[THIS ESSAY WAS PUBLISHED IN THE SUNDAY NEW YORK TIMES ON 17 JULY]
At a bend in Hudson Avenue, across from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, there is a manhole cover that once lay just outside my grandparents’ grocery store. It is the last trace of a block of long-gone shops and stores straight out of an Edward Hopper painting. In my refrigerator sits another keepsake of this lost place — a quarter-wheel of cheese saved after the store closed in 1941. That anything as perishable as cheese should survive 75 years is remarkable, and so is the tale it tells.
My grandfather, Giovanni Tambasco, opened his store at 96 Hudson Avenue shortly after bringing his wife, Raffaela, from Italy in 1924. He had chased work all over the continent since coming to America in 1906 — laying railroad track in California, excavating the New York State Barge Canal, cutting glass in a Brooklyn factory — and it was time to settle down. The couple lived in a room in the back of the store. Raffaela minded the counter; Giovanni stocked the bins and shelves twice a week, wheeling a cart to Wallabout Market at the crack of dawn. With its Flemish-style buildings and teeming Farmer’s Square, Wallabout was the busiest produce market in America. Nearly everything there came from truck farms on Long Island and the rural fringes of Brooklyn and Queens (we were all locavores then). From an importer off Flushing Avenue, Giovanni bought olives, oils and cheese.
The store’s patrons were Poles, Lithuanians and Italians who labored in nearby factories and the Navy Yard. The Fifth Ward, as the area was then known — “Vinegar Hill” was not revived until the 1980s — was gritty, tough and dangerous. This was a place nobody boasted about, where the mark of arrival was to leave. The main drag, Sands Street, was a gantlet of sailor bars and brothels that only outsiders found charming (“as vivacious as a country fair,” Carson McCullers called it). Gas tanks sat alongside tenements. The smokestacks of the huge Hudson Avenue steam turbine plant loomed overhead. When its great boilers were purged, a drift of fly ash and soot would soon settle over the neighborhood. “Pull in the wash!” the women cried. Children donned newsprint hats and listened to the cinders fall on them.
My grandparents’ store made it through the Depression only to fall victim to war. In 1941, work began on the Fort Greene Houses, a massive and ambitious public housing project. Built for families living in the slums south of the Navy Yard, most of its units went instead to servicemen and defense workers. This should have brought a flood of new customers to 96 Hudson Avenue, but two Bohack stores had just opened, one right around the corner. The newcomers preferred the self-serve supermarkets, brightly modern and stocked with a “complete line of nationally advertised groceries.” My grandparents’ store was small and dimly lit, so local that it had neither name nor sign.
What ultimately doomed the store was the closing of Wallabout Market. The Navy Yard needed more room, and the market lay in the most obvious path of expansion. Wallabout closed in early 1941. Its replacement, Brooklyn Terminal Market, was in far-off Canarsie. Though Giovanni held a chauffeur’s license, he owned no car. Provisioning the store was suddenly an ordeal. It was shuttered as America entered the war. To make ends meet, Raffaela and my mother, Rose — then all of 15 — stitched dolls’ outfits in a local sweatshop, doing piecework on the side, sewing stars on sailors’ uniforms. My uncle John worked for the baker next door. Giovanni took a factory job. He died the next year from pneumonia after a routine operation.
By this time, much of aging Downtown Brooklyn was in the hands of Robert Moses. Century-old buildings were razed for Cadman Plaza and the Brooklyn Civic Center. The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway carved a path of destruction toward Williamsburg. Another fleet of Corbusian towers, the Farragut Houses, stamped out the blocks around Sands Street. Some people were forced from their homes, and others fled as racial tensions rose and the social fabric frayed. Raffaela stood her ground and befriended all, earning her keep cooking meals for the Brooklyn Edison men. Then a letter came: 96 Hudson was to be razed to make way for a new public school.
Raffaela moved to Bay Ridge with her son. In her modest cache of belongings was the cheese, nearly a full wheel then. The family used it only sparingly in the years that followed. The cheese became a memento and then a memorial after Raffaela died in 1974. When my uncle gave it to me last year, I found a note that read, “Added virgin olive oil, September 11, 1998” — the anniversary of Raffaela’s death. By then, John, an urbane bachelor, had left the city for New Jersey. There had been muggings and a murder on his Bay Ridge block, and his apartment had been broken into. Reluctantly, he moved to a retirement community in Toms River. The cheese went with him. He turned 90 last year. Shedding possessions, he handed me the cheese as my wife and I were heading out the door after a visit. We had recently moved back to New York; the cheese was heading home.
We mark ourselves by what we choose of our past to shield from the churn of change. Much of this, whether an old building or historic landscape, is lasting and durable by definition. That something as soft and perishable as cheese should make it across 75 years of time and space, outlasting brick and mortar — indeed, much of the city — is beyond remarkable. But is a cheese from the age of steam still recognizably cheese? Is it even still edible?
To find out, I took the cheese to Kate Arding and Mona Talbott in Hudson, N.Y. In the kitchen of their lovely shop, Talbott and Arding, we undid its winding sheet.
A pungent funk arose, but the cheese was not rancid. “It’s smelling remarkably clean,” Kate observed. Mona sensed a sheep-ish note, suggesting it might be pecorino Romano. Kate, the British-born co-founder of Culture magazine and editorial board member of the forthcoming “Oxford Companion to Cheese,” concurred: “It does smell like a Romano. It’s got — even now — this very slight sweetness.”
And then there it was: a mottled ginger-gold, velveteen with sweat, edged with a waxy black rind. We were spellbound. Kate took out a device called a cheese trier. Gently rotating it into the rind, she removed an amber sample, like a core of glacial ice. She broke off a small piece and handed it to me. Timidly, I put it in my mouth.
“It’s got a bite,” I said of the little salt bomb, wondering if there was a good hospital in Hudson. To Mona, it had a leathery note. Kate was impressed. “I’ve sampled contemporary cheeses far, far worse,” she said. This was culinary archaeology. “I have never heard of anyone tasting a cheese this old,” Kate remarked. “Aside from archaeological finds, I’ve never even heard of a cheese surviving this long. I’m amazed; it hasn’t really suffered at all.”
No cheese is immortal, but Romano comes close. It is among the oldest cheeses in the West, described 2,000 years ago by Columella and Pliny the Elder. Its capacity to resist decay made it a staple for Roman troops, and thus literally helped build an empire. “The whole point of this style of cheese is that it’s very low moisture,” Kate said, “so it’s designed to age.” That, too, is why my uncle’s decision to freeze it was not a bad idea. “If you’re ever to freeze a cheese, this is the style of cheese that is going to survive.”
I returned to the city with the edible heirloom that was most likely made from the milk of sheep that grazed on the Lazio plain as fascism gripped Italy and Europe descended into war; that crossed an Atlantic harried by U-boats; that dodged the wrecking ball of urban renewal and survived even suburbia; that was finally, safely home.