You might find it funny that I remember so many of my firsts, but in the grand scheme of firsts, it’s really not so many. I don’t remember the first time I had spaghetti… or the first time I had carbonara (probably the first time I had real carbonara was in January 2008, but I only know because I made it myself… wait, I think I do remember the first time I had carbonara…). In any case, certain things just spark my memory… especially when it’s a learning experience for me where I say something colossally stupid and find out just how little I know about anything.
When I was about 12, I had a friend named Amanda. Her older brother, Steven, was friends with my older brother. They lived on our street, but two or three blocks away, all of which adds up to: we spent a lot of time together, because I could go over there and hang out until past dark, but my brother would be there to walk the short distance home with me.
Oh, another thing about Amanda and Steven: they were Lebanese. At the time, I didn’t really know what that meant; I knew it was their country of origin, and that it was across the ocean somewhere, but I had no concept of where, exactly. I guess that’s not really important to the story that much, though I was proud of myself for remembering such a seemingly inane piece of information about my old friend…
One day – and you’ll have to forgive my faulty memory here – Amanda and I accompanied her mother to the store for some reason. There is a strip of stores that was directly between her home and mine – along 108th Street, those of you who are familiar with Forest Hills – and we wandered around with her. Maybe she’d told us she’d take us to lunch… I don’t remember our reason exactly, I do remember that Mrs. Saad was a lovely woman who was very close to her daughter.
In any case, at some point, we were inside an ethnic grocery store – one that I’d never set foot in – when … did Mrs. Saad ask me if I wanted a sandwich? Did she ask if I’d ever had falafel? Or did she just hand me the half-pita inside a wax paper sandwich bag, and tell me to eat?
It doesn’t really matter, because growing up in my parents’ household, someone hands you food, you eat it. It wasn’t unusual for me to eat without questioning – like most children – “What is this? Ew. I don’t want to eat this! I want pizza! I want McDonald’s!”
So I took the wax paper sandwich bag, and peeked inside. Half a pita pocket, inside of which had been stuffed 3 round balls, some lettuce, tomato, and a thin sauce drizzled all over it. It didn’t look too messy – so I took a bite.
And another bite.
The round balls were dense, meaty, crisp on the outside but moist and fluffy on the inside. The lettuce and tomato played important roles; a little freshness, a little burst of tomato water, complementing each bite, while the pita pocket simply held it all together, but stepped aside in terms of flavor to let all the other parts shine.
I was enthralled, and super stuffed at the end of my sandwich. I beamed happily, thanked Mrs. Saad (again), and asked her what it was called. I’m sure she was amused – I was an extremely thin child, and to see me basically house a sandwich was probably a sight to behold – as she told me it was called falafel, and was something she’d grown up eating as it was Lebanese, and she was happy I’d enjoyed it.
A week later, I was trying to drag my own mother over there to get another sandwich, to no avail. I eventually was able to go again – possibly with Amanda – and was shocked and delighted to discover that the sandwich was only $1.75. (Okay, this was in… 1991 or 1992? but still. Pizza by the slice was a little over a dollar already.)
A few more visits, and another attempt to describe the sandwich to my mother proved fruitless. I recall explaining it – to my sister perhaps? or my brother? – and being asked what falafel was, exactly. I recall distinctly that I said, “Hmmm… I’m not sure what kind of meat it is… but it’s soooooo good!”
Finally, I remembered one day to ask Amanda what kind of meat falafel was made of. She stared at me, and then said, “Ummm, it’s chickpeas.”
“No! What animal is that?”
“It’s… there’s no meat in it. It’s chickpeas!”
I should explain that between Amanda and I, I did much better in school and occasionally was a bit condescending to her about her intelligence. I don’t know why I did it or where I learned it, but I was definitely a bit bratty with her (and we fought about it sometimes). I wasn’t always nice to her (shame on me), and she knew the score. So it was probably with great delight that she told me it was vegetarian, while I insisted there was no way – “it tastes too meaty! there’s got to be meat in it! it’s so filling!”
(Bear in mind that until the age of 26, I often didn’t think a meal was complete unless it included animal flesh of some sort. I’ve since learned the falsity of such a notion, but I had years and years to go at that point.)
Since there was no Wikipedia or Google at the time, I imagine we went to her parents or to a dictionary (would falafel have been in a dictionary back then?), but I know that it was proven, without a doubt, that I was wrong. I remember being shocked… not horrified, but just absolutely floored that something could taste so meat-like while containing no meat whatsoever. My food world had just been thrown for a loop.
Of course, I still love falafel, but I’ve never found a sandwich that lived up to my memory of those first falafels. Something about food made in the back of a grocery store… I don’t know. That place is long gone – I think it’s a hair salon now – but my fond memories of the sandwiches remain…
Where do you go for the best falafel?