Welcome to the first edition of Desert Island Food: Westchester. You may be asking, what is Deserted Island Food? I believe, at some point, we’ve all had the discussion with family and friends, “If you were trapped on a deserted island, and you could only have one choice of food for the rest of your life, what would it be? I couldn’t help but notice that the foods chosen were never extravagant choices, no Oysters & Pearls from Per Se. It was inevitably simple food, sometimes even junk food. But though it was simple it was never generic. The location was often as important as the choice, and this makes sense. Food is more than something we mindlessly stuff in our mouths as fuel. Food is memories. The taste of Italian Ices, licked from a wooden spoon during a hot childhood summer day, the aroma of your grandmother’s meatballs lovingly simmering for hours, the texture of the first bite of your wedding cake, these experiences create clear markers in our lives. So, though someone’s choice might well be pizza, it wouldn’t just be any pizza. It would be the pizza that was most familiar, most a part of one’s life. This too makes sense as, in the words of a famous psychiatrist, “We begin by coveting what we see every day.” Hence, to return to pizza, if you grew up in Brooklyn it might be Sicilian from Spumoni Gardens, if you grew up in New Haven, CT, it might be white clam pizza from Frank Pepe. Obviously, choices may vary by region. A Rochester, NY native might crave a Garbage Plate from Nick Tahou’s, and a Buffalonian might choose wings from Duff’s over the more famous Anchor Bar.
Westchester is fortunate to have its own share of talented food purveyors as well as a distinct regional flair. Indeed, if I were trapped on a deserted island, with or without a trusty volleyball for a sidekick, my choice of food would certainly be unique to Westchester. The difficult part for me would be deciding upon which of my favorites to choose. So, in this column I will try to consider all my choices. Of course, the most fun part of this discussion is always debating choices with your counterparts. For that reason I encourage, indeed I implore you, our faithful readers to give us your desert island foods!
Desert Island Food, Chapter 1: Walter’s Hot Dogs, Mamaroneck, NY.
If the idea of purchasing a hot dog (or four) from a roadside pagoda seems incongruous to you then you are definitely not from Westchester. After all, Walter’s has been churning hot dogs out of its copper roofed pagoda since 1928 (and selling hot dogs since 1919). During the summer months intimidatingly long lines stretch well down the block as fans wait to place their order at the window.
As you draw closer you are met with the smell of the dogs, sizzling on the grill. At this point, the most patient of people can begin to get a little testy as stomachs inevitably begin rumbling. Walter’s is not the most orthodox of hot dogs. They’re served split and grilled in “special sauce”. I tend to love the snap of the casing yielding when I bite into a hot dog, but I make an exception for these. There is another secret weapon at play as well, Walter’s mustard. Made from an original recipe it is, in a word, spectacular.
You overhear two basic conversations as you stand in line. The first is along the lines of, “How many are you getting? I don’t know, I was going to get four but I really shouldn’t, maybe I’ll just get three. How many are you getting? Four? Okay, I’ll get four too.” The second is how you’re getting them and this is where things can get heated. I get both Ketchup and mustard, considered blasphemy by some. However, I find the vinegary pop of the mustard and the sweetness of the ketchup combine with the buttery hot dog and toasted roll to create a near perfect food. So easy to eat are these gems that your first is usually gone before you even realize it. This is why I’ve never seen anyone order a single hot dog at Walter’s.
A trip to Walter’s isn’t complete without an order of curly fries.
Salty, crispy and piping hot, they are a perfect accompaniment. However, this too has led to arguments when discussing deserted island foods. Is it choosing one food or choosing one place?! Since I’m writing this rather than debating it I will declare myself the final arbiter: it’s one food. So if you’re going on any sketchy ocean voyages or three hour boat tours, you’d better get your fill of curly fries now. And while you’re at it, wash the whole thing down with an egg cream.
Note: This column is running on the Small Bites blog under the title 914 Eats. The Journal News’ food editor, Liz Johnson was less enamored of the desert island idea than yours truly. So what does an amateur blogger do when receiving advice from a successful professional? Why, ignore it of course! That’s why I’m the amateur. Also, I realize the correct terminology is ‘Deserted Island’, but everyone in the world says desert island so I didn’t think it was worth being a slave to grammar. My blog, my rules.