Ode to the Write Stuff

July 21, 2014 10:05 p.m. ET

Grant Christensen, the managing director of Palomino, the company that relaunched the Blackwing pencil in 2010 Dan Gaba/The Wall Street Journal

The Blackwing pencil, made legend by the likes of John Steinbeck, Truman Capote, Leonard Bernstein, animator Chuck Jones and especially Stephen Sondheim, is back. I even got to road test it last week.

To be honest, I’d never heard of the implement, or that it had stopped being manufactured, until Mr. Sondheim sang, or rather spoke, its praises in a discussion with Paul Simon last December at the New Museum.

The songwriters were talking about the creative process when the conversation segued to the tools of their trade. Mr. Sondheim professed a devotion to the Blackwing so intense that he went about stockpiling as many boxes as possible when production ceased in 1998.

The Blackwing pencil Dan Gaba/The Wall Street Journal

I could relate, even though I swore off pencils around fourth grade. While a perfectly sharpened pencil is a fine thing, it requires constant maintenance. Which is part of the allure for Mr. Sondheim, as he explained during that talk. Sharpening them is a form of procrastination.

I pound out a first draft on a computer, print it and then scribble between the lines using a blue Uni-ball Roller pen with an extremely fine point. It feels as if there’s an uninterrupted connection from paper to brain that facilitates creativity. It may be illusory. But coming up with something slightly interesting to say is challenging enough; you need all the help you can get, including psychological support.

It was because of the pencil’s cult following and invaluable free publicity from the likes of Mr. Sondheim that the Blackwing was reintroduced in 2010 by its new owner, Palomino, which is part of California Cedar Products Co.

“He wrote about it in his autobiography and he talked about it in his HBO documentary,” said Grant Christensen, Palomino’s managing director. “People started going on eBay to buy the unused stock for up to $40 a pencil.”

What separates the Blackwing from mortal pencils, according to Mr. Christensen, is that it’s made from incense cedar—”the highest grade of wood for the best pencils,” he claimed—and Japanese graphite. “The best graphite comes from Japan.”

The pencil even comes with a motto: “Half the pressure, twice the speed.”

That’s probably another reason I don’t use pencils. I have a penchant for pressing down hard on the point; I suppose as a defense against life’s impermanence. I’m prepared to concede it’s a character flaw. But when the point of a pencil breaks it feels as if a small piece of your heart goes with it. So why suffer avoidable pain?

The Palomino Blackwing now comes in three versions: black, said to be soft and smooth for animators, illustrators and composers; the slate-gray “602″ model, with the firmest touch, for writers—that’s the one Mr. Sondheim stockpiled; and white “Pearl” for the best of both worlds, or polymaths, I presume. All have replaceable erasers. Their hexagonal shape is to prevent them from rolling off the slanted desks of animators and architects.

Palomino makes them in a handsome presentation box that retails for $130 and includes two dozen pencils with a two-step sharpener. “One hole sharpens the wood,” Mr. Christensen explained while doing so. “The other sharpens the graphite.” You can’t buy the pencils individually, but you can also buy boxes of a dozen for $20.

I wondered who still uses pencils these days except for elder statesmen such as Mr. Sondheim, and preschoolers, though I’m not even sure about them. “It’s the same kind of person who likes the sensation of a needle dropping onto a vinyl record,” Mr. Christensen explained. “The same kind of people who like to buy a book in a bookshop.”

I was also curious whether Mr. Sondheim had been contacted with the good news that his favorite pencil was back on stationers’ shelves, even though it sounded as if he’d purchased a lifetime’s supply.

Palomino did tell Mr. Sondheim about it, and “he sent a note back saying he supported what we were doing,” Mr. Christensen reported.

The time had come to test the pencil, to see whether it matched the hype. Needless to say, I was skeptical. How different can one pencil be from another? We’re not comparing Bordeaux, after all. The experiment started with Mr. Christensen’s publicist, Sara Rosenthal, producing a generic, over-the-counter pencil. It wrote fine. Then Mr. Christensen handed me the 602. I hate to admit it, but it was about the smoothest ride I’ve ever had with a pencil; it verily skated across the page.

I doubt it would allow me to write “Sunday in the Park With George,” or the Great American Novel that has thus far eluded me. However, if I ever need a pencil, I know the one to use.

It might even be fun to buy one of those chrome, desk-mounted sharpeners they had in grade school. While perfection in most things remains beyond reach, you’ll probably never come closer than at that fleeting instant when you remove a pencil from a sharpener and pause to admire the point.

—ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Canoeing Up the Hudson River With River Haggie Outdoors

July 20, 2014 10:25 p.m. ET

A canoe trip on Stockport Creek, two hours north of New York City, led Fran Martino of River Haggie Outdoors and joined by families from The Farm at Millers Crossing in Hudson, N.Y., and the columnist.Richard Beaven for The Wall Street Journal

Had I not followed normally reliable Google Maps, I’d have arrived in Stockport, on the Hudson River about 10 minutes from my home and a couple of hours north of New York City, 30 minutes earlier. Fortunately, Fran Martino of River Haggie Outdoors, an environmental education program, hadn’t yet departed on the canoe ride I’d signed up for. Ms. Martino works in partnership with the Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve, whose organization provides many free canoe trips, as this one was.

The last time I’d gone canoeing I capsized in a rushing, early spring torrent in a nearby stream. Though I’d like to state for the record, it was through no fault of my own—except to the extent that I was stupid and uncharacteristically game enough to agree to the adventure in the first place.

I’d also once gone kayaking on the Hudson as part of an organized tour. That outing had fortunately ended uneventfully. But I became aware that the tides on the river are so strong that you have to time your trip accordingly.

In other words, if I’d missed the boat, or rather the canoe, there was no way I was going to venture into the waterway alone, or with my photographer Richard Beaven, even had Ms. Martino courteously left a vessel and paddles behind.

