A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Monday, February 5, 2018

TASTE: Waffles with jam at the Norwegian Seamen's Church

On a recent afternoon, I stopped by the Norwegian Seamen’s Church in Midtown, not for religious services or to consult a nautical chart, but for a traditional snack of waffles and jam served with coffee. 

Each of the twenty-nine Norwegian Seamen’s Churches worldwide has a signature waffle recipe, inciting good-natured rivalry among the outposts. The New York City church makes waffles with a hint of vanilla and serves them on a platter with a divot for a coffee cup, emblazoned with the Norwegian Seamen’s Church logo.

One could be forgiven for being uncertain if the Norwegian Seamen’s Church—housed in a modern building on tree-lined Fifty-second Street—is a church or a café. Though the vaulted main room features a beautiful, light-filled nave overhung with a model schooner, most of the space is filled with round tables set with candles in Scandinavian luminaria.

On this afternoon, however, the chairs in the nave and around the tables are empty, but I hear a buzz of conversation from the back of the room, where a family from Florida is eagerly perusing shelves stocked with Norwegian foods—and a certain floor cleaner called Krystal, whose pine scent, I am told, reminds Norwegians of home.

As it turns out, though the international nonprofit organization of Lutheran churches was originally founded to serve Norwegian seamen living abroad and at sea, and though it continues to offer weekly church services, its twenty-nine churches have evolved into social and community spaces for Norwegian expats (and curious interlopers). 

Despite the nautical decorations (a church kneeler abuts a giant wooden ship’s wheel in one corner) and racks of Hjem magazine (hjem means “home” in Norwegian; the publication appears to cater to Norwegian seamen), few sailors swing through the doors these days. Chaplains do still visit Norwegian oil rigs stationed in the North Sea, however, so the organization has kept true to its nautical mission. 

When I inquire about the famous waffles, an affable blonde named Anya, wearing a pink sweatshirt, disappears into the kitchen and returns a few minutes later with a plate of several warm waffles covered in a cotton towel. She tells me the waffles are always heart-shaped to symbolize Norway’s heart reaching out to its countrymen. I spoon on a dollop of strawberry jam and pour a mug of coffee and cream, which she says is a traditional accompaniment.

Just then, a man in a striped sailor shirt with swept-back gray hair approaches me, and I think perhaps I’ve chanced upon a genuine Norwegian sailor. As it turns out, he is the church’s hospitality director, Jan. He follows me to one of the candlelit tables, where we chat as I dig into my waffles. Or, rather, I mostly listen and focus on the waffle, which is warm, spongy, and thin, with the church’s proprietary notes of vanilla. The tangy aftertaste, Jan explains, is from sour cream, and it’s balanced by the sweet clumps of whole strawberries in the jam and sips of the bitter, creamy coffee. At the church’s annual Christmas fair, which I’d attended, the waffles are served with sour cream, which adds a cold, creamy swirl to the jam.

As I spear tiny pieces of waffle with my fork,  Jan tells me that he will soon return to Norway to live on a farm with his family. Life there will be very different from New York, he muses, gazing toward an abstract painting the wall. Our conversation drifts to the popular Norwegian trend of slow TV: seven-hour one-frame shots of fires burning or train trips through the mountains. “Sometimes we need more of that—the slowness,” Jan says. Silence settles between us, and I wait for him to continue. For a few moments, the only sound is the hum of the overhead lights. I realize this is the kind of palpable silence rarely found anywhere, much less in New York and between two strangers. We both look at the abstract painting. When I stare at it long enough, the shapes resolve into two ships crossing a sea.

I exit past the gift shop, where I notice heart-shaped waffle irons and waffle mix are among the offerings. I wonder if Jan will take some with him when he returns home.


Saturday, January 6, 2018

SMELL: An immersive candle experience in SoHo

What does SoHo smell like in the winter? Wet wool, body lotion, something burning (pretzels? chestnuts?), damp stone, corrugated cardboard, rubber, perfume, steam. One thing SoHo can usually be counted on not to smell like, though, is theme-scented candles, the scourge of Christmas Tree Shops and suburban malls.

So when I started seeing ads for Yankee Candle’s “immersive pop-up shop,” Candle Power NYC, in an empty storefront on lower Broadway, I felt obliged to investigate. The shop promised to transport me from New York City’s holiday hubbub to a snowy forest, a cozy library, a rose garden, a beach, and a Zen oasis, all through the power of scent. One recent afternoon, I stepped through a curtain of wicks into a vast space filled with flickering candles, R&B, and a path that wended between different set pieces, all touting different scent themes.

