The New York Sandwich Project: Week 8

A wise man once said: “You should live in New York for a time, but not so long that it makes you cold.” There is an immense amount of truth squeezed into this statement; this city has a way of instilling frigidness upon its denizens, especially those who have lived here for far too long. Where does this coldness originate? Perhaps it’s the endless hustle and bustle along the streets of this urban jungle, the constant competition of this dirty, filthy rat race. Maybe it’s that, in a city of over eight million, being gentle and polite and considerate are traits that will get you left behind. Or it could just be that New York has a way of attracting heartless dicks.

I experienced a classic example of this on my first week of work in New York. That day, I emerged from the bowels of the subway to witness a bizarre sight. On the corner of 59th and Lexington, there stood a man, in thick-framed glasses, a pastel colored shirt, and bike shorts, crying his eyes out amidst a mass of businessmen and women on their way to the office. As these waves of finely-tailored, three-piece suits passed him, he screamed out in agony:

“What the hell is wrong with you people? Why can’t anyone just be nice?

But no one was. Like everyone else, I was on my way to work, trying to not get fired and maybe eat a bagel sandwich along the way. Seeing this man was almost comical, in a dark, sickening sort of way, a dire and disposed soul engulfed in the coldness of the city. No, this is not San Francisco. No one is going to stop and talk feelings with this oddly-dressed man. Our time is valuable, we don’t have enough of it, and we’ve all got more important things to do with our time. Get a job and get over it. This is New York.

But before we condemn all New Yorkers as monsters, an important distinction must be made. People make the common mistake of thinking that “coldness” is the same as “not giving a shit.” But that’s not the case. New Yorkers are cold, but they do, in fact, give a shit. Coldness entails a thick skin, an ability to remain unmoved by the lesser issues (and some of the greater ones too). Not giving a shit implies apathy, which is a dangerous, dangerous beast. But coldness is different, and when you really look for it, you can see this distinction manifest itself in beautiful ways.

On that very same walk to work, I have seen small, collective instances of generosity. On the corner store by my office stands a massive display of New York postcards. On a particularly stormy day in December, a rogue gust of wind launched that display into the street, kicking up hundreds of post cards into the air. They danced in the wind as they fell, like overpriced, touristy snowflakes coming down to the grimy New York streets.

The owner of the shop would have lost them all, had it not been for the spontaneous crew of some dozen New Yorkers who rushed to retrieve these lost postcards, through the sludgy snow and busy New York streets. One man even stopped a taxi to gather those that had fallen into the road. But this was the storekeeper’s livelihood – and everyone knows how tough it is to make it out here. So they helped.

Or another example. Every day I walk past this ancient woman who sits along a blue painted wall on the walk to my office. She talks to posters and wears a poncho like a babushka, but never bothers anyone. Even those who try to give her money, she refuses. No one knows why. No one even knows if she speaks English. And while she will never accept a monetary donation, what she will take is a cream cheese bagel and a piping hot cup of coffee from anyone willing to give. Every day, without fail, you will see various midtown workers handing her both of these things. It always seems to make her smile.

No, New Yorkers don’t have time for “feelings” or “tenderness” –it’s far too cold a city for such things. But when shit needs getting done, New Yorkers give a shit.

Week 8: The Original Mama’s Empanadas

A good sandwich, like most things in life, is about balance. Everything needs to retain a degree of its own flavor identity while simultaneously fusing together with all of its sister ingredients. You know, balance. One thing that no one ever considers, but is pivotal to the creation of the perfect sandwich, is the moisture factor. It is, perhaps, the most crucial element of such a meal. A sandwich made too wet becomes soggy and sloppy and falls apart. A sandwich made too dry, comes off as flavorless and unimpressive.

But what if you could have both? A sandwich with all the flavor that comes from being moist, with the structural integrity that comes from being dry? Then what would you have?

 I found such a creation, nestled in the borough known as Jackson Heights in Queens.

The area is known for its plethora of ethnicities: East Asians, South Asians, Tibetans, Argentineans. The list goes on, but today, we’ll be speaking of the Colombians who inhabit this area, and their magical shop along the main drag of this colorful neighborhood: the Original Mama’s Empanadas. It was here I consumed my first ever arepa rellena.

For those of you who don’t hablo español, “arepa” means”corn-flatbread creation,” and “rellena” means “stuffed full of awesomeness.” Think of it as a hard corn biscuit filled with delicious meat. While it may sound simple, the genius of these sandwiches is in the strength of the arepa. Because it is made of ground corn, it is far stronger and less absorbent than your typical piece of bread. Thus, it is possible to load up the savory corn biscuit with sopping wet carnitas and smother it in spicy green sauce without the slightest fear of your sandwich collapsing on you.

They’re only like three bucks and they eat like a meal. Plus, they’re not even what this eatery is famous for. The empanadas are even cheaper and there’s a hundred thousand different types. Why haven’t you ever been here? No excuses. Go to Mama’s. It’s a side of New York (and a side of flavor) you’ve never seen before.