For most of my life, I have fallen in love with cities that, in some way, remind me of New York. And I always end up disappointed.
This isn’t just because I’m a Manhattan-born snob, although I’m sure that that has something to do with it. After all, it’s hard to grow up in New York and not believe it’s the greatest city on earth.
But it’s more than that – after all, my childhood memories are inextricably linked with the city itself. My after-school art class took place in the basement of the Met; regular Sunday masses were attended at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral (or, more rarely, Saint John the Divine [not actually Catholic – yikes] and followed up with pastries at the Hungarian Pastry Shop). I didn’t have a backyard, but I did have the 85th Street playground. I went trick or treating, not house to house, but apartment to apartment, riding the service elevator all the way up to the penthouse and taking the fire stairs down to the basement.
Some, especially those who grew up in the suburbs, may find it strange, but there’s nothing quite like a New York City childhood.
Even better, I must say, is a New York City adolescence. I spent afternoons equally dividing my time between the Strand and Second Hand Rose Music; I spent nights wandering through Carl Schurz Park or along an empty Park Avenue, ghostlike and strange. A guy called James, who knew us all on a first-name basis and had better jeans than I did, hung out outside the local 24-hour store, and we gave him money to buy us six-packs of Smirnoff Ice and drank them in someone’s corner apartment, looking down at taxicabs flying by on Fifth Avenue.
Is it surprising that there’s nowhere that can compare, at least in my mind?
That said, I’ve left New York. It happened slowly, though it may not look like it from the outside. For years, even as I was putting down roots in Paris, I convinced myself that I would go “home,” someday; that New York would welcome me back with open arms. But somewhere between then and now, ten years later, Paris is my home; New York is my childhood. And what’s that they say? You can never go home again. When I try to, it feels like everything has changed, and in a place like New York, it’s impossible to know if everything really has changed, or if it’s just you that’s changed, that no longer fits the mold in a place where no one fits the mold.
New York, as I remember it, lives on in my memory – and that’s why, perhaps, I seek out echoes of it no matter where I go, disjointed pieces that send me rocketing back to the place that raised me.
It’s the perfect used bookstore in London; a really good cup of bad coffee in a Toronto diner. It’s emerging from a 9pm movie in Paris and seeing that there are still people meandering the streets – but most of all, it’s Amsterdam.
From the moment I arrived in Amsterdam the first time – years ago now – I felt the pieces slide into place. This, I thought, is the place that they were thinking of when they first made New York. This is the nostalgia that they ached for when they built the brownstones, the stoops, the narrow downtown streets.
It’s strange to feel an ache for New York in Amsterdam, to feel nostalgia for the place that was built out of nostalgia from where you are. But I can’t help it. There’s an inextricable link between the two, and no matter how much each of the two cities evolves in its own direction, that vein of connection will always be there.
Food-wise, the bond may be a bit more tenuous, but it’s still there. Nowhere else in America, at least nowhere else that I’ve been, is there such a strong emphasis on smoked and cured fish than in New York. One of our family favorites is Barney Greengrass, where the service ranges from perfunctory to God-awful, but where you can get the best smoked salmon scramble in the world. Since I can’t make it back as often as I’d like (read: every Sunday), I’ve had to learn to make my own version at home.
Smoked Salmon Scramble with Herbs (serves 2)
2 tablespoons chicken fat (schmalz)
1 shallot, minced
6 eggs, lightly beaten
100 grams smoked salmon, finely chopped
herbs of your choice (chives or dill)
salt and pepper
Heat the chicken fat in a skillet over low heat. Add the shallot and cook, stirring occasionally, until the shallot begins to caramelize. Add water by the teaspoon as needed, until the shallot is deeply browned and soft. Cook until there is no more liquid in the pan.
Add the eggs and allow to cook for about one minute without stirring. Season with salt and pepper. Using a wooden spatula, slowly begin to stir the eggs, scraping up the large curds. Cook until just past the soupy stage, about six minutes.
Add the smoked salmon and stir to combine. Cook for just a minute or two more, to heat the salmon without cooking it. Remove from the heat. Add the fresh herbs and serve. Think of New York.