After eight years of travel to far and exotic places, Anthony Bourdain has ended his tour with No Reservations "in a place as strange as Brooklyn" (That, by the way wasn't Bourdain, but one of the opening lines of Sophie's Choice by William Styron).
Brooklyn is indeed a strange place. The "fourth largest city in America", it's both a borough of New York City and its own diverse universe. I grew up in Canarsie, Brooklyn, in an apartment above a beauty shop. We were a Jewish family in an Italian neighborhood. It made me the person I am today, for good or for bad. It's fitting and ironic that the last No Reservations was filmed here.
Much of Brooklyn is still very blue collar, with working class people trying to make a living. Superstorm Sandy really tried to "whack" the area, which has a large seaside community. Many fishing boats were damaged. The famed Coney Island boardwalk survived, but there's plenty of water and sand damage. The nearby Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge (yes there's a wildlife refuge near Brooklyn) has been flooded. No Reservations starts by acknowledging this and asking for Red Cross donations. A classy move, Travel Channel. Thank you.
Tony starts and ends his journey in Coney Island, once a playground to rival Disney before there was Disney. Coney Island has always embraced its freakdom, with mermaid parades, hot dog eating contests, and rides of dubious origins that may or may not fling you out into the cold Atlantic.
Crown Heights has a large Caribbean population, with many Jamaicans, Bahamians, and Haitians taking up what was once a Jewish neighborhood. My parents and grandparents grew up not far from here, in Brownsville and Bushwick. My Grandfather spent his entire 60 year career as the manager of a shoe store here and when the neighborhood changed, he would bring home rice and peas to go with the pastrami sandwiches from the Kosher deli that remained. Tony eats at Gloria's, which has been around for years. Dining on oxtail and curried goat, he muses that he hasn't had Caribbean food that good while in the islands.
Red Hook was once filled with longshoremen who lined the streets to get hootch, women, and a meal. Though many ships have moved to Bayonne, New Jersey, the area hasn't changed much. It's one of the last non-gentrified bastions, but that won't last long. Movie studios, condos, and hipsters already have their eyes on the area. Ralph and Sonny are brothers who grew up here and never left. Ralph is a collector of cars, memorabilia, and junk while Sonny takes care of the family business -- a bar that's been around since 1890. Ralph remembers when his uncle used to haul bodies out of the Hudson. "Eels used to slither out of the bodies," he tells Tony. Were they jumpers from the Brooklyn Bridge? Maybe. Others fell off boats, some were whacked. The old days.
Sheepshead Bay is a fishing town, lined with places to get a dozen freshly shucked clams and a huge plate of food. Tony goes to Randazzo's Clam Bar, the king of the Italian restaurants that line the neighborhood, each claiming to have the freshest seafood and the best chicken parm. Everything is served with pasta and red sauce. "There's Italian and there's Italian American," Tony tells us. So what's with oysters getting all the glory over clams? "Clams are blue collar. They're goombah." Tony tells us that these are Italians that have never been to Italy. And that's OK."
Brighton Beach, also known as Little Odessa, has a huge Russian and Georgian population. Of course, Toy's friend Zamir meets him for dinner at Primorsky's. If you've ever wanted to listen to Russian pop songs, eat borscht, and drink vodka until the room spins, this is your place, buckaroo!
What food do New Yorkers pine for when they're displaced by work, family, travel, or natural disaster? Jewish deli. Every family had their favorite. Ours was Grabstein's, where my mother would yell at me for consuming the entire complimentary silver container of pickles. Tony's is Jay & Lloyd's, which happened to be my Aunt Mae's favorite. The world may be large, but a good Jewish deli can bring us all together in the pursuit of mounds of meat on a good rye.
As Tony wraps up the final voiceover, he tells us it's been a wild road. "If I do have any advice, it's to move as far as you can as much as you can. Walk in someone else's shoes. Move."
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Donate to the relief efforts. That strange universe known as Brooklyn is worth exploring...and rebuilding.