Friday, March 7, 2014

Standing the test of time: the food of my youth

Yesterday's post put me in the mood to reminisce and got me to thinking of the food I grew up with and if it holds up to my memories. Luckily for me, I have family still on the east coast and get to visit the areas of my childhood where my earliest food memories were created. One of these early treasures was the magic of Thrasher's French Fries. If you've never partaken in the Thrasher's experience, let me enlighten you. Thrasher's French Fries are the simplest but most perfect snack: buckets of french fries sprinkled with salt and malt vinegar. They don't carry ketchup and offer no items other than soft drinks. There are Thrasher's French Fries stands on the boardwalks along the east coast in cities like Ocean City, Maryland and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. In peak tourism times, lines can stretch down the boardwalk for these golden brown pieces of heaven. As a young boy, I stood in these lines on many a summer afternoon. I didn't know it at the time, but I suppose it was training for my barbecue days. After a twenty year absence from my life, I was able to rediscover Thrasher's a couple of years ago on a trip back to the east coast. They were just as magnificent as I remembered. And in case you were worried that this was simply my nostalgia talking, my Houston born and raised wife had her first Thrasher's experience on that trip as well and still dreams of them. If you ever find yourself within reasonable distance of a Thrasher's, be sure to stop by and get a bucket. Piping hot from the fryer, perfectly crisp with a wonderful vinegar tang, they are not to be missed.

Another memory of my youth, as an outside observer only of course, was the local bar. I grew up in an old neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. As most who grew up in one of the New York City boroughs will tell you, every neighborhood has a distinct personality. My neighborhood was blue collar average joe types. Policemen, firemen, brown bag lunch sort of guys who went down to the watering hole at the end of a hard day for a beer. Of course as a child, I'd never been inside our local haunt, but the allure of it had me enchanted. To me, it was a mystical place that the adults go to do grown up stuff. I recently went back as an adult with my dad, and boy was it an awakening. Upon arrival, we ordered drinks next to a man who chose to tell my father how he was once stabbed near his nipple by a Puerto Rican. In case we didn't believe his tale of misfortune, he took the liberty of lifting up his shirt and showing us the battle scar. The rest of our time there was filled with unease and, for myself, the sad realization that the fantasy was gone. This wasn't Grown Up Disney World; it was a smoke caked tomb of sad stories and stereotypes. Not all of our childhood fantasies are what they're cracked up to be.

The final stop on the nostalgia tour takes us to my home in Houston. One of the first places my family found when we moved to Texas was Brother's Pizza. Back then, Brother's was located in the food court of West Oaks Mall. This was before the days of First Colony Mall, Katy Mills, or anything near the west side of town. If you were an outer looper on the west side, West Oaks Mall was where you went. With its large, greasy slices, Brother's was the best food replica of the world we'd left in New York. A few years later, they escaped the mall for their own storefront on Highway Six just north of I-10. In sad "out of sight, out of mind" fashion, I forgot about Brother's. This all changed when I became an adult and realized they were still around. I rediscovered my love for their classic New York style pies and they are once again a part of my dining rotation. They've since added locations in the Cypress and Garden Oaks areas. While I can't vouch for the quality at those locations, old faithful on the west side of town still delivers fantastic fold-in-half slices of caloric bliss. While places like Pizaro's and Dolce Vita have become critical darlings (and for good reason - they're phenomenal), Brother's has in large part flown under the radar. They don't import extravagant ovens or have a well known chef creating buzz. They simply do what they've been doing here for nearly 35 years: churning out floppy, thin crust pizza that remind this New York kid of his past. And that's just fine with me.

Nothing is set in stone as it pertains to growing up. Tastes change, thought processes evolve. But I've found nothing that makes me feel like a kid again quite like the sensation of rediscovering an old food memory.

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