However, the tour of approximately eight boats and 20 participants had yet to leave. I even made it to a brief tutorial where Ms. Martino, assisted by Jim Herrington and Brianna Rosamilia, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Hudson River Estuary educators, explained that the greater Stockport Creek Watershed, the Hudson River’s second largest tributary, spreads through two states—Massachusetts and New York—and drains 517 square miles of the mid-Hudson valley, including, I assume, the unheralded streams and swamps on my own property.

The plan was to travel up the creek, test the water quality, and drag a net to catch some fish. Time permitting we’d then venture into the river itself. That’s what I was looking forward to most. Even though I live only a few miles from the Hudson, most of the time I spend on it involves taking an Amtrak train from Penn Station to Hudson, N.Y. It’s a scenic ride, but doesn’t quite qualify as communing with nature.

The greater Stockport Creek Watershed, the Hudson River’s second largest tributary, spreads through two states—Massachusetts and New York—and drains 517 square miles of the mid-Hudson valley.Richard Beaven for The Wall Street Journal

Ms. Martino, whose organization leads several trips up the creek each summer, gave a few helpful tips on paddling and steering a canoe. I found them invaluable both because I hadn’t had any instruction since summer camp several decades ago and also because it persuaded me that I should sit in the rear of the boat and steer—especially since it was hot and sunny—while Mr. Beaven, seated in front, provided the muscle. I trusted the arrangement would only minimally inhibit his ability to take prize-winning photographs. Besides, we’d be on the water for several hours. Some of that time would obviously be spent simply drifting and appreciating the view.

Ms. Martino offered a final piece of good news and then we were off—that the creek was only a few feet deep. If we capsized, it was unlikely we’d drown. “Stay with the downed boat,” she instructed.

After we’d paddled up the creek a quarter-hour or so, Ms. Martino took and tested water samples and found the pH levels within normal range. Since I wasn’t appropriately dressed—I’d worn sneakers instead of waterproof shoes—and because there were lots of children along, I remained in the canoe while allowing them the fun of dragging the creek for fish, even though they ended up mostly catching pebbles.

The trip back down the creek toward the Hudson was more auspicious. You could almost persuade yourself that you’d left the 21st century behind, that you were traveling Huck Finn’s Mississippi, especially after a bald eagle landed on an overhead branch and watched us pass below, and we entered a serene, slow-moving side channel filled with violet-blue flowering pickerelweed.

We passed under a railroad bridge, out into the Hudson and to a nearby island. “These are man-made islands from the dredge spoils,” Mr. Herrington explained. “The Dutch were the first ones to start dredging the river so they could have boat navigation. Henry Hudson couldn’t even make it this far. He got up to Hudson and then he had to continue on in smaller boats.”

When the fish net was dragged again, the catch was marginally more successful than it had been in Stockport Creek. It included a white perch. Unfortunately, the fish would have been inedible even if it had measured longer than a couple of inches. Ms. Martino produced a chart that showed which fish were safe to eat in which part of the river. “Yellow perch, yes,” she explained. “White perch, no.” The fish may contain unsafe levels of chemicals, particularly PCBs.

The environmental educator also leads seasonal snowshoe walks, owl prowls, animal-tracking trips and lessons in debris and snow-shelter construction. “The idea is to connect people to the resources we have here,” Ms. Martino explained. “People don’t realize what they have in their backyard.”

—ralph.gardner@wsj.com

A Religious Experience

July 16, 2014 9:36 p.m. ET

The cross on top of the steeple of the Church of the Incarnation. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Churches—absent those with a Caravaggio or a Michelangelo, or unless I’ve been summoned to a wedding or a funeral—don’t hold particular excitement for me.

On the other hand, if you invite me to clamber to the top of a steeple, I’m there.

Such was the opportunity I had last week: to summit the Church of the Incarnation at Madison Avenue and 35th Street, which is only about a block from the Empire State Building.

Dating to the Civil War era, the church—a New York City designated landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places—is behind scaffolding right now, undergoing restoration. If I might be allowed to quote from a fundraising presentation prepared for members of the parish: “Due to its weathering surface, the brownstone spire atop the great corner tower is eroding, sometimes in sizable chunks.”

Scaffolding surrounds the church. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Even though the prose was explicit enough, the Rev. John Douglas Ousley, the rector, drove home the message as we stood on the scaffolding at the base of the spire, about two-thirds of the way up the 14-story structure.

“We had one small piece that triggered the project,” Father Ousley explained.

My understanding was that this was also his first time on the scaffolding, at least at this height. Looking through the protective material installed to prevent accidents or lawsuits from falling debris, we could see traffic and pedestrians vertiginously far below.

A piece of stone will be repaired on the church’s steeple. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Three days after Christmas 2012, the rector went on, a chunk of stone “the size of your fist” plummeted to the sidewalk from 100 feet up. “You don’t want it on your head. We immediately put up a sidewalk shed.”

I wanted more details, even though my primary concern at that moment was making sure I didn’t plummet to the sidewalk from 100 feet up. I don’t know whether it is age, wisdom or impending mortality, but as I get older, I find myself clinging to objects, such as subway banisters, a lot more enthusiastically than I once did. And as I was now doing with any piece of scaffolding within my reach.

I wondered whether Father Ousley was alerted to the steeple’s decay, perhaps by a passerby who got beaned—fortunately not. He said one of his caretakers was sweeping the sidewalk when he discovered the stone.

“We ended up with eight giant garbage bags filled with loose pieces of brownstone,” he said.

Obviously, something needed to be done.

Preserv, a restoration and project management firm, and Jan Hird Pokorny Associates, an architectural firm, were called in. I mention them not only because they seem to be doing a diligent job restoring the steeple to its original 19th-century dignity, but also because several of their representatives were complicating my journey, clambering up and down the scaffolding either ahead or behind me.

