The Automat: The Amazing Story of America's Five-Cent Cafeteria | Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street

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Episode 614
March 21, 2024
Originally aired on May 27, 2022

The Automat: The Amazing Story of America's Five-Cent Cafeteria

The Automat: The Amazing Story of America's Five-Cent Cafeteria

Before McDonald’s or KFC, there was the Horn and Hardart Automat—a cafeteria-style restaurant where you could buy everything from creamed spinach to lemon meringue. This week, filmmaker Lisa Hurwitz tells us the story of the rise and fall of the Automat—with a little help from Mel Brooks. Plus, Emiko Davies takes us to Venice’s favorite wine bars; we whip up Greek Meatballs with Tomato Sauce; and Dan Pashman makes the case for a better vegetable sandwich.

Questions in this episode:

"My question is about fennel. By the time you cut off the bad parts, you have nothing left."

"I have tried twice to make the pasta alla Gricia. And my pecorino clumps into this mess."

"How do I scale up my pavlova?"

Photo credit: Lawrence Fried, 1951.

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Christopher Kimball: This is Milk Street Radio from PRX. I'm your host Christopher Kimball. Before McDonald's or KFC there was the Horn and Hardart Automat, a cafeteria style restaurant where you could buy everything from creamed spinach to meat pie by putting just a few nickels into a slot. A new documentary film called The Automat features interviews with some of Horn and Hardart biggest fans, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Colin Powell, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. Here's Mel Brooks in the film.

Mel Brooks: Of course, when you say automat or Horn and Hardart, very few people know what you're talking about. But one of the greatest inventions and insane centers of paradise were these places that had little glass windows framed in brass with knobs. And if you put two nickels into the slot next to the windows, the windows would open up. And you could take out a piece of lemon méringue pie for 10 cents. And you could eat it. And that was called the automat

CK: That was Mel Brooks in The Automat. It's a documentary film by my guest today, Lisa Hurwitz. Lisa, welcome to Milk Street.

Lisa Hurwitz: Thanks so much for having me. I'm excited to be on the show.

CK: Well, I loved your documentary, The Automat. In fact, I went to the New York one. And it was probably the last few years it was open. But it was just this amazing place. I'll never forget it. But we should probably describe what it is. Because unless you're as old as I am you you don't actually remember being in one. So, what was Horn and Hardart when you walked in? What did you say?

LH: Well, it certainly depended on what decade you are walking in because the heyday of Horn and Hardart was really the 1920s through the 1950s. And during that time, you would walk into this palace, it was huge, you would go to a counter, a woman would be standing there ready to change your dollar bills into nickels. And she like Mel says in the film, she would reach behind her without counting a thing and she would just give you 20 nickels for your dollar so that the magic begins as soon as you you know, you walk in the places. It's It's beautiful. It's not like your typical restaurant. And then you go over to these little cubbies. The walls are lined with these vending machines. And you put your nickel in a slot and you open the little glass window and then you take your plate of food out.

CK: And there was this magic. You know, I love the description of Horn and Hardart as there was some magic behind the wall. It even the coffee could you talk about that because that's great. The coffee dispensers for nickel.

LH: So, the coffee was again unlike anything else. Of course, at the automat where everything is just so whimsical. The coffee comes out of a silver dolphin spigot and these dolphins were inspired by fountains that to this day you can still see in Italy, where the water would come from the dolphin’s mouth.

CK: Yeah, I just I love that. So, Horn and Hardart started off with sort of lunchrooms. They were mostly baked goods, right? That was the beginning of Horn and Hardart.

LH: They started off as lunchrooms and I know it doesn't sound so revolutionary. But it was because before lunchrooms you had saloons and saloons were not appropriate for women. So these lunch rooms and the Horn and Hardart lunchroom started opening in 1888 in Philadelphia. They service both men and women. And this was important because women were joining the workforce. And they needed a place to go eat and as the film covers women were stenographers and women were a key element of office work and office work is was this new thing that was helping, you know, grow major cities like Philadelphia and New York City.

CK: When did Horn and Hardart really become a horn and Hardart was that the 1920s when it really came into its full expression?

LH: So, Horn and Hardart was really rapidly growing in New York City as soon as they opened that first automat in 1912 in Times Square, and during the Great Depression, which was a difficult period for most restaurants the automat was doing some of its best business. So, then you get into the 1930s and it's just these are their golden days.

CK: And we should just note for the record, as you do on the documentary that in 1953, they sold 10 million dessert pies, and 6 million loaves of bread. So, they were serving a lot of customers.

LH: They absolutely were. They were the largest restaurant in America at that time. They were replaced by McDonald's. But this was revolutionary. They were one of the most early American chains, and they were providing consistent food across distances that were prepared in central commissaries. And like today, you know, this is kind of normal stuff. But back then this was the cutting edge.

CK: The automat was often referred to and Mel Brooks refers to it this way, sort of patriotic there was a patriotism to horn and Hardart. Yes. So why was the automat the essence of being an American?

LH: Well, Horn and Hardart represented kind of America at its best. It was plentiful. It was high quality. It was pristine, it was welcoming and inviting. And it was just the town square in a way.

