Want to have more than a taste of the Avenue of Puerto Rico? Starting this Saturday, the tour company Urban Oyster are following their twin loves (food and history) to Graham Avenue for an in-depth Immigrant Foodways tour.
After delving into East Williamsburg’s flavors in their Brewed in Brooklyn tour, Urban Oyster’s co-founder Cindy VandenBosch took a liking to the southern blocks of Graham and the lively Moore Street Market. She teamed up with fellow guide Princess Yahmeela Aziza Serna, a local girl who remembers shopping for her prom dress on Graham, and the two spent more than a year researching the small area: rifling through archives and maps, interviewing shop owners current and former, and tasting every step of the way. While the weekly tour officially launches this Saturday, we joined up on a trial run last month to preview the joys that await, and ended up learning a lot about a street we thought we knew.
The tour met on the corner of Graham and Flushing, and what surprised us most was how little we actually traveled from here. It’s a matter of fewer than five blocks to Moore Street Market, but it took us well over two hours to traverse the distance, so focused were our interests and so dense were the stories and foods on offer. This one corner in itself revealed several faces: the original Farmer’s Rest where early market farmers brought their produce to the Williamsburg fringe; Batterman’s Department Store, one of the commercial wonders of late 19th century Brooklyn, where a proto-Martha Stewart named Sarah Tyson Rorer taught easy recipes to throngs of housewives; and today, a very different sort of cooking at La Isla Cuchifritos. This food counter (a small local chain you may recognize from under the M train on Knickerbocker Avenue) is the first eating stop, and the proprietor, Rogino "Cuba" Carrera, is quick to lay out a spread of morcilla (blood sausage), sweet plátanos rellenos, and chicharrón (fried pork skin), a crash course in Puerto Rican food to start us on our journey.
While we learn about the Jewish and Italian foundation of the neighborhood, helped along by architectural clues and old timers like Katz Drugs, Puerto Rico is never far from the palate on this walk. There’s a sense of continuity, however, with butchers and bakeries changing hands and catering to new customers over the decades. Anibal Meats Market, established in 1968, is heir to Moore Street’s venerable meat trade, the main meat in this case being roasted pernil — pork shoulder — straight from an industrial-sized rotisserie. Butcher Angelo Santiago introduces us to the oven – which turns out more than two hundred suckling pigs over the holidays – and a platter of its impossibly juicy output, sharing roasting tips and jokes during one of the tour’s more memorable stops. We’re still dreaming about that one, anyway.
The tour reaches its climax and conclusion at Moore Street Retail Market. This indoor market was established following New York City’s 1938 ban on pushcarts, filling a void where one of the city’s largest pushcart markets once blocked traffic and horrified politicians. The model market opened in 1941 with a ribbon-cutting by Mayor LaGuardia and a crowd of over 8,000 shoppers, promising an end to haggling, "schlepping" (dragging customers bodily to a cart), and unsupervised sanitary conditions. The move brought a partial end to a colorful commercial street culture, though not entirely: vending remains illegal within 50 feet of Graham Avenue, but piragua and mango vendors aren’t so easily discouraged.
Moore Street Market, meanwhile, ultimately developed into an indispensable home for small businesses, selling unexpected treats and hard-to-find tastes of home. We sampled traditional Mexican remedies at Las Gemelas, mixed from dried herbs carried over one suitcase at a time; Dominican drinks of oatmeal (jugo de avena) and papaya (batida de lechoza) at a juice counter attached to La Botanica Esperanza; and finally, the best sancocho in town at Ramonita’s Restaurant.
We left stuffed and vowing to return soon, and this is why the tour is more than an afternoon’s exotic diversion for a Bushwick resident. Graham Avenue is near at hand, and having been introduced to so much of it, we have every reason to make it a greater part of our shopping and eating. Urban Oyster have done their homework and put together a tour deep enough to teach even locals, devoting half an hour per block to some of the most interesting and delicious blocks in the city.