New York Far Niente

Words by Jeffrey Ozawa & Photograph by Andrew Jungclaus

New York.

Even in Chicago I still feel its gravity from time to time, it having pulled in some of my closest friends, both my siblings, and a slew of peripheral people from the foggy past. It insists upon itself in that way, forcing you to play its games: finding a place to stay, applying for dinner reservations, darting on the train to the faraway corners where everyone is living. Inevitably I’ll run into some old friends who want to know what I’m doing. They’re swamped with a thousand projects, wanting to know what I’m up to as well, and when I respond that I like to sit around talking, cook, eat, and do nothing, their eyes widen and then look away. Insanity. Life in New York requires an agenda. My sister called me a month in advance with that familiar phrase: “What’s your plan?”

The truth is I barely had one, apart from seeing my friends: Deniz was in town, with her spring-breaking sister Piril who I hadn’t seen for years, Marguerite had moved back after nearly making a break for Barcelona, and Andrew started a PhD this year at Columbia. With Jaimie and I soaring miles overhead, there was the feeling of a college-era party coming together and we all agreed on Friday night at Deniz’s pied-à-terre in Fort Greene.

In anticipation we had been to Sunrise Mart, the little grocery store above the St. Mark’s bookstore in the Japanese part of the East Village. Taking the cramped elevator up to the second floor, I began imagining the possibilities—shime saba, shabu shabu, yakitori perhaps. I wandered through the maze of aisles, zigzagging, as I always do, past wasabi root, vacuum-sealed katsuo, and mascara, awaiting that moment of inspiration inspired by what looks fresh. Chicken backs for stock, boned jidori legs, chinese cabbage, scallions, grilled tofu, daikon, and three kinds of mushrooms (maitake, shiitake, enoki): must be mizutaki, the steaming chicken soup which got us through the winter.

Deniz’s place in Brooklyn is a modern marvel: floor to ceiling windows spread a panorama of the Brooklyn and Williamsburg bridges from 30 flights up. Its weakness is the kitchen, and Deniz admits to rarely cooking in it: a petite counter outfitted with a gas range, an electric oven, and a basic set of utensils mainly used for boiling pasta. This is fairly typical of life in New York—even the larger apartments cram the kitchens into some corner, as if to hide them. Of course that meant I didn’t have my beautiful donabe to cook with, and I missed it dearly, but as they say in Japan “弘法は筆を選ばず,” Koubou didn’t choose his brush. So in the spirit of the cool calligrapher I hacked through the scallions with a serrated Ikea knife and steamed the rice in a little stock pot.

It was already 10 PM so we unwrapped the cheese: some Roquefort and a truffled Camembert, spread across water crackers after our factory-puffed baguette, thank god, was dropped on the city street. Marguerite hadn’t even arrived yet. Trying to speed things along Andrew sent her a text and picked up a knife to help with the cabbage as Jaimie wandered around taking pictures. I was still adjusting the salt content of the broth, trying to overdo it just enough to balance the liquid the vegetables would release. More cheese. I grated the daikon, placing little mounds into each dish and poured over a makeshift ponzu of equal parts soy sauce and lime juice. Deniz poured glasses of ouzo on ice, and we made a standing toast, to nothing in particular, while I added the finishing touches, feeling like Keith Floyd.

Once a certain Marguerite arrived with two unexplained bottles of champagne, we tossed the ingredients into the simmering pot and after a few minutes began eating. Soon we were left with only the broth, to which we added the cooked rice, some whipped egg, and the rest of the scallions to create a creamy ojiya which disappeared just as quickly. Reclining as I was in a kind of hazy, overstuffed trance, I began thinking of the past. It used to be that getting together meant going out, playing the New York game, off to some new place that someone had heard about. As the years go by we’ve been able to distill the gathering to its essentials: tears of laughter, a well-stocked bar, music, and the simple finesse of the home cooked meal. In truth, New York will always be dear to me as long as it lends itself to the people I love.

So glasses in hand we made for the couches, carrying on until the sun rose, making sleep impossible.