Welcome, dear reader, to the new New York.
It may seem to you a sad little town, whimpering under the weight of a plummeting economy, scoffing at the glooms of a recession, sighing at its insecurities and its fears. And, to be sure, it is very much all of the above: living rooms once atwitter with talk of interior decorators and summers at St. Barts are now silent, and imperial retailers once adept at branding each bit of merchandise with ubiquitous logos now resort to plain brown wrappers in an effort to assuage that strange new phenomenon afflicting the affluent, luxury shame.
But for us common folks, it’s a happening place, a city bursting with a sense of possibility and moved by happy resolve and defiant optimism. How do I know? Because I got a table at a certain restaurant.
Which restaurant is unimportant; if I disclosed that information and informed you that its previously impossible-to-get reservations are now, well, only slightly less daunting to come by, you might get on the line and snag away its remaining spots. And they are mine, all mine: I’ve earned them.
For years, you see, I’ve been calling up this hallowed eatery—that is an achievement in of itself, as its number is not publicly listed—and, in a hushed tone, ask politely if, perhaps, they may find it in their hearts to permit me the pleasure of paying the equivalent of Guatemala’s gross domestic product for their renowned salmon tartare with horseradish, creme fraiche, and onions. More often than not, the answer was no. Or yes, but at 5:15 in the afternoon, 11:45 at night, next August, two solar eclipses from now, or at any other time in which neither the stomach nor the mind could fathom enjoying a masterful meal.
But this week, with the famous names that once graced the restaurant’s guest book now making up a good chunk of Bernard Madoff’s newly revealed list of clients, my prayers, and phone calls, were answered. The voice on the other end of the line sounded demure. A table? On the weekend? 8:30? With pleasure. Looking forward to seeing you, sir, and thank you very much.
My culinary Xanadu is not alone in its sudden subservience; as Frank Bruni gleefully reported this week, Manhattan’s most august eateries are struggling to unlearn their former cool reticence and instead embrace the few clients still interested in costly and time-consuming cooking. Once the masters of this town, the chefs are now at the hands of the people.
Which may make Mario Batalli, Sirio Maccioni, Eric Ripert and their fellow aproned emperors especially interested in this week’s parasha, a meditation on just how unremitting people can get when they’re hungry.
The story begins on a high note: the Israelites leaving Egypt, Pharaoh giving chase, Moses splitting the sea, and a grateful nation rapping a long hymn of thanks to the Almighty and His miracles. Soon, however, stomachs begin to grumble, and minds turn vicious: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by pots of meat, when we ate bread to our fill!” the people complain to their exasperated leader. “For you have brought us out into this desert, to starve this entire congregation to death.”
As if He were heaven’s own Top Chef, the Lord provides the protesting people with some manna. And since man cannot live on manna alone, he throws in some quail. All, mind you, raining down from the sky, requiring the Israelites to do nothing more than reach out, buffet-style, and gorge themselves. But they’re still not happy: the Lord forgot their soft drinks.
“Why have you brought us up from Egypt to make me and my children and my livestock die of thirst?” they complain, neglecting to give thanks for the baked goods and the roasted birds and sending Moses into a fit of desperation. The poor leader: he never understood what every New York foodie knows instinctively, namely that the times are only as good as the chow.
This is no frivolous statement, and God is not furious at the Israelites’ endless kvetching. Eating, our dietary-minded deity knows, is not only a matter of the stomach, but also of the soul; this, after all, is the same God that gave us a list of rules and rituals so obsessed with the preparation and consumption of edibles that it often reads like something penned by the priests of the Slow Food movement. A God who understands that we are what we eat, and that a bit of quail, perhaps encrusted with spices and herbs and served with a tumbler of cool, sweet water could make even the most stricken man sing, the most dire desert bloom, and the most impoverished town spring to life.
And so, the Lord obliges, the people have their fill, and Moses is free to address more pressing matters, like the gathering Amalekites. But before he wages war, he makes sure a bit of manna is stuffed in a jar and preserved for future generations to behold.
Hey, you never know: with even the city’s most celebrated cooks now resorting to canned truffles, squirreling away some goods is not a terrible idea. After all, who knows when we’d next be able to get a decent table in this town.