One of the pleasures of living in Brooklyn, and more specifically in zip code 11218, supposedly once the most ethnically diverse zip code in the US, is the aromatic extravaganza available to one’s olfactory apparatus. In plain English: you can smell a lot of really delicious things around here. Once you are done with the obligatory snickering about New York City odors, we can get on with the intended subject of this post: the many, endlessly varied fragrances of cuisines from the world over, wafting out from apartment and co-op windows, restaurant kitchens, and of course, roadside vendor stalls and carts, tickling my nostrils and sending my taste buds quivering and fluttering. Nothing else quite reminds me of what an amazing crossroads of the world this section of New York City is.
I’ve lived in Brooklyn for close to ten years. The first three years were spent in Fort Greene, and since then, in my present location in Ditmas Park/Kensington/Flatbush. (I’m not quite sure of my precise location because, thanks to real estate marketing pressures, neighborhood names seem to be in a state of flux; we have though, been ensconced in the same building for the past six years.) My current neighborhood is host to Orthodox Jews, Russians, Ukranians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Mexicans, Trinidadians, the list goes on and on. My building’s residents were, and are, a representative sample of this mix. For instance, the door to my co-op apartment still features a mezuzah case from one of its past residents. Its demographics, and the restaurants on Cortelyou Road, have, of course, changed as gentrification proceeds apace. (I was one of the gentrifiers. Guilty as charged. But in my defense, I can at least say that since my wife and I cook a lot, and it isn’t just all the same thing all the time either, we have added to this building’s offerings in the aromatic dimension.)
In all my years in this neighborhood, it has been a rare day that I’ve not wondered as I have walked around in the surrounding streets, or walked up the stairs to my apartment: ‘Mmmm…what is that?’ Sometimes, I can make some of the ingredients–fish for instance–sometimes I can hazard a guess at the ethnic origin of the cook. Sometimes, I am utterly and totally stumped, my sensory receptors bewildered by the rich combinations of spices, meats and vegetables being transformed by expert human manipulation, kitchen tools and heat in someone’s proximal, and yet frustratingly out of reach kitchen. Trust me, there is nothing quite as cruel and tantalizing as coming home tired and hungry after a long day at work (or perhaps a workout at the gym), walking up the stairs, smelling someone’s delicious cooking all the while aware that nothing is as yet ready to be eaten at home.
Sometimes, I have wondered if I could ever muster up the courage to run around like a demented bloodhound in my building, tracking down the source of a particularly delicious vapor, to knock on the door of the master chef, begging for a taste, a sample, a glimpse of the culinary promised land. One ladle from the pot will do.
Neighbors: consider yourself warned.