Author Archive | Sarah Grey

GLOBAL CITY: POKE GO

Hawai’i’s popular salad is making
waves on the mainland—
but respect
for island culture sometimes lags behind

poke-go
Poi Dog’s tofu poke bowl
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF POI DOG

Perhaps I’ve got no business writing about poke. I’ve never visited the Hawai‘ian Islands, after all. I’ve never walked those scenic Pacific beaches or eaten coconut fresh from the tree. Nope, I’ve lived my life in the gritty, grey cities of the Northeast—Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York—where the fish is usually flown in, and you’re more likely to hear a curse word shouted in traffic than a friendly aloha.

But if there’s one thing we’re good at in this part of the world, it’s attracting chefs and restaurateurs who deliver flavors from all around the globe. So maybe it’s not surprising that the foods of Hawai‘i have found their way to Philadelphia—especially poke.

For those as new to the concept as I am, poke (pronounced POkay; no accent mark, please) is a simple salad that’s a longstanding tradition in the Hawai‘ian Islands. It’s often made with fish— especially the scraps left over after fillets are cut—but the word poke simply means “sliced,” and the dish is also made with tofu, vegetables, even beef jerky. You slice up the item of choice into bite-sized chunks and toss it with shoyu, sesame oil, salt, the freshest seaweed you can get, chopped onion and maybe some spicy mayo, tobiko or furikake (a Japanese seasoning blend)—everyone does it a little differently— then serve it in a bowl with rice. The result is a refreshing, satisfying umami bomb redolent of the ocean. It’s an under-the-radar classic in Hawai‘i, where it’s sold pre-mixed by the pound in delis and grocery stores.

I first tried poke at the home of a friend, Adam Miyashiro, a fourth-generation Hawai‘i-Okinawan who grew up on the rural side of Oahu, in Kahalu‘u. He now lives in South Philadelphia and is a professor of medieval studies at Stockton University.

Miyashiro returned from a recent visit with a cooler full of limu, a seaweed variety found only in one part of Oahu. Its flavor is an emotional one for Miyashiro, who says the plant, an important part of local food traditions, was nearly wiped out in the 1990s when resort hotels and golf courses diverted fresh water supplies. This critically endangered micro-ecosystems along the coast, from fish and shellfish to seaweeds. Residents organized and won several court cases; limu has since made a comeback. When I taste Miyashiro’s poke—made with ahi and dressed minimally with alaea (Hawai‘ian red-clay salt), onion, green onion, shoyu and sesame oil—the limu packs a bright, salty punch.

The mainland rage for poke started, like so many food trends do, in New York and Los Angeles. As for Philadelphia, in just a few months we’ve seen the openings of Poke Bowl in Northern Liberties and Oishii Poke in Chinatown; another, Philly Poke, is scheduled to open on Race Street soon. These fast-casual restaurants mix customers’ chosen ingredients to order, like a seafood-oriented Chipotle. Sushi restaurants like coZara also make the dish, and it’s popping up on non-Asian menus all over the city (Hungry Pigeon, Standard Tap).

poke-go-window
Kiki Aranita and Chris Vacca in the Poi Dog truck

Kiki Aranita, co-owner (with Chris Vacca) of the popular Poi Dog food truck, has been serving Hawai‘ian food in Philadelphia for more than four years, with little competition. Her menu changes daily but always offers a wide range of favorites and what islanders call “plate lunch.” Think Kahlua roast pork, macaroni salad, spam musubi, and rich Kona-coffee-flavored butter mochi. Poi Dog often serves tofu poke, and when Ippolito’s in South Philly can source it, there’s also an ahi poke. It’s delightful, just salty and spicy enough to heighten the freshness and quality of the fish; Aranita has worked hard to perfect the balance of flavors. But get there fast: “We open at eleven, and it’s usually gone by 11:30,” she says.

Many of Poi Dog’s customers are transplants from the islands, and lunch at one of the truck’s stops at City Hall or Love Park often feels a bit like a reunion. Customers even bring Aranita hard-to-find foods from back home.

Aranita, 31, who was born in New York and grew up in Honolulu, sees aloha as the key to Poi Dog’s success—a concept she defines in terms of hospitality, openness, welcome and respect. “It’s not just about selling the food, it’s about sharing something about the culture.” She’s watched with eyebrows raised as the mainland, fastfood- style approach to poke has proliferated, but says she ultimately welcomes new restaurants.

“I’m glad it has people talking about Hawai‘ian food, but it’s painful that some think of it as just a trend or a restaurant concept.” Educating mainlanders about this cuisine and the culture with which it is deeply intertwined is a big part of her mission; she’s a writer as well as a chef and has traveled to the Philippines, Japan, and all over Asia researching the multicultural roots of the food she loves, all of which influences Poi Dog’s food.

That cultural mix, Miyashiro notes, evolved in Hawai‘i as “workers on the sugar plantations came together to eat after long days of work. Exposure to new foods and food cultures has always been a part of the local hybrid cuisine and culture.” Aranita notes that even the less “authentic” dishes she serves are created with those roots in mind: “I think of Kahlua pork tacos as a gateway drug,” she says, laughing. “I sell a lot of tacos. I’m running a business, but I try to make choices that create bridges between cultures.”

Mahmoud Chaabane, 27, owner of Poke Bowl in Northern Liberties, claims no connection with Hawai‘i. He’s been there on vacation a few times, he says, but his culinary roots lie in his North African homeland of Tunisia. He grew up cooking in his mother’s kitchen, moved to Los Angeles to work as an engineer, and vacationed in Hawai‘i, where he “fell in love with the flavors there.”

