Day Nine • 12 Tastes of Brooklyn
SO MANY OF THE TASTES OF BROOKLYN—and we haven’t even scratched the surface here—have arrived with the waves of immigrants that grew the city into what it is today. Irish and Germans escaping famine or revolution at home—along with Brits and more than a few New England merchants and makers—had already made Brooklyn the third largest city in the U.S. by 1860. Then in the late 1880s came Russian Jews, Italians, Poles and Scandinavians, exploding the population and adding to its diversity again. By then, Brooklyn manufactured more goods than almost anywhere in the nation. The Great Migration brought Southern Blacks; Puerto Ricans arrived to work in the needle trades and cigar factories. Today, there are vital Caribbean and African-American and Chinese and Arab and Italian communities, just to mention a few. So you know where to go—right?— to get the very best patties or black cake or sufganiyot or sweet potato pie or dim sum or baba ganoush. Just head to a neighborhood and ask a local.
As times and economics change, ethnic enclaves blossom in a neighborhood and then fade and reappear in new neighborhoods. And always, they bring with them, and leave behind, the tastes of home—grocery stores, restaurants, food trucks. In more than a few cases, the grocers, of necessity, become importers—how else to get the beloved artisanal ingredients their customers need to make the handcrafted recipes that have been passed from generation to generation?
Sahadi’s Importing Co., with its retail grocery on Atlantic Avenue and a warehouse in Sunset Park, is just such a place. Charlie Sahadi’s father, Wade, came from Lebanon in 1919 to work in his uncle’s food business, established in 1895 in Little Syria (or Little Lebanon—Syria and Lebanon were part of the same country at the time) in lower Manhattan. In 1941 Wade decided to start his own business in Brooklyn, moving to the Atlantic Avenue location in 1948. “So I can’t take any credit,” says Charlie, far too modestly. “I was four at the time. But my brother and I, and now my children also, have kept it going. We’re in our 64th year.” Much of the Atlantic Avenue Arab-American community has moved to Bay Ridge or beyond now, and a thriving Sahadi’s welcomes crowds of multi-ethnic lovers of nuts, dried fruits, spices, olives, cheeses, breads, prepared foods (see above), olive oils and shelves and shelves of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern delicacies.
This is the perfect place to go foraging if you’re pulling together drinks and bites for a crowd. The tower of takeout pictured above—from bottom: baba ganoush, Mediterranean olives, tabouleh, hummus, Moroccan picholine olives—came to all of $17.65. The baba ganoush is made with nothing but eggplant, tahini, garlic and lemon juice; the hummus with chick peas, tahini, garlic, lemon juice and water, the chef tells me. Yes, they have chefs because the food is prepared in their kitchens. The tabouleh is more parsley than bulgur, as it should be, and comes out of the kitchen bright green, freshly made.
Since I recently visited Claire Weissberg of Claireware: Urban Folk Pottery in her studio in Gowanus and purchased two beautiful little bowls, seen above, with olives and baba ganoush, I’m ready for my crowds. Well, I may need a few more bowls.
187 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn Heights
543 Union Street, Gowanus
718-875-3977 (call before making the trip)
Photographs by Basia Hellwig. Date stamp typographic design by Joy Makon Design. The font is Rockwell, by Morris Fuller Benton and Frank Pierpont, Monotype, 1934.