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Hold the sugar, I’ll take a little NY in my LA

August 23, 2008

Our first week in Los Angeles, I had dinner with a Brooklyn ex-pat who spent the entire meal complaining about lala-land and all the ways the Big Apple trumped the West Coast. What a (choose-your-own-expletive), I thought, and that very instant I vowed not to live in a memory, but instead embrace the place we had decided to make our new home.  I quickly reminded myself about the weather, the outdoors, the year-round Farmer’s Markets… Los Angeles had a lot going for it.

Recently the wife and I were having the New York blues — we saw images of our former peeps filling Central Park for picnic blanket opera, the Olafer Eliasson waterfalls springing from the Hudson, the teeming masses lining up for Bresson movies at the Film Forum, and our beloved Yankees clobbering the Red Sox. We missed the sweltering subway platforms where the air was thick as tapioca, the sea of pedestrians washing over the streets with the morning tide, the bike messengers darting through taxicab filled avenues, the mud truck coffee, the black and white cookies at William Greenberg, the scones at the Clinton Street Bakery, the attitude that came with an Esa-Bagel — the hustle and bustle of the whirling dervish that is our New York.

Thankfully one our New York haunts established a Los Angeles outpost so we could pick up a couple of City Bakery cookies, a cup of joe, and pretend that we were back in our old center of the universe. The City Bakery used to be on my morning walk to work in the Flatiron district, and on many days I was lured into its intimate subway-tile lined womb filled with sweet and savory delectables. Sure some came for the lunch fare, but given my raging sweet tooth, I was more interested in the Chocolate Room with its thick cacao bricks, the chocolate fountain arcing its ribbons of bliss, the billowing homemade marshmallows, and… the cookies.

Baked goods are something I take very seriously, and I’m not talking about the stick-of-butter cupcakes at that infamous West Village sugar corner. No, I’m talking about the perfect mix of crunch and chew, the balance of chocolate, fruit, or nuts to dough, the quality of the fruit in the jams, the taste, texture, and airiness of the dough, the complex fillings, the glazes, the icings…there’s a lot that goes into a good bite. The City Bakery had figured out cookies: they were large enough so you didn’t have to feel bad about sharing, and if you timed it right, you could savor the soft, buttery, rich, doughy cookie just as it left the oven and be rewarded each bite with an oozing morsel of warm bitter-sweet chocolate.

So on that cloudy NYC blues stricken Sunday afternoon, we headed to the City Bakery’s west coast satellite at The Brentwood Country Mart. If we couldn’t be in New York, maybe we could fool our stomachs into thinking we were.  Ironically, the Country Mart designers also wanted us to think that we were on the east coast, and had designed the façade after a pastoral East Coast barn. The stalls were filled not with animals, but chic clothing stores and over-priced gift shops. Nestled in the corner, past an open fire pit and a greasy hamburger joint, was our old City Bakery.

As soon as we walked into the Bakery, we could tell there was something different about our west coast cousin. Sure there were the same subway tiles, Chocolate Room and elegant cookie display, but the place seemed cavernous compared to its cozy New York counterpart. The tables were like islands on a sea of spotless ivory tile instead of stacked next to each other so you’d bump elbows with your neighbor and be forced to have a communal conversation. I could’ve driven a Harley in there.

With each step towards the counter, I began to realize that I was living out a metaphor between the two coasts. In New York we mashed ourselves together in precious real estate, living on top of each other, colliding like pinballs every day. I knew the smells of my New York-folk because I shared cramped elevators with my neighbors and we made trips into the subway inferno together. But in Los Angeles, we all drove in our own personal bubbles and stretched out in sprawling places where we erected fences to keep out the neighbors. And in this Brentwood City Bakery, I didn’t have to fight my way to the counter, I could do summersaults and cartwheels, I could have my own table and not have to share.

