When I was growing up, my family and I spent most weekends at our summer cottage in the Thousand Islands region of upstate New York.
When I tell people this, they imagine a tanned and happy nuclear unit cavorting on the manicured lawn of a nice Cape Cod on the shores of a pristine lake. They think of the Kennedy clan playing touch football, of weenie roasts and star-filled night skies, of canoe trips at dawn with the fog lifting off the water like folds of washed silk.
But nothing could be further from the truth. My folks were what you might politely call "outdoorsy" — meaning my father owned more pairs of boots than he did shoes; that our long succession of used cars were chosen not for their looks or creature comforts, but for how many aluminum-frame backpacks and five-gallon jerricans of potable water would fit in the trunk; that no family vacation was considered a success unless a mountain had been climbed, a trail cut through a wilderness that not even loggers considered passable, and one of the four of us was nearly killed after falling into a crevasse or playing with dynamite (which, at the time, was still sold openly in the hardware stores of the villages we frequented — an undeniable temptation to my father, who hated cutting down trees but loved blowing them up).
Fisher Clark Urban Delicatessen
Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday
Corned beef sandwich: $8.50
Spanish ham and cheese: $8.50
French lentils : $3
Lemon torta: $15.50
Being outdoorsy people, when my parents got the chance to buy a little bit of property in the woods for a weekend getaway, they chose to spend about seventeen bucks on a tract of land set high atop a vertical cliff, backing up on a bajillion acres of dirty, stony, tree-choked, bear-infested, occasionally swampy territory affectionately referred to as "The Hogback," which, to this day, remains completely uninhabitable by humans. My parents and my little brother took to this environment like a three-way clan of Jeremiah Johnsons (not surprisingly, Jeremiah Johnson is one of my dad's favorite movies, along with anything starring Chuck Norris). I, on the other hand, want nothing to do with any outdoor activity that doesn't involve barbecue and a wet bar, and my intense dislike of nature and everything in it was born during these happy weekends at the "lake."
The lake itself was at the bottom of the cliff, across a grassy and snake-filled field, at the end of a sixty-foot dock that my parents built to traverse a disgusting, smelly, weed-choked and plague-ridden swamp full of enormous and foul-tempered turtles. Every year, when the lake froze, the ice would smash the dock. Every year, when the ice thawed, my parents would rebuild the dock, and I would help — insomuch as standing around in a pair of waders, submerged up to my nipples in mud and brackish swamp water and loudly listing off the Disneyland and Jersey Shore vacation destinations of all my normal friends could be considered helping.
Though I don't have a lot of good memories from those years spent among the swamp turtles and bears, I do remember one thing fondly: the local grocery/general store, which was at the end of three miles of dirt road and five more of rural routes that were only paved in the most generous sense of the word, in a tiny town that otherwise consisted of three bars, a video-rental store, a liquor store and two more bars. It carried two dozen brands of beer but only two kinds of bread (IronKids and another sub-generic called simply Sandwich); milk that might not have come from the cow tethered in the back parking lot, but certainly from one that could probably see the back parking lot from its enclosure; and bologna stored in the same cooler as the live bait.
I loved this store, and would gladly have spent my entire weekend there. I found it endlessly fascinating how such a small place (about the size of your average Chipotle) with only a passing concern for things like proper refrigeration and a laissez-faire attitude toward the sale of cigarettes to minors and dynamite to my father could possibly supply an entire region with all its beer, bread, bologna and bait. There were ice creams in the freezer, really good cheeses (farmer's variety, as powerful and puckeringly tart as the most artisan cheddars and Italian hard cheeses) stacked right alongside the bricks of Velveeta, a butcher who would skin and dress a deer for you if you slid him a few bucks, and two or three dimly lit, crooked and rickety aisles with shelves holding what I now assume were the combined results of years of mis-orders and unclaimed special deliveries. Hair dye (two shades only), pantyhose, first-aid kits, camp-stove propane cylinders, men's pomade, breakfast cereals of dubious provenance, a brand of oatmeal whose mascot was some sort of retarded moose — that kind of thing.
I was reminded of this general store, no doubt by now a victim of the Wal-Martization of America, the first time I walked into Fisher Clark Urban Delicatessen. The two spots could not possibly have been more different — and yet, in their genes, these two very disparate operations were inextricably linked. Maybe it was the sound of my boots on the hardwood floor that brought the memories flooding back, or the closeness of the place — the small space, the crowded shelves, the strange intimacy of being crammed in among the neighbors, the locals, the friends of the owners: Mary Clark (ex of Tante Louise and the beloved Bluepoint Bakery) and chef Adam Fisher. Certainly, the grocery store I remembered never had anything like the short, polished counter by the big front windows at Fisher Clark (four seats, almost always taken) or the Italian-cafe patio seats on the sidewalk alongside University Boulevard (set with heavy cans of Italian tomatoes for holding down napkins and thwarting the breezes). And Fisher Clark definitely did not smell of chaw, dust and blood, or offer live bait.
