September 1, 2009
“We’ll drive you home,” said Frank Salomon, an old friend and long-time presenter of the Peoples’ Symphony Concerts at Washington Irving High School. The Guarneri String Quartet had just finished a performance there, the last ever on the series before our retirement. Moments later, Frank behind the wheel, his wife Martha, my wife Dorothea, and I headed toward the Upper West Side of Manhattan where we all live. “You’ve played so many concerts for so many years at the Peoples’ Concerts. This calls for a celebration,” Frank proclaimed jubilantly.
Frank Salomon knows where to find and how to enjoy the best of almost everything in New York City. His parents would undoubtedly describe him as a FEINSCHMECKER in their native German, an all-around gourmet in ours. You might assume that his intention that night was to take us to an elegant restaurant, raise a glass of bubbly to me and the rest of the Guarneri guys in absentia accompanied by caviar or even, if I was lucky, a fettuccini al dente with white clam sauce. After all, the quartet has played pretty much every single year for the past forty-five on the Peoples’ series—certainly solid cause for celebration. But there is another side to Frank. “We’re going to Gray’s Papaya,” he announced. Hearing the reverence and ill-concealed excitement in Frank’s voice, you might have thought we were headed for the Sistine Chapel or the Parthenon.
Gray’s Papaya is a hot dog stand on 72nd St. and Broadway—one of four Gray’s operations in the city. Frank thought highly enough of the establishment to have once celebrated his birthday there with invited guests eating their dogs and drinks standing on the storefront sidewalk. The hot dogs are grilled, not boiled, and they have a natural casing that makes for a crisp snap when you bite into them. Gray’s offers sauerkraut and onions with their special sauce. (Out-of-towners occasionally make the tragic mistake of putting ketchup on their dogs.)
On route to Gray’s, Frank set the stage for the culinary experience awaiting us. “Two things are important in order to fully enjoy these hot dogs,” he offered. “Donâ€™t come here too often and be very hungry.” Frank pulled up to the stand that was still teeming with people at this late hour, brazenly parked illegally, and took our orders in the car. “A combo for you and me, Arnold, and singles for the ladies I assume.” Martha declined. (Too recently there? Not hungry enough?) But the rest of us nodded eagerly. My mouth began to water thinking of the combo, sometimes called the recession special (quick, cheap), which consists of two hot dogs on warm, toasted buns and a drink. “Sauerkraut, onions, or both?” Frank asked to complete the order. “Just sauerkraut and a little mustard for me,â€ I answered. â€œExactly the way I like them,â€ Frank exclaimed. No wonder we’re friends, I thought. We even like our hot dogs the same way.
For performers, the concert experience is divided into several distinct but essential parts. There is the backstage preparation or warm-up, the concert itself, then shaking hands and accepting congratulations in the green room afterwards, and finally the post-concert dinner. Returning from a long tour, Dorothea will inevitably ask me how things went. It is hard to capture the essence of great music or the elusive contract between player and listener with words, and to say to her: “Ach, how I played in St. Louis! You should have been there. Such tone, such phrasing.â€ is unacceptable. But I can readily tell my wife about the wild salmon served on a wooden plank in Portland, the gnocchi with Gorgonzola sauce in Rome, or the rib-eye steak in Kansas City.
Frank returned triumphantly with the dogs and drinks, and we consumed them quietly in the car while continuing homeward. Only an artist poet could begin to describe the perfect proportion of Gray’s dog to bun, its heavenly contrasting textures, the exquisite relationship between savory dog, brash sauerkraut, tangy mustard, and oh-so-sweet papaya drink. As I swallowed the last of dog #2 and washed it down with a final sip of papaya, I had to think that this was unquestionably one of those memorable post-concert dining experiences that every musician dreams of.
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