Saturday, July 26, 2008

Letter from Manhattan: Stiles Show, Pt. 2

In Part 1 of the story, our friend Mark wrote about a greengrocer in his neighborhood, Stiles Farmers Market. In Part 2 he explains that it's not exactly a New Seasons type of place.

Shopping at Stiles is an experience.

You will see a cross-section of humanity there. Tiny elderly ladies flock there for their once-weekly excursion to buy a grape or three. Local firefighters, meanwhile, shop in bulk for their crew, exiting Stiles with armloads of broccoli, onions, red potatoes.

Se habla español in Stiles. And though the signs above the bins are written in English, they sometimes invite confusion. You may see a label for “melons” over the bin brimming with lemons. But you’ll eventually catch on. As with most Manhattan shopping endeavors, though, you won’t usually be greeted effusively at the checkout lane. There will likely be no peppy “Thank you for shopping at Stiles today! Did you find everything you were looking for?” However, the young woman will move you through the line briskly. And just watch: She’ll inevitably use that slice of cucumber she’s placed beside the cash register to moisten an index finger for counting the bills you’ve handed her.

Fortunately, you won’t have to fork over too many dollars. It’s an open secret that Stiles is one of Hell’s Kitchen’s best bargain centers. If you pick selectively, you can walk out of the place with all the fresh fruit and vegetables you can carry, for 10 bucks or less. At the 52nd Street Stiles, they were recently selling limes at 9-for-a-dollar. The price rose to 8-for-a-dollar a couple days later—due, undoubtedly, to some nasty hiccup down on Wall Street. (Been a lot of indigestion there lately, no?)

Stiles also offers baked goods, including bagels, and a few other non-produce staples. I never buy olive oil anywhere else. But, again, you can’t depend on getting it any old time you drop in. You’ll look for it without luck for a few visits. Then, suddenly, there it will be, in some back corner of the store, with a price tag that will make your eyes pop (in a good way).

There are other modest specialty food stores near the 42nd Street Stiles. One features coffee and tea. Another has big bins by the front door with stiff dried fishes the size of baguettes. When I first moved into the neighborhood, the guy who sublet his apartment to me pointed out all the establishments I needed to know about. (This helped me find forgiveness for him when he wanted the apartment back, abruptly, five years later.)

My all-time favorite neighborhood store was a seafood vendor with a scrap table where you could get remarkable chunks of tuna and swordfish for something like 20 cents a pound. These “scraps” seemed like fine cuts to a pescetarian like me, and I ate like Neptune on a bender till a year or so ago, when the place lost its lease (after decades in the same building) and moved— reputedly to Queens. Again, you can never count on anything entirely in New York City.

But maybe that’s true everywhere.

I mean, I’d assumed Wirf’s was long gone. But when I checked with my Aunt Pat, she gave me a whole history of the old fruit stand. The Wirfs have been out of the picture for years. The place changed owners more than once, going through good times and bum times. But it’s still there (now known as Firestone Farms). And, at some point, it expanded—adding nursery stock and
a nut-processing plant.

I wouldn’t even be surprised if they carried starfruit these days.

[Firestone Farms can be found at 18400 N Hwy. 99W, Dayton. Phone 503-864-2672. - KAB]

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