Each scene was chaperoned by a sort of candle maître’d who offered to take photos and supply the correct promotional hashtag, #candlepowernyc. It was evident this place was built more for selfies than candle shopping, intended to pull Yankee Candle out of the mall and into upscale retail.

The first scene was a winter wonderland representing the Balsam & Cedar candle. I clomped across a wooden footbridge through a forest of plywood trees and hills; above, screen-clouds displayed images of people sledding and building snowmen. Birdsong twittered. Plumes of a piney scent wafted between the branches.

Next up was a library turned 90 degrees askew: the furniture, lamps, and bookcases were attached to the walls, creating an opportunity for trippy Instagram poses. A (digital) fireplace represented the Woodwick candle, with a wooden wick that crackles as it burns. The signature fragrance here was Fireside, and the guide told me it smelled like “cardamom, or something like that.” And usually reading by the fire is cozier when the armchair is on the ground.

From the library I passed into the Mind & Body room, where, via a touchscreen, I could choose what I wanted to see and smell: videos of falling leaves, a koi pond, and a Zen sand garden corresponded with the Peace + Tranquility (“cashmere jasmine”) and Reflection + Clarity (“sea salt sage”) candles. 

Then it was off to the beach: palm trees, beach chairs, and a faux pool (no diving!) engulfed by the Sun & Sand candle. I couldn’t imagine actually burning this scent indoors, but the sunscreen-y smell did transport me to a beach.

Last, I stepped into an Alice in Wonderland–esque rose garden, complete with giant flowers and mirrors and infused with Apricot Rose scent. I padded across green-carpet grass and nuzzled my nose into the petals.

At the back of the room were a few tables displaying a quartet of candles meant to evoke distinctive New York City smells. “Fall in Central Park” did not incorporate the aromas of carriage-horse droppings, taxi fumes, or decaying leaves, but it did have mossy notes. “New York City at Dawn” was accurate perhaps if you’re awakening in a plush boudoir: no dog pee or garbage juice here, but instead “plum and rose petals paired with pink peppercorn and amber.” The “SoHo” candle promised to “encapsulate the exclusive SoHo environment” in “black amber with rustic notes of tobacco, musk, and mandarin.”

But “City Lights” did somehow manage to generate an "electrical" smell from its mix of “black sesame, patchouli, and balsam.” Extending the glass jar for a sniff, the weary candle chaperone suggested, “It’s for the city that never sleeps?” 

Candle Power NYC is now closed, but check out the website for a virtual (and scent-free) experience.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

SIGHT: The pumpkin ghouls of Cobble Hill

Halloween is now a few weeks past, and across the city discarded jack-o'-lanterns slump on brownstone stoops, wilt in windows, and crumple beside compost bins.

Not so, however, on the corner of Kane Street and Strong Place in Cobble Hill, where since 1998 a sharp-spiked iron fence has evolved into a memorial of sorts for neighborhood jack-o'-lanterns. From October 31 through Christmas, pumpkins are granted a place of honor—or humiliation, depending on your point of view: over the two months, the impaled pumpkins decay until they are nothing but scraps of gourd-flesh clinging to the fence posts and splattered on the sidewalk below.

Starting at dusk on Halloween, local trick-or-treaters can drop off a carved pumpkin for impalement on one of the fence's 274 spikes. The only requirement is that the pumpkins—which occasionally make room for a guest appearance by a butternut squash—be oblong, measure about five inches in diameter, and have stems intact.

"The Brooklyn Impalement," known formally as The Halloween Impalements: The Toll of Time, is the creation of artist Jane Greengold, who once lived in the stately redbrick house behind the fence. The iron spikes surrounding her home seemed to her an irresistible site for head impalements—and pumpkin heads seemed like a natural stand-in. For the first few years, she and a few helpers carved eighty to one hundred pumpkins for the installation, but starting in 2012 she began inviting her neighbors to contribute.

Each year, more spikes on the fence were crowned with pumpkins. Then Greengold moved, and the tradition was suspended for a few years, but due to popular demand, and with the permission of the fence's current owner, she resumed the impalement this year.

Though the pumpkins remain perky for the first week, especially in crisp weather, by week two they have begun to look concerned. Once-bright eyes glower; mouths drool seeds and droop as if they've lost their dentures; teeth become crusted with a fuzzy gray plaque; taut orange skin loses its luster.

