It didn’t matter that the announcement from the R train conductor was painfully loud and totally incomprehensible. Francis and I had learned by our third night in Brooklyn that, due to track work or moodiness, the R train would repeatedly skip the station closest to the home where we were staying. We were ejected into the Atlantic Avenue/ Barclay’s Center Station and would complete the 15-block trek to Francis’ brother and sister-in-law’s Park Slope apartment on foot.
“I’m so tired,” I complained.
“I know. Me too.”
We walked in silence for a few blocks, and I attempted to unfurl the rolls of tension at the base of my neck. I looked at Francis, so relieved to have him with me. We had 6 more days of vacation to go in New York, our former hometown, and I had yet to decide if the city was unrecognizable or exactly the same as it always has been. Both were true.
We walked up 5th Avenue past bars and restaurants with the average summer night revelry abounding. One window-walled bar was showing the Yankees game on multiple tv’s, easily viewed from the sidewalk, and we stopped outside to watch the end of the game with other fans. The Yanks lost. I was exhausted and filthy. I was so homesick I could barely walk, and yet and I felt an oddly familiar sensation—a desperation to squeeze just one more moment of vibrancy from this place.
Here’s something you probably know about me: I grew up in New York City.
Here’s something you might not know: when I was 16, my parents and brother moved to Los Angeles. I did not go with them.
They had landed the job(s) of a lifetime, and there was never a question of whether they would or wouldn’t move. I know there was a debate over me joining them, though the specifics of that negotiation are a little foggy. I was nevereverevereverevereverever going to move to Los Angeles. I think I acted like an attorney, gathering information to support my case for staying. I’m sure I pointed to the fact that I was finally doing better in school (I was kicked out of my first high school), had the best friend in the world (Meg) who could help if there was ever a problem, and that I had already survived so much (I had been in a terrible car accident a few years prior). It should also be mentioned that I was a true-to-form, stomp-your-feet/ destroy things/ be-an-asshole-all-the-time 16-year-old that got her way more than she should have. My parents probably didn’t want me to move with them. I wouldn’t have either in hindsight.
So my family moved across the country without me. I stayed in our apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with a woman who was hired to live with me and make sure I was fed, went to school, and didn’t destroy myself.
It was spectacular.
There is nothing in the whole wide world like being young and free in New York City. New York was designed for 16-year-olds.
In the late 80’s it was the best kind of madness. There was art and music and fashion and drugs and danger accompanied by a strange feeling of safety that I couldn’t even explain to people nowadays. New York was wild but supportive. If you were hard and smart, you could do anything. And I was. And I did. I developed a very personal relationship with the city, feeling nourished by the noise, boosted by the chaos. New York was my best friend.
Sure, I did a lot of really stupid stuff, but I would have if my parents hadn’t left, too. What I had was the opportunity to play grown-up for real, the chance to act like I knew everything without many people telling me otherwise. And playing grown-up clicked. I graduated from High School in 4 years, got accepted into a gaggle of well-respected colleges, and managed financial and household responsibilities many kids my age had no idea about.
I found myself during those years in the city. I established a pace and a form of character that is the basis of everything I do today, and I’ve romanticized that self-discovery for decades. Though I was silently afraid of many things, the fearlessness of a 16-year-old is indomitable. I walked through doors I wouldn’t even knock on now.
After moving to Portland, Oregon, 2 ½ years ago, my visits back home have felt burdened by my expectations. I chase the dragon of my former self, thinking New York can satisfy a 48-year old, self-employed, sober alcoholic the same way it thrilled an unchaperoned teenager.
That’s ridiculous, Alison. Just stop.
Let New York be New York.
It took a little more intentional focus than I had expected on our recent trip back home, but I had some help.
