Doing the Time Warp Again

Loretta's Restaurant

2615 Park Ave. S.; 871-1660

Hi. I'm one of those people who just walks into a place and starts shouting "Hi." Usually it works, and someone says "hi" back--but even if it doesn't at least it gives the people who want to avoid you fair chance to hide. So Hi, I'm City Pages' new food critic.

I guess out of all the things you should know about me, the most important one is that I like food. I like eating it, of course, but I also like reading about it and thinking about it. I like that the ancient Sumerians drank beer through straws out of big communal clay pots. They called the beer 'broth' and used the straws to avoid both the bottom sediment and the surface debris. They called the people clustered around these giant pots their brothers, and the places where they drank the bubbly broth were called brothels. I like that beer is the base of brotherhood.

I like the ritual and idiosyncrasy of food. I think it's hilarious that sensible people rise in the middle of the night to go hunting for morels, that tuna bellies are sent across oceans by overnight courier, that there are people whose gift and job it is to age steaks, that for Beggar's Chicken you have to wrap the bird in lotus leaves and wet newspaper, and bake it in pond mud.

I like when food loses its attachment to the earth, and becomes myth, and fantasy. I like the emotional and cultural weight of food. I helped Pillsbury write their latest Bake-Off cookbook, and was struck time and again by the stories of grandfathers cooking with granddaughters, mothers with sons, by the quiet communication of people cooking together.

I hope to open up this column to include the stories of people in our community who are making, producing, and loving food at home and at work. I think that while Proust got a lot of press for his madeleines, every one of us has an equivalent--be it Coke-floats, pork-buns, jambalaya or cheese-doodles. That, for here and now, is who I am. I'm someone who likes the emotional and social paradox and resonance of food.

Which is why I like Loretta's. Since 1929, Loretta's has been dishing up the sort of food that makes a ladies' lunch fancy, vittles that Mrs. Hoover and Mrs. Coolidge would have been served. Jello salad, for example, is fancy, because it's a lot like aspic, and once upon a time aspic was only served by women who had a good cook in the kitchen and a lot of money for extra ice.

A few years ago I had a jello salad at Loretta's that was served in an individual pyramid mold. It was sea-foam green and studded with pineapple and horseradish. Not only was it reasonably tasty, it made me feel like I had walked through a gateway into an alternate universe. This was what women ate at card parties during the Andrews Sisters era. What my grandma aspired to eat when she worked in a depression-era shoe factory. What Dorothy Parker waved away. Though a recent jello salad of red jello and canned fruit was less momentous, it still reminded me of that other world, perhaps it came ceremoniously on a big leaf of lettuce. That's a lot of food for thought, for $1.

Mayonnaise, too, was once the province of those who had cooks with strong arms, and so was food that was finely minced. In this way, Loretta's ham salad, chicken salad, tuna salad, and egg salad all have buried in their goopy hearts the faint aura of luxury, femininity, and privilege. Or maybe I haven't quite pinned it down right; maybe it's more like a hint of '50s post-war nostalgia for the pre-war order. Or maybe it's both those things, left to sit and simmer through all those days, until these days, the days of wine and Lycra. For $4.25 with chips and coleslaw, you get lunch, and a cultural artifact. The rest of the menu runs the gamut from grilled cheese to meatloaf, with special stops for swell homemade apple pie and icky instant mashed potatoes.

As an extra bonus, if you take your grandma or your great aunt Esmerelda to Loretta's, you'll be able to extract their secrets more easily, meeting them on their own turf, where they'll feel more comfortable and contemplative. Because it's easy to be reflective here. The other tables are full of women with marcelled hair who are the right age to have cried over Valentino's death. The tables themselves are solid, well-polished oak, and look like they mean to be there for centuries to come. One corner of the dining room is dominated by a tableau of Victorian lace curtains, an oak upright piano, a shiny trumpet, crystal candlesticks, and a spooky-eyed 19th-century baby photo--it looks like a momento mori set up by an art student. If you're in a mordant frame of mind and you eavesdrop you'll often hear about indifferent doctors, failing organs, and people who are not as well as they could be. Or if you're feeling more cheery, you might hear about grandkids and trips to Florence.

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