CK: Yeah. And I think what really struck me is that, you know, people in top hats and people who are stenographers, and people who have blue collar construction jobs. For a long time, everybody went to the automat. It was classless and I think that is also essentially American. Right?

LH: It really was truly egalitarian. And it was definitely something that Mr. Horn and Mr. Hardart knew they wanted to do that was the type of business they wanted to create. One of the reasons that I think this film is working so well right now is that you hear somebody like Mel Brooks, and he's sharing these very personal memories that very much, you know, line up with your own and it makes you feel connected.

CK: We haven't talked about the food, which seems an oversight. You asked Mel Brooks about his favorite, and he loved the the ham sandwich with mustard. Other people talk about the baked beans, or the Salisbury steak with their items that really sold much better than others.

LH: Well, for sure, the film, you know, hits on the biggies cream spinach, macaroni and cheese, chicken pot pie, all the pies. But the automat just serves such a long menu of items, they, you know, are kind of the opposite of fast food in the sense, you could go to the automatic, and you could have whatever you wanted.

CK: So, let's talk about the decline. So, when did the decline start? And why? Why did it start?

LH: The decline started in the 60s, the automats, they were depending on seven day a week, traffic. And when people left the city to live in the suburbs, they really became five day a week, businesses, and then also people's tastes were changing. People were looking for more healthy options. People were also willing to spend more on, you know, fine dining experiences, and the automat was about thrift and abundance. And these were Depression era values. They were not values of the Horn and Hardart customers of the 1960s and 70s, per se.

CK: Mel Brooks really seemed emotional at times, remembering the automat

LH: I'd say the moment where he got choked up probably was when he asked me for kind of an update, because he's he was asking me questions all along the way of our interview, you know, he was also interviewing me, because he didn't know what had happened. He ate there. And then you know, it closed and so he didn't know how it got from point A to point B. So, I walked him through that decline. And you know, at the end of that story, I told him, you know, he just, he just kind of sighs and he looks defeated and kind of brokenhearted. You know, he didn't realize how good it was then, but now he misses it. And I think it's really validating for people to hear somebody that they really look up to someone like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Colin Powell, Mel Brooks say, this was a very special, important, beautiful place and I cherish it. And this film really captures for certain people, kind of the story of their life and I know it's just a restaurant, but the film is about much more than a restaurant.

CK: Lisa, it's been wistful. But it's been inspirational. Thank you so much.

LH: Thank you for having me.

CK: That was Lisa Hurwitz, director of the documentary film The Automat. The Automat is screening and select theaters around the country will soon be available to stream online. You can find more information at Automat

Mel Brooks: There was nothing like the coffee at the Automat you would find a seat, hang up your coat and hat and for just a shiny nickel you taste that wonderful, magnificent, unbelievable, awesome coffee at the Automat

CK: That was Mel Brooks performing At the Automat, which he wrote for Lisa Hurwitz’s film. Right now, it's time to take some calls with my co-host, Sara Moulton. Sara is of course the star of Sara's Weeknight Meals on public television, also author of Home Cooking One on One. Hey, Sara, how are you?

Sara Moulton: I'm good, Chris, how about you?

CK: I'm good. Because I just spoke to a guy James Hoffman from England. He completely changed my mind about how to make coffee.

SM: Really,

CK: Yeah. And I do French press. And the typical deal with French presses, you grind it on the course side, right? The beans, you put it into high water, you stir it up, you let it sit three or four minutes, you put the plunger down, right, I've been doing that for 15 years. He said I was doing it all wrong. And I just this morning, tested his method, it was much better. So, here's his method. It's great. You grind it medium, not coarse, which is very different than everybody else says, you use 30 grams of ground coffee to 500 grams of water. And I did that you put it in the French press, you fill it with hot water. He said don't sweat it, whether it's 205 or 210 or 212. And let it sit for four minutes without stirring. So, you get this, you know, crust on crust on top. After four minutes, stir it in. And then take a separate spoon and remove any little bits on the top and let it sit another six or seven minutes, another six or seven minutes. Yeah. And then finally with the plunger, you put it just to what's under the water. Because if you put it all the way down, it stirs up the sediment. And I got to tell you, it was so good,

SM: What kind of beans?

CK: I like a medium roast. He says if you see oils on the outside of the bean, it's over roasted, which I agree with. So medium roast. And the other last thing he said was you have to get a good burr grinder because you know, a cheap one just doesn't work very well. And the reason is, the beans all have to be ground to the same size. If some pieces are too big or too small, the extractions not even. Anyway, I got all excited. So that was the new French press.

SM: That’s very exciting. You know, the only thing that could I use a burr grinder I use a French press, you know, and you just told me some different things I didn't know. But here's what concerns me the total marination time is 10 minutes.