I was assisted by every spice in the world at Kalustyan’s with my friend Blaine and then patatas bravas at Tia Pol with Blaine and Cindy, burritos at Dos Toros and cake from Amy’s bread with Jerry and Mary Pat, Glaser’s Black and White Cookie and Cafe Luluc’s pancakes with Erika, a hot dog with sauerkraut at Yankees Stadium with Paul, Henry, Shimmy, Brian, Chris, and Heidi, pizza at Martina Pizzeria with Tara, a few gorgeous meals prepared by Marla Carlson, walking around the Oculus with Anne, and every single thing I ate at Danji with my parents. Maybe growing up in New York doesn’t have to define me anymore. It’s not like you can take my history away. Maybe I can be a person who appreciates all the facets of the city without needing to own them anymore. I live in Portland now, with a man, a dog, and a cat that I’m head over heels in love with.
A few days after we returned from our trip I catered for a wonderful family celebrating the patriarch’s 80th birthday. They said Baked Alaska was one of his favorite desserts, so I set to work designing these mini versions. Shopping for cherry ice cream in the store, it hit me, what if I use Oregon Dark Cherry ice cream and call these Baked Oregons! Oregon is, after all, the third largest supplier of cherries in the country. Screw Alaska (no offense), let’s celebrate Oregon!
And god knows it’s not the last time the word baked will be paired with the state of Oregon.
These desserts are four simple layers: cake, crushed wafer cookies, ice cream (doesn’t have to be Oregon cherry ice cream, of course) and a meringue. I’m including my favorite cake recipe from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Cake Bible, but you can make a sponge cake or a chocolate cake or you can buy a pound cake to keep it easy, which it should be. It’s summer after all. No one wants to work that hard.
Makes about 6 servings
- One cake, split in half to 1/2 inch thickness (recipe for my favorite below but some people prefer sponge cake or pound cake) You will have more cake than you need!
- About 10 Famous Chocolate Wafer cookies, ground fine in a food processor
- Ice Cream
- Meringue (see recipe below)
Cut cake with biscuit or round cookie cutters to fit into ramekins. Dust the cake with a healthy layer of chocolate wafer cookie crumbs. Fill the remaining space with ice cream and then freeze until you’re ready to serve.
Make the meringue:
- 3 egg whites
- Pinch of salt
- 1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 4 tablespoons superfine sugar
- ½ teaspoon vanilla
- In a bowl, beat the egg whites with the salt with an electric mixer until they get frothy.
- Add the cream of tartar and continue beating as the mixture gets thicker.
- Add the sugar and beat until it holds peaks (though they do not need to be super stiff).
- Add the vanilla and continue to beat until the peaks are glossy.
- Take the ramekins out of the freezer and dollop the meringue on top, making pretty swirls with the tip of a spoon. If you are using a pastry blowtorch you can brown the meringue and serve right away. If you are going to be browning the meringue in the oven, set the meringued ramekins in the freezer for 15 minutes to set while you preheat the oven to 500. Bake for 3-4 minutes and serve immediately.
Here’s a link of me making these on KATU!
Yellow Butter Cake from the Cake Bible
Makes one 9-inch cake
- 3 large egg yolks
- ½ cup milk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 ½ cups sifted cake flour
- ¾ cup sugar
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 6 tablespoons softened unsalted butter
- Preheat oven to 350.
- Grease and flour a 9-inch cake pan.
- In a medium bowl, lightly combine the yolks, 1/8 cup milk, and vanilla.
- In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients and mix by hand or with a beater. Add the butter and the remaining milk and mix on low speed until the dry ingredients are moistened. Increase to medium speed and beat for 1 ½ minutes to aerate and develop the cake’s structure. Scrape down the sides. Gradually add the egg mixture in 3 batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition to incorporate the ingredients and strengthen the structure. Scrape down the sides.
- Scrape the batter into prepared pan and bake for 25 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean.
- Let cool.
And on a personal note, I’d like to extend a hearty thanks to every one of our friends who bent their schedules so we could see them. And an even bigger thank you to our very generous hosts Tony, Marla, and Eli.