Still, both spots were serving the same purpose, separated by two dozen years and a million miles of desire. That old grocery store was dedicated to its community of farmers, drunks, rednecks and fishermen just as Fisher Clark tends to the needs of the yuppies, old folks, new money and urban/suburban neighbors who call Bonnie Brae home. In one store, there were sixers of Genny Cream Ale, Rocket Pops, explosives and Retarded Moose-brand oatmeal. In the other, Picholine olives, cans of sardines, a dozen kinds of olive oil and beautiful tins of Spanish saffron. In one, you could get a pack of bright pink bologna for 99 cents. In the other, an Italian (not New Orleansian) muffuletta sandwich of artisan salami, capicola, powerful oil, wonderfully strong provolone and an amazing, rough-chopped and savory tapenade of mixed olives squashed inside a roll stiff and chewy enough to hold it all together, for $7.95.
On my first visit to Fisher Clark, I managed to snag a counter seat and a hot corned beef sandwich on buttered-and-grilled marble rye that was the best corned beef sandwich I've ever had: stacked high, but not too high, with the house's own corned beef; slathered, but not smothered, in Dijon mustard, on bread that was just barely crisp, just barely warm and so delicious that I would've gladly eaten a second sandwich of bread-and-nothin' once I was done with the first. By four on another afternoon, the kitchen had already sold out of meatballs and was running short on baguettes, so I ate cookies for lunch: a simple, white drop cookie with a single preserved cherry, set in chocolate and mounted on top, sugary and perfect; a snickerdoodle, tasty but beginning to stale; and a Rice Krispie treat, wrapped in plastic, hard as a brick and inedible. Disappointed, I ordered half an Italian lemon torta to go.
Driving home, I took one tentative, exploratory bite, and next thing I knew, I was hunched over the box in traffic, pulling off pieces of the perfectly stiffened crust and licking lemon curd off my fingers.
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The kitchen at Fisher Clark, which occupies the former home of the Esquire meat market, is set up like a proper restaurant galley — half exposed to the outside world at the back of the shop, stocked as if for a siege. The cooks in this kitchen have to be culinary contortionists — capable of creating everything from excellent sandwiches to rugelach, from croissants to delicious cheddar-bacon-jalapeño scones, from house-brand tomatillo salsa to handmade, peppery gravlax, from takeout entrees of balsamic-glazed roasted half chickens to lamb and prune tagine, Spanish paella and an Italian timpano, for sale in individual slices. On return visits, I've watched the crew swing from the prep tables to the line and back again with an automaton's conservation of motion, moving from the Hobart to the salamander, from stirring the pots to slicing the cold cuts. It's a huge job, requiring a dozen specialties across the staff, a deep understanding of countless methodologies and prep strategies. They have to bake all those desserts, corn the beef, hang the bresaola and still find time to make a pear-and-onion jam for the Spanish ham and cheese sandwich to which I am now shamelessly addicted — made of stacked, thin-cut Serrano ham, thin-sliced chorizo (which tastes a lot like capicola when used cold on a sandwich), flaked Manchego and jam on rosemary focaccia. (Get it on a baguette or Dakota roll if you think baked rosemary tastes like nibbling on an old Christmas tree.)
Like that butcher back in the Thousand Islands who made a few dollars on the side dressing bucks and cutting venison steaks, Fisher Clark caters to its regulars — foodies and neighborhood gourmands, people (like me) suffering from the sort of culinary attention-deficit disorder that can make an order of a tuna melt, an Italian porchetta (with roasted pork and balsamic-spiked cipollini onions), some sauerkraut, a to-go of new potato salad with fresh dill, three cans of packed tomatoes, a jar of truffle oil, two snickerdoodles and some gravlax seem like a reasonable day's shopping.
But then, Bonnie Brae is a long way from upstate New York, and I'm a much different person now than I was in 1979. These days, a Monday-special Cuban sandwich with a side of French lentils sounds a lot better than warm bologna on Sandwich, a stolen swallow of my dad's beer and a hunk of farmer's cheese.
Well, maybe not better, but certainly different. Now, if only Fisher Clark started stocking dynamite...