CK: Yeah, but for the first four minutes, it's sitting on the top right. So, it's really, it's sort of like a presoak, like you do on a drip machine. Right? It's more of a presoak like you do in a …

SM: Okay, so then it's not so bad. So, it's really only the six minutes afterwards where everything is mingling because I'm sure you know that French press is the highest in caffeine. Because the coffee is just hanging out with the water every other way you make coffee, the water drips through it or goes through it quickly or like espresso has less caffeine. That's fine with me. I love my cup of caffeine

CK: It’s great I mean, we tried it this morning.

SM: I'm going to have to try it anyway.

CK; So that's my big event.

SM: Thanks for sharing it.

CK: By the way, check them out on YouTube James Hoffman.

SM: Okay.

CK: You know, he's a little obsessive, but that's why he really knows his stuff.

SM: My kind of guy.

CK: Okay, now it's time to take our first call.

SM: Yeah.

CK: Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?

Caller: It's Carol from Sudbury, MA.

CK: How can we help you?

Caller: I was calling about kind of a basic question about fennel. I love fennel. But it seems like you know, especially in the offseason, when you buy it at the grocery store. By the time you cut off the stocks at the top, and you cut off the base, and then you slice it sort of vertically, and you have to get the core out. And then they say don't use the outer pieces because there's sometimes kind of all beat up from the grocery store. There's like nothing left.

CK: Well, this is a plot fennel growers know that you need to buy more than one. How big are the fennel bulbs you're buying?

Caller: Well, you know, the grocery store doesn't often have a huge selection, but they're about a pound each

CK: Well, here's what I would do cut off the stock which by the way you can use it has a sort of anise flavor. A friend of mine Mark Bittman uses it when he grills fish he puts it on fennel, I would slice off a fairly thin amount of the bottom, don't take a huge half inch chunk out of it. And then if you take the entire outer layer off, you've now lost 20% of your fennel bulb. So, depending on the condition of it, I would sometimes slice off any brown spots or parts and leave the outer layer if it's in reasonably good shape. And that way, you are only cutting off a relatively small part, you're not taking a huge chunk out of it. And then I would slice across, but when you buy it, find ones where the outer layer doesn't have big brown spots. I also use it in salad. It's my secret salad ingredient raw fennels just terrific.

Caller: Yeah, I love it too. I'm going to try to grow it because I'm so fed up with, you know, losing half of it

CK: Some things end up in your supermarket in pretty good shape, but fennel does look like someone played hockey with it. But the time it ends up… that's a good point. I don't know, maybe that's just been sitting on trucks for three weeks or something. Sara, do you have?

SM: Yeah, well, no, basically, I agree with what Chris said, although you really can eat all of it. You could use him the way he suggested Mark Bittman did, but you could also just slice them really thin. And they'd still be perfectly edible. And the fronds are wonderful, you use them like you would like dill or something. But the other thing is, we used to braise them at this restaurant I worked at we cut them into thick slices and then braise them leave them attached at the root end. But we would use vegetable peeler to take a little bit of that outer layer off. The other thing I would recommend I've been thinking about it's one of the things that keeps me up at night is, so you've noticed that fennel has a grain, sort of like celery does. And so, I've done an experiment. If you want to avoid sort of the stringiness cut it across the grain, if you're going to use it in a salad and eat it raw, which makes it more tender. You know, if you're going to cook it, it really doesn't matter because it'll get tender anyway.

Caller: That's a great idea

CK: I cut across the width of it.

SM: Yeah. Which is your cutting across the grain. But some people don't do that. So, I think it's important thing to point out. The best way to preserve some of it is use a peeler or a paring knife if you're better with a paring knife.

CK: I use a serrated peeler because yeah, it's slippery and hard. Yeah, the braising by the way, it's a great idea, it’s like endive, braising endive

SM: It is so good. We used to do these slices with whole, whole cloves of garlic, and then we'd add veal stock to it. And then we would puree the garlic with the veal stock, and it would thicken it and it was just essence of yummy tender fennel and with a hint of creamy garlic was so good. I think we're a family fennel club here. I'd say the three of us.

Caller: Yes.

CK: Well, Carolyn, now we both have dreams of braised fennel dancing in our ..

SM: heads. Yes.

CK: Thanks for calling.

Caller: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. It's like speaking to cooking royalty you guys.

CK: Thank you.

CK: Well, it depends which royalty these days.

SM: Yeah, you have to be careful.

Caller: Well, in a good way.

SM: Well, thank you, Carol.

Caller: All right. Bye bye

SM: Welcome to Milk Street. Who's calling?

Caller: This is George from Napa, California.

CK: How are you?

Caller: I'm great. Thank you. I hope you guys are too. This is a real honor. I'm a big fan of both of you

CK: Thank you very much.

SM: Thank you.

CK How can we help you from a culinary point of view?

Caller: Yes, I have tried twice to make the pasta alla Gricia. (Right) And my pecorino clumps into this mess.

CK: Big cheesy mess. Yes.

Caller: Maybe it's happened to you, I don't know. But you described it perfectly. And I've tried twice. And I don't know what I'm doing wrong. I source the guanciale, I have the real Pecorino Romano, and tried to do everything right with the ingredients.

