Sunday, February 8, 2009

Ocean Parkway Idiosyncracies Pt. 1: A Salsa Free Zone

My neighborhood is safe, clean and in some ways quite pretty. Ocean Parkway was built up, or so my father says, to be kind of like Park Avenue. Only for Jews because way back when they didn't allow us Chosen People to inhabit the choicest addresses in Manhattan, so we built up our own version of Millionaire's Row.

It's broad, it's attractive, it has charming little side roads running along the main road. It has a lot going for it. But what it doesn't have, for the most part, is salsa.

I know, I know, this is a trivial complaint. If you like the area, and it's a good place to house a little family, and the rent is okay, and the apartment is massive by New York standards, just suck it up and shutup, right?

Only there's one problem: I LOVE salsa.

And I just don't understand why it's so hard to find some in my neighborhood.

I found this out a few nights ago. I had come home from work and missed Randi's message that we were to have rice and beans that night, and I should pick up some salsa. So I got home, and looked in the fridge and realized we were short. Okay, no problem. There are like five delis right near us, one of them ought to have it.

I thought this because salsa is actually the most popular condiment in the U.S. having supplanted ketchup years ago. I thought this because in every other area I've ever lived the local deli or corner store not only had salsa, but tons of salsa, and from different makers. It's an American food, as popular as it comes. It would be like going to a store and finding out they don't have soda, or air.

So I walk to the closest local deli.

"Hi, do you have salsa?" The guy behind the counter, who looks Mid-Eastern looks at me as if I just asked him the square root of pi, or for his papers. He just didn't understand, at all, what I could possibly be talking about.

Hmm, that's strange. I start to look throughout the store. No tortilla chips either, not a good sign. But they have so much other stuff that is typical of delis. In fact they seem to have on their shelves every tomato based product you can find but salsa: ketchup, tomato sauce, hot sauce, the list really goes on.

I see a Latin American guy restocking the shelves. I figure HE would know where the salsa is, if anyone does in this store. So I ask him. He looks at me with a blank stare. Then he walks me over to the aisle, and points at a can of tomato paste. "Salsa?"

"No," I say, "this isn't it. Hey, you know salsa, right? You can put it on tortilla chips? It had chunks of tomato in it, and spices? It's good. You guys must have it somewhere, right?" He stares at me blankly. Here, I must admit, I felt pretty strange; lecturing a Latin American man about salsa. What's wrong wrong with this picture?

I talk to the Middle-eastern fellow behind the counter for a few more moments, and he kind of patronizes me, like I'm an especially confused and strange child.

Okay, so these guys are out. I go next door to another deli. This one is filled with Latino-looking gentlemen. I take this as a positive sign. I look through the aisles, though, and see no salsa. Again, I see tomatoes in every other form BUT salsa. Is this a conspiracy? I ask at the counter, and, again, the answer is they have no idea what I am talking about. It's like The Twilight Zone.

I walk down the block to a Korean green grocer.

"Hi, do you have salsa?" I ask. He looks confused. "Salsa," I repeat, "like the dance?" And here, despite myself, I do a little hip shaking movement to illustrate my point.

This finally makes him understand. "Oh, no. Maybe in the summer."

I leave, baffled. Maybe in the summer? Salsa, as far as I know, is not a particularly cool and refreshing summer time snack. It's not exactly like you would down a chilled pitcher of it, like lemonade. Miffed I walk a block over.

Here, at my local deli where I buy beer, the guy asks me -- in a moment ripped straight from "Seinfeld" -- if I mean seltzer, the bubbly beverage. NO, I answer. I mean the tomato based sauce with chunks of stuff in it, it's really popular in the rest of America, and yada yada yada.

He nods his head, now understanding. "Oh no, noooooooooooooo."

