A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Sunday, December 19, 2021

TASTE: Nesselrode pie, a long-lost New York City Christmas tradition

No one seems sure how the Nesselrode pie landed in New York City, but by all accounts it was on every dessert menu and Christmas table in town in the mid-1900s. Its labor-intensive was recipe splayed open on kitchen countertops, the pages flecked with chocolate and splotches of cherry juice.

Image from https://vintage.recipes/Nesselrode-Pudding

The pie is named after Count Karl Robert Nesselrode, a German diplomat who served as Russia's foreign minister and also happened to love chestnuts. He played various political roles across Europe during the reign of Napoleon, fighting his power at every turn, and died in St. Petersburg in 1862. Allegedly, his personal chef, Monsieur Mouy, created this pie for his boss after the signing of the Treaty of Paris, in 1856, which was not necessarily a victory for Nesselrode's political aims but marked the beginning of his retirement. As his eponymous pie soon would, Count Nesselrode faded into history.

Fine Art Images/Heritage Images

About a hundred years later, however, in the 1940s and '50s, the pie was mysteriously resurrected in a brownstone restaurant on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Hortense Spier delivered her Nesselrode pie to high-end restaurants across the city, particularly around Christmastime. Bakeries—including Mrs. Maxwell's, in East New York—attempted to re-create it, and newspapers and magazines printed variations on the recipe, with and without a crust, for ambitious home cooks. The signature ingredients were chestnut puree, rum or brandy, whipped cream, chocolate shavings, and candied red-and-green fruits for Yuletide. After the Spier family stopped baking it, the pie faded into oblivion—until Petra and Robert Paredez decided to try their hands at a Nesselrode at their shop, Petee's Pie Company, on the Lower East Side and in Clinton Hill.

In early December, Petee's Nesselrode stands out from the shop's other pies in the store's refrigerated case. It's a pile of chestnut custard, buoyed by gelatin (in the midcentury style), and overlaid with a grid of hard chocolate and studded with bulbs of whipped cream alternately crowned by rum-soaked cherries.

The pie is so pillowy that it's difficult to cut a tidy slice. One can't help thinking that the firm chocolate lattice is like a net of struts holding it all together.

The flavor and texture present a study in contrasts: a dry, salty, buttery crust and the billowy, mouth-filling custard, which swims around in the mouth with even the smallest bite. The hot spike of rum against the creamy coolness. The hard, chilled chocolate lace, which crunches like icicles speared into each bite. The cheery, intense burst of candied fruit against the soft mounds of whipped cream. Each spoonful is a delight for the senses. Petee's Nesselrode pie can be bought only whole, not in slices, and only once a year, from Thanksgiving through Christmas. It wasn't long before our family's pie, which I had marked "for research purposes," had been sliced to a sliver, the box marked with smears of cream and crumbs. For a few days we had been transported to midcentury New York City—and to nineteenth-century Europe—through a pie as complex and evanescent in its flavor as its layered political and geographic history. We knew there was a chance we'd never taste it again.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

SIGHT: Mariners Marsh Park: the eeriest place in New York City

Just a few days after Halloween, I headed to Mariners Marsh Park, in the northwest corner of Staten Island, for a solo autumn leaf-peeping hike. I soon found myself in one of the eeriest and most beautiful places I've encountered in the five boroughs. The park comprises 107 acres of pin oak forest, ten ponds, and wetlands. But hidden among the trees and marsh grasses are ghostly remains of the factories once located on this land (and, according to the New York City Parks website, Lenape Indian artifacts). I couldn't help feeling like I was trespassing as I squeezed through a gate rigged to admit only the most determined of explorers.

The park has been closed to the public since 2006 for an environmental investigation. In the 1900s, the land was home to an ironworks and, later, a shipbuilding foundry. The ponds that now reflect the autumn sky were man-made and were used by both industries. Beneath their serene surfaces lurk hazardous chemical residues; a few backhoes and piles of sandbags on their shores indicated that the area is being remediated. But on the day I visited, the machinery was silent. Rusted rain tracks appeared from the underbrush, leading into a tangle of vines. 

As I walked alongside the rails, I heard a ghostly whistle and clanging in the distance. Peering through a chain-link fence, I saw a modern freight train lurching past, spattered with graffiti spelling out "DO IT." The freight line of the Staten Island Railway skirts the southern end of the park, but this train seemed to be slicing through the wilderness.

In spots, the disused trail dissolved into a tunnel of vines; I had to duck to move forward, and despite the whine of the train, I felt impossibly far from humanity. If something happened to me, who would know? 

There were signs of past visitors, however: rusted beer cans and even discarded clothing, seemingly belonging to a child.

