A Tale of Two Chowhounds

“For crying out loud, just get the 42, willya?!?”

The salesman had had quite enough of my waffling between two overcoats. Howard Turkell, 60-ish and a garment center veteran, was trying to be polite with the weirdo hipster kid who’d turned up at his third-floor shop that fateful morning, but patience had finally worn thin.

“The 40’s too tight, you don’t wanna tight coat. You wanna 42 or not?!?”

I wanted, I wanted. Howard wrote up the bill on a pad that might still retain pen impressions from the 1949 rental of your uncle’s prom suit, and, though he was anxious to get rid of me, we plunged into the rigmarole. Licking ballpoint, Howard asked my address. As he copied down the information, an eyebrow suddenly cocked. “That near Steinway Bakeshop?” “Yeah,” I replied, “but they’ve gone downhill. So I get bread at Parisi’s, and pastries at Lefkos Piergos.” Howard’s attention had been caught. “Parisi’s I could see, but…Lefkos Piergos?!? That’s Greek! You won’t find the German stuff like they got at Steinway!” “Steinway? German? Listen, I don’t know when you were last there, but nowadays it’s middle of the road French. I’ll take a bogatsa at Lefkos anyday.” “Maybe so. Haven’t been out that way in ages. But what the hell’s a bogatsa?!?” Howard had put down his pen. I was late for an appointment, but, sensing free alterations in my future, kicked into a twenty minute food shmooze. Once again, I’d bumped up against the mysterious brotherhood of chowhounds, an invisible network running through our country.

Months later, I get an email from some guy in Brooklyn:

“Got your address from your article. Like your stuff. Here’s pizza. Old guy makes everything by hand. Thin crust, good sauce. 1424 Ave J. Larry.”

I’m picturing a nerdy teen. I get lots of email. I jot back “Thanks, Larry! I’ll put it on my list! Keep in touch!’.

Then, a few days later, it’s…Larry again.

“Did you try the pizza yet? Here’s another: Randazzo’s Clam Bar, Emmons Avenue. Fried calamari. Larry.”

The messages are unsettlingly flat. But, sensing a hardcore chowhound, I go try the pizza. It’s good.

“Very nice, Larry! You’re a heckuva pizza scout! Thanks so much. See you around, now!”

But Larry writes back with more suggestions, always asking whether I’ve checked the previous ones. Larry seems a tad sheltered—I wonder if he gets out much. Then one day, this:

“I had an op-ed piece published in the paper. Do you wanna see it? Larry.”

“Sure, Larry! Why not! Send away!”

The article is wonderful. Assured, funny writing-this is no sheltered kid. He’s written an autobiographical account of a chowhound (“I eat to live. I live to eat. I eat to eat”). I’m flabbergasted, jealous. It all fits together when I read his bio blurb, revealing that Larry’s actually an acclaimed screenwriter. But food is his true love, and I am a food writer, and-more importantly-a respected chowhound. Cassavetes on line two? I’ll call him back, I’ve got Jim on the phone, and we’re talking french toast.

Every few weeks, I’d find myself awakened at ungodly hours by Howard’s voice blasting from my answering machine. “Jim, this is Howard Turkell!” Always the last name, as if I have legions of 63-year-old Bronx-accented guys named Howard calling me at 7 in the morning. “I have something VERY IMPORTANT to speak with you about. Please return my call at your EARLIEST CONVENIENCE.” I’d call back the store, and Howard would shoo away customers and fabric salesmen and recount his latest Polish and Italian discoveries; the “Balducci’s of Brooklyn” he’d found in Greenpoint, the good $4 Chinese dinner in midtown. I’d scrawl the tips in my notebook, as did he while I recounted my finds. Howard’s chowhound friends had all moved away, leaving him a lone hound; he was delighted with the opportunity to compare notes. The striking thing was that although Howard could go on and on about matzoh balls and pastrami, he was also familiar with dozens of other cuisines.