The Rev. J. Douglas Ousley climbs up the scaffolding that surrounds the church; a renovation to the historic building’s stone facade should be finished in November. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Their plan was in at least three parts. First, to remove any loose stones to prevent an impending disaster. Next, to staunch the deterioration. And finally to repair and restore four stone “gablets,” elongated dormer-like openings on each side of the spire. The stone that hit the ground came from the Madison Avenue-facing gablet.

There was other damage as well to the body of the spire, which was shaling off. Kurt Hirschberg of Jan Hird Pokorny, and Carl Culbreth and Nikki Westfall of Preserv, attempted to explain the intricacies of the restoration. It included everything from saving and retooling the existing stone when possible to finding matching stones when not, a challenge with weathered brownstones that are a century-and-a-half old.

I can’t say I was paying the closest attention. I had two overriding priorities: maintaining my balance as I climbed up and down the metal staircase and across planks that seemed to offer more than enough room to drop through; and ascending ever higher.

My guides seemed content to conclude our trip only halfway up the spire, after we’d examined the dormers. But as compelling as the challenges of historic restoration are, my top priority was finding daylight—climbing to the absolute tippy top of the steeple.

All agreed to go forth—when we embarked on the voyage, Father Ousley had made mention that the church was protected not only by God but by adequate liability insurance—and we reached the pinnacle.

It was well worth the effort. We were greeted by the cross that capped the spire as well as a spectacular view of the Empire State Building, the two edifices feeling as if they were engaged in a relationship of mutual admiration.

When we made it down safely, Father Ousley gave me a brief tour of the interior, showing me stained glass windows by the Victorian-era artists John LaFarge, Edward Burne-Jones and Louis Comfort Tiffany.

The church “was built when Murray Hill was the most fashionable neighborhood in New York,” the rector explained. He also pointed out a front pew where parishioner Eleanor Roosevelt worshiped and where President Franklin Roosevelt attended his mother’s funeral.

“We have a very primitive ramp he used to get in the church,” Father Ousley said, motioning to the ornate Tiffany side door where the disabled president arrived. “We still have that in the basement.”

Artwork by John LaFarge surrounds the church’s altar. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

A Carnivore Without Guilt

July 15, 2014 10:53 p.m. ET

Patrick Martins at Heritage Foods’ complex in Brooklyn. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Brooklyn has played the incubator to lots of innovative, romantic, and, it goes without saying, hip business models in recent years. But few seem more ambitious than Patrick Martins’s operation on Seigel Street in East Williamsburg.

It’s the home of Heritage Foods 519552.BY +5.16% USA, which ships at least 45,000 pounds of heritage and rare-breed meat to customers around the country every week. And the Heritage Radio Network. That nonprofit spreads the gospel of the sustainable-food revolution from a studio around the corner. In fact, it’s located at Roberta’s, the celebrated pizza restaurant where guests can dine while watching one of Mr. Martins’s radio shows in progress through a picture window.

He’s also the author, with Mike Edison, of a new book, “The Carnivore’s Manifesto” (Little, Brown). I was attracted by the title, hoping that it would mollify my guilt—much of it inflicted by my younger daughter, Gracie—when it comes to eating meat. In particular, supermarket meat.

I’m honestly trying to be a better, more humane and sustainable person. But it isn’t easy. Last week I visited an enlightened local farm upstate and selected something called a flat iron steak from its freezer. The cut resembled a hanger, flank or skirt steak.

The helping was small. In fact, it was almost exactly half a pound. Enough for two people, eating judiciously. The farmer presented me the bill: $18.

Meat freezer at Heritage Foods’ complex. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Surely, this must be a mistake, I thought, and said so out loud. We weren’t talking Kobe beef, or even aged filet mignon. This was one of the less-expensive cuts on the animal. He must have meant $9, which would still have been plenty pricey.

The gentleman checked his math. No, he said with a smile, that petite sliver of protein cost approximately $36 a pound.

I thought of how much beef 36 bucks could buy me at my local supermarket: a slab of sirloin the size of a coffee table.

I’m not suggesting corporate food and factory farming is the way to go. But throw me a bone, no pun intended. My wallet is willing to suffer a little pain if it means saving the planet. But this was like attaching electrodes to my head and cranking up the dial.

My hope was that Mr. Martins’s book was a paean to the guilt-free consumption of red meat—a courageous, politically incorrect diatribe.

As passionate, thoughtful and more than occasionally amusing as it is, the volume is anything but. Mr. Martins’s argument is that we’re a meat-eating species, so get over it. Now that that’s settled, let’s do so in the most responsible way possible. “The book is trying to create the path for a more humane and tasteful meat culture,” he explained. “As opposed to not eating meat.”

“We sell 25 types of hamburger meat,” he added, by way of example. He listed goat, chicken, pork, bison and turkey, in addition to beef. “We’re grinding the whole animal so nothing is wasted.”

The author’s background isn’t exactly agricultural. His father is the Brazilian classical pianist João Carlos Martins, and the son grew up on the Upper East Side, attending the Browning School (my alma mater, though I’d never met him) and Vassar College. He’s married to Anne Saxelby, the respected Essex Street Market cheesemonger.

One of his first jobs in the food industry was making deliveries for Gentile, an upscale Madison Avenue grocery store around the corner from his apartment. Heritage Foods USA came out of Slow Food USA, a nonprofit he founded that was inspired by the Slow Food movement started in Italy by journalist Carlo Petrini, and for whom Mr. Martins went to work.

Heritage Foods USA began in 2001 when Mr. Martins decided he could have a greater impact on the food chain by working day-to-day with farmers.

