The East Village is, was and always will be my hood in the big apple. Sure, I now stay on the Upper West Side and much to the dismay of my husband, I gravitate downtown. He will often say “downtown again?” My friend Peggy always lived on the Lower East Side and she was my friend-to-stay-with in New York. It was really seedy and exciting then, the 70’s. It’s been totally gentri-yuppie-fied in recent years. The Hells Angels owned the block – or maybe even blocks – around where Peg lived. And each day as I ventured out, one or another of them would ask me to fetch him something like matches perhaps from the corner store. So I did. Who wouldn’t? It was always more of a command – and I was to obey.
One hot summer night when Peggy and I were feeling playful and fearless, I actually hopped on the back of Mike the Bike’s Harley for a quick spin around Alphabet City. She was on the bike of another Hells Angel whose name I cannot recall; I only remember his toothless grin and his notoriety from the Altamont infamy of some years earlier. I am not the biggest adventurer – in fact, I’m not adventurous at all. But I describe myself as a person with the opposite of xenophobia. I love foreigners and strangers. In those days, I’d been known to see a street filled with Puerto Ricans, dancing to the beat of their segregated world, and I would jump in to dance wildly with them. But I also backed out quickly when I sensed danger (clearly, they were xenophobic).
In the 80’s, I moved to New York with my newborn baby Oliver and the ex. Guess where? The East Village. Always fascinating, many other like-minded souls. And hookers in front of the building where we lived. Colorful and familiar. Saint Marks Place, just steps away, was my world and I still love it. Guess I should mention that my father grew up there so it has an even deeper meaning /history for me.
I have been reading and hearing about Prune for quite some time. A few weeks ago, my husband was working uptown and I wanted a reason to head to the East Village. Prune seemed as good as any. And now that I’ve been, I just have to go again and again.
The place is oh so small and charming. Vintage tiles everywhere. Very few tables. And a menu that I was excited out of my mind about. I felt like a child in a candy store – if you know a candy store that serves Empress Crab Claws with Tabasco sauce; James Beard’s Onion Sandwich with fried chicken livers; Egg on a roll; Crisp Cod, black cabbage, red peppers, French ham, potatoes; Grilled Tuna Club on Sourdough with aioli and arugula; Grilled Hamburger on English Muffin with Cheddar Cheese. Come on, would YOU know what to order? Oh, did I mention: Bacon and Marmalade Sandwich on Pumpernickel Toast; Eggs Sardou-their take on the New Orleans classic; Braised Tongue Omelet with gremolata and Marrow Bone.
I know my Hungarian immigrant grandmother would have likely ordered the tongue. I felt her presence when I saw it on the menu, maybe because she had raised my father downtown — possibly on this very block that Prune is on. I could never wrap my brain around tongue (weird image). It was often on grandma’s Sunday platter when I was a child, scaring the hell out of me with its pink-red color and, well, because it’s a tongue, for God’s sake.
I came home, showed my husband the menu, and he guessed immediately what I ordered. I will almost always order the chicken livers. What I didn’t realize is how the presentation of this lunch would turn out and it was fucking genius. And I loved every single bite. But first a minor digression…
When I was very young I existed on bread. Seriously. In a day, I was often known to eat only bread. And it’s not like anyone had anything more interesting than white bread, so that’s what I ate. Sometimes I even made myself mayonnaise sandwiches on white bread — which I realize sounds rather frightening — but I would be so proud of myself for hunting down the ingredients and making my own lunch, announcing to my dad that yes, I had eaten. He would laugh loudly at the idea that putting some mayo on bread constituted a meal in my little girl world.
The point of my little segue is this: the sandwich at Prune was the sandwich I made as a little girl to a mocking world — a mayo sandwich on WHITE bread. Mind you, this mayonnaise sandwich had the crusts cut off and the ends dipped into heavily chopped parsley and and okay they did add onion, but it was basically your Fredde Duke special of the late 50’s! The “sandwich” was then served with a very small portion of fried chicken livers. To me, this was the perfect meal. God, I wish I were back in New York eating it right now.
Prune Restaurant – 54 East 1st Street, New York, NY
Fredrica Duke shares how she discovered her love of food while growing up in Los Angeles on her blog Channeling the Food Critic in Me.
by Chef Mark Shoup