This short story was just featured on Selected Shorts. Fitting considering I’ve just returned from NY.
by Calvin Trillin
Although a grandparent who arrives on the scene after the birth of a child is traditionally pictured cooking dinner for sleep-deprived parents or stuffing the freezer with casseroles, I can tell you that these days it’s mostly takeout. That is not simply the narrow view of a male grandparent who, admittedly, would have little to offer by way of home-cooked meals once he’d served the second dinner of meat loaf, accompanied by a salad of prewashed mesclun and a reminder of his mother’s belief that meat loaf is one of the many dishes that always taste better the next day. As I was about to leave for San Francisco last spring to inspect my daughter Abigail’s first baby, my son-in-law’s mother had just completed a similar visit, and Abigail reported to me, “We had some good sushi while Brian’s mom was here.” Brian’s mother is not Japanese. Abigail was referring to takeout sushi—or carryout, as they say in San Francisco, since, she warned me in advance, San Francisco is a place where restaurants are, in general, happy to prepare food to go but not happy to deliver it. In carryout, the accepted role of a visiting grandparent is to duck into the restaurant for the pickup while one parent waits behind the wheel of the double-parked car and the second parent remains at home, holding the baby with one hand and setting the table with the other.
The one exception, Abigail said, seems to be Chinese food, which does come directly to the door. In Manhattan, the victuals customarily referred to as Takeout Chinese—essentially, a separate cuisine, if that’s the word, from the food available in Chinatown—tend to make the trip from restaurants to apartment houses dangling in plastic bags from the handlebars of rickety bicycles. (The proprietors of Chinese restaurants apparently feel about baskets the way proprietors of National Hockey League teams used to feel about helmets—sissy stuff. The restaurant proprietors still feel that way about helmets.) Manhattan is essentially flat—I’ve been riding a bicycle around the city for at least thirty years, and I have yet to shift gears—but San Francisco is, famously, not. When my mind wandered during the flight from New York, I could picture one of those impassive delivery boys from a Manhattan Chinese restaurant trying to make it up a nearly perpendicular San Francisco hill, his determination unaffected by breathlessness or leg cramps or the fact that the weird angle has already caused a container of hot-and-sour soup to burst open on his trousers.
When my mind wasn’t wandering, I was thinking about whether to present the home-delivery issue to Abigail as one more reason why it made sense to live in New York rather than San Francisco. I could imagine myself delivering the pitch: “Are you saying that you’re willing to raise this child—this innocent child—in a city that has virtually no delivery, depriving her of the attention of whichever parent has to make the pickup or interrupting her schedule for a totally unnecessary car journey or, God forbid, cooking?” I could also imagine Abigail, who works as a legal-services lawyer for children, replying that, according to the laws and precedents she’s familiar with, the sort of behavior I’d just described would not, strictly speaking, constitute child neglect.
San Francisco’s lack of takeout delivery wouldn’t have been completely out of place among the arguments I have used to bolster my case for living back East. After I’d arrived for my baby inspection, one of the first items that caught my eye on the bulletin board in Abigail’s kitchen was a Times clipping I had sent her and Brian, who also practices law of the humanity-helping rather than the disgustingly lucrative sort, about young professionals who had left the Bay Area in the wake of the dot-com collapse. The subhead of the piece read “Dot-Commers Who Once Flocked to San Francisco Are Turning Elsewhere.” I had pasted on an additional subhead of my own composition: “Many Lawyers, Complaining of Inferior Bagels, Are Also Leaving.”
I suppose there are studies that connect the ubiquitousness of takeout in Manhattan with the increase in two-job families or the supposed hatred of cooking by yuppies, some of whom are said to live in expensive apartments that have no kitchens. I have never actually run across an independently confirmed case of yuppies living in an expensive apartment with no kitchen, although a friend from that generation told me that he once sought to use the oven belonging to someone with whom he’d become romantically involved and found that she was using it to store fashion magazines.
It is also possible that the Manhattan restaurant industry simply came to realize that a city so compact that even prosperous families often do not own an automobile is an ideal place for developing a delivery business; literally thousands of customers live within a quick walk or a basketless bicycle ride from any restaurant. However it came about, it came gradually. When Abigail was born, in the late sixties, and her parents were thus sentenced for a while to a wearing but oddly pleasurable form of house arrest, the closest we got to takeout was for me to go to an accommodating Italian restaurant across the street and have them pack food in plastic containers that looked as if they were designed for some other purpose.
