It’s cosmically fitting that I work for Fairway. Groceries have always been the apple of my eye.
At a college reunion, people clapped their hands and jumped up and down when I reported that I landed my Fairway gig. It was as if I had announced that I was a princess.
There are two kinds of New Yorkers: Those who love Fairway with deep, loyal, unbridled adoration, and those who are indifferent. I seem to meet way more members of the former camp.
I was a Fairway fan before I joined their payroll. The market is a sight to behold: mountains of gleaming grapes, more cheeses than I know what to do with (and I know my way around a few cheeses), sides of dry-aged beef, golden olive oils in lovely bottles packed ceiling-high, fresh mozzarella getting kneaded and pulled into formation. And mean old ladies, bulldozing you with their shopping carts if you make a wrong move. Can’t forget them.
Have you been to the flagship Upper West Side Fairway on Broadway recently? To call it buzzing is a vast understatement. My dad lives across the street but needs a pep talk in order to venture inside. The chaotic energy level is impressive, extreme.
I talked to a rare New Yorker and Fairway opter-outer. She is sophisticated, wealthy, lives in the Village. She buys her veggies from the Union Square Greenmarket, her cheese from Murray’s, her bread from Amy’s Bread, and her toilet paper from Duane Reade. It works for her.
I get it…the European fantasy, the procurement pilgrimage. Better if there is a bicycle and a baguette involved. As a kid in Baltimore, Saturdays were big days. My mom and I would bid my dad adieu and off we went on a magical, mystical grocery-hunting adventure.
First was the sunny farmers’ market in my neighborhood, Charles Village. The streets were full of vendors selling jams and jellies, bright cherries and peaches in summertime, baskets of arugula and lush, leafy things, stalks of asparagus in spring, shiny eggplants and elephantine zucchini. There were always cheerful men playing guitars, shaking tambourines, singing.
But my little tummy was rumbling and I was foremost interested in breakfast, which was one of two things. The first was an elephant’s ear from the impossibly elegant Parisian woman who presided over a table of croissants, éclairs, and madeleines. The palmier was the size of my face and I held it in two hands, anticipating the joy in its flaky, buttery goodness.
The second was the savory option. The mushroom lady—whose table of oyster mushrooms, enokis, and hen of the woods would now give me goose bumps—set up a smoky grill on which she would sear meaty portabellas and warm up fresh pitas. The pita would get stuffed with the hot mushrooms, a handful of milky feta, greens, and a dousing of hot sauce. This is an awesome breakfast.
It was also fuel for the rest of the day. Next was the Near East Bakery, owned by Armenian friends of my father’s. I was a kid in a candy shop, only the candy was bins of pistachios, juicy figs, massive blocks of halvah, and barrels upon barrels of olives—and this was before grocery stores had such things (Fairway did, perhaps, but I lived in Baltimore!).
Armenian soap operas played in the background as my mom and I loaded up on grape leaves, fragrant spices, and doughy breads stuffed with fava beans and sprinkled in za’atar. This would become my favorite weekday lunch. In the cafeteria, my friends would whip out PB&J and I would gleefully dig into my fava bean pie, laced with chilies.
Next was Mastellone’s, where we’d watch the owner’s mom make mozzarella behind the counter, her arms swinging pendulously as she pulled and pulled and molded the curds. She’d sometimes offer me a piece of the just-made, still-warm mozz. My mom would gather fresh lasagna noodles, good olive oil, San Marzano tomatoes, sausages, and big bunches of basil. I’d watch Mrs. Mastellone and her cheese, rapt with total awe.
Fairway is one store, but it has the feel of the best little markets. There is the thrill of the treasure hunt. And perhaps you know Terry the smoked salmon maestro, or Pauly the cheese guy who’s been there for thirty years (or something, he is prone to exaggeration). They always give you a taste of lemony seafood salad behind the fish counter, and grind your coffee mix of ten different beans, and know what supplements to take if you are fighting exhaustion. I get that, too.
Featured image courtesy of Fairway Market