Chaabane realized that the fast-casual poke concept spreading through LA would fill a need in the Philadelphia market. “People in Northern Liberties want healthy, light, something that can be gluten-free but also quick.” Philadelphians might not be familiar with poke, he explains, but they know sushi and they know the Chipotle model, and these elements make them feel at home with something new.

poke-go-tuna
Poi Dog’s tuna poke

The restaurant has quickly gained popularity. Customers can choose salad or rice for a base, then up to five proteins (mostly fish, plus tofu) and extras that range from seaweed to mango, jalapeno and cucumber. It’s topped with Asian-inspired sauces like ponzu, wasabi aioli and Sriracha aioli, then garnished with an edible flower. With prices around the $10 mark, it’s an astonishingly good value.

So how important is authenticity?

Aranita points out that “authenticity” itself is a troubled concept, given the long, tangled, ongoing history of colonization, plantation labor and outright theft between the Hawai‘ian Islands and the mainland United States. Cultural appropriation—in which outsiders claim and profit from some aspect of a minority culture—is part of that history, too: things like tiki bars and pineapple pizza, which became popular in the mainland US around the time Hawai‘i became a state—have a way of cementing the country’s claim on the islands, legally and culturally.… Read More

Continue Reading ·

FIRST PERSON: SETTING THE TABLE

One woman’s reasons for using
—not storing—heirloom dishes

 setting-the-table

PHOTOGRAPHS BY NEAL SANTOS

I am thirty-six, and I have a china cabinet now. This isn’t something I ever expected to own, let alone fill. But life has a way of bringing us what we need.

Through the years, I’ve known many homes where the “good china” only came out for holidays, if at all—and God help anyone who drops a saucer—but now that some beautiful china has found its way into my hands, I have no intention of letting it gather dust.

Most belonged once to my grandmother, who gave it to her children; my uncle Gene sent me a box of heirloom china and silver when he moved to a smaller house, and my father and stepmother sent another box after cleaning out their storage unit. Not long after setting up my china cabinet, I won two beautiful contemporary pieces in a raffle at my daughter’s summer camp. All of it is treasure.

I use the good china because it takes up space—unused it would be dead porcelain, a commodity to be stored, too precious to sell but too expensive to risk using.

I use the good china because I remember my family’s lean years not so long ago, the years of 99-cent pizza and catastrophic allergies and roaches in the kitchen. Back then we ate from paper plates, and more than once the gas company, called in to check out a smell in the kitchen, found the gas line gnawed by mice. The landlord refused to call an exterminator. There was no such thing as relaxing in the kitchen in those days.

I use the good china because I love the sound the cup makes when I set it, full of coffee, in its saucer.

I use the good china because I refuse to look at guests with a cold eye and try to calculate who’s important enough. If you’re too old for the plastic Elmo plates, you’re good enough for the good china. No one has broken any yet—not even a kindergartner eager to set the table all by herself.

I use the good china because my grandmother used it, celebrated with it, tried her hardest as a hapless young bride with a World War II ration book in hand to create dinners that would please the handsome pilot she’d married. “That was a fine effort,” he told her lovingly on the first night home from their honeymoon. She never did get the hang of cooking—even in her seventies, she was notorious for explaining that her toaster was broken and offering to microwave some bread—but she entertained every guest with style and grace.

I use the good china because she loved china patterns and dinner parties and Emily Post’s table-setting diagrams—and also because those parties have faded from her memory; because now, with Alzheimer’s, she is spoon-fed by nurses, and perhaps one day I too will no longer remember the meals that graced these plates.

setting-the-table-hands

What’s the point of life
if the good stuff always
stays locked away,
safe and forbidden?

I use the good china because everyone wants to know where it came from, and before long we’re talking about long-ago families and forward-thinking artists and meals whose flavors we’ll never forget.

I use the good china because some of it, before it came to me, sat for years in a carefully packed box in a storage unit, untouched by sauces or forks.

I use the good china because I have the gene that drives people to let things pile up and rot around them, to pick their way through crusted plates and piles of trash. I have seen this happen to my grandmother and my aunts. It trapped them, cutting them off from companionship and even from safety. I intend to be more than what lurks in my genetic code. When I’m anxious and stressed, the state of the house reflects my state of mind; hosting guests and feeding friends forces me to stay one step ahead of the mess.

I use the good china because it asks me to live up to it: to handle it with tenderness, to clean it and care for it, to serve meals worthy of it, to remember the hands that for seventy years have placed it on table after table, napkins on the right.

I use the good china because some of it is made right here in Kensington by the hands of a mother whose children make art with mine. I want my daughter to know that art is valuable and meaningful and that she can, if she chooses, make beautiful and useful things with her hands for a living. I want her to know that there is honor in mastering a craft.

I use the good china because a friendly Virginia woman I’ve still never met once spotted my grandmother’s plates in a photo I posted on Facebook of one of my dinner parties, tracked down the pattern, and mailed me a set of plates to match them—just because she liked the idea that we would use them for pasta and candlelight and laughter. We do, most weeks. Later, out of sheer kindness, she mailed me a dozen dessert plates, too, in a rainbow of colors and with the same impossibly detailed 1940s floral pattern painted in the middle. We used them to ring in the New Year with poached pears and zabaglione.