CK: You called it exactly the right time because we just spent three weeks making cacio y pepe 36 times, which is essentially the same recipe more or less. And we found, of course, you know, pecorino and parmesan, both are aged, they're relatively dry cheeses. And you have to do two things. When you cook your pasta, cook it in two quarts, not four quarts. And that means your water is going to be starchier, which is going to help bind the sauce properly. And number two, you need that water to be hot like 185 degrees, which is the point at which the pecorino is going to melt. And if you don't get it hot enough, it's not going to melt properly. And so that's the second trick. The third is there's a guy on YouTube who has this famous cacio y pepe recipe, he’s a chef and he does it in a blender. He puts the pecorino and parmesan in whatever it was for cacio y pepe and then a fair amount of like a cup and a half or so very hot pasta liquid and puts it in a blender and emulsifies it and then finishes it up with some olive oil and other things. But the point is, you could try a blender with cup or a cup and a half of that water, very hot with a cheese and blend it. And then put that in a skillet with a slightly undercooked pasta with more cooking water, another half cup or cup and cook it for a couple of minutes. And that should do it.

Caller: Are you guys going to update your cacio y pepe?

CK: Yes, we are. Yes.

Caller: Okay.

CK: We've completely revised that. It's all done in one skillet now at one time, but the trick is the temperature of the water because that cheese really needs to get properly melted.

SM: I'm staying in my corner over here because I'm, I know nothing. But I this is intriguing. I like this idea of the blender too.

CK: We'll publish our method soon. And we'll send you a copy of the recipe too.

Caller: So, I'll be on the lookout. I can't thank you enough. And next time, Sara, I'm going to have some problem that I can get your input on too

SM: Oh, you're very sweet. Thank you.

Caller: Thank you guys. I really appreciate it

SM: Thank you George

CK: Take care. Thanks for calling.

Caller: Okay, take care.

SM: Bye bye.

CK: This is Milk Street Radio. Sara and I are ready to take your calls. Give us a ring 855-426-9843 that's 855-426-9843 or email us at questions at Milk Street Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?

Caller: Hi, this is Bronwyn from Tampa.

CK: How can we help you?

Caller: Well, today I'm calling about pavlova. To preface this, I should say that I really not much of a baker. But last Father's Day, I made Nigella Lawson’s, The New York Times strawberry pavlova. And it turned out really well. And it was super easy. And it was so good, in fact that my daughter and I polished the whole thing off and left my husband a very small slice. So now I'm wanting to make another one. But for significantly more people. Is it as easy as quadrupling all the ingredients? If I do that, there's going to be 16 eggs and five cups of sugar,

CK: Do you have a standing mixer of some kind, I assume

Caller: Yeah, I have a Kitchenaid regular mixer, I could do it in two batches. Because what I was also thinking, I'd like to make them into individual maybe like eight Pavlovas or nine and bake them. And that's where I just don't know what to do with the oven temperature and how long because you bake it at 300 for an hour and 15 minutes and then just let the oven cool. But I think if they're smaller, you probably don't bake them for that long.

CK: Well, a few things 16 egg whites sounds like things are getting out of control because it's going to be hard to whip them evenly. And you're going to end up with egg whites above your whisk in the KitchenAid. I think doing in two batches makes sense. And in baking. Usually, when you quadruple something, it's almost always a train wreck for whatever reason. So, I would double it, I don't think you have to worry about the proportions of ingredients. I think with meringue, that's probably okay. The one thing you would worry about is the thickness, the thickness will affect the cooking time, you said 300 degrees, which sounds a little high for meringue. So, it was an hour and 15 minutes and then you just shut it off and let it sit for another hour or two or something?

Caller: Yeah, she preheats the oven to 350. You pop the pavlova right in there, turn the heat immediately down to 300. And it said bake for an hour and 15 minutes, turn off the heat and let it cool completely in the oven. And it turned out perfectly as far as I was concerned. So, but obviously, there's smaller.

CK: Again, check the thickness, but I would probably preheat the oven to 300. Put them in shove it down to 250. I assume these are smaller. If you're doing individual ones, let it probably cook for a couple hours and then turn the oven off something like that. That would be a typical meringue recipe, you know, look if her recipe worked and if the thickness ends up being the same, you're probably in pretty good shape.

SM: Right. It seems like the proportion of sugar to whites was probably correct. When they were done did they have any color on him? Or were they still white? Or were they slightly golden?

Caller: They were slightly golden, which I like

SM: Okay, well, then that's a reason to keep the temperature the way she did it.

CK: But if the diameters smaller, they are probably going to cook faster

SM: Don’t you think the thickness is more important than anything else?

CK: I think that’s important

Caller: the height you mean?

SM: The height

CK: But if she had a nine-inch cake pan and these are now going to be four- or five-inch individuals, they're going to cook faster.

SM: Yeah, I mean, listen, it worked the first time. So, I would double it. I wouldn't go any further than doubling as the egg whites won't get properly beaten. And I would do what Chris said and see how it goes

Caller: Heat it at 300 turn it down to 250

SM: right and give it like two hours

CK: and just turn it off

SM: An hour and a half you can quick check it to see if it's firmed up quick just in and out and then if it seems like it's firmed up, turn off the oven leave it in and if it hasn't given another half an hour and then turn off the oven and leave it in

Caller: Sounds great.