The job—not writing books or running a radio station, but selling 200 heritage pigs every week, as well as goats from 14 farms across the East Coast, while attempting to revive 24 rare heritage chicken lines—would seem to invite a certain amount of stress. But Mr. Martins and his co-workers seem to wear their mission lightly.

“We have to move 50,000 pounds of meat,” Mr. Martins reported as he gave me a tour of his walk-in meat freezer, filled with Duroc porterhouse pork chops and tasty prosciutto from Virginia. “And come hell or high water, we do every Tuesday.”

My favorite part of Heritage Foods USA’s catalog is the gift packs. For example, there is the sausage sampler (seven kinds); the four-breed-variety burgers (from Angus and Highland, to Devon, Belgian Blue and Dexter); and the five-kinds-of-bacon variety package.

“I’ll always eat it,” Mr. Martins testified, referring to meat, as our conversation veered—and as that of proud New York carnivores inevitably must—to burgers. “I think the best burger in New York is P.J. Clarke,” he stated.

I politely disagreed. J.G. Melon makes my favorite burger. Then again, I have a hunch the man knows his burgers better than I do.

Selling the Family Silver

The Wall Street Journal
By Ralph Gardner Jr.
July 14, 2014 9:48 p.m. ET

Steven Fina appraises a silver ladle owned by the columnist. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Whenever my mother needed a wedding gift, she called the silver merchant Michael C. Fina.

A baby rattle or baby spoon? Michael C. Fina.

A platter in need replating? Michael C. Fina.

And I followed in her footsteps. My default wedding present for friends was a set of six salt and pepper shakers from Michael C. Fina. They looked impressive, but my recollection is that they didn’t cost much more than a hundred bucks.

Tiffany, with its admittedly lovely robin’s egg-blue pouches and boxes, was for tourists. Michael C. Fina was the place where shrewd, cost-conscious New Yorkers shopped for silver.

“I hear it on a daily basis,” Steven Fina, 33, a third-generation member of the family, told me when I dropped by a couple of weeks ago.

” ‘My mother shopped here. My grandmother shopped here,’ ” Mr. Fina said, relating what customers tell him. “We’re [in business] just shy of 80.”

Mr. Fina’s grandparents started the company in 1935. “We’ve helped a lot of New Yorkers,” he said.

My recollection was that the store used to be on Fifth Avenue in the ’50s.

Silver antique pieces in Mr. Fina’s office. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Fina confirmed my memory. Michael C. Fina was at 580 Fifth Ave. until 1998 and at 545 Fifth Ave. until last year, Mr. Fina said.

These days, the store is at 500 Park Ave., though the entrance is on 59th Street.

However, my mother did her business over the phone. I doubt she ever set foot in the place. She didn’t need to. She knew, based on appreciation from friends, that the order would be right and delivered on time.

Just as important, the recipient could always return the gift for credit. My mother’s obligation, in any case, had been dispatched.

Mr. Fina said that customers over the years have included Frank Sinatra, the Saudi royal family, President George H.W. Bush and Anna Wintour. Chelsea Clinton also registered there.

“I think she’s done,” Mr. Fina said, meaning that, unlike me when I married, she acquired everything she registered for.

I was somewhat distressed to learn that Fina no longer considers bargain shoppers such as my mother and me its target demographic.

“Prior to ’98, we were known as a discounter,” Mr. Fina acknowledged. “When we moved from 580 to 545, we moved away from that. It was us and Fortunoff’s,” he said referring to another Fifth Avenue silver store—I shopped there on occasion, too—that closed several years ago. “We now cater to the top 1%.

“We’re working on an order now,” he went on, “for 160 place settings.”

He said the client, who lives in the tri-state area, had a tab of between $1.2 million and $1.4 million.

Not long ago, the Saudi royal family purchased 250 place settings of china.

“It’s usually one of the princesses that comes in,” Mr. Fina explained. “You can’t talk to her. You have to talk to the other person,” meaning her retainer, even if the royal speaks fluent English. “You’re talking. They’re repeating.”

In fact, these days silver represents only a portion of Fina’s wares. The average oligarch could almost consider it a one-stop-shopping source.

Fina also sells engagement and wedding rings, china and crystal, even an affordably priced shark-shaped staple remover—”for the guy who has everything,” Mr. Fina noted.

Mr. Fina in the showroom of his family’s business, which also sells china, jewelry and crystal. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

I brought along a heavy silver ladle from home to be appraised.

Mr. Fina, who learned connoisseurship from his relatives and has an extensive library of reference books, told me it was from Russia as he examined it with a jeweler’s loupe.

“It was made in 1891,” he explained. “The Russians are good about that. They put the year on it. It comes from Baku. The person who assayed it was named Joseph Shmidyetsky.”

Mr. Fina said the ladle was worth whatever someone was willing to pay for it: “We buy it based on the weight.”

The Fina family also has an impressive private collection, including a set of three silver spoons—made by Paul Revere—that sat on Mr. Fina’s desk.

“I’ve seen them sell for $15,000 a spoon to $30,000 a spoon,” he reported.

I was curious whether Mr. Fina shared my passion for polishing silver.

Paul Revere’s spoons appeared rather tarnished and seemed in urgent need of elbow grease.

“You are one of the few people who loves polishing it,” he said. “I hate it.”

Royals and other 1%-ers aside, it sounds as if those of us who cherish the family silver are becoming an anachronism.

“People don’t entertain anywhere near the way they used to,” Mr. Fina explained. “That’s why I have this.”

He produced what looked like a cake knife.

“Where else are you going to find an ice cream hatchet?” he asked. “Ice cream used to come in a brick.”

At our house, actually. We have a couple of them. Even though I had no idea what they were until I met Mr. Fina.

—ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Ciao for Now, Mr. Mayor

July 13, 2014 9:13 p.m. ET

Sant’Agata dei Goti, which is on the mayor’s itinerary TIPS/Zuma Press

I’ve heard criticism that Mayor Bill de Blasio‘s 10-day family summer vacation to Italy, scheduled to start Friday, is too long. I hold the opposite opinion. I don’t think it’s nearly long enough.

Think about it. Your first day abroad and your last shouldn’t count. You’re exhausted when you arrive and the mayor will probably be doubly so. Comporting with his populist image, he’ll be flying economy, I assume. I’m 6 feet 2 inches tall and my knees are always painfully pressed against the seat in front of me. At 6 feet 6 inches, he’ll probably need help getting off the plane.

Also, on your first night abroad and for several succeeding nights you’re suffering from jet lag. Unless you take Tylenol PM, which I highly recommend to avoid laying awake in the middle of the night, you’re too haggard to do anything except sit in a café with a Campari or doze under a beach umbrella. Both great ideas given Italy’s throbbing Mediterranean midsummer heat.

Come to think of it, I believe the de Blasio family’s itinerary is absurdly ambitious. If they’re undertaking the adventure to score political points, which may well be the case—given the fact that the mayor is bringing along his press secretary and granting interviews along the way—I totally understand.

But if they’re after an authentic family vacation, they should hit the brakes.

Venice requires several days. Getty Images

As it stands now, his schedule, which includes visiting his grandparents’ ancestral towns, as well as Rome, Venice and Naples, is way too action-packed. One could spend a full week in Rome and not see everything. Venice requires several days. I hear he’s even wedging in a trip to Capri.

Here’s what I would do: Call off the interviews, leave the press secretary behind and rent a villa or stay at an agriturismo in Grassano or Sant’Agata dei Goti, where the mayor’s grandparents are from. I’m sure they have many lovely ones.

Agriturismos, often located on working farms or vineyards in the countryside, are one of Italy’s great modern inventions. You can’t beat the price, especially for a family. An entire week may cost only a few hundred bucks, and the accommodations usually come with a kitchen and a nice swimming pool.

If you have the sightseeing bug, fly into Rome or Venice for a couple of days. Anything more ambitious is self-destructive. The whole point of a vacation, at least as I understand it, is to relax, to decompress.

As the father of two, I can also attest to witnessing developmental leaps when my children were exposed to new people, places and things. But Rome, Venice and Naples, plus interviews and news conferences, will leave Dante and Chiara recalling little but a blur.

It may no longer be fashionable in our adrenalized age, but in my opinion the mayor and his family need a respite of a minimum of two weeks. Three weeks would be preferable. I know he’s looking into the teeth of a Long Island Rail Road strike. A few years ago my mother went to the hospital shortly before I was scheduled to go abroad. Sometimes stuff happens that requires you to bite the bullet and postpone or cancel a trip. No big deal. That’s life.

But assuming the trip doesn’t get derailed by an LIRR strike, I think the mayor could provide a substantial public service and serve as a role model by, say, taking two weeks this summer, three the next, and a full month the following year.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and his family Getty Images

Mayor Rudy Giuliani was famous for not taking vacations. But where did that get him? He always seemed angry. Could his lack of down time have anything to do with his sour mood?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg only took short jaunts. But he doesn’t count—he had a private jet and helicopter. Almost as therapeutic as taking a vacation is knowing you can whenever you want.

I’m not suggesting Mayor de Blasio should issue a parting statement explaining that the city is unhealthy in summer and he’s outta here. But absent emergencies, for which he can always return, does it really make a difference if he’s gone for a couple of weeks?

Presidents do it. President Barack Obama and his family are spending two full weeks on Martha’s Vineyard in August. George W. Bush retreated to his Texas ranch for extended periods. Surely the job of mayor of New York is no more challenging than being president of the United States.

The beauty of going abroad, particularly to Italy, is that Italians have a talent for smelling the roses. For knowing what’s important. Appreciating that art and beauty, good food and wine, and especially nap time trump money, power and success.

These are important virtues the mayor and his wife, Chirlane McCray, may want to impart to their kids.

That’s hard to do if you’re in a rush.

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

In a Pickle Over the Full Sour

June 25, 2014 9:01 p.m. ET

Jacob’s Pickles serves a variety of pickled vegetables. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

If you could take only five food items to a desert island, granted adequate refrigeration, what would they be?

Water obviously. But that doesn’t count. Orange juice, preferably freshly squeezed. I can’t start my day without orange juice. Chocolate, whether milk or bittersweet is up to you, because that would suffice for dessert. Butter, because everything tastes better with butter. And pickles. Yes, pickles.

But only a full sour pickle. In a pinch, these versatile fellows serve as the perfect hors d’oeuvre, which reminds me—chilled vodka would be my fifth indispensable desert island staple. And pickles also suffice as an entire food group—vegetables—when you can’t be bothered to go to the supermarket.

However, nine times out of 10, I’m disappointed by pickles I receive in restaurants and diners. I attribute that less to misanthropy or depression than to the seemingly little consensus on what constitutes a proper pickle. Either that, or restaurants lack a fundamental understanding of how much a great pickle can contribute to a meal. Maybe they simply dismiss it as garnish.

I can’t count the number of times an excellent cheeseburger and fries or a grilled cheese sandwich has been sabotaged by a sickly sweet pickle.

Jacob’s Pickles at 509 Amsterdam Ave. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

But even places that ought to have their pickle making down to a science sometimes come up short. Last week. I bought a quart of pickles at Fairway Market—carefully selecting them from a large bin and adding enough brine to keep them hydrated. But when I got them home and took my first expectant bite they were slightly off. I don’t mean spoiled. Just that the flavor profile was subtly different than on many previous occasions. The pickles lacked depth.

I went to discuss my pickle issues with Jacob Hadjigeorgis, an expert on the subject and the owner of Jacob’s Pickles, a popular restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue.