I'm sorry, but is my neighborhood in a worm hole? I know that it's mainly occupied by Eastern Europeans, and they can be a xenophobic group, set in their ways. But god knows they've filled the local stores with stuff they like to eat. I can get about 10,000 different brands of pickles, and hundreds of different kinds of pork stuffed into a casing, but salsa is hardly this crazy, exotic thing. It should be available everywhere. Yes, I know, it's not herring stuffed into a can, or yet another platter of smoked salmon. All of which I am completely down with, but this is something that almost everyone else in the rest of America eats with great gusto. If they tried it they would probably like it. I told various deli owners this during my stupid, quixotic quest, but it seemed to fall on deaf ears.

Maybe if they made salsa that tasted like kielobosa ...

Finally, this last deli guy directs me to the first place I should have gone anyway: The Mexican deli up the street.

Feeling abashed for ignoring the obvious I walked into the Mexican deli, and did, indeed find salsa. It wasn't a brand I was familiar with, and they only had two jars of the stuff anyway. For a crazy second I thought about stocking up, but then I remembered that while I may live on Ocean Parkway I work in Manhattan, and if I really apply myself I just might be able to find some salsa, I don't know, EVERYWHERE.

The two kinds they had were not what I had grown used to. One was green salsa, and the other looked black. I went with what was more familiar and bought the green. And I must say, it was excellent.

On the way back from the deli I formulated a theory as to why salsa was so hard to find. Eastern Europeans, and Orthodox Jews -- who together they make up most of the neighborhood -- won't touch the stuff. They might not even know about the stuff. Real Latin Americans, the next largest minority in the neighborhood, also don't eat chips and salsa, because it's gringo food. I'm guessing here, but it seems to be right. So, the only people who really eat a lot of chips and are us yuppies, and there just aren't all that many in my area. Okay, so it's not exactly like I'm pioneering the Wild West in my covered wagon. But, still, I'm suffering, at least a little, by being an early gentrifier. You could almost feel sorry for me.


Holly said...

Hmmmm...a fascinating urban study! But it doesn't look too hopeful for salsa to appear anytime soon in your neighborhood. Maybe you should try out recipes to make it yourself at home?

Or, wait, one other last hope: do you have a CVS or Duane Reade nearby? I know CVS is where I sometimes shopped for "American" food in Union City.

David Serchuk said...

Hi Holly,
Yes, we have thought about adopting our recipes and expectations to our new nabe, making a lot of kielbosa, and the like. It's good food, but heavy.

And we do have a CVS nearby, but even THEY don't have salsa or even tortilla chips. It's like these foods don't really exist in our area. Weird.


Randi Skaggs said...

Dave actually makes an amazing salsa, but it is a bit labor intensive. If we only ate our own version, though, we'd be much healthier. Except for those darn tortilla chips...

alexlady said...

oh man. none of the bodegas in our neightborhood stock either half and half, nor skim milk. ihave to walk all the way to the main drag should i wake up of a morning and realize we're out!! aaaaaaaarg! and y es, most of them don't know what i'm talking about when i ask.

our closest corner store seems in a wormhole of its own... our neighbor bought a two liter of coke there to get it home and find it flat!! he looked at the exp date and discovered it was over five years old.

the guy wouldn't give him a refund.

Mrs. Motley said...

Interesting. We live on Ocean Parkway and I've never had trouble finding salsa or tortilla chips. Golden Farm has salsa. So does One Stop Market on Caton and E. 7th. Maybe you live a lot further south than us?

When we first moved here, we had a hard time finding taco shells, but recently everyone has had them. Foodtown, Golden Farm, One Stop - those are our usual grocery stores, when we can't be bothered to order from Fresh Direct or schlep to Trader Joe's. Between the three of these, we can usually find what we need.

Good luck adjusting to the 'hood!

David Serchuk said...

Hi Mrs. Motley,
Thanks for commenenting. I've since found some salsa, but not much. Cheese curls, yup, alot of those. And we can get everything in the supermarkets. We love the 'hood, and have had a nice adjustment to the place. Our landlords are another story though! ...