Jim Leff

Jim Leff

A weeklong electronic journal.
March 30 2000 9:00 PM

Jim Leff

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Some people dream of traveling to Hawaii, Rio, or the Côte d'Azur. For me, a destination that has long enticed is West Haverstraw, N.Y., an anonymous little village a few miles south of Bear Mountain. I've never been there, but a reliable source once told me that it's a haven for Central Americans, and there would surely be lots of places serving my favorite Salvadoran, Honduran, and Guatemalan dishes, and perhaps (I quake at the thought!) even Nicaraguan, Panamanian, Costa Rican, and Belizian—cuisines I've been looking for for years.

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So, I crossed Bear Mountain Bridge and pointed the chowmobile down Route 9W, paralleling the Hudson River, in high spirits. I was savoring last night's chorizo quesadillas, enjoying the spring day, and glad to be back in the saddle again, doing what I love: driving somewhere new and intriguing for an afternoon of contented chowhounding.

I passed a fast-food joint called Annie's, a kind of old-fashioned roadside drive-in New Yorkers only find upstate, and on impulse I cut the wheel and skidded into their parking lot. What had caught my attention was a handwritten note tacked to a takeout window reading "Onion Rings!" It was essential to conserve appetite, but I knew I had to try those onion rings.

The counter girl fried up a fresh batch, and they were extraordinary. Nothing fancy or revisionist (not that there's anything necessarily wrong with fancy or revisionist), but simply a perfect execution of the classic recipe; these were truly the ur-onion rings. Oil was fresh, onions were sweet and just firm enough, and batter was ultra-crisp yet melted instantly in the mouth.

Though I normally show professional restraint and discipline while working—sampling mere bitefuls and letting The Mouths Along for the Ride clean the plates—I finished the entire order. I didn't feel guilty at all; life is short and great chow is fleeting.

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Not as fleeting as West Haverstraw, however. The place didn't seem to actually exist. As far as I could determine, it consists of a stretch of nondescript residential land that weaves its unshapely self around Haverstraw. As I drove along side roads, signs constantly announced my leaving and then re-entering West Haverstraw. There was no town center other than a half-mile of 9W filled with generic sprawl—certainly no Salvadorian pupusarias or anything. So I ventured into the village of non-West Haverstraw.

I'll cut to the chase. In Haverstraw, I spotted a few Latino restaurants, but only Mexicans and Dominicans, and those are cuisines easily found back in the city. I did quick take-outs in two of them (see sidebar via link below), and enjoyed impressive cooking … but no Central American wonderland.

I probably should have felt frustrated and disappointed, but in fact I smiled all the way back to Chappaqua. I might yet one day find West Haverstraw, and in the meantime those superb onion rings were an accomplishment sufficient to satisfy me both personally and professionally.

Which got me to brooding about my job; whether it's a self-indulgent waste of time and energy to drive around and write about onion rings.

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Here's the thing: People will go to Annie's, they'll try the onion rings, and something may spark in their eyes as they begin to realize that things can be better; life can be better. They'll see that if only they try a little harder, drive a little farther, any occasion can be a special occasion, and life can be a rich and satisfying adventure. That there's no reason to settle for the charmless junk that's constantly marketed at us in all realms, not just food. That it's incredibly liberating and rewarding to jump off the treadmill.

I also recalled how much it meant to Maria (the miraculous chef-owner of Bo) that at least a small group understood and appreciated what she was doing. If I can tip discerning eaters to the Marias of the world—many of whom toil outside the media/marketing spotlight—they'll eat and live better, and deserving chefs will have more of a shot at cultivating the following they need (unlike a painter or musician, a chef, working in an inherently participatory art form, is nothing without an audience).

It's the passion of chowhounds (the 10 percent who live to eat, but who—unlike "foodies"—refuse to eat where they're told) to seek and revere such unappreciated treasure, and I happen to be a professional chowhound … and host of a cyberhaven in which we hounds can compare notes. This strikes me as legitimate work.

We needn't settle for the bland, the uniform, and the highly processed. It's a matter of training one's attention on the treasure in the cracks and choosing to patronize those heroic few who take pride and care in what they do rather than the vast majority who coldly seek maximal profit from minimal effort. Most of us, sadly, live our lives oblivious to all this.

An onion ring can change the world.

For information on the places mentioned, click.