Monday, April 27, 2009

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Or, a personalized obituary of my first experiences of culinary mecca.

The NYTimes today reports the closing of Manhattan's two branches of Balducci's market. In it's former home on Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village, Balducci's was my introduction to the joys of food shopping and food porn. I didn't learn new ingredients as much as see them at their finest. And, of course, most expensive. My actual shopping at Balducci's was limited by the smallness of my budget, but I loved walking through those cramped spaces that passed for aisles with a basket waiting for one of two specialty items to perk up a menu. I longingly admired the tropical fruits I'd eaten while traveling through SE Asia, tempting, but beyond my means.

My aunt and uncle lived around the corner from Balducci's through all my teen years. And I do mean around the corner. They lived on West 10th Street, four or five buildings in from Sixth Avenue. Walking almost anywhere meant walking past the glorious windows of aging meat, bright-eyed whole fish, and delicate pastries that represented a closed world to me for the first years. It's not that the world of food was closed to me. On the contrary, my family, nuclear and extended, are lovers of food and explorers of cuisine. Our trips into Manhattan brought a car to my aunt's disposal and often led to a trip to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn to stock up on Middle Eastern goodies at Sahadi's.

But for many years, I never entered Balducci's, although I'm not sure why. Later, when my aunt and uncle started spending weekends near my parents, I sometimes took over their apartment, with friends coming from as far as Montreal and Boston for weekends full of friendship and food. And then I did shop at Balducci's for then-hard-to-find specialty greens to elevate a salad made mostly of more ordinary leaves. Or for good bread to go with cheese from the East Village Cheese store that made fun cheeses affordable for me.

I occasionally forked over way too much money for a pastry for myself or bought a quarter pound of swoon-worthy coffee beans. Once, I stood behind Jodi Foster at the check-out. Mostly, though, I looked. And dreamed.

Even though I never visited Balducci's once it moved from the cramped, but wonderful space on the Avenue of the Americas, I'm a little sad to think that it no longer exists in Manhattan. The mingled food smells, the jeweled berries, the shelves crammed with oils, vinegars, and imported treats. They let me imagine meals I couldn't afford then (or now, really), but enjoyed planning. Always in my head, never on my stove. Luckily, my Memory Lane still pictures that market in that location, stocked with all the food goodness my culinary dreams require.

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