I first read about Shopsin's Greenwich Village restaurant in Calvin Trillan's classic New Yorker tribute to it, and its owner, the eccentric, garrulous, cranky Kenny Shopsin. The last time I was in New York, I managed to eat there, getting breakfast with Teresa Nielsen Hayden at the new location in Essex Market. I was transported by some of the most satisfying food I've ever been privileged to eat.
Now, the notoriously publicity-shy Kenny Shopsin has written a book (with Carolynn Carreno) about the philosophy and history of the restaurant, called Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin, and it, too, is an utterly satisfying, utterly peculiar experience.
Kenny Shopsin's restaurant began life as a grocery store, purchased for $25,000 by his father for his peripatetic son (Shopsin describes himself then as a neurotic who saw a therapist five days a week). In the grocery store, Shopsin found a kind of frenetic peace in cultivating and deepening his relationship with his customers (one of whom, Eve, he married). Gradually, he added prepared food to the grocery lineup, then more and more, as the satisfaction of cooking for others seized his interest, until the grocery store became a restaurant.
The two things I'd remembered about Shopsin's from the New Yorker piece was that there were 900 things on the menu and that parties of five could not be seated, ever, even if they split into a three and a two (there's a lovely bit of verse explaining this rule in the book, written by an affectionate Shopsin's regular).
When Teresa and I ate there last summer, I was trepidatious about asking for some substitutions, given Shopsin's reputation for being a real hardcase with finicky eaters, but he was glad to try some new stuff for me, and the food turned out superbly. I had a kind of African groundnut stew with pumpkin, and a soya pumpkin-pecan spice malted that was so good, I can actually still taste it when I close my eyes. Shopsin himself was hilarious and warm, dropping the f-bomb more quickly and frequently than any other restauranteur of my experience. He talked over the food with us, asking Teresa why she hadn't eaten the taco-shell bowl her meal came in, listening carefully, and vowing to revise the recipe based on her feedback.
Shopsin's memoir is like the man: loud, opinionated, warm, exuberant and absolutely delightful. He had me when he revealed that he'd named one of his dishes solely to piss off Andrea Dworkin ("she's probably never heard of this dish"), but I really caught fire when I came to section on pancakes.
First, there's the revelation that Shopsin's pancake batter is Aunt Jemima's Frozen, and the lengthy explanation of why this is so. Then there's the gallery of pancake variations, including chocolate peanut butter, coconut, oatmeal, chorizo corn, post-moderns, spinach walnut and pear pignoli, all mouthwateringly good. It reminded me of nothing so much as the sloppy cooks that feature in some of Daniel Pinkwater's best books, like Borgel and Fat Men from Space — Shopsin's is pure Pinkwater, like something that popped off the page.
Then there's the crepes: they're not crepes. They're flour tortillas, dipped in milk and flash-fried on the super-hot griddle (Shopskin reveals that he drilled out bigger burner-jets on his custom stove). He swears that French tourists tell him they're the best crepes they've ever eaten.
Shopsin's my kind of obsessive. He's kind of sentimental (his kids feature heavily in the memoir and recipes, and the book includes photos of them having diaper changes in the kitchen and even a Polaroid of an unidentified lad's naked, lacerated butt, labelled "7/10/77 sink accident"). He's addicted to excess and clutter and would rather answer any either-or question with "both." He makes an introspective, overwhelming obsession out of any physical task, and talks in awesome detail about the efficiency hacks he's discovered in order to allow him to serve 900 dishes from a kitchen the size of a walk-in closet.
Shopsin's memoir is eclectic and sometimes frustrating — as when he recounts the stories of the friends whom he has written out of his life for some ancient sleight, right after telling you about the close personal relationship he once enjoyed with them and the recipes they inspired for him.
But this book is just purely magic. It's a manifesto for cranky, lovable, excessive individualism. It's a call-to-arms to woo the muse of the odd and thumb your nose at convention. And it's got some damned tasty recipes.
Seven ounces is the perfect size for a hamburger. One thing that people don't understand is that when a portion size is too big, it is just bigger, not better. When I am served an 8-ounce burger, I recognize that it is a nice idea — somebody is trying to give me a lot for my money. But the truth is that I don't really want an 8-ounce burger. It is too much. And when you are eating something that is too much, there comes a point where you're not enthusiastic about it anymore. You can't even taste it. After a lot of consideration, I have determined that 7 ounces is the perfect burger size.
Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin,
* A small and beautiful restauranteur
* Eccentric diner-menu infodesign