I had just come home from a day of work in the sunniest of all kitchens when I saw this photo. Above and beyond all of the Hurricane Sandy carnage photos — floating cars, wrecked piers, dangling cranes and homes smashed by uprooted trees turned homicidal — this shot moved me. I found it on Mitchell Davis‘ (James Beard Foundation VP, cookbook author) twitter feed (@KitchenSense), and it turns out it’s a shot of Motorino Pizza in the East Village. The sign on the door is hard to read, but in black sharpie it says, “OPEN. Pizza Margherita & Wine. CASH ONLY.”
I’ve never been to the place, but Davis also mentioned that the reason they’re able to be slinging pies in the wake of one of the most devastating storms in history is because they have a wood fired oven. To me, after a long, speeding freight train of a day prepping stuff for all of the pomp and circumstance of service, this image brought the simple act of selling food — how and why we do it — into stark contrast.
Here’s a restaurant, opening its doors to feed people who are patronizing it because they need to eat. Don’t get me wrong, their product looks legit, but at this point, after a couple nights of cold soup from a can in a dark apartment, Motorino’s owners and staff are providing a crucial civic service. Using fire, they’re transforming flour, water, fat and yeast — all prepared by hand, without the convenience of motor driven, electric machines — into sustenance. One thing on the menu, wine while the stock lasts, enjoyed by candle light not because that’s the accepted aesthetic mode of the day, but because wax and a wick is all they’ve got for now. At the end of the meal, the patron tenders cash money in exchange for the food itself, and maybe also for a few moments of camaraderie amongst neighbors.
I’m not saying what I did — cook stuff for a few hours before customers arrived, basically just to make their dining experience a bit more seamless — cheapens the exchange at all. So much about eating out draws your attention away from the actual business at hand, though. The reviews, the articles, the magazines, the hype, the scene, the fads — it’s all just talk. And to be honest, it has become a part of the experience, and some of us love it. But when it comes down to it, it’s good to know that the world’s wounds can be dressed with crust, tomatoes, cheese and basil. And maybe a glass or two of red wine from the old world.
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