This one comes with a warm sentiment and the kind that comes from the purest station of the heart. I will offer this before moving on, in the toughest times, there is something called comfort food. And there is a lesson here to be learned, which I’ve learned this gratefully. And here’s how.
I was working an early morning shift as a start-up engineer in a building over by 34th Street. My position was simple. I came in on-time and started the machines to either keep the building cool or warm, depending upon the season. The tenants of the building were mainly office workers. There were lawyers and law offices and different businesses with different attitudes. Not all of the tenants were pleasant but not all of them were unfriendly either.
There were easy tenants and troubled. There were also the nightmare tenants, which, no matter what we did to satisfy their requests, they would complain. Sometimes they dared to get personal and one time there was a tenant that nearly became physical.
The building itself was strictly commercial. The property was a good address, which made the spaces desirable. However, the property owner was less than caring about the building and its need for extensive repairs. Nevertheless, I did my best to survive the uncomfortable climate. I worked with a small crew of angry workers and a boss that was perhaps the worst of all. And by the way, when I say the worst, I mean the absolute worst. He was the kind of boss that stole Christmas tips from people. He was dirty, underhanded and he loved to pad his own pocket. He did this and more, which made the workplace more than a little hostile.
There were some tenants however that made the day a bit more tolerable. There was a firm that did translations from one language to another. And the best was at the top of the building. This is where we had a radio station with a few celebrities that ran daily shows in the morning.
Sometimes, there would be issues when I arrived on-site. And sometimes the issue was as simple as a tripped breaker in the breaker panel. This happened often, especially at the radio station. I would reset the breaker and check to be sure there were no electrical problems.
Like anywhere else, there were rules at this place. There were building protocols and procedures, which would often be disregarded by some of the radio talent.
There was a policy about cooking in the spaces, but again, the talent wanted their breakfast. So, rather than complain or tell them “Hey you can’t cook with that up here,” I would simply reset the breaker and nod, ask the cook to be careful and then I would be on my way.
My office was an engine room, which was not too pretty. There were cabinets with buttons and gauges, switches and all types of controls that ran the building fans. Plus, my office was directly above the radio station, which made it easy to smell the food.
One morning, the cook offered me something. He mentioned that I was always helpful and I never complained. He offered me a slice of his sweet potato pie. To be honest, I don’t think I ever had sweet potato pie before then.
The taste was amazing. It was great! But yet, what I remember more than the flavor is what the cook said to me when he offered me the pie.
He said, “Food is love.”
And yes, I suppose it is.
I am a typical New Yorker, which means my taste for pizza is one that comes with high standards. I used to judge places by the slice and the flavor of the sauce.
Sometimes, I’d keep things simple by ordering a plain slice. Sometimes, I would have a meatball or a sausage slice. There were chicken slices, chicken parmesan, chicken marsala, and then there were grandma slices and Sicilian slices and pepperoni pinwheels, calzones and the list of my favorites is a long one.
In the year of 2006, I resigned my search for the best slice to a place that was near my little apartment. I was alone at the time. I was caught in the agony of heartbreak and dealing with the uncertainties of a new life after divorce. My heart was not broken the way one would assume. No, instead, I worried and wondered if there was something wrong with me. Why me? Why am I so difficult?
I was afraid of so many things. My insecurities seemed insurmountable to say the least. More than anything, my financial worries were certainly on the forefront. I worried and wondered if I would ever meet with at least an average level of success. I worried about everything that was out of my control; therefore. important things, such as self-care was far down on the list of priorities.
Most nights, I would stop for a slice at a place called Piesanos. The youngsters behind the counter were always kind to me. Eventually, we got to know each other. We began to talk and we learned a bit about each other’s backgrounds. They knew that I was someone from the neighborhood. They knew that I moved away and that I moved back. Some knew about my younger history. They knew I was divorced and worked on rearranging my life. They also knew that unfortunately, my divorce meant that I had struggles with my daughter, which was painful to say the least.
To me in my own mind, I was a failure. Who would want me now?
I saw myself as pitiful. I was a failure as a husband and as a father
I have to say the chef from the radio station was right. Food is love. I can say this with all certainty because after a while, I would come to Piesanos a few times a week.
“Just feed me,” I’d say and let the boys choose which slices were the best. They knew I was down and yet, they offered me a kindness that I could never quite describe in words, other than this: It was nice to be seen by them and nice to be accepted. It was nice to bite into the perfect slice of pizza, complete with the ingredients of warmth, understanding, love and acceptance. The food was good. I was full and at least for the moment, I was happy.
I would often leave a tip and the boys and the pizza place would often undercharge me. One of the young men told me he knew a little bit about me. He said that he appreciated what he heard and that he wanted to show his appreciation. I found this to be touching.
As a matter of fact, this young man was in the back row of a presentation of mine at a local library. He was smiling too. He was smiling in a way that means a bit more than others. The truth is life does happen to everyone. We all go through life. We all hurt and inevitably, everyone will have to recover from something.
In fairness, I’ve had my share of good slices. My friends at Momma T’s were always good to me as well. For some reason, I have always had good food karma. I tip well, which might have something to do with it.
Then again, I also do something special, like remember names and ask how they are, how their family is and I say things like, “Hey, how’s your kid brother feeling? Did he get his stitches out yet?”
Food is love and so is regarding someone as more than just a server.
I wrote my first journal with Piesanos pizza by my side. Without this, quite honestly, my tough days would have been a lot tougher. I don’t look for slices that can beat the ones from Piesanos. I don’t think anyone can top their recipe.
More to the point, there will never be a slice of sweet potato pie to match my first. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I’ll ever have a bowl of soup that could beat the one I had out in Montauk, nor can there ever be a breakfast better than the one I had at a place called The Scotrun Diner in Pennsylvania.
What’s the most loving dish I’ve ever had?
Hands down, this has to be chicken cutlets with gravy and mashed potatoes. This was one of the most loving dishes. This was one of the only things that could cure me as a kid with a social illness. No matter how bad the day was, this dish was better than any medication from a doctor.
Thanks for always making me feel better, Mom.
I miss you . . . .