CK: You need to get back to us. Let us know though

SM: Yeah, please do. This is interesting.

Caller: Oh, I absolutely will. Thank you very much.

CK: Thanks for calling. Okay.

SM: Bye bye

CK: You are listening to Milk Street Radio up next Emiko Davies transports us to Venice for a taste of ciccheti that's coming up in just a moment. This is Milk Street Radio. I'm your host Christopher Kimball. Right now, it's my interview with a Miko Davies, author of Cinnamon and Salt Ciccheti in Venice. Emiko, welcome to Milk Street.

Emiko Davies: Hi, thank you for having me.

CK: So, you know, I've been to Venice more than a few times. And it's always, of course magical. But let's go way back in history, like to the 13th century sort of Marco Polo’s time, he was really the center of culture in the Mediterranean. So why was Venice, a big deal is because of its location, or what?

ED: Venice had a really strong maritime history. And in the Middle Ages, they were not just explorers, but they were importers. So they were, they had really become like the pantry of Europe. They had like exclusive trading rights with Constantinople, for example. So, they were the only western country at the time that would be able to have that gateway to the east. And so, they had built up this little Empire also through gaining colonies. They had, you know, colonies around the Dalmatian coast, they had Crete, they had Cyprus, they had, you know, all the way to the Middle East. When you look at a map of, you know, historical Venice, it was like the whole Mediterranean.

CK: The other thing you you write about in Cinnamon and Salt is that the cultural mix was really interesting. You say bakeries were run by Albanians, while the butchers were Croatian. Armenians taught Phoenicians how to cook rice. So, the mix of cultures and cuisines was fairly extraordinary, right?

ED: Yeah, this is one of the things I think makes Venice so incredibly unique in the Italian peninsula, because Venice was this city that had, you know, this constant flux of people from all parts of the world, the No, no, you know, world in Europe at the time coming through it. In a lot of Venetian dishes, you'll find the base of the dish is like a slowly cooked onion. There's lots and lots of onions in Venetian cooking. And that is a technique that many food historians think comes from Turkey. Also, some vegetables like artichokes, eggplants, pumpkins, those kinds of vegetables come from Jewish cuisine and Venice. And rice from the Armenians. Venice was like a collector of ingredients and spices and dishes and these things all sort of left their mark in Venice. And if you look closely enough, you can see them still.

CK: So, let's get to the topic at hand, which are these small plate tradition ciccheti, which is a very it's a little bit like meze, I guess, but not quite. So could you explain what this tradition is? Where did it come from and, and how it's different than, let's say, being in Spain with tapas?

ED: Yeah, people often liken cicchetti to tapas and the Venetians are very sensitive about that. You'll see some bars that have a sign on the front, saying this is not tapas. I think that the idea of you know, a small bite is something that you'll find in cuisines obviously, all over the world. They're like hors d'oeuvres, or they're like aperitivo that you'll have in other Italian cities. But what makes ciccheti very Venetian is the tradition of the actual bar itself, which is called a bacaro. And in these places, these little wine bars, you'll find counters full of all these different offerings to get to actually comes from the Latin word chichet, which means small thing. So, you can kind of trace back this tradition of standing in a bar with a little bite to eat and a little glass of wine to more or less the Renaissance, where Venice had these osteria, which today, an osteria is something that you would think of as a restaurant. But in the Renaissance, this was more like an inn, or a pub, where you had, you know, food and drink on the on the ground floor. And on the floors above, you would have rooms for foreigners and people passing through travelers’ merchants. And because the government was also a little bit suspicious. And in general, there was a lot of sort of surveillance of the population happening in Venice around that time, they took away all the tables and chairs, they didn't want you to sit down, because they were worried that if you were sitting over a meal, then you would have you know, a lot more opportunity to conspire against the government.

CK: What? That's crazy.

ED: There’s no sitting and eating

CK: Really, is that really true that they thought that they would end up with a political uprising, because people were sitting and talking?

ED: Yeah, yeah so this was a law throughout Venice, so you have to stand and eat. And once you take away the table, you know, the shape of the food, and the way you can eat it is different, you have to have, you know, finger food, it has to be on a stick maybe. And that's still how you see ciccheti today, there are these little fried things, or maybe it's like a half-boiled egg with a little toothpick through it. And they are bytes that you can eat, you know, without necessarily a plate without knives and forks, and you know, you can eat them standing. And that's still how ciccheti is usually eaten in Venice.

CK: Well, you had a list of, of sort of simple ones, which I loved. And I let's just go through a few. Because they are really two different things that go together in an interesting way. Right, so Gorgonzola with an anchovy, or a slice of mortadella with a pickled pepper, or prosciutto with olive pate, you know. So, there are two things that really parent interesting way I realized they have more sophisticated stuff, too. But I really liked that as a, as a fundamental concept for ciccheti.