A chowhound can be any age. He might be any nationality-one of the savviest I ever met was a young, street-tough Yemeni cab driver next to whom I once slurped soup in a hole-in-the-wall Egyptian luncheonette. The guy, clutching obligatory pull-out radio with his non-spooning hand, spoke knowledgably (though in broken English) about Thai, Italian, and South American restaurants all over town. A chowhound’s collar can be blue or white-it’s recognizable above all by the gravy stains.

I used to suspect that women chowhounds weren’t as dedicated. They seldom had decaying french fries under the seats of their cars. When really desperately hungry, they tended to…just go somewhere and eat. True chowhounds use their last adrenal reserves to trek crosstown for a slightly better muffin. Snapple won’t do; it’s got to be After the Falls’ cranberry/rasberry, and we’ll dehydrate like two day-old carrot peelings before giving up the search.

But the most impressive display of chowhound valor I’ve ever been privileged to witness was performed by a woman. She had just bitten into a burning-hot chunk of something right out of the oven, and began waving hands frantically in front of her mouth, bobbing up and down in her chair with crimson-cheeked urgency, pained gutteral barks issuing from deep in her throat. I offered water. “No! No!” she gestured, “NO WATER!!” Waving/barking/bobbing continued for a good 30 seconds while I watched helplessly. Later, asked why in her blistering pain she’d refused a drink, our heroine replied: “To have diluted the incredible flavor would have been a sin.” That’s the spirit.

We are not foodies. They are a separate breed, an avatar of that 1960’s archetype, The Gourmet. Foodies eat where they’re told; they eagerly follow trends and swallow the hype. Most of all, they fuss endlessly about ingredients, a fixation which strikes chowhounds as sheer culinary materialism. A brownie needn’t contain imported French butter and Valhrona chocolate to earn chowhound esteem; it’s gustatory gestalt we crave, and we comb doggedly through far-flung nabes where foodies never tread in quest for a deeper deliciousness. Our star chefs are Peruvian grandmas, renegade sushi guys, and elderly Brooklyn pizza makers who serenely slice mozzarella while the subway screams overhead. It’s not about eating on-the-cheap; chowhounds can be spotted at Lespinasse insouciantly swirling their merlot. But, unlike foodies, we have not the slightest compunction about stopping for a really great slice on the way home.

Larry is late getting a script out to the coast, but he’s set aside an hour for Chinese suckling pig. We’re in Chinatown, and he’s rising above his anxieties, all attention on restaurant windows rushing past, eyes scanning for new places, new treasure. Finally we enter the little shop, and-showing no perceptible joy, just bristling excitation, like a skater about to perform her routine-grab takeout bags and rush them with clinical urgency to shelter for The Feeding. Talk is not about the beautiful fall day or Bette Midler’s reaction to the last story proposal. We talk about the food, in microscopic detail. Analogies are made, theories posited, hidden flavors probed. We one-up each other’s praise while pillaging the porcine bounty: “Unbelievable” “Does life get better than this?” “This isn’t life. I’m dead and in heaven” “Are you allowed to eat pork in heaven?!?”

A year ago, Howard had a stroke, and had to quit his job. He still calls me sometimes, but he can’t remember numbers or names of things, and it takes him forever to write stuff down. I tell him about new discoveries-very slowly and patiently; he notes them as faithfully as ever. Howard doesn’t get out much anymore, but he tells me about food articles I’ve missed, and asks about restaurants that have caught his eye while thumbing through Zagat (while foodies consider the Zagat Guide a bible, only a convalescent chowhound would be caught reading one-Howard and Larry both found places ages ago that won’t show up in the book for years to come). Sometimes Howard gets frustrated, and has to call his wife to the phone to help write down an address. I find him restaurants in his neighborhood-ones that deliver-but he insists on hearing about the GOOD joints, the latest Georgian in Brighton Beach, Malaysian in Flushing. He won’t ever get to try them, I’m afraid. After little trips out, he calls excitedly: “Jim? This is Howard TURKELL…” I can picture the business cards and takeout menus fanned out in front of him, better to keep all the information straight for his report. And his tips are still right on the money. If, heaven forbid, Howard should have another stroke and be confined to a hospital bed, he’ll undoubtedly be bribing orderlies to search for cinnamon buns in expanding circles from the building. And I’d bet my last bogatsa he’ll find GREAT ones.