I use the good china because I want its ornate patterns and delicate heft to shape my daughter’s imagination—to lift her gaze from chicken fingers and peanut butter crackers to rest on something older and richer and deeper in which she has a part to play.

I use the good china because the world is huge and full of pain and loss; if a plate cracks or a teacup shatters, no one is harmed. What’s the point of life if the good stuff always stays locked away, safe and forbidden? When something beautiful finds its way to you, you must incorporate its beauty into your life, even if that means you risk losing it.

Read More
Continue Reading ·

TODAY’S POTLUCK

 A new book offers a farm-fresh update
for an American entertaining tradition

todaysPotluck

PHOTOGRAPHS: BY YOSSY AREFI AND USED WITH PERMISSION FROM CLARKSON POTTER

Carrots are just different at the farmers’ market.

The supermarket produce section is a showplace of order, its carrots all the same shade of orange, each a uniform length, counted out, bagged in plastic, and stacked neatly. At the farmers’ market, though, they could be a different vegetable altogether: Scattered in wicker baskets, they look as varied as a painter’s palette in shades of purple, red, orange and yellow. Their shapes, too, change—short and long, some with two or three legs, long root ends snaking out past the tip.

A pile of these glorious, strange roots, roasted with spices, herbs, dates, and lentils and topped with a dollop of yogurt, graces the cover of Kristin Donnelly’s new cookbook Modern Potluck (Clarkson Potter). The dish is vegetarian, gluten-free, and utterly alluring, full of contrasting textures, rich flavors, and umami. Many of the book’s recipes are best made with this kind of heirloom or peak-season produce—the stuff you’ll find at farmers’ markets now through the end of November.

Potluck dishes based on vibrant local produce are a far cry from the bland tuna casseroles and goopy macaroni salads that the word potluck often brings to mind—and that’s precisely the point, Donnelly says. “Potlucks have a fusty image, while other culinary spaces have really evolved.”

Donnelly is a Philadelphia native who moved to New York to attend culinary school. She worked in wine shops for a while, and that work connected her to an editor for Food & Wine magazine—a lucky break that led her into a career as a food writer and editor. She recently returned to Pennsylvania, settling in New Hope, where she now works as a freelance writer and recipe developer.

Potlucks were a beloved part of Donnelly’s family life growing up, but she left them behind when she left Pennsylvania, instead favoring restaurants and formal dinner parties—until she had a baby four years ago. Like most new parents, her life was high on mess and stress and low on free time for socializing or whipping up complicated dishes. “Kids change your social life significantly,” she says. The labor of hosting a dinner party became more stressful than fun. She needed a casual, low-pressure way to reconnect with friends. That was when she rediscovered the potluck.

todaysPotluck2

When she began throwing potlucks, though, Donnelly realized that the way the American public eats had changed in the years since her childhood. “In an era of artisan pickles, gluten-free diets, #foodporn hashtags, pastured eggs, and kimchi tacos, the potluck has become potentially quite complicated,” she writes. There’s social pressure “to make a standout dish to serve people who are way savvier about food than they were a few decades ago.” Health, sustainability and restricted diets all factor into cooks’ calculations about what to bring to a potluck in a way they didn’t just one generation back. A dish needs to look good, taste good and cater to the needs and sensibilities of guests.

Working at the heart of the culinary world exposed Donnelly to a wide range of international cuisines, techniques and flavor profiles. It also put her in touch with the needs and desires of home cooks—and her consideration is clear in the pages of Modern Potluck. The dishes, which range from full entrées to appetizers, salads, desserts, and even cocktails, draw from food traditions across the globe, but few of them could be considered “traditional” or even limited to a single culture.

Donnelly’s Scandinavian-inspired Aquavit-cured salmon sits comfortably next to a roasted carrot and curry hummus and a Moroccan-inspired shepherd’s pie. Ingredients as diverse as harissa, furikake, and kimchi lend sophistication. The result is food that’s “definitely more boldly flavored than traditional potluck food, but not too out there,” Donnelly says. “Just a hint of edge” makes dishes appeal to guests’ sense of adventure without scaring them away. Offering foods that are accessible to guests is important, too.

Donnelly recommends asking beforehand whether food intolerances are a concern, and labeling dishes that contain allergens like nuts and dairy or other ingredients guests might want to avoid, like gluten, heavy spices or meat. Since dietary restrictions can often trip up cooks who aren’t experienced with them, a significant portion of Modern Potluck’s recipes are vegetarian, vegan, or gluten-free or can be modified easily.

The recipes themselves vary in their level of difficulty from quick and easy to complex. “Cooking from scratch, especially dishes like casseroles, can be time-consuming,” Donnelly says. “One nice thing about making one dish instead of a full multi-course dinner party is that you can put more time and effort into that dish.” Some of her recipes are fairly elaborate, while others—like the ones in the sections on crudités and deviled eggs—are simple preparations intended to showcase the flavors of farmers’-market vegetables and high-quality ingredients. All are designed to hold up well on a buffet table, to scale up or down depending on the size of the crowd, and to be simple to set up and serve.

todaysPotluck3

When she began throwing
potlucks, though, Donnelly
realized that the way the
American public eats had
changed in the years since
her childhood.

Modern Potluck offers cooks some potluck-specific tips as well, with notes on how to pack dishes for travel to a party—and how to make them stand out on the buffet table. “If you can add a little extra flourish through a garnish or a sauce, that does make people stop and try it,” Donnelly says. Since even the humble potluck tends to be Instagrammed these days, she developed her recipes with an eye for presentation that she honed in the magazine world.