ED: Yeah, actually, the ciccheti are, are really very simple. I mean, sometimes it's just literally a half-boiled egg with nothing even on it. Or it could be even a boiled potato. And I love that, because those are very simple things that you know, make you feel satisfied are so comforting and filling. And the other thing is that some of the traditional ciccheti that you see today, you know, really come from like a time when it was really important for whoever was the host of the wine bar to be, you know, making sure people were buying glasses of wine. And one of the ways to do that is to make sure you've got things that make people thirsty. So, anchovies, gorgonzola, those kind of salty foods, you know, would would make you reach for another glass of wine, but also things like a hard-boiled egg. If you're eating one of those, you know, without anything to wash it down, you're going find it hard to swallow it.

CK: Well, as you said in the book, salty, spicy are hard to swallow. And then I love this quote, A crostino with Gorgonzola guarantees at least three drinks.

ED: Yeah, exactly.

CK: So, there's a method to the madness. So, take us through so you walk into a wine bar, or you say it's not like tapas is different. What does it look like? When do people go You mentioned they're open in the morning? How does it work?

ED: So, a ciccheti bar like anytime goes they open from early in the morning usually, if you go to the ones around the market, which are where the very traditional ciccheti bars are, those are open at like 8:30 in the morning. And partly this is to serve as also the people who are actually at you know, the markets sellers. So, the fisherman who have been up since you know, who knows what time and market sellers as well, you know, ciccheti are appropriate at any time of the day. So that's another thing that makes it different, I think from tapas or or other aperitivo in Italy, where it's more an evening thing. And when you go in there often small places. Some places have like a kitchen as well, but many of them they do all their preparation at the countertop, and you'll have behind the glass. You know, this array of different ciccheti from artichoke bottoms to crostini with all kinds of toppings. Sometimes the crostini is a grilled piece of polenta, but usually it's a slice of baguette, where you'll have toppings from Baccala mantecato which is a whipped ___, that's a really, really, really classic Venetian ciccheti. There might be some side there and so on which are sardines that are dressed in like a vinegary onion sort of mixture. And they'll often be some fried things, so called Pythia, which are deep fried meatballs. You might find mozzarella and terrazza, which is a fried cheese sandwich, essentially, there might even be like fried calamari or roasted potatoes on a stick. That's another one that you might see. And then there's usually an array of fresh seafood as well.

CK: So, are these on small plates on the bar, you just pick what you want? How's the food presented?

ED: Yeah, they're usually grouped together all the different types. And you can see them through the glass counter. So, you know, even if you don't speak Italian, you just point, you know, at each one that you want, and they'll put them on a plate for you. And and away you go.

CK: Could you talk about tardivo? I didn't know about this. It's a form of radicchio and how it's how it's finished off? It's it’s an amazing story and one I did not know,

ED: Yeah, right. But it was one of my absolutely favorite vegetables. And the Veneto is famous for it. You get really spoiled with the options of radicchio in Venice, because you can find not just the round one, which is called Chioggia. But you can find the Thai Devo, which is like an elongated shape, and has like long, curly, beautiful leaves that that are sort of as thick as a finger. And those are all grown in the Veneto region only

CK: Well, you wrote that it's grown outside, and then the first frost, the leaves are burned. And then in late November, I didn't know they bring them inside with the roots, put them in large pools of running water in complete darkness for up to three weeks. And then the plant begins to grow again. And then you have different color leaves. I mean, it's just a mazing process.

ED: Yeah, it's an, it's a labor of love. Really. It's like an art form.

CK: So, what's going on in Venice, these days Venice has had its share of problems, obviously, is is it a very vibrant culture? Is it a bunch of older wealthier people? Does it have a sort of a new generation coming up? Are these ciccheti bars part of that? What's the context here?

ED: So, Venice, has quite a few different issues going on. I think it's a city that people are sort of looking at, at the moment as a sort of like what's going to happen to Venice, partly because of the rising waters, and climate change a lot because of the effects of over tourism. And visiting Venice, you know, right after lock down in in 2020, which is when I first went to research this book, what was really interesting was that, you know, so much of Venice, is made for tourists, especially around, you know, sites like Piazza San Marco, which, by the way, was completely empty. Most things absolutely just closed for months, in 2020. And then, the other thing that Venice has though is is these great pockets is beautiful neighborhoods, where there is a really strong community, and where there is life, and it's very, very vibrant. So, I was staying near Piazza San Marco, and I would walk from these, like, we felt like a ghost town and head up to ____, which is a great little neighborhood in the northern part of Venice. And you could barely walk down the fondamenta from how packed it was with people sitting at wine bars, drinking talking. A lot of them are younger people Venice has, you know, a large university population as well. And Venice has these pockets and plenty of them where even during a high season that touristy season, you might be like, on a street with like a crush of tourists, but then you know, you get lost or you you turn off of the beaten path and a couple of streets away you'll find, you know, a camp or a piazza where it's just the locals and there's kids kicking a ball and old ladies sitting on a park bench and I really I really love that about Venice. It's almost like like two places in one.

CK: Emiko thank you very much. And the next time I go to Venice, I will be rushing off to the ciccheti bars. Thank you.

