walt whitman and mark bittman

Give me the splendid silent sun, with all his beams full-dazzling;
Give me juicy autumnal fruit, ripe and red from the orchard;
Give me a field where the unmow’d grass grows;
Give me an arbor, give me the trellis’d grape;
Give me fresh corn and wheat–give me serene-moving animals, teaching content.
Pete and I went to New York City last week–or as we nutritionists call it, the Big Apple. It was the day after Christmas and things were really quiet down there on the usually bustling island. Walking from Grand Central Station to the water’s edge below the United Nations we hardly saw a soul.
Hoping to catch the East River Ferry we waited on a deserted dock. Pete loves alternative modes of transportation, so we’d been excited to learn one could now take a commuter ferry across the river to points along the shore of Queens and Brooklyn.
For a while, we worried that maybe the ferry wasn’t running on this post-holiday Saturday, but eventually, another person joined us, and a posted schedule raised our hopes. So we bought our tickets from an automated kiosk and waited. Soon enough, we watched as an adorable little ferry-boat tooled across the river to retrieve us.
I suppose on an ordinary weekday it would have been a lot more crowded, but instead, it was so empty that the ferry boat driver was making small talk with us. I am pretty sure he would have let me steer the boat if I just asked. He seemed like that kind of guy. We walked outside onto the deck. It was a pretty cold day, quite freezing actually, and the wind on the river was strong. But, it was exhilarating to take in the views from that vantage point. There we were under the Williamsburg Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge and then finally the Brooklyn Bridge with the city surrounding us on all sides. We were like tiny seeds in the core of that big Pyrus Malus.
Our first destination was DUMBO, the Brooklyn neighborhood Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. This was historically a manufacturing district– where among other things, Brillo Soap Pads were once made. However, increasing gentrification has transformed this area into one of New York City’s premier art districts. Debarking from the ferry, I was surprised again to see so relatively few people–but was more struck by the surroundings and the sensation of being under the massive structures that I had only previously experienced from above.
Heading down the street we quickly came upon a massive stone edifice with a large plaque on its front wall. I think it said that Walt Whitman had worked there as an editor for the newspaper, The Brooklyn Eagle. I am certain about the Walt Whitman part, but not positive about the other details as my attention was quickly distracted. Across the street, breaking the flat topography of virtually empty sidewalks, was a line of about sixty people–like they were stuck to some invisible flypaper that had lured them and trapped them. My nutritional antenna was quickly activated and I had some idea of what was going on. These people were standing outside–in the freezing cold–in a line that would move glacially slow, waiting for pizza–Grimaldi’s pizza.
To be honest, I didn’t know about Grimaldi’s fame but I do have some basic DNA intelligence about NYC pizza. How good could this pizza actually be that one would stand outside for that long when frostbite was a possibility? I mean this was the epicenter of the pizza universe–not someplace where it would be really hard to come upon a decent slice. Maybe all the other pizza eateries were closed, exhausted by holiday festivities.
Ready to move along, my dilemma suddenly appeared out of nowhere and tugged me by the sleeve. It rattled off a series of questions in its frenetic way. How deep is the desire of my planetary co-eaters? Would they risk losing a digit or two for something that could extend beyond the definition of good pizza by only so far? Aren’t opposable digits necessary to even eat pizza? Did Dionysus himself twirl that dough and stir that sauce? Should we inquire and obtain some anthropological data for a study someone would pay me good money for? And, could we get some?
I informed my dilemma that we were only observing and not undertaking a research project. It was a vacation week and I did not need to assess if these food passions were bona fide expressions of life’s pleasures or surrogates for other unfulfilled desires. Besides, I was developing a good robust ‘been out on the water in the cold air’ hunger that would not abide such a wait, so, no, we could not get some. We turned the corner only to find a little pizza place with no line, empty tables and oven-generated warmth. The pizza there was pretty good and appeased both my dilemma and my appetite. Requiring no wait nor sacrifice of blood flow, I wondered, how much better could that Grimaldi’s pizza really be. Interestingly, my later online search revealed some rather disappointing Grimaldi reviews.
Refueled, we returned to the still empty streets and wandered about. We passed through a plaza under a beautiful archway right beneath the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. The only other people within sight were a man and woman being guided by, I swear to God, I am pretty positive it was my pretend best friend in food, Mark Bittman!  Well, I’m not really sure at all. It could have been any other tallish, baldish, vegan-ish guy from NYC.
Still, I got that starstruck feeling. What if it was actually him? Would I tell him I’ve adopted a Middle Eastern culinary theme for Hanukkah returning the celebration to its geographical and spiritual origins? Or, that I’d been thinking about Christmas dinners and what would Jesus eat–kind of a WWJE existentialist question. Surely, Mark would be interested in this kind of holiday food discussion. Better yet, he’d know what was up at Grimaldi’s! I’d have to ask him. But, just as quickly as the trio appeared, they vanished in a Twilight Zone DUMBO kind of way.
So, there it was. One quick trip to DUMBO and two passing literary encounters–Whitman and Bittman. For Bittman’s latest writings on local and global food issues, take a look at his blog http://bittman.blogs.nytimes.com/.
As for Whitman, it turns out that wonderful spiritual naturalist was really quite the urbanist. The second verse of the poem goes on to say:
Keep your splendid silent sun,
Keep your woods O Nature, and the quiet places by the woods,
Keep your fields of clover and timothy, and your corn-fields and orchards,
Keep your woods O Nature, and the quiet places by the woods,
Keep the blossoming buckwheat fields where the Ninth-month bees hum;
give me faces and streets–give me these phantoms incessant and endless along the trottoirs!
Give me interminable eyes–give me women–give me comrades and lovers by the thousand!
Let me see new ones every day–let me hold new ones by the hand every day!
Give me such shows–give me the streets of Manhattan!
Happy New Year. Deep and awe-filled blessings. And, if you have ever eaten at Grimaldi’s or have an amazing pizza place, let me know.
In health, Elyn
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photo credit: dumbonyc

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A different color.   by Enki

9 thoughts on “walt whitman and mark bittman

  1. Elyn, Sandy and I have been planning a similar exploration of the Lower East Side in the next few weeks! On the topic of pizza, we have been noticing many more places offering gluten free varieties, which is good news for our daughter and other celiacs. Quality varies considerably, but nice to have the option. Happy New Year.

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    • hi cora, yes, it is quite astounding how big the gluten/celiac issue has become and how many culinary responses there have been to it. so yes, that is good news. interestingly, i think we will be hearing more in coming years about other grain intolerances and fructose intolerance as well but i won’t bore you.

      enjoy your city stroll. elyn

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    • oh! have you ridden the tramway? with or without kids? i do know of it and pete and i had just consulted the map on access to roosevelt island. cornell just got a big development gig there that has been in the news, so you may have heard about that. next time, we will ride the tramway. will i have to pay extra for my dilemma?

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  2. Elyn, I can’t recreate the (clever) post I lost, but I did have a pizza story. Just that week (January 4th, to be precise) I had eaten, probably the best pizza (outside of New York City, of course) in, of all places, Otakoy, Istanbul. It was thin crusted, the toppings were fresh and flavorful and we ended up eating 2 large pizzas between the 3 of us. Loved your description of your day. I have to get to Brooklyn…..Great Whitman poem…..Did you really think you saw Mark Bittman, or were you taking literary license?

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    • fascinating. pizza in istanbul. i wonder if due to good quality more local type produce ingredients there. but, the question is, what conditions did you endure to procure such wonderful fare? was it over one hour waiting, sub-freezing temperature worthy?? thanks as always for sharing. elyn

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