In almost every scene from the film version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn coffee is being served. Whenever the insurance man comes to collect dimes or the father is drunk or the children, on cold days, have just arrived from school, cups are being filled. It is the children in fact, who in the Christmas scene when the percolator is brought to the table, are first in line like slobbering animals, overjoyed to drink the dark caffeinated sludge that must have been coffee in 1910. While Johnny and his daughter are mourning the dead tree from their window, he says, "I wonder what they did before coffee was invented."Though someone now could list a few alternatives, the question remains: for Johnny, in his third-floor walk-up, would anything other than coffee do?
The thing is, different times and places have respective gastronomical needs. Nutrition is not a stock list of healthy ingredients, but rather a subjective guide for what you must do to keep the flame going. Whether it's coffee for children or kale by the heap or whiskey Wednesdays. Eating your way through winter on the East coast is different than on the West, and by no means whatsoever can one be appropriated to the other. Cloud-cover, temperature, cultural history, and the ghosts of a place are all factors that create these needs. The plain and unique nutrients your body craves is another (maybe you're hot-bodied, phlegmy, inflamed, cool-livered &c.) I'm only thinking about Elia Kazan's 1945 movie because I was in Portland recently and my mother put a VHS of it in my stocking, and it was only after I returned to New York, alone in my apartment and unable to sleep, that I watched it. Among other things the story indicated this flame, the wick of it shortening in this fast place, and the drinking of coffee -- briny, gritty, cowboy-black -- appeared as a regional antidote.
But who knows. It varies from bod to bod. Soy gives Americans hormonal problems, but the Japanese have been using it for centuries with no side effects. I know two people who are allergic to fresh fruit! When I lived in the Northwest, a piece of cake and ice cream made me feel hung over in the morning, but in New York it goes right on through. Sometimes your Eastern European or West Indies genes will surface, but Lo and behold! you were born in Missouri where the land and the produce make no sense to your constitution. Then what? Eat things that fill whatever you're lacking. Get hotter, colder, calmer, wilder. If you need to eat two hamburgers or all of the broccoli you cooked (even though you wanted to save some for lunch), do it: vegetables have significantly fewer nutrients than they did thirty years ago, and maybe you need to eat twice as many to successfully photosynthesize. My friend Cait used to say, "Let your appetite do its thing." Pregnant and menstruating women are our finest models for this. Ten pickles, a tire iron, red clay, six almond pastries from the Hassidic bakery! It's not about gluttony, it's about listening to your slobbering heart!
I was paused at a light the other day, and Ray Ray and David Bernstein rode up next to me. We said hello, each of us on errands, and then they invited me to dinner. An hour later, I met up with them at David's co-op holding a container of garlic-stuffed green olives. We made coos coos with chopped pecans, cashews, raisins and dates. The three of us sat on stools and boxes, stirring pots, talking, adding ingredients: bok choy, mushrooms, onions, carrots, and a single egg. I talked about my interest in writing about the implications of the BQE, and David talked about his secret spaces project, wherein he tracks down and activates unused nooks around the city. Turmeric, mustard, soy sauce. "Should I add lentils?" he asked.
"Lentils take a long time," I said.
"Yeah, but I need lentils. So I'm going to add them."
And he did. The perfect anchor for a cold night.