Fortunately, ingredients like those colorful farmers’-market carrots make beautiful presentations easy. You don’t need to fuss around trying to construct origami shapes out of puff pastry—just get some gorgeous, fresh ingredients and let them speak for themselves. Donnelly’s recipe for radishes with seaweed-sesame butter and smoked salt, for example, is simplicity itself: good radishes, served with a flavorful compound butter for dipping.

Access to quality produce was part of what brought Donnelly and her husband to New Hope. “It was really important to us to have access to good ingredients. Stockton, New Jersey, just a few minutes away from us, has a great weekend market,” she says. A friend works for Blue Moon Acres in Pennington, she adds, “and they have exquisite produce.”

Potlucks can be as large or as small as you like, with a little organization or a lot, but Donnelly offers some guidelines to make everything run smoothly. She recommends that hosts think about how people will flow through the room and organize accordingly—grouping dishes by course, perhaps, or putting all of the gluten-free food on a separate table for easy access. Preheating your oven and having trivets and potholders on hand will help with hot dishes, and providing pens and index cards makes it easy for guests to label their contributions.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the potluck, Donnelly says, is to relax and let your friends or family—your community—shoulder the burden of cooking and hosting. “It’s another way to bring people around a table, while sharing some of the labor involved.” That makes potlucks especially helpful for people who might not otherwise be able to host or attend an event—giving not just new parents but people with disabilities or health concerns, people who work long hours or don’t have access to a full kitchen, and many others access to a full and vibrant social life.… Read More

Continue Reading ·

GLOBAL CITY: THE NORTH FIFTH STREET BAKERY TRAIL

north5thSt
Donut twist from Paris Baguette

PHOTOGRAPHS BY NEAL SANTOS

If you believed the tourist maps, you’d think Spring Garden Street was the northern boundary of Philadelphia—but there’s a whole other city north of the picturesque colonials and the Market-Frankford Line. That Philadelphia is diverse, multilingual, unapologetically working-class, and served by plenty of old-fashioned mom-and-pop businesses.

I spent four years commuting from Fishtown to Elkins Park, a nine-mile straight shot up North Fifth Street. During rush hour Fifth was an obstacle course of double-parked cars and delivery trucks, but one thing made up for that—the street’s array of international bakeries. From Girard Avenue to Cheltenham, this artery stretches through the city’s immigrant neighborhoods, so stopping for a café con leche at La Caleñita or a char siu bun at Good Star was the highlight of many a morning. Here are a few of my favorite stops along the North Fifth bakery trail.

LA CALEÑITA BAKERY-CAFÉ

The yellow, red and blue of Colombia’s flag (and—perhaps more importantly—its soccer jerseys) beckons visitors into La Caleñita. Inside, soccer memorabilia decorates a spacious dining room. Andres Ortega, 29, presides over a case full of braided breads leaking guava jam and cheese and rich milhoja pastry laden with dulce de leche. A heated case offers chicken and beef empanadas made with a cornbased dough; packaged snacks and preserved fruit bring a taste of Colombia to the homesick. Ortega, the nephew of owners Maria Tascón and Jerry Torres, has been working here for eight of the bakery’s ten years. He hands me a sweet, cinnamon-spiked milk drink called avena and insists that I wait for a batch of pan de bono to come out of the oven. The ring-shaped cheese bread, made with corn and cassava flour, is springy, slightly sweet and worth the wait. Arepas, sandwiches, and breakfast and dinner entrées are also available.

COLOMBIAN BAKERY

Colombian Bakery’s storefront is as matter-of-fact as its name, with a red, white and blue awning announcing “Pan Colombiano Mexicano.” A few retirees sit on barstools enjoying coffee; customers, mostly Spanish-speaking families with young children, crowd the small space. The pastries reflect pan–Latin American tastes, with Colombian almojábanas (round, hollow cheese rolls made with corn flour) sharing space with Mexican churros and concha bread decorated with a sugar shell. The bakery was founded by a Colombian family, two friendly employees explain, but the current owners are a husband from Mexico and a wife from Nicaragua. A selection of fresh juices and Mexican products fill out the shelves.

north5thSt02
Pastries from Colombian Bakery, clockwise from top:
almojábanas, concha, pineapple tart, churro, cream horn

north5thSt03
Pastries from Oteri’s, clockwise from top: chocolate-dipped
marshmallow pops, éclair, glazed orange pound cake, sugar cookies

DELICIAS BAKERY

Jaunty metal palm trees line Fifth Street as it cuts through the Centro de Oro (Golden District). Part of a recent revitalization effort, they’re a perfect fit for Philadelphia’s historic Puerto Rican neighborhood— welcoming and friendly, but without losing the gritty feel that defines North Philly. Three of the palms stand in front of Delicias, between a small grocery store and several sidewalk vendors. There’s little decoration inside, but the fresh doughnuts—and the locals buying them by the dozen—speak for themselves. A second pastry case is packed with Puerto Rican specialties for a dollar each: guava-andcheese pastelillos, sweet, cheesy quesitos, and festive pink-and-yellow cake iced with pineapple and passion fruit. Delicias has been serving this neighborhood for longer than the employees can remember: “Years and years,” the bakers tell us with a laugh.

GOOD STAR BAKERY & COFFEE INC.

