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Shared foods, music, and folkdances

Remember the 1950s ethnic delis that shared one another's music & healthy foods?
Anne Hart, photography and illustration.

Our neighborhood's early 1950s favorite New York City's childhood Greek, Turkish, Armenian, Sicilian, and Lebanese delicatessen shared  each culture's music, foods, and decorations, even though the customers had different languages.

The food and music links that brought them together were similar foods, stringed instruments, and family camaraderie. What they also had in common were the foods of both the Eastern and Western Mediterranean areas, from the Spanish rice and seafood to the Eastern Mediterranean stuffed grape leaves. The link? Sicilian rice balls that contained a hint of raisins, cinnamon, and pine nuts, in common with the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea areas that included trays of foods basted with home-made yogurt.


The mainspring of my school friend’s life focused on the red brick Mediterranean grocery and sundries store in the mid-1950s. Everything she ate, wore, and owned came from it. A store like this could be found in almost any large city.


The smell of green peppers hung on a string across the ceiling along with platters of Greek spanakopita (spinach and cheese pastries) and the dry, chipped Armenian style beef called bastoorma.


The scent accompanied that of onions frying in olive oil, filling the dark, wooden interior with an earthiness. Pickled watermelon and strips of fried eggplant lay on the counter top soon to be wrapped and stored in the cooler. The Greek deli featured foods also familiar in Turkey and Armenia. The music, Konyali, shared music from both Greece and the west coast of Turkey.


My delight had been to be sent to the store’s fragrance cellar where Armenian and Greek versions of bread were baked. There's Armenian akmak (cracker bread) or Turkish ekmek (soft bread). The Greek or Cretan pita is flat but leavened, and round and crusty inside. When you bite a hole, the bread opens up into a pocket. Today, you can find online the recipe for Turkish breakfast buns. See Binnur's Turkish Cookbook for the recipe in English.


Another treat is to stuff flat, lightly toasted pocket bread it with healthy greens, tomatoes, feta, and olive-oil drenched sardine balls stewed in tomato sauce with raisins, vinegar, pine nuts, cinnamon, cloves, and saffron. It reminds me of the sweet and sour fennel and fish (sardine balls) feast from that island off the coast of Sicily.


My school friend used to stuff this bread with hot cubes of roast lamb. She would put chunks of peppers and onions in the sandwich and dust the stuffed sandwich with spices such as lemon pepper and thyme, rosemary, sage, and cumin.


The roast lamb had been soaked in vinegar and sugar to make it taste sweet and sour. Over open flames on a charcoal broiler, family members roasted the skewered cubes. Lunch crowds would walk into the store each day to take out the big pocket toasted flat bread full of spice-tendered, marinated lamb cubes.


The cellar had a delicious smell of cinnamon and walnuts. A whiff of pastry from the big ovens, the tang of lemon, the scent of pistachio nuts and saffron or orange blossom water and honey cleared your head.


The immaculately clean dark cellar counter tops smelled of lemon and cold-pressed olive oil. Strains of shared Greek-Turkish-Armenian music wailed delightfully around the corridors of the cellar from an old phonograph. You didn't only listen. You stood up and danced or snapped your fingers to the nuances of wooden spoons clacking in rhythm like castanets.


My school friend never used canned foods. Everything came in bulk, in big barrels, boxes, or jars.


Hand-made coffee grinders turned the beans to the thick, sweet Turkish coffee powder served, when customized to each diner’s order, mixed with sugar, cinnamon, and orange blossom water.


A small, long handled bronze-colored pot heated over a single burner soon brought the coffee to a temperature just below the boiling point. When foam appeared on top, a server poured the syrupy-thick, sweet coffee into tiny china demitasse cups and placed them around each table.


Night after night Greek and Armenian men would drop in for a bit of gossip or to settle the world's business affairs. Young and old came often with sleeping infants in their laps, not only men, like in the old countries, but with their wives and extended family members, neighbors, and friends.


A large platter of food arrived. Then the nuances of minor-key music pulled many into a dance, a stroll down memory lane, or laughter. Moods, textures, and tones in that store helped to settle local problems. The scent of freshly baking cinnamon, dried fruit, and walnut bread opened a welcoming door, a center of life for the neighborhood.