A Con Grows in Brooklyn


Brooklyn, March of 1961: The Cold War shivered America, the perils of internationalism evident all about. Camelot’s reign in the Kennedy White House had just begun, though, and Jackie’s hiring of French chef Rene Verdon to reign over America’s presidential kitchen heralded a new day in what had been a bland palace under Ike and Mamie’s control. Kate Smith would have to yield the right of way: foreign artists of all kinds would be welcomed in the staterooms of the executive residence going forward. Cellist Pablo Casals played in November of that year and America’s hoi polloi would just have to adjust to a bit of culture and finesse in the Blue Room.

Mimicry was all about in America, and Brooklyn, New York, always playing catch-up ball, answered with Ralph Cramden’s take on haute cuisine. To most borough residents, European dining was far out of reach. The closest a random Flatbush resident came to a four-star joint was through the pages of Holiday magazine or a glance through Craig Claiborne’s restaurant reviews in the New York Times, among them his March 28, 1961 write-up of the newly opened Lutece. Concerns over the lack of “American” standards of hygiene and xenophobia about foreign cooking and the possibility of being short-changed by larcenous waitstaff bedeviled many stay-at-homers, but the lure of the exotic continued to inspire many meals out. A solution was cooked up by a clever fellow, who took his cues from De Daumier Smith.A con grew in Brooklyn, Casseroles of All Nations its name. One dialed ULster 6-0255, (and I do mean DIAL), and made a reservation for a Saturday night. Perhaps you lived in the far reaches of the borough and put on your fancy traveling clothes to take the BMT to Prospect Park. A few steps from the subway station, late of the Brooklyn, Flatbush and Coney Island RR, stood (and does to this day) 99 Ocean Avenue, a/k/a 1 Lincoln Road, built in 1927 when the Lake Road entrance to the Park still retained a glimmer of its former grandeur. One block away at Flatbush Avenue and Lincoln Road had stood Getrude Vanderbilt’s “country” estate, when much of Brooklyn was quasi-rural, even in the first years of the 20th century, and residents of those areas identifying more frequently as parts of Long Island through the First World War.Here’s how the building looked in mid-1962, and today, as well as the BMT station with my friend F. in front.

Through the Lincoln Road entrance to this turretted apartment house one entered a restaurant foyer. The proprietaire of the establishment sat in a suit and tie at a trestle table, looking up from his studious attention to an Escoffier or Larousse Gastronomique as each customer entered, a distracted look in his eyes. He, (was he Leonard, or Sheldon, or maybe a Sal ?), made a pretense of paging through his sources, scouring the pages for new recipes. Sirio Maccioni, famous in our times for sitting at the entrance of Le Cirque at a table for one, greeting his esteemed patrons by name, took a page from this elegant resto. On the walls of the dining room were travel posters galore: Naples, St. Petersburg, Paris, Madrid were in the immediate offing for the clientele, without impossible costs, the risks of unclean food, the waiters who spoke no English, for God’s sake, and other inconveniences and dangers of true foreign jaunts. For the price of a subway token, Casseroles of All Nations took you there, wherever you ventured. Clean and accessible, it was foreign cuisine without those foreigners with their BO and larcenous ways. This was American efficiency, through and through.

My friend, F., worked as a waitress there in 1961, helping pay her way through Pratt Institute’s graphic arts program. 19 years old and needing the dough, F. kept her hair-net clad head down, hustling the eponoymous casseroles from kitchen to table, laying steaming hot dishes in front of eager patrons, their mouths watering for a taste of the exotic without the need for a trip from what was then still known as Idlewild Airport on Jamaica Bay. Down she’d set the gourmet dishes and make a modest and trepidatious retreat as soon as she sensed that the customers no longer required her presence at table. Her fears were not baseless. Once-in-a-while, after the first forkful of some fancy lasagna or a layered pastitsia was partaken, she’d be called over to cope with disgruntled diners. All was humbug: the jig was up.

Lenny or Sheldon or whatever his name was, sat in the entry-way spinning dreams for his customers, off a Lincoln Road paved with yellow bricks. Back in the kitchen though, nothing was cooking; all dishes were pre-baked in their mini-serving dishes, and then frozen. A giant microwave oven (new-fangled and as pricey as a compact car) figured as the owner’s prize possession. Frances would rush in with the orders and the “chef” would go to the freezer racks, select the coded dishes, nuke them good, and whoosh in five minutes, the entrees were served..