On a hopping stretch of North Fifth that includes produce stands, a breakfast diner, a Vietnamese café, and the Greater Olney Library, a bright-yellow awning greets passersby in English, Vietnamese and Chinese. Cake decorations and small toys take up more display space in the small shop than food does, but behind the counter is a rack piled with freshly baked sugar buns, roast pork buns, cream buns, and breakfast buns stuffed with pork roll and egg. A small display case offers rolled sponge cakes in an eye-catching bright green. The middle-aged woman behind the counter struggles to remember the English word for their flavor, then finds it: pandan, a fragrant herb that’s popular throughout Southeast Asia. The cake is bright and a little tea-like, tender and delicious.

north5thSt04

OTERI’S ITALIAN BAKERY

The Oteri family opened their first shop in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1904. Today that flagship location has been joined by a shop in South Philly as well as this Fifth Street location, in the Logan neighborhood, which has been around since 1968. Its customers are fierce loyalists. “I won’t go anywhere else,” says a woman who’s picking up a sheet cake. She’s bringing it to school as a birthday surprise for her mother, a teacher. The shop is large, but there are no tables—it’s all about display cases here, with eye-catching wedding cakes in the front window, candies and gelato on the side, and Italian pastries like custard-filled sfogliatelle, éclairs, glazed pound-cake roses and cookies in the main room. Another case by the door displays elaborate, handcrafted fondant high-heeled pumps. Children watch as an employee dips fruit into chocolate in an open work area.

PARIS BAGUETTE

This French bakery offers breads and cakes straight out of—Seoul? Don’t let the name fool you: Paris Baguette is a US outpost of a chain that boasts more than 3,000 locations in South Korea, as well as California, the East Coast and even Paris itself. There are two Philadelphia locations, one on either side of Cheltenham Avenue. Paris Baguette offers its distinctly Asian take on the French patisserie in a sunny, inviting shop. Customers fill wicker baskets with individually wrapped pastries. Traditional French baguettes, fruit-and-cream cakes and madeleines appear next to Korean treats like sweet-rice-and-red-bean doughnuts, chestnut buns, and light, lemony, black-sesame-studded tofu chips. Endearing heart-shaped macarons and small rounds of sponge cake arranged like sushi are pretty enough to give as gifts, but you’ll want to eat them right in the shop.

La Caleñita Bakery-Café
5034 N. 5th St.
215.455.6808
lacaleitabakery.com

north5thStLaCalenita
exterior sign at Colombia Bakery

Colombian Bakery
4944 N. 5th St.
215.455.5130

northStarGuava
Quesitos, passionfruit-pineapple cake, guava
and cheese pastelillo from Delicias

Delicias Bakery
2861 N. 5th St.
215.427.9599

north5thStColombian
Pandan cake roll from Good Star

Good Star Bakery & Coffee Inc.
5523 N. 5th St.
215.927.6716

north5thStGoodStar
Thumbprint cookies from Oteri’s

Oteri’s Italian Bakery
4919 N. 5th St.
215.457.4958
oterisitalianbakery.com

Paris Baguette
6773 N. 5th St.
215.276.2000
parisbaguetteusa.com

north5thSt05

Read More
Continue Reading ·

THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE

Creating community at Franny Lou’s Porch

thisLilLight

thisLilLight2

PHOTOGRAPHS BY NEAL SANTOS

“I like to think of Franny Lou’s vibe as an Afro-futuristic Southern grandma’s house,” says Blew Kind of her coffee shop. “Sit in a rocking chair and stay awhile.” There are actual rocking chairs in her café.

We’re in the back room at Franny Lou’s Porch, the East Kensington coffee shop Kind opened in 2014. She is tall and slender, with a warm smile and a calm dignity that makes her seem somehow older than her 27 years. She’s just finished nursing her cherubic 3-month-old daughter. Behind her a regular customer, a man in his 40s, settles into a wooden rocking chair and takes a turn holding the baby.

There’s definitely a homespun feel to Franny Lou’s that’s worlds away from the sleek brushed steel and polished concrete of Fishtown pour-over peddlers like ReAnimator Coffee and La Colombe. Here, flower boxes bloom by the front door; inside, wicker armchairs beckon guests to relax and chat.

Above the pastry case, a handmade wooden shelf holds green plants and day-old pastries. A friendly young woman serves me an apple-cheddar biscuit on a plate with a painted strawberry on it, and I realize with a shock of recognition that my grandmother had the same plates in her kitchen, decades ago.

“Things that remind us of our grandparents make it feel like a home,” says Kind. “We want elders to feel welcome here. We have customers who have lived here for generations. Part of our mission is to be a community space for all walks of life.” She gestures through the window at the construction site across the street. “Including the big developers here.”

Big developers have indeed entered this neighborhood in droves. Franny Lou’s is located at the corner of Coral and York Streets, just a few blocks west of bustling Frankford Avenue, where ultrahip boutiques and art galleries sit side by side with small family-run businesses that have served the community for many decades. Fishtown is hot; The New York Times has lauded its “creative renaissance.” Over the past few years, this hype drove up real-estate prices and rents accordingly. Just to the west, between Frankford Avenue and the El, multicultural East Kensington has been feeling the effects. Weekdays bring a cacophony of construction noise as new, eco-friendly homes are built and old rowhouses gutted and renovated.

This fast-paced change means it’s not uncommon for working-class residents to encounter the real-estate developers whose properties are slowly pushing them out—right here in the coffee line at Franny Lou’s. For her part, Kind tries to get her customers talking to each other— no matter how different they seem. “Where else could these people meet face to face and look each other in the eye?” She adds that making the shop a mixed-income space is important to her. Affordable prices, a public computer, and a welcoming atmosphere are part of creating that. The goal is a gathering place where people of all ages, income levels and ethnicities can connect, chat and feel like they have a stake in making the neighborhood a better place.

