When Jenny and I were in our mid-twenties, we both had jobs in publishing – she at Real Simple, me at Esquire – and worked a few blocks apart, in midtown Manhattan. Sounds pretty glamorous, doesn’t it? It wasn’t, not really. But it was fun. For Jenny, who had spent two decidedly unfulfilling years, post-college, at a financial consulting firm in suburban Connecticut, it was a chance to flex those creative muscles, to unleash that side of her that can make a dollhouse out of a pile of clip-art and a cabinet door. For me, it was a chance to work with a bunch of writers I’d long admired and, in the process, come to understand just how little I really understood about writing. Work-wise, everything felt new and different back then, if that makes sense; when each day presents you with something you’ve never done before, you are constantly learning and constantly being challenged and, as a result, constantly feeling like a screaming fraud on the cusp of being found out. This was both motivating and, in hindsight, good for the soul. I can remember telling an older co-worker and mentor, when he asked me how I was holding up during a particularly tough week — one with a lot of late nights — that I was doing GREAT, thank you for asking. I told him, with total sincerity, that in the two years I had been at Esquire, there had not been a single morning when I dreaded coming to work! And I remember the look on his face when I said it, too: a kind of tight smile that said, Ahhh, yes. I remember being twenty-five and naive once, as well, my son. And I am smiling somewhat inscrutably like this right now because it is the only way I can keep myself from informing you that there will come a day when the prospect of editing your 43rd “Women We Love” cover package will make getting out of bed in the morning seem very, very hard.
But in the meantime, Jenny and I were happy just living in the moment. We had no kids yet, no mortgage, no boxes of baby pictures accumulating in the basement, no ballet shoes, lacrosse sticks, soccer bags, emergency granola bar stashes, or Taylor Swift CDs rattling around in the back of our car. (Actually, we didn’t have a car.) Working in the same business, and the same neighborhood, we had so much to talk and commiserate about. (I’d always send her a list of possible titles for a story I was working on before running them by my boss, for example; she was my insurance against public humiliation.) Every couple of weeks, we’d meet for lunch – usually at the local Au Bon Pain or the dreary, sneeze-guarded salad bar at the deli on 54th Street – but once in a while, we’d splurge and walk over to Uncle Nick’s on 9th Avenue. Uncle Nick’s was a cramped and busy Greek place with exposed brick and a sweaty, open kitchen populated by people who yelled a lot. It had too many tables, chairs so heavy you could barely push them back, and excellent souvlaki. An Uncle Nick’s lunch was what I call a “day-ender” – absurd portions of food that is simultaneously so flavorful that you can’t stop eating it and so filling that you immediately resign yourself, upon eating it, to an afternoon spent mourning the decisions you have made in life, and yearning for sleep. We’d get the tzatziki and a salad with blocks of fresh feta, a kebab or souvlaki platter, a side of Greek potatoes and, of course, rice pudding. None of it was what I would call light, but it was the potatoes that dealt the most crushing, and pleasurable, blow. They were roasted, but not crispy, oily but not greasy, crack-like in their addictive qualities.
I haven’t been to Uncle Nick’s in ten years, easy. I don’t even know if it’s still there, and am too lazy at the moment to google it. But in our house, at least, it lives on: I made Greek potatoes to go with a leg of lamb we’d grilled on Jenny’s birthday last weekend and boy, did it ever take us back. There it was, exactly. That fantastic texture, that deep yellow color, those hints of lemon and oregano. Damn! And oddly, given my sappy tendencies, the only thought after eating them was not, Wow, where did all the time go? It was, Why the heck do we ever eat potatoes any other way? — Andy
3 large russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1″ chunks
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 cup water
1/2 cup good olive oil
Juice from one lemon
1 tablespoon oregano
Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 500°F. Place cut, peeled potatoes into a baking dish large enough for each potato to rest on the bottom. In a bowl (I used a large measuring cup), combine water, olive oil, garlic lemon juice, oregano, and salt and pepper. Mix and pour over potatoes. Cook for 45-50 minutes, or until potatoes are slightly brown on the edged and most of the olive oil has been absorbed. Finish with some sea salt.
The main course: a leg of lamb, grilled for about 15 minutes, until medium rare.
Side #2: Arugula salad with radishes, tomatoes, cucumbers, scallions, and mint. (We added the bulghur later, after we’d served the kids. Kids no like bulghur.)