dressing!” she exclaims.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all! May you be blessed with dear friends who magically reappear and bring you extra helpings of joy. May your condiments have zip, may your pickles be crisp and may your macaroni always be smothered with gooey cheddar!

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