The name Franny Lou’s Porch reflects that goal, combining two of Kind’s role models: Fannie Lou Hamer and Frances E.W. Harper. Hamer, born in 1917 in Mississippi, was a leading light in the civil rights movement who braved jail, beatings and KKK bullets to register African American voters and demand a seat at the Democratic Party’s table. She is also known for popularizing “This Little Light of Mine” as a freedom song.

Harper, born free in Baltimore in 1825, was an abolitionist activist, journalist and poet who played an active role in the Underground Railroad, helping enslaved people escape to freedom. Together, quiet, dignified Franny and outspoken, magnetic Fannie Lou inform a vision of brave, self-possessed, steadfastly faithful African American women who utterly refused to give up. Their presence at Franny Lou’s starts conversations every day about African American history, liberation theology and more.

Kind, a native of Virginia, first pulled espresso as a teen, working at Starbucks. There she learned about fair-trade coffee and grew to value the barista arts. After high school, she came north to Philadelphia to attend the University of the Arts. She felt energized by the city and found a supportive community in the Circle of Hope network of Anabaptist churches—and came to realize that she had a different calling.

“God told me to open a coffee shop!” Kind tells me with a smile. “I knew my purpose was to bridge some gaps.” She couldn’t shake that feeling, she explains, and at the age of 22 she told her professors she had to leave school and start a business. “I think school was just supposed to bring me here,” she says.

At a Christian music festival, she met Les Stoneham, founder of Deeper Roots Coffee in Cincinnati, Ohio. Stoneham didn’t just roast coffee, he told Kind. He was working through an entirely new business model, sourcing beans directly from farmers in Guatemala and working with them to develop the infrastructure necessary to process them. The result was a system that paid farmers a much greater share of the proceeds than most “fair-trade” systems.

thisLilLight3
Above a shelf full of art supplies, customers show off their works

thisLilLight4
Locally made soaps, baby clothes, and crafts for sale

thisLilLight6
Customers can answer a “question of the month”
on slips of paper. Displayed are the answers to last
month’s question: “What inspires you to create?”

thisLilLight5
A bulletin board tells the stories of civil rights activist
Fannie Lou Hamer and abolitionist writer Frances E.W.
Harper, the inspirations for the name Franny Lou’s

Kind had been busy working on ways to build a business that would be honest, accountable and genuine, and the Deeper Roots model resonated for her. She called Stoneham, who offered her a deal: If she used his beans, he’d lease her a top-of-the-line espresso machine. “He didn’t know me, but he mailed me $5,000 worth of equipment,” says Kind. She began selling coffee at local events and started a coffee-buying club through her church, where she was also working as an assistant pastor. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and within a year she made enough money to pay off the equipment and open a shop: Leotah’s Place, named for her mother, who died when Kind was a teenager.

Leotah’s was also located at Coral and York, just across the street from where Franny Lou’s is today. Its three rooms were airy and welcoming, full of art and rickety secondhand furniture. Kind gave birth to her first child, Gibran, not long after opening Leotah’s and threw herself wholeheartedly into the challenge of combining motherhood with running a small business. She named lattes after her heroes: Sojourner Truth, Steve Biko, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King. She created a kids’ corner; sold yarn, pottery and jewelry made by local artists; and succeeded in creating a friendly neighborhood space, one where regular customers knew they’d always run into at least one friend.

The shop was popular in the neighborhood and received positive publicity in the local press, but after a few years, Kind ran into trouble with her landlord. The building, an old brick rowhouse of the type found everywhere in Kensington, was unsound.… Read More

Continue Reading ·

WOMAN’S WORK

At Kensington Quarters, Heather Marold
Thomason
busts up the butchery boy’s club

womansWork

PHOTOGRAPHY BY NEAL SANTOS

“I was a graphic designer. I sweat the details,” Heather Marold Thomason, 35, tells the group of women assembled before her in Kensington Quarters upstairs classroom space. They’re here to learn about butchery.

Thomason talks while slicing a pork belly into perfectly flat, even strips, her long knife working quickly, her movements precise. Her voice conveys an easy confidence—and just a hint of New Jersey. She wears a knit cap over her ponytail; at her waist, over a black apron, a plastic holster with knives and a honing steel hangs from a metal chain. She reaches for her knives without looking. “Muscle memory,” she tells us, “is everything. It’s all repetition. Your body knows what to do.”

It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon, and as we gather around the butcher block for Thomason’s demonstration we can hear a buzz of activity downstairs: the butcher shop closing up for the day, the restaurant preparing for dinner service, the hum of conversation from the bar. We’re here for the very first “Whole Hog Butchery for Ladies” class, which Thomason plans to teach here once a quarter.

Thomason breaks a side of pig down into primal cuts, then subprimals, explaining the finer points of hog anatomy, answering questions, and tossing off cooking tips for each cut as she works. She plops each piece down on a sheet of butcher paper and a student writes the name of each cut next to the meat in black Sharpie: Pork butt. Leaf lard. Eye round. Tenderloin.