Though there are official trails, the signs are sparse and faded. I trusted my innate sense of direction (Google Maps was not much help), following vague turns, until I stumbled upon concrete mounds rising out of the leaf litter like the remains of a fortress from an ancient civilization.

One section of wall had windows looking out on the underbrush.

A section of brick wall lay atop the fallen leaves as if dropped from above. 

I bushwhacked through tall grasses, mud squelching underfoot, trying to recover the trail. After ten minutes of guessing which turns to take, Monument Pond appeared through the rushes, a serene pool reflecting the sky and treetops.

On the shore were more ruins.

Suddenly, I spotted a slice of vivid pink through the trees. As I got closer, I saw it was a bird-spotting blind, the viewing holes transformed into the vacant eyes of a painted crocodile, like a carnival photo prop. The blind was in a clearing with picnic tables. Birdhouses swung from the trees. No one was in sight.

A four-pointed buck leaped out of the woods, stared at me, and disappeared, too fast for me to take a photo. Was it a ghost? Against the autumn sky, the phragmite stalks waved in the wind.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Rice pudding—that humble, homely, nourishing dessert—has been an unsung staple of New York City cuisine for centuries, brought here in many varieties by waves of immigrants from around the world. The European version can be found everywhere from traditional Jewish and German delis to Delmonico's, and countless varieties are served at Asian, Middle Eastern, North African, Latin American, Caribbean, and South American restaurants. All usually include rice, milk, and sugar. Rice pudding  was a mainstay of my own diet as a new arrival to the city in my early twenties. Kozy Shack rice pudding, the ubiquitous and inexpensive grocery store brand, often served as my breakfast and midnight snack in the same day. Rice to Riches, a space-age NoLiTa shop that sells nothing but rice pudding in flavors from "Play It Again, Butter Pecan" to "Sex, Drugs, and Rocky Road," fed my friends after late nights spent bar-hopping along Spring Street.

As it turns out, Kozy Shack rice pudding was born in New York City at a deli called the Cozy Shack on Brooklyn's Seneca Avenue. The deli was known for its homemade, kettle-cooked rice pudding as well as for its sandwiches, and a deliveryman named Vinnie Gruppuso became such a fan of the pudding that in 1967 he decided to buy the rights to the recipe and rebranded the deli's name for the package. With the help of his friend Sam Walton, founder of Sam's Club and other big-box stores, Kozy Shack made its way onto grocery store shelves and into home fridges across the country. One of the things that drew me to Kozy Shack as a twentysomething was its surprisingly simple list of ingredients for a mass-produced product: milk, eggs, rice, and sugar, which remains the recipe today.

The rice pudding that fed German immigrants in the nineteenth century wasn't too different from Kozy Shack's, so I decided to find the most traditional version still made here today. I headed to Glendale, Queens, to Stammitsch Pork Store, one of the city's last remaining German delis, in a Tudor storefront with heart-shaped cutouts in the shutters and mums in the windowboxes.

I was surprised to be greeted by an extensive selection of German shampoos and stacks of gray felt Oktoberfest hats, but at the back was a pristine deli case tended by staff in crisp white aprons and paper caps. 

The fabled rice pudding was sold by the pound, scooped from an aluminum tray into a plastic tub and slapped with a sticker label. Decanted at home, it had panes of shiny smoothness from the milk skin that cracked into jiggling shards with the edge of a spoon. 

The firm, nutty grains of rice broke into the faintly sweet, eggy, creamy base, spiked by the occasional sour, dry shock of cinnamon. 

I'm sure many new immigrants to New York would raise an eyebrow at the idea of a path from "rice to riches," but the sticky, glutinous sound of a spoon sinking into the pudding and the first taste of blandly sweet custard brought me back to my early, innocent, hungry days in the city and the comfort of a simple, healthy, rib-sticking dessert.

Monday, September 20, 2021

SMELL: The fragrance of One World Observatory

[Note: This post was written just before the pandemic lockdown of spring 2020. I imagine that any noteworthy scents in the observatory today might be stifled by masks or, for certain patrons, by lingering COVID-related anosmia, or loss of smell.]

Some might not even notice it at first: a floral scent that wafts through the lobby of One World Observatory. 

The scent, named "One World," was designed by a fragrance manufacturer to evoke trees native to New York: to aromatically root the city's tallest building to the earth, 1,700 feet below, from behind hermetically sealed panoramic glass windows. Earth and sky, the high and the low, connected through each visitor's nose.

Just before the pandemic, in spring 2020, I decided to get a perspective on this elusive scent from those who spend all day immersed in it. First I talked to Michael, a security guard posted at the entrance to the One World Observatory elevator bank. "I guess it’s supposed to evoke New York?" he said, wrinkling his nose. "No, I’m not a fan," he said after a pause. "It’s a little much, to tell you the truth."