Mr. Hadjigeorgis attributed the quirks of otherwise respectable pickles to brining. “We might be selling pickles at times that have brined for three weeks and other times for,” longer or shorter periods, he told me. “It’s almost like a living thing. It continues to evolve. You have to look for what you like.”

I politely disagreed. The beauty of a pickle is its consistency; you recognize its greatness on a cellular level the instant you bite into it. It’s that wedding of crunch, salt, pepper, garlic and spices. Frankly, I don’t even know what goes into pickle brine and I don’t care any more than I do how Michelangelo mixed pigments. All that matters is the effect it has on my senses, the small pleasurable explosions it causes in my brain.

Mr. Hadjigeorgis invited me to try his pickles, flights of which stood at attention in Mason jars on the table in front of us. Besides, pickles there were pickled tomatoes, pickled beets, pickled eggs, pickled carrots, pickled peppers, and pickled string beans.

“You might want to start with the sours,” he suggested. “We think we have pickles with personality.”

Jacob’s Pickles owner Jacob Hadjigeorgis Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Indeed, his so-called sour pickle did have personality. However, it conflicted with my personality. It was entirely too lively and healthy tasting. My idea of a great sour pickle is one that says, “This thing is way too salty to be any good for you, but hey, it’s a vegetable so I’m not going to worry about it.”

“The vegetable itself should come through,” Mr. Hadjigeorgis explained. “In terms of your brine, there should be a level of complexity. But I also [want] to achieve balance.”

That’s just the point. I don’t want the vegetable to come through. Pickles are for kids who hate vegetables. They’re salt- and garlic-delivery systems, first cousins of potato chips. Which may be why I responded most positively to Jacob’s fried pickles—in a delicate batter, with a spicy red mayo dipping sauce. (I briefly considered mayo for my desert island food hamper but decided butter goes better with shellfish.)It tasted like a healthy snack swaddled in decadence.

It must be a generational thing. Jacob’s Pickles was packed Tuesday evening with a dozen more parties waiting outside for tables. Apparently, the public responds positively to their pickles.

Mr. Hadjigeorgis, 29 years old, grew up in Queens, attended the Dwight School, a private school not far from his restaurant, and then New York University. His father, who he said has been instrumental in the restaurant’s success, ran a popular Westchester restaurant. The family isn’t Jewish, but Greek-American.

I’m not saying you have to be Jewish to make a classic pickle, but it might not hurt. “You’ll find pickles in every ethnicity’s food tradition,” Mr. Hadjigeorgis said. “It’s something everybody can relate to.”

While the restaurant is called Jacob’s Pickles—Mr. Hadjigeorgis’s father also came up with the name—it’s about comfort food of all kinds. Mr. Hadjigeorgis’s first restaurant was a 300-square-foot mac ‘n’ cheese place in Boston’s historic Quincy Market. The creamy mac ‘n’ cheese he serves at Jacob’s Pickles is delicious and, at only $8, a meal in itself. Indeed, the only thing that might have improved it was a side of old-fashioned sour pickles.

“Comfort food should be priced low,” Mr. Hadjigeorgis explained. “It loses it’s reputation as comfort food if it’s not.”

On that, we completely agreed.

—ralph.gardner@wsj.com

 

Keeping (My) Money Real

The Wall Street Journal
by Ralph Gardner Jr.
July 9, 2014 10:07 p.m. ET

Bitcoin Center New York City is in the heart of the Financial District. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Artist Jenna Lash was attempting to explain bitcoin to me as we stood inside the Bitcoin Center on Broad Street, in the shadow of the New York Stock Exchange. She has a show of her paintings at the center.

“It’s a virtual currency that’s decentralized,” she said. “It’s kind of the wave of the future.”

That sounded good. But not good enough for me to remove my cash or credit card from my wallet and buy bitcoins at the bitcoin ATM in the corner. As it turned out, I couldn’t anyway. The machine wasn’t working.

“We’ll wait until New York state issues a license,” explained Alex Palantzas, who handles the Bitcoin Center’s external relations.

I was paying a visit to better grasp, or grasp anything at all, about bitcoin, which remains inscrutable to me. While acknowledging that currency of all sorts, and even commodities such as gold and diamonds, have no value except what we assign to them—to a starving man, a ham sandwich might be the most valuable thing on Earth—bitcoin still seems a little sketchy.

On one wall is a bitcoin ATM. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Unfortunately, my misgivings were somehow reinforced by Ms. Lash’s art: pointillist paintings of some of my favorite paper currencies.

In fact, our discussion waxed nostalgic as we moved from canvas to canvas and talked about the appeal of particular nations’ money, some now defunct.

For example, the French franc. I always thought it the most beautiful and beautifully printed of all currencies, before the days of the euro.

While explaining that her favorite currency is the one she’s working on at the moment, Ms. Lash saw my point.

“Western Europeans were very big on putting artists on their currency,” she observed. “They’re not like our country putting presidents and other countries putting rulers and dictators.”

I also have a fondness for Swiss currency, which never seems to change.

“I have a Swiss franc over there with Giacometti,” she said, referring to the late Swiss sculptor and painter.

“I had a big show in Lugano,” Ms. Lash told me. “The whole town came out.”

As the Swiss would, of course, for an exhibition about money.

Was Ms. Lash familiar with the 10,000-lira note back in the good old days when the bill was the size of a folded newspaper? She wasn’t. Nonetheless, that’s the thing about physical money: It’s evocative of a time and place, and maybe your first trip abroad.

Where’s the tactile appeal of a currency that exists only online?

Mr. Palantzas explained bitcoin with impressive self-confidence, telling me that it ultimately is supposed to have 21 million units of currency; 12 million are circulating right now.

