In the mid-90s, my father and I worked two blocks away from each other — he was on 47th and Third, and I was on 45th and Third, toiling away at my first Big City job while simultaneously trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. We’d regularly meet for lunch — at sushi bars, bagel shops or whichever cafe had a good Prix Fixe that day. But the most memorable lunches were three blocks south of us in Grand Central Terminal, which, to me is not only one of the most architecturally stunning buildings in New York, and not only synonymous with the warm, happy feeling of Going Home (I grew up taking Metro North in and out of the city), but the place where I learned my father’s Randy Pausch-esque philosophy on Absolute Value.
When I say we’d have lunch in Grand Central, I mean, of course, we’d have lunch at the Oyster Bar. It served my father’s favorite soup, Manhattan Clam Chowder, and the waitresses, who recognized us after a while, would always give us extra (free!) biscuits for the sopping. We never ate in the main dining room — it was way too expensive compared with the menu at the snakey counter that was always packed and had no discernible system or line for seating. (We came up with our own system: Hone in on empty soup bowls, hover, descend. Did I mention my dad is a born and bred New Yorker?) Occasionally we’d splurge on their too-delicious-to-ask-questions French fries or an overpriced green salad which somehow always had bright red tomatoes even in the dead of winter, or the special white bean soup with rock shrimp (a few dollars more than the chowders), but for the most part, the lunch was the same: biscuits, chowder, career counsel, check. Then, of course, dessert. But not at the Oyster Bar. We would walk right by the pastry and cake display up front — a veritable carnival of fruit fillings and meringue — and head to the Grand Central Market, to the newly opened branch of the famous Li-Lac Chocolates.
“We’ll take two dahk chocolate mah-zipan bahs,” my Dad would ask the aproned woman manning the register. (You can take the man out of the Bronx…)
The dark chocolate marzipan bars (pictured above) were about the size of a small person’s index finger. They cost $3.25 EACH! To someone who had just skipped making the zucchini bread because she refused to shell out the cash for the jar of ground cloves ($5.99!), this was an astonishing price to pay for such a miniscule dessert. And especially after we were so careful about not spending too much on lunch!
But Oh. My. God. Were these bars good. The handcrafted chocolate always fresh and just the right balance between bitter and sweet, and the too-green-to-ask-questions marzipan was so Proustian and perfect for the short time it lasted, that my father never thought twice about the fact that our dessert came close to costing as much as our soups.
“You have to think about the Absolute Value of this piece of candy,” he’d say. “What is three dollars and twenty five cents in the big picture? Nothing.” For the amount of pleasure it brings you, he went on to say, there’s no better way to spend money.
I would say that there have definitely been moments when I have abused this philosophy over the years — My life-changing Jo Malone Lime-Mandarin-Basil lotion ($65!!) comes to mind first — but not in the case of food. I think of it every time I pile package after four-dollar-package of pomegranate seeds into the shopping cart at Trader Joe’s. Because watching Abby inhale an entire container of the antioxidant-rich little rubies in one sitting makes her so happy and gives me so much pleasure that I will fork over the bucks without guilt for as long as I need to.
And I will be asking for Truffle Oil and Fleur de Sel from Santa this year.