ED: You're welcome. Thank you

CK: that was Emiko Davies. Her book is entitled Cinnamon and Salt Ciccheti in Venice. In addition to ciccheti, there are many things that the casual tourists do not know about Venice. It was once an independent empire that lasted 1000 years and reached all the way to the Balkans including Croatia, Venetian masks are tourist items these days, but during the Middle Ages, they were both a means of hiding your identity when doing something a bit sketchy, as well as a practical form of PPE for doctors treating patients during plague. On a sadder note, there are only 60,000 local residents today, and many predict that there may be none left in just another generation. So, if Venice does not succumb to rising waters tourism will finally destroy a wealthy empire that lasted 1000 years. You're listening to Milk Street Radio coming up. Dan Pashman tells us why the world deserves a better vegetable sandwich. That's right after the break. I'm Christopher Kimball you're listening to Milk Street Radio. Right now, it's time to chat with JM Hersh about this week's recipe Greek meatballs with tomato sauce. J M, how are you?

J M Hirsch: I'm great.

CK: So, I was going to go to Crete, but you took my place at the last I did.

JM: I did. Thank you.

CK: But you had some great food. And you came across Greek meatballs with tomato sauce sort of a meze dish, I guess, which I did not think was going to be one of the stars of the trip. Turned out to be exactly that. So, what are they and where did you have them?

JM: Yeah, you know, it was an unexpected find. I did not actually go looking for food. I went looking for wine, frankly. I met a lovely couple, Alexandra Manousakis. And her husband Afshin Molavi and they run a family-owned winery. You know, it's a very small operation. And they do terrific wines. Actually, some of the best wines I had on the island. They just invited me over for lunch. And they just started rolling out all this amazing food. And I’ve got to say, you know, as well as I do from your travels, that the magic is in the moment, you know, the food, of course has to be good. And it was, but it's in the magic of meeting people becoming friends, drinking wine, sharing food sharing stories, and that's exactly what this afternoon was. It was really just a wonderful time. You know, we started off with this Cretan salad. That's kind of their version of almost an Italian Panzanella like a bread salad. And then we moved on to these gigante beans cooked in tomato sauce was phenomenal. And then we moved on from there to a beef stew with tomato and orzo. It was lovely. But as you say the star were these meatballs are kind of oblong shaped meatballs called soutzoukakia. What I loved about them is they had a lovely like kind of brown crust on the outside because they are browned in a skillet before they're simmered in a tomato sauce. But they were so wonderfully spiced, and they had garlic and mint, oregano, cumin, paprika, grated onion, and they just came together so nicely. And then they were cooked in this really bright kind of naturally sweet tomato sauce that they had done very little to and and that's what I loved about it, you know, they let the tomatoes kind of speak for themselves and act as an accent to these well spiced meatballs. It was just a wonderful combination.

CK: Well, as you travel around the world, you can eat chicken soup, almost everywhere and some form of meatballs, and the way they spice and prepare them tell you so much about where you are in the world.

JM: Right, exactly.

CK: It's so interesting that there are these common recipes, but they're actually very different.

JM: Right, well everybody kind of puts their own inflection on it. And in this case, you know, it's the tradition is a combination of both beef and lamb. And the combination of that kind of lamb has more of a presence and you know, a richness to it and it really works so well with the oregano and the cumin in the paprika, and it was very different, like, you know, we're used to kind of the red sauce, American Italian meatballs, and this was such a very different presence on the plate. It was really nice,

CK: A simple recipe, but probably one of the best you had on Crete. Greek meatballs with tomato sauce. Good as a meze, good as the main course. Thank you, J M.

JM: Thank you. You can find this recipe for Greek meatballs with tomato sauce at 177 Milk

CK: This is Milk Street Radio. Now it's time for some culinary wisdom from one of our listeners.

Caller: Hi, Milk Street. My name is Stacy. My tip is for anyone who makes lots of drop cookies. I'm on the shorter side and I have a tall stainless steel mixer bowl. Repeatedly going from the bowl to the cookie sheet with my scoop feels very awkward. I have my elbow sticking up in the air and it's just weird. So, to make it more efficient, I wad up my kitchen towel and I make a ramp with it for the bowl. I tilt my bowl on the towel ramp and now going in and out of the bowl is much easier because the mouth of the bowl faces me and not the ceiling. And this might be helpful if you're making cookies with children too. Cheers.

CK: If you'd like to share your own cooking tip here on Milk Street Radio, please go to 177 Milk tips. Next up, it's Dan Pashman. Hey, Dan, what's up?

Dan Pashman: Well, Chris, I'm thinking right now about sandwiches, and I'm a little bit perturbed.