The goals here are to demystify the cuts of meat and how butchers (and chefs) approach them, and to educate students about whole-animal butchery and humane farming. Although it’s billed as being “for ladies,” the women’s class is no different in content from the mixed-gender version: “It is not about excluding men—it’s just about including women. It’s a more supportive environment,” Thomason explains. She’s sure that half the students in this session would never have shown up for a mixed gender class. “Women don’t really think these classes are intended for them. This is an invitation.”

As for the challenges of entering the profession as a woman, Thomason is sanguine: “In any male-dominated job, you have to be as good as or better than your peers to get respect.”

During her early career at The Local Butcher Shop in Berkeley, California, she says others in her field weren’t so sure about the prospect of a female joining the ranks. “Mostly, though, it was guys trying to be gentlemen—they had good moms, so when they saw me picking up a 50-pound container of meat, they’d offer to carry it for me. And I’d say, ‘No, I’m OK,’ and carry it.”

“It is not about
excluding men—
it’s about
including women.
It’s a more
supportive
environment.”

Thomason’s career path took a few detours along the way to the butcher shop. She left her hometown of Morristown, New Jersey, after high school when she landed a coveted spot in the Alvin Ailey School of Dance at Fordham University. The ballet program was so demanding that Thomason quickly realized she would have to choose between having a dance career and having a rounded education and personal life. She switched to graphic design, but says that her dance background has served her well in butchery: “Learning the movements in breaking down a piece of meat is a lot like learning choreography,” she says, her hands tracing an arc through the air. “Your body learns the moves.”

After college she began her career in graphic design and was initially awed by her art directors. “They’d look at something and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be better if you did this?’ and I wondered if I’d ever get to that level. I didn’t know I was just around the corner—a year later I leveled up,” she laughs. Thomason and her husband founded their own design business, Bad Feather. But even as her design career moved forward, Thomason, a serious home cook since childhood, was exploring the food world and attending cooking classes. Although she had been eating a mostly vegetarian diet, she enjoyed working with meat and began to explore whole-animal butchery. “I always loved pork, though,” she says. “My initials were HAM before I got married!”

Thomason spent a week doing an intensive butchery class to see whether she wanted to consider a career in the field and to pick up fundamental skills: “I got used to deboning, holding my knife a certain way.” By the third day she asked one of the butchers, “Do you think I need to start lifting weights? Because I really want to do this.’” He told her she would build her muscles on the job—and she did. Her first apprenticeship, which took six months to find, was a physically demanding live-in job at North Mountain Pastures in Newport, Pennsylvania. “Most of working on a farm is carrying buckets of water, carrying feed, carrying fence posts from point A to point B,” she says. “About four months in I realized I could lift those heavy boxes of frozen CSA meat onto the top shelf. I got strong.”

Her experience at North Mountain made Thomason a passionate advocate of humanely raised meat.

The heritage-breed pigs there are pastured on forestland, where they can root and graze as their instincts demand. Back in the butchery class, when a student asks about the difference between meat from a happy pig and meat from an unhappy one, Thomason knows just how to explain it.

“See this ruby-red color?” she asks, gesturing to the cuts before her. “Industrial meat is pale. Pasturing gives you deep red pork. And if you’ve ever noticed red flecks in your pork, that can come from stress.” The best way to tell the difference in quality, she tells the class, is by tasting the fat: “In industrial pork the fat is disgusting, but with a happy pig, the fat is actually the best part. You get a creamy, grassy flavor.” The truth of her argument is borne out the next day at dinner, when I eat the sample pork chop I’ve brought home from class. In the crisped layer of fat on its edge, there’s a distinct note of fresh grass. It’s delicious.

Her time on the farm also taught her about whole-animal butchery, the model that has guided Thomason’s career ever since. Industrial meat production, she explains, involves a great deal of waste. “When you see a huge rack of chicken legs, think how many chickens that came from. Whenever someone comes in and asks why we don’t sell chicken that way and I explain it, they always end up buying the whole chicken.” At Kensington Quarters, the butchers strive to waste as little as possible. As she breaks down the demonstration pig, Thomason sorts every scrap into tubs: one for trim—bits of meat and fat too small to sell, but useful for grinding or head cheese—and one for bones, cartilage, and other parts that aren’t edible but can impart plenty of flavor to a pot of stock in the restaurant’s kitchen. Tough strips of skin are twisted and dehydrated to make dog treats.… Read More

Continue Reading ·

BREAKFAST AT SULIMAY’S

Inside a Fishtown institution

Photography by Albert Yee

breakfastSulimay
To say that Sulimay’s

is steeped in
Fishtown history
would be an injustice:
Sulimay’s is
Fishtown history.

 breakfastSulimay2

If you don’t live in Fishtown, you might never have been to Sulimay’s Restaurant. In fact, you’ve probably never even heard of it.

Though its location—the corner of Berks and Girard—is near the epicenter of Fishtown’s restaurant revolution, just a block away from high-end newcomers like Kraftwork, Lloyd, and Girard, this unassuming diner doesn’t draw too many customers from outside the neighborhood. Unless the vertical red letters that spell RESTAURANT down the side of a whitewashed corner row house happen to catch your eye, it’s easy to miss. But don’t let that fool you: In Fishtown, Sulimay’s is where business is done.

The chefs at the neighborhood’s hot new restaurants might amaze discerning customers with craft charcuterie and gourmet pizza at night, but this is where they eat breakfast.

