Thursday, January 1, 2009

From Brighton Beach, With Love

This is why I moved to New York.

As I rode the B train back towards home on the Upper West Side after my late-morning jaunt to the Ukraine (aka Brighton Beach, nicknamed "Little Odessa"), I stared out the window at the falling snow on the passing streets, inhaling the delicious aroma of the fresh pastry on my lap. One of the most amazing things about this city is the diversity in culture, and those hidden neighborhood pockets at the end of every train line that transport you to another world.

About a week ago while I was working, I met an elderly man named Alex, tearing tickets at a movie theatre. As we got to chatting, he told me about how he ended up in New York after growing up and spending most of his life in Russia. I couldn't help myself, so I asked him about Russian food. What reminds him of home? What does he make when he needs some comfort food? "I don't cook," he frowns and waves off my question, much to my disappointment. But after pausing for a moment, his face softens a little and he says, "Whenever I need a real taste of home, I go to Brighton Beach."

I decided that I simply must check this place out. A few mornings later I rolled out of bed, bundled up, and set out to the tiny waterfront area in Brooklyn. After about an hour-long train ride, I was sure I had fallen asleep and actually ended up in Kiev. As I descended from the train platform, the snow fell harder and faster, and I tugged my faux-fur-hat-with-ear-flaps tighter on my head. Storefront signs began to appear, one after another, in an unfamiliar language. Conversations swirled around me in what I assumed was the same strange language.

In my mind I was a glaring outsider, but people passed me without so much as a look. I curiously glanced into the open doorways of one bustling market after another, before finally mustering the courage to go inside one of them and take a look around. People shouted, bumping into each other, and sometimes stopping to ask me a question. Not a word of English was spoken. Undaunted, I stood in line at a baked goods counter where customer after customer ahead of me requested a slice of the same mysterious pastry dessert. I watched as the woman working behind the counter would bring out more and more of this thick layered pastry, lop of a huge slice, wrap it up, and then do it all over again for the next person in line. When it was finally my turn, she said something to me in Russian (at least I think it was Russian; I'm fairly ignorant when it comes to the language nuances of Eastern Europe), and, mentally crossing my fingers that she might understand me, I pointed to the favored pastry and asked in my most pleasant English, "What is that?" She looked at me, startled, and said in her most forced English, "This? It's like, a Russian Napoleon. It's nice" (I'm embarrassed to admit that her thick accent and the way she said "Eetz nah-ice" reminded me of the movie character Borat).

I requested a large piece of the treat since it was New Year's Eve and I needed to bring a dessert to my friends' house that evening. After I left the shop, I felt more confident, but still wished I had bothered to learn a little bit of the language beforehand. I returned to the train with my prize, hoping it would not disappoint my hosts for the evening. The aroma assured me it wouldn't. Good food is truly universal.

I snapped that last photo on the train ride home from Brighton Beach. Unable to resist the wonderful smell, I had to open the box and peak in on what I had just acquired from my adventure. When we finally ventured over to the home of our friends, Kip and Patrick, I apprehensively confessed that I had decided not to cook or bake something, and instead brought some esoteric Russian fare. Fortunately, the dessert was enjoyed by all, and it was just as deliciously interesting as I imagined.

I tried to search for a similar recipe online that closely matched what we had devoured. Click this recipe link to recreate your very own Russian Napoleon Tort


Anonymous said...

The Russian tort was delicious, Veronica! Thank you for bringing it. Perhaps this why the New Years dance party lasted until 4AM....a fantastic night!

Jeffrey said...

Veronica--Right before he went to cow intestines and brain soup, Andrew Zimmerman went to Brighton Beach--He didn't eat the tort, but he did eat a cold piece of fat. The tort was great--I need to have Pat take me to Brighton Beach now.