We ordered coffee and chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin cookies and found a seat outside around the firepit. We took eager cookie bites, hoping the old gastronomical sensations would flood in and our taste buds would be sent three-thousand miles away. We traded cookies, not telling each other that there was something off about the cookies. They didn’t have the same consistency, more flake than bend, no oozing chocolate, no chew to the oatmeal, just a lot of upfront sweet. Sure I got my sugar rush, but it wasn’t the cookie that I remembered.

And maybe I’d never get that cookie, even if I hopped on a plane and headed back to the Flatiron. There is something about food and memory, where one heightens the experience over time so it becomes the idealized version. In fairness, that perfect cookie could probably never be matched. The truth is I still finished the chocolate chip, and then the oatmeal raisin, and dutifully slurped up the coffee. And then, just when I realized I was LA-bashing, living in a New York memory, becoming that jerkoff I vowed never to be like, the wife suggested we head to Will Rogers Park a mile away.

In minutes, we were hiking into the park, past the polo ponies, past the pickup soccer game where the players screamed at each other in Farsi, Spanish, and Italian, past the horse roping ring and up a rocky trail to “inspiration point.” And we sat on a bench, watching the marine layer roll over the jagged Santa Monica mountain range, feeling like we had just entered another universe. Magic hour began and the afternoon morphed into that diffuse light Terence Malick uses to make everything look heavenly. A blue jay came to visit hoping for a few crumbs, the coyotes started their evening howls, and we realized we’d better head home to start cooking a Sunday Supper worthy of the seasonal bounty we’d picked up at the farmer’s market.

On the hike down, a gaunt deer looking for dinner jumped across our path, followed by her two baby fawns. The three of them wandered onto a great lawn where a group of families were finishing up a birthday party. Within seconds, the children noticed the deer and swarmed after the real life bambies. Sensing danger, the mother deer quickly hopped the rail fence enclosing the lawn and scaled a steep hill to avoid the human rush. One of the younger deer ducked through the fence and dutifully followed his mother to safety, leaving the youngest at the mercy of the growing crowd of gawking Angelinos that had formed.

From the perch above, the mother deer watched her child charge the fence trying to make the jump. Just as the deer made it to the barrier, it stopped short, unsure it could clear the distance. The audience watched with rapt attention as the baby deer began to gallop in tight circles, picking up momentum. And then she made the leap, soaring through the air, its hooves just grazing the rails. The park erupted in thunderous applause as the young doe landed safely, scurrying up the hill to join its mother.

We had all just witnessed a rite of passage. Sure it was on artificial turf that we carved out of the natural world, but it didn’t diminish the collective thrill my fellow Angelinos felt at that moment. As the wife and I hiked back to the car, past the international soccer game and polo ponies chomping on evening hay, I thought to myself, in all my years in New York, I never got to see a baby deer learn to fly. Only in LA.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. August 23, 2008 4:58 am

    Good to see you back! I missed your blog!

  2. August 23, 2008 5:11 am

    What a great day! Welcome to LA.

  3. August 23, 2008 4:05 pm

    Enjoyed reading this post very much – nicely written!

  4. August 23, 2008 9:48 pm

    Beautiful post. Touche.

  5. lastomach permalink*
    August 25, 2008 12:12 am

    thanks everyone!

  6. August 25, 2008 12:01 pm

    Love that final sentence!

  7. August 27, 2008 11:28 am

    Have you been to the Getty yet? Another reason to love LA, despite the traffic and smog. As a Western US native, transplantation to the small spaces of NYC has been a bit of a shock. Yes, I occasionally find myself griping about how this place isn’t (fill in the blank), but your words ring true for me and I’m trying to find a whole new mental category for this life. Thank you for sharing!

  8. lastomach permalink*
    August 28, 2008 4:45 pm

    yes chou, we love-love the getty. if you’re in nyc and need a little getty-like-fix, go to the frick (http://www.frick.org/) and stand in the Whistler room, marvel at his genius, and then wander in the lush gardens.

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  1. Farmer’s Market Doubleheader: August 17 & August 24, 2008 « la stomach

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