Inside, Sulimay’s is a classic Philadelphia diner. Not much has changed in its 35 years in business. There are mirrors on the wall traced with gold leaf, wood paneling, and banquettes with patterns straight out of the ’70s and ’80s. Customers can choose from the row of spinning stools at the Formica counter or a booth. There are plenty of Fishtown memorabilia: local cartoonist Jeffro Kilpatrick, known for his “Sketches of Fishtown” project, drew a loving tribute to owner Lucretia Sulimay that now hangs in a place of honor in the cramped vestibule. Children’s drawings decorate the doorway by the register, and on the wall there’s a photo of the street party that overtook Fishtown on D-Day at the end of World War II.

The decor may be out of style, but Sulimay’s—pronounced “Sellimee’s” by true locals—is still going strong. After all, crisp hash browns, homemade spicy-sweet breakfast sausage and servers who call you “hon” are always in demand.

The kid-friendly atmosphere also draws families, and young customers who clean their plates are invited to choose a lollipop from the bucket behind the register. More than a few children (including my 5-year-old daughter, Lucia) have grown up eating here. “I’ve had at least six very pregnant women go into labor after eating my pancakes,” says Lucretia. “And when their kids are ready for solid food, they have their first pancake here.” She bought this place 13 years ago. Fishtown has changed since then—and you can’t understand what’s so special about Sulimay’s unless you understand Fishtown.

To say that Sulimay’s is steeped in Fishtown history would perhaps be an injustice: Sulimay’s is Fishtown history. About three blocks away, in 1682, William Penn signed a treaty with the Turtle Clan of the Lenni Lenape people on a spot in what is now Penn Treaty Park. The new European inhabitants of the area were shipbuilders and the fishermen for whom Fishtown is named, harvesting the bounty of shad that then swam the Delaware River. In the 19th century, glassworks, breweries and distilleries employed immigrant laborers. The cultural legacy of the Irish, Polish and German workers who settled in the neighborhood is still strongly felt today. Heavy industry kept Fishtown bustling through the mid-20th century.

But the good times—or, at any rate, the times when you could just walk into a factory and ask the foreman for a job—eventually stopped rolling. In the 1970s and 1980s, the economy contracted and good union jobs that had supported families moved overseas or dried up. Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Detroit: Those who could afford to leave the city did. Those who couldn’t, or were prevented from doing so by redlining and racism, stayed and dealt with the aftermath. Industry fled and left in its place emptiness and poverty. Working-class Fishtown struggled, and black-market industries filled the void—especially heroin. In the ’80s and ’90s the neighborhood gained a new reputation as a place to score dope.

In the 21st century, though, the neighborhood’s changes can be ascribed to a new force: gentrification. Things shifted shortly after the turn of the millennium, when outsiders went from thinking of Fishtown as a “bad” neighborhood to thinking of it as cheap real estate, full of cute little houses ripe for refurbishment by anyone with the cash to get started. Over the past decade, developers have swarmed the Frankford-Girard corridor, turning dive bars into gastropubs and run-down row homes into sleek, eco-friendly dream homes with roof decks—and pushing the pushers and their customers north and west.

Those homes, with six-digit price tags unknown in the neighborhood a decade before, aren’t for the locals. They bring in a new crowd, one full of artists, architects, pizzaiolos and pickle makers, a Rust Belt answer to Portlandia that mixes somewhat uneasily with the proud, tight-knit natives of the neighborhood. Fishtown also is a lot less segregated than it used to be, but in the process gentrification has displaced quite a few working-class white people in favor of an economically and racially mixed set of newcomers. The resulting balance has been uneasy, with hostility occasionally breaking out on both sides. Sulimay’s has occupied a front-row seat for it all.

breakfastSulimay3

“I’ve had at least six very pregnant women
go into labor after eating my pancakes.”
—Lucretia Sulimay

For the last 13 years, so has Lucretia Sulimay. She is the heart of this place, not to mention its brains and its palate. Small and fineboned, with dark hair and a quick, warm smile, she is constantly in motion: greeting customers, making coffee, running plates out from the kitchen, chatting with regulars. She is the third of seven children raised in Pennsauken, New Jersey, most of whom now work in the hair-care industry (you’ll find Sulimay’s Barbershop just down Girard and the slick new Sulimay’s Urban Salon over on Frankford).

She bought the diner (formerly known as Berks) after years of experience in the restaurant industry as a chef and caterer (including a stint at Mount Airy’s Cresheim Cottage Café). At first she kept it open seven days a week, though this nearly burned her out; now she closes the diner on Tuesdays. Back then it was mostly still longtime locals who frequented the place, talking over bottomless pots of coffee and platters of eggs and bacon at greasy-spoon prices, paying in cash at the register. (About that register: Regular customers have, on occasion, been known to ring themselves up when Lucretia is busy.)

Things got difficult in 2008 when Wall Street took its dramatic dive. Many Fishtowners found themselves out of work and short of cash. “Going out to eat wasn’t something they could do all the time,” Lucretia explains, and the diner’s Formica tables too often sat empty.

As she’s talking, a man pipes up from the next table: “I’d come in here and work from ten to noon and I’d be the only one in here. Kept you company, though, didn’t I?” There were regulars, though: a set of retirees who came in early every morning to debate everything from geopolitical issues to kids these days. Local artist and producer Marc Brodzik found their coffee-counter banter so entertaining that he suggested an unusual way to get the word out about Sulimay’s: a video podcast. “Breakfast at Sulimay’s,” which ran from 2008 to 2012, drafted three of the diner’s retired regulars as music critics reviewing alt-rock, hip-hop and heavy-metal releases.… Read More

Continue Reading ·

Facebook

Twitter