Cheese popcorn, devils food cakes, cookies, and Dr. Pepper-that was the South. I'd go to Conners, a one-room store with a wooden porch on the island of Ocracoke, NC, and when my mother and I had a peaceful moment, she'd get this mischievous look in her eye and we'd sneak the treats, quickly and happily. I still buy a Dr. Pepper when I want to feel a bit of the South.
Nothing really tasted good in Rhode Island, my other home, except maybe Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and clam cakes. Strivers dream of that rocky beige nirvana as some ultimate, if bland, symbol of class, but New England doesn't really taste good if you're from there. When I was eight, we spent a year in Paris, and a stick of warm chocolate in a baguette was an oasis of sweet calm in a school system that was big on punishment and prizes. I remember safely chomping on my artful snack as another student was shaken violently by the ears while his face turned a bright red. I was in the clear, and it was delicious.
When I was 15, my mother and I moved to San Francisco, then Berkeley. My sister was in Idaho near her jailed fiancé, and so missed the entire first year of pork buns and falafel from Shattuck Avenue kiosks. My mother is a gourmet cook, but that didn't mean much to me until a few years ago. As a teenage miscreant, my rare trips home meant plenty of Doritos and soda; spare changing enabled me to heat up a can of Denison's chili on somebody's stove; and I was always able to slap a peanut butter sandwich together during a party.
I've always been introduced to food, whether canned chili from a girl in a group home or bagels with lox by my Uncle Dave in New Jersey. Pleased to meet you, is my invariable response. Although I'm a populist, I'm no reverse snob, and I always knew that Calvin Trillin was on to something in his extensive food quests. He'd go to Buffalo to study the disputed origin of the buffalo chicken wing and its attendant celery sticks, fly to Kentucky to find the best barbeque, and launch an intensive study on whether General Tseng, of the Chinese chicken special, actually existed.
Perhaps Trillin was being ironic, but that escaped me. It seemed like a perfectly legitimate way to spend a life: obsessing on a specialty food item. When I moved to New York in 1985, I lived in an 8x10 room but set my sights on the horizon. I needed to find a buffalo chicken wing. Egg creams, another snack I'd only read about, had disappointed me, even though Shelley Winters pined for them so in her first memoir, but I felt the buffalo wing might be different.
I was at CBGB's, slightly tanked and getting jostled around at a Dickies concert, when I spotted a stocky guy in a plaid shirt. I couldn't really focus on his face, but I knew he knew. I slipped him my number, and when he called I casually asked him where to get the best buffalo wings. Unbelievably, I even had sex with him, moving things right along until I knew where the spot was. You may think me a miserable cur, but remember, somebody who finds wealth an aphrodisiac has sex with the dandruff-laden Bill Gates; for me, a compelling food search also has a sexual frisson.
I forget the fellow's name, but not where he took me-Aiello's Pizza Emporium, on 32nd Street and 2nd Avenue. He'd spent time upstate, so he knew from buffalo wings, and these were the best I'd had before or since. The sauce was tangy; it ran together with the blue cheese dip while a guy stood in the dingy basement just hacking away at a mound of poultry (apparently you were supposed to ignore him as you made your way to the minuscule bathroom). Fellow diners had the glazed look of the gambling addict or sports fan.
Embarrassingly, my unwitting buffalo-wing conduit drove me to Queens to meet his parents. A little unusual after two dates, but perhaps that was the way things were done in Queens at that time. He later accused me of "playing games." Sure, and the early settlers "played games" as they panned for gold, wanting only a better and more expansive life. Aiello's closed down, but the memory of all they were, oh no, they can't take that away from me.
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