The Underground Gourmet
book shows the changing face of restaurant food in new york
by josh perilo
in 1965, writers milton glaser and jerome snyder set out on a mission. they began scouring manhattan to find great meals, in every neighborhood, that could be had for no more than $2. granted, at the time, that was an easier feat, but $2 was still a relative bargain for an entire meal.
the two ate and wrote and wrote and ate, and finally published, in 1966, the first edition of the underground gourmet. and last weekend i found a copy of the 1967 second edition in a thrift shop, and haven't put it down since.
being obsessed with the food and history of new york (particularly manhattan), this was like finding a culinary time capsule. i immediately dove in. what i found was shocking, both in the similarities between then and now, and in the differences.
the most obvious change was the immense amount of restaurants that no longer existed. these were not landmarked establishments, by and large. most of them were hole-in-the wall luncheonettes, inexpensive chinese restaurants and greasy spoons. but the sheer number of losses was stunning. of the 101 restaurants profiled, only six survive today: katz's delicatessen, manganaro's, yonah schimmel's knishes bakery, the puglia and la taza de oro. about half of the establishments were housed in buildings that no longer exist, especially in the midtown area. the proliferation of "lunch counters" also illustrated the evolution of this city's eating habits. for every kosher "dairy lunch" joint that went down, it seems as though a jamba juice or pink berry has taken its place.
even more shocking was how similar the city's variety of cheap eats was. there are numerous listings for japanese restaurants, all of which served sushi (which the author describes to the uninitiated as tasting "not unlike that of the very best smoked sturgeon"). there were a number of middle eastern restaurants as well, ranging from syrian to lebanese. there was even a new-age vegetarian hangout for "east village cultists" called paradox that could have easily been the forefather of today's zen palate or gobo.
the book itself is an interesting artifact. the restaurants are all given two to three pages, starting with a breakdown of the facts. telephone number (some restaurants using the two letter prefixes, some using all numbers? and some without a telephone), days of business, air-conditioning and hygiene were all listed and rated, if applicable. the writing was half prosaic and anecdotal, half plain-jane restaurant review, but always interesting. true to form, none of the entrées or meals bought and eaten by the authors cost more than $2. they even included two short sections in the middle of the book with an illustration of ethnic food-stuffs that the reader might not be familiar with. some of the drawings are so abstract that it may have confused the reader more than it helped.
after reading the book in its entirety, i was overcome with mixed emotions; one-part longing, one-part invigoration. the underground gourmet couldn't have been written at a more mercurial time in the 20th century. it was almost as though the food being eaten reflected the vast social and political change surrounding it. mired in the cheap eats that had been carrying its working class forward for decades, there was clearly a change brewing. new foods and new ideas were taking root that would grow and forever change the culinary landscape. this was a snapshot of a city in transition.
i won't pretend that i can truly understand a period of time that i was never able to experience firsthand, but i feel lucky to have been able to walk the streets of 1960s manhattan in my mind with the help of the underground gourmet. i can only imagine how delicious the revolution must have been.
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