CK: Are we doing the definition of a sandwich now or something

DP: No, no no

CK: we’ve moved on

DP: I love sandwiches. I'm not a vegetarian, but I do sometimes like veggie sandwiches without meat in them. Especially like if I'm like, I don't know, at an airport or some random place where I just need some food. And I'm like, I don't really want the turkey sandwich that has been sitting out in this terminal for God knows how long. And I want a veggie sandwich. And I'm very upset because I feel like at least in many places in America, there are only two kinds of vegetarian sandwiches that anyone seems like no one's ever heard of. You know what they are right? There's the one that's like grilled eggplant, red pepper, and onion with mozzarella, and maybe like balsamic vinegar. Or it's like hummus, feta, olives, red onion. Right. Now, those are both fine sandwiches. But like there's so many other options. And I'm just tired of those two. And I want more like run of the mill sandwich shops to put a little more effort into having better vegetarian sandwiches.

CK: Now, why do you think this is because vegetables and vegetarian and vegan cooking have become so popular in the last five years, it just hasn't. It's like trickle-down economics and never trickle down to the sandwich department.

DP: Yeah, I think it's probably mostly laziness. It's like, you know, these places say, well, there's more vegetarians now more demand for vegetarian food. So, we need a vegetarian option. Well, there's that one or the other one. That's what everyone does. So just throw one of those in the menu. And it's like, there's this mentality that like by simply having a vegetarian option, no matter how lame and uninspired it is. You've checked that box. And yet, from a business perspective, and a culinary perspective, I think that those places are missing an opportunity to be known for great vegetarian sandwiches.

CK: Okay, so Milk Street is now hiring you. (Okay), the vegetarian sandwich consultant.

DP: Oh, this is a role I was born to play. Alright, first thing, one thing that should be in more sandwiches, broccoli. All right. I didn't believe it till I started the number Seven sub shop in New York City that it would even work I thought, how do they even keep it in the sandwich? But if you get a nice big sub roll, not sliced bread, but a sub roll, it will stay in there.

CK: It will stay in there because you don't eat it.

DP: No, I love I love broccoli. I think it's one of the best vegetables.

CK: I love broccoli. I eat it like three times a week but okay, what else do you put with it?

DP: at the number Seven sub shop they do it with pickled lychee and like ricotta salata. It's very nice. I did my own version at home recently. I had some leftover, charred broccoli from the night before with a nice, you know, nice crisp, charred edges. And I happened to have a leftover half a loaf of a semolina bread from an Italian bakery. I have this sheep and goat milk cheese spread in a jar. And then I also had some feta cheese. And then I really got a little fancy, which is not like me, especially at lunch during the week, I toasted some pine nuts. And let me tell you something, Chris. This sandwich is crunchy. It's salty, it's creamy, it's tangy. It has every flavor and texture you could ever want in a sandwich and it's 100% vegetarian.

CK: Here's Dan Pashman who argues about whether hotdogs is a sandwich. And now he's toasting pine nuts for his lunch with a semolina bread. Dan what's, what's going on?

DP: Look, the mood comes over me from time to time. I'm not a person who puts a ton of effort into most of my meals. I mean, I care a lot, but I also am always you know, like, ideally trying to find maximum deliciousness without spending hours and hours on it. Can I tell you another another broccoli one that I do sometimes? Yeah. So I'll take a flour tortilla, little shredded mozzarella, throw it in the microwave so, the tortilla is soft and doughy and chewy and the cheese melts and then again left over roast broccoli and spicy chili crisp.

CK: Oh, now that okay, now you got me. I love chili crisp is having its day.

DP: That's right.

CK: So, okay, so one last question. Do you have a non-broccoli vegetarian sandwich?

DP: No.

CK: So you should know this segment how to eat broccoli between bread.

DP: Well, yeah, but let's make broccoli the star of the vegetarian sandwiches enough of these mediocre grilled vegetables. You put grilled red pepper and a sandwich. You taste nothing but red pepper. And the hummus and feta you know one like it's fine. I like hummus. But that's not that's not a lunch. That's a snack. Okay, you fill the sandwich with broccoli and some kind of cheese and a big hearty sub roll. Like that's something that I can sink my teeth into, and I can get behind next time in an airport. I want a broccoli sandwich.

CK: I think you're right, but you forgotten the key ingredient.

DP: What?

CK: Prosciutto.

DP: Oh, that would be very good.

CK: Dan Pashman if you're going to have a vegetarian sandwich, consider the broccoli. Thank you.

DP: Thanks, Chris.

CK: That was Dan Pashman, host of the Sporkful Food podcast. That's it for today. You know, we've produced over 200 episodes and Milk Street Radio over the years. You can find them all on Apple podcast, Spotify, Milk Street, or wherever you find your podcasts. To explore more about milk Street, please go to 177 Milk Street com. There you can download our recipes, watch our TV show. Learn about our magazine and our latest cookbook. The World in a Skillet. You can also find us on Facebook at Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street on Instagram and Twitter at 177 Milk Street. We'll be back next week with more food stories and kitchen questions. Thanks as always for listening.

Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street Radio is produced by Milk Street in association with GBH, co- founder of Melissa Baldino executive producer Annie Sensabaugh. Senior Editor Melissa Allison, producer Sarah Clark, Assistant Producer Caroline Davis with production help from Debby Paddock. Additional editing by Sidney Lewis, audio mixing by Jay Allison and Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole Massachusetts. The music by Toubab Krewe, additional music by George Brandl Egloff. Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street Radio is distributed by PRX