Sooner or later, though, the distribution of takeout menus became so relentless that a lot of New Yorkers began to see it as a form of commercially viable littering. I would guess, from my own experience, that most residential buildings in Manhattan receive menus from at least one restaurant every day. For a while, in fact, it was common in my neighborhood, Greenwich Village, to see signs on doors saying “No Menus”—sometimes in both English and Chinese. I never thought of posting such a sign myself. Yes, I occasionally get irritated when the steps in front of my house are littered with paper menus from two or three Chinese restaurants of the sort that seem to acquire their food from one gigantic kitchen, presided over in a dictatorial but not terribly inventive way by General Tso. But my attitude toward takeout menus is reflected in that brilliant slogan the New York State Lottery uses in its advertising: “Hey, you never know.” It was a takeout menu, slipped through the mail slot of my door, that alerted me to a splendid little sushi restaurant on West Fourth Street called Aki, whose chef’s experience working for the Japanese Ambassador to Jamaica had inspired him to put on the menu a roll that includes both jerk chicken and hearts of palm.
Delivery by a restaurant of Aki’s quality reflects a second stage of development in the New York takeout scene. When delivery of Chinese food consisted strictly of Takeout Chinese, for instance, I did not think of it as an acceptable alternative even to scratching around in the refrigerator for some leftovers that were way beyond what my mother would have considered their second-day peak. When we had some reason to eat our Chinese food at home rather than at a restaurant, I drove to Chinatown with my daughters and two or three of the dinner guests, everyone having been assigned to pick up a certain dish at a certain restaurant according to a split-second schedule—a food-gathering exercise we referred to as an Entebbe Raid.
Then, several years ago, Joe’s Shanghai, a Queens restaurant that was noted for its soup dumplings, opened a Manhattan Chinatown branch that became a huge hit with the pasty-faced citizens the Chinese in America sometimes refer to, when in a benign mood, as “foreign devils.” Soup dumplings, which are often called steamed buns on menus, get their name from the fact that the dumpling skin holds not only a core that is often made of pork and crab—Jewish connoisseurs sometimes refer to soup dumplings as “double-trayf specials”—but also a liquid so tasty that diners tend to be sanguine about the clothing stains they acquire while trying to get to it. Not long after Joe’s Shanghai appeared on Pell Street, Goody’s, a rival soup-dumpling destination in Queens, established a Manhattan beachhead a few blocks away. Soon, a similar Queens restaurant called Shanghai Tang opened close enough to the Village to put my house comfortably within the delivery area.
Shanghai Tang—which, in the Chinese-restaurant name-changing custom that turned, say, New York Noodletown into Great N.Y. Noodletown and Chao Chow into New Chao Chow, soon became Shanghai Tide and then Shanghai Tide in SoHo—listed on its menu, in addition to soup dumplings, dishes like Dry Fish Tripe with Pork Sinew. (Until some tweaking was done in the translation department a few years after the restaurant opened, that dish was actually on the menu as Dry Fish Stomach with Pork Sinus.) I don’t often find myself yearning for Dry Fish Tripe with Pork Sinew, but I’m comforted by the notion that I live in a city where someone will bring Dry Fish Tripe with Pork Sinew to my door.
I wouldn’t claim that Abigail’s neighborhood was completely without eating possibilities. Several years ago, for instance, Yuet Lee, a restaurant on the edge of San Francisco’s Chinatown, put a branch about three blocks from Abigail’s house. Yuet Lee is a Hong Kong-style restaurant that turns out a spectacular version of fried squid—a dish I otherwise think of as routine bar food, often consumed by the sort of people who use their ovens to store fashion magazines. On a late afternoon of 1987, I was walking from an appointment near San Francisco’s financial district when I discovered, by coming across little clots of people gathered in the streets, that the stock market had just had its largest single-day drop in history—what became known as Black Monday. Yuet Lee happened to be only two or three blocks away, and I went straight there. Within a few minutes, I was downing an order of fried squid that I had just watched emerge from the wok. It occurred to me that I might be the only thoroughly content person within several square miles. A branch near Abigail’s house obviously enhanced my visits to San Francisco, but within a couple of years it closed. I managed to restrain myself from saying to Abigail, “I can’t imagine what would keep you here now.”
Why did I restrain myself? Because I’d like to think I’m above that sort of parental nagging. Also, I couldn’t deny that Abigail’s house remained within walking distance of the Mission—a neighborhood that is world headquarters for the San Francisco burrito. In San Francisco the burrito has been refined and embellished in much the same way that the pizza has been refined and embellished in Chicago. The San Francisco burrito, which is customarily wrapped in aluminum foil even if you have no intention of leaving the premises, is distinguished partly by the amount of rice and other side dishes included in the package and partly by sheer size. (“Out to Eat,” the Lonely Planet guide to San Francisco restaurants, describes the Mission burrito as “a perfect rolled-up meal,” and I would differ only in describing it as “two or three perfect rolled-up meals.”) It is also so good that at times I’ve been tempted to put it on my list of favorite dishes that rarely seem to be served outside their place of origin.
