Lost Foods of New York City
Vichyssoise has, as its name suggests, distinctly French roots, but its soul belongs to Manhattan. The dish was created by a chef named Louis Diat, who modeled it after a beloved leek and potato soup his doting mother made him as a boy growing up in Montmarault, France. In 1910, the 25-year-old Diat moved to New York to be chef de cuisine at the just-opened Ritz-Carlton hotel. Seven years later, he offered his first bowl of crème vichyssoise glacée to hotel diners.(1)
At its core, chicken à la king is straight up saucy comfort—mushrooms, peppers and diced chicken served in a creamy sauce over toast. Throw some biscuits on top and you practically have chicken and dumplings; add a flaky crust and you get pot pie. But for the high society, francophile (or rather franco-obsessive) New Yorkers of that era, a vaguely French-sounding name was all the dish needed to secure its vaulted reputation.
Today, the cake that once defined the borough’s sweet tooth is hardly a blip on New York’s dessert radar—unless you ask someone over the age of 55. Then the floodgates open and you begin to hear apocryphal tales like the one food historian Arthur Schwartz shares in his book New York City Food (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2004). “[When my sister and I] were teenagers and didn’t have dates on a Saturday night," he writes, "we would consume an entire cake.”
The sandwich, made of two dense slices of date nut bread slathered with cream cheese, was once a daily fixture of New York City life, particularly for those on a budget. In their respective memoirs, By Myself and Then Some, and Memoirs of a Beatnik, model-turned actress Lauren Bacall and poet Diane di Prima recount how they relied on Chock Full o’ Nuts’ date-nut sandwiches as a primary source of young-artist sustenance. Bacall remembers the sandwiches (10 cents when she ate them in the 1940s) and a cup of coffee (5 cents) being “not substantial, but filling—[they] got me through the day.”(2)
With the long anticipated return of "Mad Men" scheduled for later this month (season five premieres March 25), America’s collective obsession with all things mid-century New York City is back in full martini-slinging force. What better time, then, to celebrate steak Diane—a dish so quintessentially retro-glamorous, it might as well be called steak Don Draper.(3)
By the time it had come to early 20th century New York—especially those in Brooklyn and the Bronx—the Charlotte Russe had taken on dramatically simplified form. There, it was made from a thin disk of sponge cake topped with a lofty spiral of whipped cream and crowned with a Maraschino cherry. Variations included sprinkles, chocolate-flavored whipped cream, or a spoonful of jam nestled between the cake and the cream. The treat was available seasonally, typically autumn through spring while the weather was cool enough to support a food primarily made out of whipped cream. It was sold from pushcarts, candy stores, and bakeries (primarily, but not exclusively Jewish ones) mainly to eager school kids seeking the ultimate afternoon snack.(6)
Before there was Chipotle or Applebee’s, and before Starbucks and McDonald’s came to populate every other New York City street corner, there was Childs.
When brothers William and Samuel Childs opened the first restaurant on Cortlandt Street in 1889, they catered to downtown Manhattan’s bustling lunchtime crowd. The brothers’ model of delivering high-quality America-style fare at reasonable prices (which at the time was quite novel) proved popular. Just a decade after that first restaurant (originally called Childs’ Lunchrooms), Childs boasted a total of nine locations across the city, and was well on its way to becoming one of the first national restaurant chains.(6)