Naomi Brockwell educates the public about virtual currency as Bitcoin Girl. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Where are the rest of them?

“The rest are being mined,” he explained.

Mined?

“They’re encrypted,” he said.

He’d already lost me.

“When we talk about bitcoin, we need to rethink what is currency,” he explained with lovely forbearance.

Perhaps that’s my problem. The world is constantly throwing curves, or rather 90-mile-an-hour fastballs at your head. You want the money in your pocket to require as little brainpower as possible. Even at the age of 5, I knew that my allowance—a quarter—purchased five candy bars. (Now, those really were the good old days.)

I suspect bitcoin won’t succeed until the average 5-year-old can it explain it to me. Still, I’d hate to lose out if my peers were making money, or rather bitcoin, hand over fist. So I contacted Naomi Brockwell, aka Bitcoin Girl.

Ms. Brockwell doesn’t walk around Wall Street wearing a sandwich board shaped like a bitcoin, but almost.

“We rewrote ‘Uptown Girl’ to ‘Bitcoin Girl,’ ” explained Ms. Brockwell, who has appeared on TV as a bitcoin expert—self-appointed, from what I can tell—and had just returned from the “Voice & Exit” disruptive technology festival in Austin, Texas.

“Bitcoin fits perfectly into that,” she said when we met at the Bitcoin Center on a separate afternoon. (By the way, nobody could explain to me what all the guests sitting at long tables at the Bitcoin Center, earnestly tapping away at laptops as if they were working on Ph.D. thesis, were doing there.) “Bitcoin Girl aims to be a platform for bridging the gap between people who are technologically savvy and people who don’t understand it yet.”

That would be me.

Ms. Brockwell, an Australian not yet 30, whose careers have included opera singer, journalist, pianist, movie producer and Irish dancer—she did a lively jig in the middle of the Bitcoin Center at my request—shared with me an advance clip of “Bitcoin Girl,” the video.

It shows her traveling through the city while being pursued by some lovestruck nerd to whom she refuses to give the time of day until he gets with the bitcoin movement.

(“I bet she’s never had a Wall Street guy/She kissed the Federal Reserve goodbye.”)

“I don’t need to be able to understand the Internet to be able to use it,” Ms. Brockwell explained. “That’s what bitcoin is. Bitcoin is going to change everything and people still won’t understand it.”

For the moment, I’ll stick with my debit card.

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

 

For Pig Heaven, the Hereafter

July 8, 2014 9:14 p.m. ET

Nancy Lee outside her restaurant on the Upper East Side Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

As members of a metropolis, few losses are felt more acutely than that of a dependable takeout restaurant.

Such is the situation my family and I will face come the end of this month with the closing of Pig Heaven on Second Avenue and 80th Street. We’ve been patronizing the eatery since it opened in 1984.

Turning a family dinner into a festive occasion requires only picking up the phone, dialing the effortlessly memorizable PIG IT UP and ordering the superb, impossibly crispy-yet-tender Peking duck.

With eight pancakes, that sweet sauce you spread on them and a container of scallions and cucumbers to layer on top the duck, the dish comfortably feeds four—coincidentally the size of our household.

When I heard of Pig Heaven’s demise from my brother, another loyal customer, I made a point of dropping by to pay my respects to Nancy Lee, the restaurant’s owner.

To be clear, Ms. Lee isn’t closing voluntarily. She lost her lease; the rumor, she says, is that the building will be razed and replaced by a condominium.

A sampling of the memorabilia that customers have given Nancy Lee in the past 30 years: ‘At home, I have so many pigs, too,’ she said. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Like all great restaurateurs, Ms. Lee personifies her establishment. I’d go so far as to say she has sparked a cult of personality.

I well remember her from the old days when I ate at the restaurant rather than order for delivery, and she used to greet guests in a leopard print dress.

“I still wear it,” said Ms. Lee, who seems at 58 years old to have aged little over the last three decades.

She attributes her fitness not only to the rigors of running a successful restaurant but also to playing basketball.

Ms. Lee told me she played professional basketball in Taiwan, where she grew up. She’s still a member of a team that plays internationally.

“This year I go to Vegas,” she said as she showed me pictures on her cellphone of last year’s outing to China. “We do very good.”

She was the shortest player on the team—a guard, I presumed. Ms. Lee gave me a pretend slap when I asked whether she knew how to dribble.

“That’s basic,” she protested. “Three points, too.”

When Pig Heaven was opened by David Keh and Ed Schoenfeld, pioneering Chinese restaurateurs, Ms. Lee was just the host.

A sampling of the memorabilia that customers have given Nancy Lee in the past 30 years: Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

The restaurant, which Ms. Lee says she bought in 1987, was a novel concept: Chinese food served up with American informality and fun.

And as delicious as the cuisine was the décor: rosy pigs everywhere, including wood cutouts of porkers running under the ceiling.

(The restaurant has been remodeled since the ’80s, but Ms. Lee has proudly kept the pigs in the back dining room.)

Pig Heaven quickly became a neighborhood redoubt. And a table near the front of the restaurant is also filled with hundreds of pigs, all gifts from loyal customers.

“At home, I have so many pigs, too,” she reported.

The host pulls out all the stops during Chinese New Year, singing and even belly dancing.

“Customers come and dance with me,” she reported, producing an iPad to show me images of teenagers in braces and investment bankers stripped down to their starched shirts and ties.

In the early days, she said, 90% of her business was people dining at the restaurant. Over the years, that ratio has switched to 50-50, delivery vs. dining in, with as many as eight deliverymen working shifts during the busiest winter months.

Pig Heaven’s customers have included the novelist Philip Roth, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani —”He likes chicken with hot pepper sauce,” Ms. Lee reported—Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg.

“They’re regulars here,” Ms. Lee said, of the actor and director, introduced to the restaurant by the writer Nick Pileggi.