Serious eaters in San Francisco tend to be loyal to their own burrito purveyor. Abigail, for instance, is a Taquería La Cumbre person. In the spirit in which a rabid baseball fan from St. Louis might hand out Cardinals caps, she once presented me with a T-shirt whose front is almost totally taken up by La Cumbre’s logo—a heroic painting of a sort of Latinized Ava Gardner wearing crossed bandoliers and carrying both a bugle and an unfurled Mexican flag. My childhood friend Growler Ed Williams, who teaches Spanish literature at San Francisco State, is a Taquería Pancho Villa person. I know perfectly respectable people whose loyalty is to Taquería Cancún, which is only a few blocks from Abigail’s house. I have had terrific burritos at all three. I can understand a reluctance to leave a place within easy shooting distance of the Mission.
After a couple of days in San Francisco, in fact, I had to admit to Abigail that the Mission was a pleasant spot for a grandfatherly stroll even aside from the availability of burritos: people raised in the Mexican culture know how to express their appreciation of a particularly stunning baby. As it turned out, a lot of the restaurants we used for carryout were in the Mission. Some of them were outposts of gentrification, described by Abigail as “in the Mission but not of the Mission.” So we might be picking up tamales one night, followed the next night by “seared dayboat scallops with organic spinach and black-bean sauce.” I wouldn’t want to leave the impression that I thought eating carryout in San Francisco was a hardship. In fact, I tried to arrive at a fair appraisal to give Abigail as I left to catch my plane to New York. I finally came up with “It was O.K. for out of town.”
Here’s what I did when I got back to New York: I sorted my takeout menus. When I got through, I thought it was a pretty impressive collection. I had a wad of Indian and a wad of Mexican and a wad of Chinese (not just Takeout Chinese, either) and a wad of Japanese and a wad of pan-Asian and a wad of Italian and a wad of Middle Eastern and a lot of menus I found unsortable. I had about seventy-five menus.
I could picture Abigail on her next visit, looking on with interest as I placed the various types of menus in neat piles on the dining-room table, like the organizer of a bank heist divvying up the loot. The Chinese pile, I notice, is about an inch thick. “What’s your pleasure?” I say to Abigail. “Chinese? Thai? Indian? Middle Eastern? Venezuelan? Malaysian? Italian? How about some octopus salad and artichoke ravioli from Da Andrea? How about risotto? There’s now a place on Bleecker Street called Risotteria that offers about forty kinds of risotto, delivered to your door.”
Abigail shrugs. “I guess Italian would be O.K.,” she says, still noncommittal.
“Or we could do what we call a walk-away,” I say. “Limiting ourselves to restaurants within a few hundred yards. It’s a nice evening—we almost never get fog here—so maybe we could just stroll over and pick up, say, French fries at Petite Abeille or some zatter bread and marinated-chicken pitza at Moustache and bring them back here. If we feel up to walking an extra couple of hundred yards, of course, we could bring back lobster rolls from Pearl.”
Abigail is beginning to look impressed. Maybe she had forgotten about Pearl’s lobster rolls.
Then I’m offering all sorts of delivery possibilities—English fish-and-chips, Indian chaats, Japanese ramen, Singaporean fried rice. Menus are being flashed in front of her. I mention roasted chicken, the simple tuna-fish sandwich, soup dumplings. Yes, soup dumplings! I tell her that if she’d like to finish off by having Cones, just around the corner on Bleecker Street, bring over a pint of hazelnut gelato, that, too, can be arranged. “I think it’s fair to say, Abigail,” I tell her as I continue to flip through the menus, “that there’s practically no type of food that can’t be found within a few blocks.”
Abigail shoots a meaningful look at my T-shirt. By chance, I’m wearing the La Cumbre shirt she gave me. At least she thinks it’s by chance. Suddenly, like Ricky Jay producing a ten of clubs out of thin air, I open a menu that has appeared in my hand. “Speaking of which, here’s a place that might interest you,” I say. “It’s called Kitchen/Market, in Chelsea. You’ll notice it says ‘Delivery.’ ” I show Abigail the menu. Near the center is a group of ten items. The heading above them reads “San Francisco Burritos.” Abigail looks very impressed.