Khutspeh frequently trumps its master’s seykhel: Nerve and impudence sometimes overcome calculation, and if the owner of Casseroles of All Nations had both, he’d have made sure that a suitable interval was maintained between waitress order and table-side delivery. All I know is how the bubble burst. Frances was occasionally summoned to a tableful of disgruntlement: though steam poured from the edges of a customer’s dish, the first forkful from the middle was ice cold. Bigtime swindlery was afoot. Venetian gondoliers, Parisian souvenir sellers or a Brooklyn wise-guy: what’s the difference where you get rooked. Right there in Brooklyn, four years after the Bums took a powder from just down Lincold Road, two years before Idlewild was sadly renamed, a con grew in Brooklyn. It lasted a few months. By year end, it closed.

In her memoirs, Julia Child recounts the tension between herself and her co-authors of Mastering The Art of French Cooking and their editors at Houghton Mifflin and then Knopf, before its publication in October 1961, over the length of the draft manuscript and the complexity of some of the recipes. Though the published work contains few, if any, simple, quick dishes to prepare, the overwhelming trend in America towards that which would be easy and fast to put on the table, at the expense of quality and taste, bedeviled Ms. Child and her co-authors. They put the book to bed and largely resisted the editors’ imprecations to appeal to industry misimpressions of the desires of the largest cookbook readership in the USA. Editor Avis DeVoto, in her extensive correspondence with Ms. Child, pre-publication, bemoaned the post-war dearth of servants and the consequent impoverishment of the upper-middle class American diet: “I can’t wait to see what you do about casseroles…There isn’t one casserole in a hundred that is fit to eat. ***** says that she ducks invitations to dine with young married people because she can’t, at her age, take the casserole any more– she described one composed of roast pork and canned Bing cherries, after which she came home and was sick…”

Bona fide efforts buck cultural trends, even create and define them. Casseroles of All Nations lacked an honest bone in its short-lived body, though, and within a year of its appearance, a different restaurant, catering to another fantasy, opened in the space. Tower on the Park showed Pisa’s landmark on its wrap-around sign at the corner of 99 Ocean in 1962.It, too was destined to fail. Mrs. Joyce Forte moved into the all-white building in 1968, and her largely Jewish neighbors fled in droves, as they did from buildings all over the neighborhood as block-busting and racism tore the heart out of Flatbush. Millions of dreams were crushed underfoot as poverty and drugs overcame the once elegant streets.The facade of 99 Ocean Avenue, a study in mixed metaphoric pretension in its 1927 design, still looks dignified, even fancy, from a distance. The terracotta medallions above the entryway, alluding to Christopher Columbus and maritime adventure, still adorn the mock-palazzo tower. Indoors, allusions to 15th century Genova seem long gone: the trashed plaster walls at the inside entry door, the missing sconces in the now-bare lobby’s niches, all echo the sadness of fantasy gone wrong.

Long ago, oaken trestle tables and faux Persian carpets adorned the grand ground floor space. Residents could enter the restaurant without going outdoors as was the fashion in finer residential hotels in Manhattan and at the St. George in Brooklyn Heights. In the early 1930’s Brooklyn phonebooks listed the dining room as “The Traymore” restaurant, quite possibly named after the apartment house itself when it opened at the end of the roaring 20’s, in a mini-paean of elegance and Anglophilia for the benefit of its all-rightnik predominantly Jewish tenants.

NYC Buildings Department 1944 Floor Plan of the Restaurant
The residents’ porte to the dining room was long-ago changed to a steel door with a peephole; the income from an apartment or two carved out of the grand space having long-outstripped that available from retail rents on a sparsely-trafficked and long-dangerous street.insert pic of apt door to resto space. It’s been many decades since a fire, gas-log or otherwise, burned in the manorial hearth at 99 Ocean. Today the ownership trumpets the appeal of the building to impoverished hipsters and musicians. The New York Times has taken note:

Microwave ovens are now ubiquitous. Jackie’s gone and so are the Dodgers. Perhaps one day, though, greatness will return to the corner of Ocean Avenue and Lincoln Road. But Casseroles of All Nations is dead and gone.

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