New Haven

Trend-setting.  Vastly influential.  Innovative.  Global. What city are you thinking of? Me, too: New Haven, Connecticut.

Yes.  This zero-supermarket town two hours from Manhattan and five minutes from nothing good is the purported birthplace of (1) the hamburger, and (2) the American pizza.

Let that sink in for a second.  While it is entirely possible that the most-eaten foods in the United States today are actually burritos and sushi for all I know, the good old burger and pie are the undisputed heavyweights of American staple fare.

((Hamburgers and pizza!  I still can’t believe it.))

I was back in this hotbed of cutting-edge eating, my college town, last week for an interview.  Retracing my old steps brought back memories of trudging through snow to A-1 Pizzeria for the “grinders” (subway sandwiches in New Haven parlance.)  My roommate, who was essentially the prince of Hong Kong, favored the chicken parm.  I liked the tuna and cheese.  I remember the walks back to the dorm, slipping the long paper packages into my winter coat to keep warm as snowflakes fell.  We’d practically skip up the six (six!) flights of stairs to our suite, and tear into our sandwiches–after soaking my grinder in Tabasco.

On my last visit to the Elm City, I made it a point to seek out that tuna grinder, but had to eat it on a park bench on a sunny afternoon.  What they say about never going home again seemed particularly true.  I couldn’t even finish the sandwich.  Without snow, and roommates, and homework it was just a tuna melt.

This time I skipped the grinder–though I did peek into A-1 for a whiff of pizza and mayonnaise and toasting bread, and it was as it ever was.  I also walked past the old dorm and stared through the iron gate: the doors and windows and shingles just as they ever were, the blue curtains drawn, but no one familiar at home behind them.

I had two discretionary meals on this trip into town and chose, by coincidence, the two icons: Frank Pepe’s pizzeria (birthplace of the American pie) on Wooster and Louis Lunch on Crown, where the hamburger came into being.

Pepe’s is not a place I visited often, but even an infrequent patron can’t forget its clarity of food: thin-crust pies just so,  pitchers of iced tea and beer just so,  narrow booths and brisk service and long lines all part of the robust formula that delivered, again and again, exactly the pizza you craved.

Louis Lunch is a place I had visited even less often: exactly once, as an 18-year-old arriving on campus.  Its original hamburger is served “never with ketchup” (please don’t ask for any) but with tomatoes and onions–unless, for perhaps the first time in history, the establishment is upset with the market price of tomatoes and has stricken them from the menu (which is approximately one dish long).

It almost doesn’t matter.  The burger is slow, unapologetic and completely unique (just like the service) and shines between two pieces of white-bread toast, as it has for 111 years.

If a sandwich can survive for a century (and radiate across the planet) it can’t be bad–no matter how unyielding the constitution or humble the luncheonette. Rather: perhaps precisely on account of being so unyielding and humble.

I don’t what it is about this little hamlet by the Sound and its indelible stamp on global cuisine.  Is it in the water, the peals of bells?  New Haven is in so many ways, on so many glass-strewn street corners, a town that struggles to stand. But while its infrastructure and economy may limp and fall, and though the town’s only supermarket (Shaw’s, where I almost stepped on a 12-inch switchblade) has shuttered and tomatoes can not be had, this funny little city still dishes it out, piping hot, true to form and better than ever.

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