The perfume's citrus notes intensify as you proceed down a screen-lined hallway and stifle any damp, mineral-y smell one might expect in a tunnel carved through the actual bedrock supporting the 104-story tower.

The One World Scent is surreptitiously diffused through air conditioning vents—tucked behind skyline silhouettes—which frame the observatory's windows.

At the top of the elevator, as you make your through a gaggle of tour guides hawking the "One World Explorer iPad" upgrade, there are hints of dental office: mint, rubber. 

Near the café, the smell mingles with that of coffee and reheated pizza. A food service worker fans a paper plate over a grill of spinning hot dogs, sending curls of meaty steam into the One World mist.

In the gift shop, where two women in sun hats fondle sweatshirt sleeves, the smell acquires a hint of hot, floral dryer lint. Three women pressed to the window debate ordering an Uber to their dinner reservation at Cipriani.

When I asked a security guard named Kareem if he'd noticed the signature scent, he reflected a moment, then told me, "I don’t want to call it a 'new car smell,' but to me I guess it does smell new, clean. It’s an office smell—like, to help with the experience?" 

A man with a selfie stick extended his arm like an archer poised for a shot as a couple of backpacked women rummaged through brochures. All were within inches of the scent diffusers, but did they notice in the lofty air an essence of roots, of bark, of history? Dani, a "tour ambassador" in a red vest, pressed her lips closed when I asked her about the scent. “We’re not allowed to talk about it.”

Sunday, August 22, 2021

SOUND: Macy's wooden escalators

In summer, many New Yorkers head to Coney Island to ride the Cyclone, delighting in the rattles and creaks of the roller coaster's wooden trestle as they hurtle through its turns and drops. For wooden-ride aficionados looking for some mellower ups and downs in the off-season, I recommend Macy's escalators, about the same age as the Cyclone but, as it turns out, a bit harder to find. You enter the department store on the Seventh Avenue side and follow some encouraging signs.

Your hopes rise when you glimpse the handsome wooden escalator bank, hewn from original oak and ash in the 1920s and '30s, when the moving stairs were constructed by the Otis Escalator Company. But you soon find that the treads are made of aluminum and utter hardly more than a mechanical purr.

You mount one metal escalator after another, climbing into the aerie of one of the largest stores on earth. You glide past Better Sportswear, the Fur Salon, Hosiery, Pinkberry, trailing your fingers along the wooden slopes, which still have evenly spaced bumps to catch stray handbags, packages, or small children. Cupping your hand around these worn knobs in passing offers reassurance that maybe the full handrailfanning experience is to come.

And finally, as you round the bend onto the eighth floor (Housewares, Bridal Salon, De Gustibus Cooking School), you hear it: the rattling, clattering ba-bump, ba-bump. As it turns out, there are only two wooden escalators left in the store, shuttling passengers between the eighth and ninth floors.

It's a chewy, bumpy sound, the hardwood creaking as the wooden treads slide from between the teeth of the comb plate. The stairs are bordered on each side by a length of bristles, intended to keep debris from falling through the cracks—but which also provide a shoeshine en route.

You can feel the life force in the wood of the treads beneath your soles, a warmth: it's almost calming, if an escalator can provide comfort. There's a springiness to the half-inch-wide cleats, which have been worn down by decades of shoppers' feet. At the eighth-floor landing, where the old passes its baton to the new, I noticed some repair work being done. Anyone wishing to descend to the seventh floor has to use the elevator.

A sign indicates that the metal escalator has potential hazards involving its "pinch points" and "moving equipment," and that work would be needed to help it "maintain control."

Meanwhile, the wooden escalator clatters and clunks reliably past just a few feet away.

Monday, July 26, 2021

SIGHT: Seven sights for the seventh month

In the Sense & the City annaul tradition, in honor of the seventh month I present seven of my favorite sights from around the city.

1. The late-night private trash trucks with year-round Christmas-colored lights bearing down on you in the dark

2. "Bizarre emergency 100% couture tailoring" with Playboy Bunny logo in Flatlands, Brooklyn

3. The halved lemons street vendors use to dip their fingertips into to make them sticky before separating a plastic bag from the sheaf

4. The beautifully arranged mop and broom display at Amigo 99-cent at 
Brooklyn Junction

5. The lurid blue and green plastic ring of the Nutcracker, a semi-contraband homebrewed beach concoction of various liquors and syrups hawked on Rockaways beaches and elsewhere: "NUTcrackers, get your NUTcrackers."

6. This gingerbread house on a side street in Charlotte Gardens, the Bronx

7. The "World's Most Famous Tree" in Bergen Beach, Brooklyn, begun in 2007 by local Eugene Fellner with a stuffed tiger