FOR 16 YEARS, I HAVE HAD THE SINGULAR PLEASURE OF REVIEWING RESTAURANTS FOR THE WESTERN QUEENS GAZETTE. ON THE AUSPICIOUS OCCASION OF THE 25TH ANNIVERSARY OF THIS RESPECTABLE, COMMUNITY-BASED PUBLICATION, I CAN SINCERELY SAY THAT I HAVE ENJOYED EVERY DELICIOUS MINUTE OF MY TENURE. THIS SEEMS LIKE AN OPPORTUNE TIME TO REFLECT ON THE MANY MEALS I'VE EATEN IN THE HUNDREDS OF RESTAURANTS, CAFES AND DINERS THAT I HAVE VISITED OVER THE YEARS, AND THE HARD-WORKING PEOPLE WHO RUN THEM.
As residents of Queens, we have the luxury of the world coming to us and opening up worlds we might not otherwise know. As a native New Yorker and the granddaughter of immigrants, I am still humbled by the 21st Century immigrants who come to the Big Apple seeking a better life for their families and themselves. Quite often, their fortunes are sought in the restaurant business, offering centuries-old recipes from their native countries to some of the toughest customers on earth: New Yorkers. I am equally humbled to see that so many of them succeed with equal measures of the hardest, cruelest work, and unabashed determination.
I recall an evening where a Turkish family opened the doors to their restaurant with the paint still wet, and how they waited for my reaction after every delicious forkful was eaten. An Indian gentleman showed me the tandoor oven that his grandmother used when he was a child and in which my dinner was prepared. In Astoria alone, I am amazed at how many Greek restaurants there are, and how each has carved a niche for itself, specializing in delectable food from their own region of Greece, prepared in a way that is distinctly theirs. An Egyptian man demonstrated the ancient art of coffee making, by brewing it in a pot buried in hot sand. Queens is a place where Italian women in their 80's still dutifully show up at their son's restaurants to prepare handmade pasta and gnocchi each day, with original recipes written only in their memories. Brazilian Churrascarias grill the finest meats in the world while Colombians roast chickens on rotisseries, the aromas from which can be smelled from three blocks away. And what would we do without diners, run tirelessly for 24 hours a day, where everything from a Western omelet to a steak dinner can be ordered, any time of day, not to mention the mile-high cheese cake? Even pizza, gyros, lo mein and tacos rise to an art form on the competitive streets of Queens. From the fragrant lemon grass simmering in soups in Thai restaurants to the paella with lobster cooking just up the street, Queens is a cultural and gastronomic bounty, and it's all here for us to enjoy.
With all these tales to recount, friends and colleagues seem to always ask the same two questions: "How do you stay thin?" and "Have you ever had a bad meal?" To answer the first question, I simply reply that over the years, I have learned to taste a little bit of everything and take the rest home. Some incredibly generous restaurateurs choose to bring the entire menu to my table, or offer a special 16-course tasting menu. While I appreciate the ability to sample all of a restaurant's delectable offerings, I taste enough to be able to write about them honestly and take the unfinished portions home. I have had hundreds of fine lunches the next day, suffering pangs of jealousy from co-workers.
To answer the second question, I can honestly say that I have never had a bad meal in all the years on
staff at the Gazette. Part of the
American dream is to be able to compete amongst your peers for your own slice of the pie, and what a delicious pie it is.
I travel often and work extensively with people from other countries. Very often, I am asked, "What is American food?" Most think the answer is hamburgers and hot dogs.
American food is actually the culmination of centuries of agriculture by native Americans in all of the Americas, who cultivated potatoes, tomatoes, corn and beans for the first time in history. Vanilla came from the Americas, along with sweet potatoes and dozens of varieties of beans and squash. Could you imagine Italy without tomatoes? The Irish didn't have potatoes until they were brought there from the New World and you can't make chocolate without vanilla. American food is good food, plain and simple. It is the food from which dozens of countries' cuisines have been derived. To deny it would be to deny the rich tapestry that is America. And New York is the tapestry that defines the world.
I am proud to wish the Gazette a Happy 25th Anniversary and to all the residents of Queens, I say "Bon appetit!"