My fellow blogger Daniel Berman is a former San Francisco ad guy who, like me, found himself in upstate New York through a twist of fate. We met on Yelp through our reviews chronicling the quest for good food in Albany and environs. Daniel has now taken this a step further with a quixotic campaign to persuade Albanians to chef up and be more like Austin, a city of comparable size. He’s been driven a bit mad by observing that “Our top food blogger is promoting free beef and cheddar sandwiches at Arby’s. And our top food critic is spending her time in converted pubs and pizza parlors.” This sturm und drang caused me to reflect on what my own food experience has been since moving here.
As all things should, we’ll start at the track. One of the wisest and most economical things you can do in the Capital District is go to the Saratoga Race Course early on a summer morning and watch the horses exercise while the dew melts and the steam rises off the grass. It’s free and you can sit in a box seat which will subsequently be occupied by a celebrity or racing nabob, while you sip your coffee or nosh on the breakfast you’ve picked up on the way in
They clear the grandstand at 10 am and you have to go out, pay, then come back in again. On the way out you will see: most of the tables in the $3 picnic area already claimed by folks who have brought in coolers and tablecloths and will return sometime before the 1 pm post time. I personally can’t think of a better way to spend the afternoon since you can watch the horses and jockeys go by in the paddock, on the way to the races, see the races themselves on closed circuit TVs everywhere, stroll over to a betting station, and potentially splurge by spending a big $2 additional to see the races live by moving to the clubhouse.
So my first look at a quality Saratoga dining experience consists in peeking at what’s inside my cooler. It is this: half a pastrami and swiss on seeded rye with Saratoga chips and Cole slaw from Ben and Bill’s deli, accompanied by a can or more of Genesee Cream Ale.
Ben and Bill were the original Golub brothers, a distinguished Jewish family which owns the Price Chopper chain of supermarkets upstate. Their descendents chafed at the lack of local deli food and resolved to create the best deli between New York City and Montreal, which happens to be placed inside a supermarket in a strip mall. No matter: the pastrami is lean, the cole slaw is excellent and the included pickle is authentically fluorescent. They’ve licensed a few things from Carnegie Deli such as the cheesecake and the gut-busting Woody Allen mile-high sandwich but the $5.99 half sandwich special is really all a reasonable person needs to eat. [2015 update: prices have climbed and the Carnegie Deli connection has been severed, but it’s still a good nosh.]
This includes a generous bag of potato chips which, as Wikipedia will tell us, were invented right here, across the Northway at Saratoga Lake:
The original potato chip recipe was created by chef George Crum at Moon’s Lake House near Saratoga Springs, New York, on August 24, 1853. Fed up with a customer who continued to send his fried potatoes back complaining that they were too thick and soggy, Crum decided to slice the potatoes so thin that they could not be eaten with a fork. As they could not be fried normally in a pan, he decided to stir-fry the potato slices. Against Crum’s expectation, the guest was ecstatic about the new chips and they soon became a regular item on the lodge’s menu, under the name “Saratoga Chips.”
Ben and Bill’s Saratoga chips are fried up fresh each morning and are miles apart from the uniformity of a bag of Lay’s. Some are burnt, some are a bit flaccid, but that’s the idea. Each one unique, these chips are made to be noticed and savored slowly over a race or two till the bag is gone.
The ideal liquid accompaniment for this would be a growler (64 ounce jug) of IPA from the ever-changing tap at Eddie’s Beverages on Excelsior, except that the track does not allow glass containers to be brought in. On a warm summer day, the light, refreshing and slightly sweet Genny Creme is a fine substitute. It’s a benefit that many upstaters regard this as a working person’s brew, a bit déclassé, so I’m rarely (actually never) asked to share my stash.
When I go back to San Francisco, my treat of choice will be a special from a Chinese lunch place, most likely shrimp in garlic sauce from Taiwan in the Richmond. Except with great difficulty, I’m not going to find anything like that here. Nor will I get Texas brisket or a perfectly simmered pot of turnip greens. But my trackside lunch works well enough, and I feel proud and resourceful regarding my competence in foraging in my new haunts.
This post originally appeared on my marketing blog, Otis Regrets… or Not. If you want to read about marketing instead of eating, click here.