A Movable Feast {Pedaling, part i}

When I first moved to New York City, I fell in love with a New Yorker who seemed to have sprung from the stories I’d read growing up in the Midwest. His traditions—like his annual Peking duck dinner in Chinatown on Christmas Eve—were uniquely New York, and a chic juxtaposition to the stuffed bird and buttered potatoes of my family table back home.

Committed to becoming a New Yorker, I spent the next few years tucked into Chinatown’s tiny stalls tasting sweet sticky rice and soup dumplings, hand-formed dumplings and dim sum, looking for new traditions of my own. Those flavors were great fodder for my culinary tales, but still, I never quite felt I belonged.

Then I met András. One sleepy December Sunday, just months after we’d met, our afternoon bike ride through Chinatown came to a halt outside a bustling shop called Mei Lai Wah. András ducked behind the shop’s steamy windows, promising delicious fuel for our ride home. He returned with two paper bags, wet with steam. I peeled back the paper with frozen fingers and devoured hot roast pork buns until I was laughing with satisfaction. How he (a vegetarian who seemed to consider food merely fuel for his next ride) knew about something so good was beyond me, but I loved him for it.

We began to frequent the bun shop, eating buns—coconut for him, pork for me—sliding our little Chinet plates across the aged formica bar for more with nods and smiles. Afterward, I’d peek in the kitchen, where thin men stood around giant woks, poking buns and gabbing like sisters. They’d shoo me away as if I were a spy instead of a loyal customer, which made me laugh and return even more faithfully. This was my Chinatown.

After 8 years living in New York, I forfeited my holidays at home for the first time in my life and András and I booked dinner at a famed three-star city restaurant. The meal was refined, festive, delicious—and heartbreaking. As we finished, I burst into tears. I longed for sweet potatoes smothered in bruleed marshmallows and for my family.

At a loss for how to comfort me, András took me to our bun shop. I was soothed by a stack of steamy buns and familiar faces that always greeted me with ironic half-smiles that made me feel at once welcome and amused. This food, this family, was mine as well.

Last summer, Mei Lai Wah’s doors closed without warning, and just as suddenly they reopened again. Rumors of new ownership had us weary to return and when we finally did, our fears were realized. Everything familiar was replaced by something newer, cleaner, brighter. A sleek wooden countertop stood in place of the formica bar we once considered the best seat in the house. We took a seat instead in the booths in the back and I sighed and bemoaned the passing of our favorite tradition. But just as quickly I remembered that it was progress that brought me here -- and our beloved buns, now served by younger faces with bigger smiles, hadn’t changed. They still deliverd the same comforting flavors that always manage to somehow validate my choice to call New York City, and these adopted traditions my own.

*{This piece was originally published in the Winter 2009 issue of 360 magazine. I love this piece, because this tradition marks the beginning of the edible life I now share with my husband, András. }


The Smiths in NYC said...

Love sticky buns and all the secret comfort places we have in the city.

claire said...

Congratulations on marrying a foodie! I don't think I'd be able to be with someone who doesn't care about food. I will also be checking out those buns. Any recommendations on Singaporean/Malaysian food?

sarah said...

We're talking about a man who though pizza and two eggs on a roll with swiss was good eats before we met, but like every day in life with him, there are always surprises. He is full of them. This was the day I realized that life with him would always be that way. It's wonderful.

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Sarah Copeland is a food and lifestyle expert, and the author of Feast: Generous Vegetarian Meals for Any Eater and Every Appetite, and The Newlywed Cookbook. She is the Food Director at Real Simple magazine, and has appeared in numerous national publications including Saveur, Health, Fitness, Shape, Martha Stewart Living and Food & Wine magazines. As a passionate gardener, Sarah's Edible Living philosophy aims to inspire good living through growing, cooking and enjoying delicious, irresistible whole foods. She thrives on homegrown veggies, stinky cheese and chocolate cake. Sarah lives in New York with her husband and their young daughter.