There are autographed photos of the celebrities and their families, blown up to poster size, with Ms. Lee, of course, sandwiched between them.

“I went to see his show, ‘Lucky Guy,’ ” Ms. Lee said of Mr. Hanks. “I went backstage. They like Peking duck and scallion pancake.”

Ms. Lee, who has two grown children, both working in banking, (she was giving birth to her oldest, Diana, when the restaurant opened on Sept. 11, 1984) commutes from her home in New Jersey.

She confessed that she debated—but rejected—closing the restaurant for good when her lease expires.

“We go through so many things through so many years. We’re open 365 days a year: Sandy, 9/11, blackouts. We never close. We belong to the community.

“9/11 actually I was stuck in New Jersey,” she remembered. “Chef called me and asked, ‘Should we open?’ We sell out everything.”

Ms. Lee said she’s in negotiations for a new location in the neighborhood. As soon as the address is settled she’ll post it on the restaurant’s website, pigheavennyc.com.

Until then, you can enjoy the spare ribs and Peking duck at the restaurant or delivered to your home.

“I’ll try to last to the last day of July,” Ms. Lee said.

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Rethinking the Accordian

The Wall Street Journal
By Ralph Gardner Jr.
July 7, 2014 9:23 p.m. ET

Sounds of Bryant Park: the Calpulli Accordion Student Ensemble Craig Warga for The Wall Street Journal

Whose idea was it to have accordion music in Bryant Park anyway? Tunes from around the world, filling the air Tuesday evenings during the spring and early summer.

“Dan,” answered Ethan Lercher, the park’s director of public events. “But he had the idea probably six years ago. The idea was to have accordions in the park at different times during the day.”

Mr. Lercher was referring to Dan Biederman, who also has ties to the park as president of Bryant Park Corp., a nonprofit management company.

“He saw it in a few places in France. He was in love with the French music played by accordion,” Mr. Lercher said. “He tried different things for the next three years. It didn’t catch a lot of attention.”

If I’d been in charge, the takeaway would have been that perhaps people weren’t wild about accordions, that the sound of the instrument serenading passersby in the antique charm of the Tuileries or the Luxembourg Gardens couldn’t quite command the attention of harried New Yorkers among the cacophony of Midtown.

I have nothing against accordions, even though I don’t find them the most soulful of musical instruments.

If an accordion were a fruit, in my opinion, it wouldn’t be a sun-ripened peach, but a banana; something that has defensible virtues but doesn’t quite ignite the imagination.

It’s probably unfair, but when I think of accordion players, even Parisian ones, I think of people playing music you don’t want to hear at outdoor cafes and then hitting you up for spare change.

However, Mr. Biederman and his staff deduced a different message.

“Our idea was to expand the program beyond one person,” Mr. Lercher explained. “Ariana and I came up with the idea of having multiple accordions throughout the park.”

That would be Ariana Hellerman, the producer of the concert series, appropriately called Accordions Around the World.

Ms. Hellerman added: “If we’re going to push an accordion agenda, what better way? Where else are you going to see multiple accordions in one place?”

The fingerwork of Suzanne Davenport Craig Warga for The Wall Street Journal

This year’s program started in May and continues through July; single musicians play accordion music from France to Colombia and from the Balkans to the bayou throughout the park at 5 p.m. Then at 6 p.m., a band performs at the Fountain Terrace, which is on the west side of the park.

This is Accordions Around the World’s second year.

“It was big,” last year, Ms. Hellerman reported. “We got a ton of press and partnered with the American Accordion Association.”

The stars aligned so that the association’s members, in town for their annual convention, made their way to Bryant Park for what sounds like Accordion Woodstock.

“Last year we had possibly 200 accordionists who were here on the terrace,” Ms. Hellerman boasted.

The scene was a bit more subdued when I dropped by last week. Actually it wasn’t. A widescreen TV had been set up in the park for the World Cup match between the U.S. and Belgium, attracting hundreds of fans.

Every time the U.S. threatened, a huge roar went up from the crowd, drowning out the sound of accordion performers such as Maria Dessena.

After completing her cover of the Police’s “Message in a Bottle,” Ms. Dessena told me she believes that perception of the accordion has changed in the last few years. It has become cool.

“I do a lot of night life stuff,” she explained. “I see a lot of accordions in a rock band context.”

Might the accordion even be considered the hipster instrument of choice?

“I could see it being perceived that way,” said Ms. Dessena, who lives in Jersey City.

She bought hers at a thrift shop for $100. “It’s gotten me my money’s worth,” she attested.

About 100 feet east of Ms. Dessena stood Joseph Rutkowski, whose day job is head of music at Great Neck North High School. Mr. Rutkowski was playing Polish, Italian and French tunes.

“It’s a great idea, if it wasn’t for the competition from the soccer game,” observed Phyllis Elsky, one of two women listening to Mr. Rutkowski play.

Ms. Elsky revealed herself to be Mr. Rutkowski’s mother-in-law, the woman seated beside her his wife, Lisa.

“He can never resist playing music,” Ms. Elsky confided. “He’ll come to any party.”

Even more relatives were listening to the Calpulli Accordion Student Ensemble, playing traditional Mexican melodies.

One of the musicians was only 10 years old. And all four were playing accordions with buttons rather than keys and making lovely music.

“It’s a different sound,” explained Juan Castano, one of the founders of Calpulli. “We chose the instrument for its role in Mexican music. Also, this instrument is relatively cheaper,” and the organization depends on donations for its youth program.

The largest accordion crowd was seated around Suzanne Davenport, who was playing Musette, traditional French popular music.

I asked Ms. Davenport whether she thought the accordion might be undergoing something of a renaissance?

“Absolutely,” she said. “It’s going on right now. You’re sitting in the middle of one.”

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com