And therein lies the crux of the installation, at least as far as its creator is concerned: the fading of beauty over time. The installation not only draws out the macabre Halloween spirit for an extra couple of months but also reminds frequent passersby of their own mortality. By week three, existential plight has set in, and the pumpkin heads begin to look like a line of souls waiting at the gates of hell.

The pumpkins no longer greet their spectators with coy winks and sinister teeth. Their flamboyant game of fright has suddenly turned back on itself in a cruel twist of fate. Now they slump toward each other, their eyes hollow, betrayed by the passage of time.

Somehow, though, as their Halloween glory fades, the gourds' expressions become increasingly human. Much as we might scan a row of seated commuters in a rush-hour subway, looking for a kindred spirit, we may recognize our own spirit gazing back at us.

With a little grace, maybe we can manage not to despair but to raise our hats, like this fellow has, in recognition, and perhaps to give a little wink, as we might to any stranger in whom we see a little bit of ourselves, even if just in passing.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

TASTE: New York's underappreciated papaya drink

What’s the deal with papaya drinks? They’re available all over Manhattan, flashing in neon from corner shops—but does anyone drink them? Paired with a hot dog, they form an iconic if unlikely salty-sweet NYC combination, but does any New Yorker order a papaya drink on its own? 

Everyone has opinions about New York’s best pizza, best bagel, best pastrami—but do you ever see a poll about New York’s best papaya drink, despite its claims as “a New York original” and “as vital to NYC as the subway.” Are we perhaps missing out?

One recent afternoon, I set out to the visit the spot where, allegedly, the papaya drink was born: the corner of Eighty-Sixth Street and Third AvenuePapaya King. 

The eighty-five-year-old Papaya King shop is paneled in tropical bamboo and as narrow as a hot dog in a bun. At 4 p.m. on a Saturday, customers were spilling out the door. 

Signs touted papaya’s superlative health benefits: “Nature’s own revitalizer!” “Vitamin packed, health giving!!” “The aristocratic melon of the tropics... the famous magical papaya melon!” “The king of all drinks!” “Fruit of the angels!” Even the door handle is inscribed with a melon mantra. Yet does anyone order a papaya drink? Nope. Hot dogs all around.

The guy in line behind me has brought a friend from Texas to Papaya King to indoctrinate her in the city’s hot dog scene. “A real New York treat,” he promises. Noticing the shop’s battalion of shiny steel drink dispensers as if for the first time, he says, “Hmm... tropical drinks! What kinds do you have?” The counter guy recites a litany of tropical fruits with “papaya” folded right in. “Banana-coconut-grape-lemonade-mango-orange-papaya-piñacolada-strawberry.” “Lemonade,” the guy decides. “Everyone likes lemonade.” Papaya strikes out again.

Papaya King, after all, was born not because of hot dogs but because of papayas. The founder, Gus Poulos, fell in love with the tropical melon in Miami, on his first vacation after arriving on Ellis Island from Greece and working his way up the ranks of a Yorkville deli. Back in the city, having procured some papayas, Gus sold his deli and opened New York City’s first juice bar. He was disappointed to find that his fellow Yorkvillians weren’t as enthusiastic about papaya as he was, however, so he enlisted the help of girls in hula skirts to hand out free samples on the corner. That was all it took: his papaya drinks became a local sensation—and without the help of any hot dog! It wasn’t until many years later, when he met a German American woman named Birdie, who introduced him to Yorkville’s German food scene, that the frankfurter—and romance—came into his life, and two classic New York City combinations were born: a love story between two recent immigrants, and hot dogs and papaya juice.

The papaya drink—which is not simply papaya juice—is foamy, creamy, and sweet, offset by a faint tang, and it's the perfect temperature: chilly but not teeth-jarring. The light froth offsets the heavy creaminess. As a sip lingers in your mouth, it feels almost pillowy. It’s a friendly flavor, but with an exotic, melony edge that lends it an air of mystery. Though I was initially suspicious of the ingredients, thinking the modern incarnation of Gus’s juice must be pumped up with fillers and preservatives, the recipe (per an email with the company) is refreshingly simple: papaya purée, sugar, dry milk fat, citric acid, and water.

As I linger in the doorway of Papaya King, pushed out by the crowds, I see a little boy leaning his head against the open door across from me, sipping from a cup. When I see the pale yellow-orange-pink color shooting up his straw, I know what he’s drinking, and I try to give him a meaningful look as I take a sip from mine. It feels like we’re sharing a secret that’s hidden in plain sight.