Here is some advice about when to get to the Hester Street Fair: Don’t get there too late. Also, don’t get there too early.
On a nice day the fair will be most crowded from midday until 3pm: you may have to spend some time waiting in line for the most popular foods, and then fight for room at one of the few wooden tables set up at the back of the market. But after some experimentation I can say without a doubt 12-3pm is the best time to be there. Here is why.
Ever since moving into the neighbourhood (Chinatown/LES) last October I have been waiting for the fair (which runs only over the Summer – something I was saddened to discover) to start up again. Last weekend was the first fair of the season and, realizing this rather late in the day, we rushed over at 5pm (an hour before it shuts up). It was beautiful weather, so the little stall-lined stretch to the side of Steward Park was packed, and many of the greater attractions were running low on supplies. Luke’s Lobster had completely closed up for the day, and the majority of stalls had sad-looking lines drawn through most of the items on their menus. Fewer than half the stalls are food stalls, but this is very much a food-driven market. Having your options limited does force you to discover new things (this time it was the edamame bao by Bruce Cost, which is so good I am constantly checking to see if they have started to sell these dumplings in stores around the city yet – they are apparently gearing up for sale on Fresh Direct pretty soon). But what foodie wants to be told that they are sold out of nearly everything?
So yesterday morning I thought I had it figured – we would get in at 10am, just as it opened, and have our pick of the lot with presumably much shorter lines. While some places were up and running by the time we got there, many were not yet fully set up and others hadn’t even arrived (unfortunately those mainly being the ones we had particularly wanted to try on account of their being the first to be sold out last week). The fair is not big enough to entertain you for a decent length of time if you are not engaged in the act of eating, so a good deal of our morning was spent hanging around waiting for certain stands to start serving food, and trying the occasional free sample (we tried some seriously good “Peanut Butter Pitt Bull” chocolate from Rescue Chocolate who amazingly donate 100% of their net profits to animal rescue).
Our rather desperate desire for a coffee before we embarked on any serious eating led to our hanging around Wonder City Coffee & Donut Bar who were unfortunately having difficulty with their burners meaning the first batch of hot coffees (they did have iced coffee available) were not made until around 11am. While waiting, trying to will the kettle to heat up using only the power of our staring eyes, we sampled their donught holes with home-made caramel sauce. They were cheap (five for $2), light, crispy and delicious.
Unfortunately, after our long wait, and possibly due to the extra pressure we were putting on them to get coffee into our hands as soon as humanly possible, the coffee, which was otherwise very good (made using drop filters set up in a row at the front of the stall), was disappointingly cold. But we sat down at a bench and tried to appreciate it anyway while keeping a close eye on the lobster stall so we could be the first there as soon as it got up and running (which didn’t end up being until more like 11:45am).
The culinary highlight of the fair is Luke’s Lobster. As soon as the lobster stand looked like it was finally about to serve, half the snippits of conversation I overheard included the word ‘lobster’. While they also serve shrimp rolls and crab rolls, it is the lobster rolls, by far the most expensive food item at the fair, that are the highlight ($8 for a half roll that is very small, $15 for the full roll, pictured above). Soft buns brushed with butter are lightly toasted, spread with a little mayonaise and very generously filled with fresh (cold) lobster, which is covered in melted butter and lightly sprinkled with “secret spices”.
I must admit, I did feel some slight hesitation at ordering lobster after setting David Foster Wallace’s fantastic article “Consider the Lobster” for my ethics class the other week. “Consider the Lobster”, written for Gourmet Magazine in 2004, documents Foster Wallace’s visit to the Maine Lobster Festival, and grapples with his uncomfortable feelings surrounding the belief that boiling lobsters alive inflicts an incredible amount of pain on them that it is difficult to justify ethically. I underwent something similar – the appreciation of eating something that truly was utterly delicious, but also the feeling that, knowing what I do, I should care more. In class I asked my students why it was that we felt it was ok to torture a lobster but not a human being – what was it that made them relevantly ethically different. One may believe that what is important is an ability to experience pain, but Foster Wallace points out that we have, if anything, good reasons to believe that lobsters are indeed capable of experiencing a lot of pain. Lobsters behave as if they are feeling pain when placed, alive, in boiling water – and isn’t that how we work out that other humans experience pain, by looking at their behaviour?
One student repeatedly asserted a response that was frustraitingly unphilosophical and yet did seem to absolutely capture the reasons we cared less (or not at all) about the suffering of lobsters: They are just lobsters. In terms of rational argument this tells us nothing, it is an argument that cannot hold any weight on its own. And yet, knowing all I know about lobsters, having all the beliefs I do about the suffering of non-human animals, I could not but help weakly trying to justify buying and consuming this red, buttery, soft, salty roll: It’s just a lobster.
Once we had recovered from our lobster binge, we visited the Adirondack Creamery stall for first dessert. This ‘all-natural’, locally produced ice cream (it is apparently made in a dairy less than half an hour from NYC) is sold in small scoops (I think at $2 each, though it could be $3) – see above. We had chocolate chocolate chip, which was rich and bitter-sweet, and their specialty flavour barkeater – vanilia ice cream with swirls of toffee and beautiful crunchy toffee almonds. Blissful – absolutely worth a try.
For final dessert which was eaten in the name of blogging research, we stopped off at Butterlane Cupcakes. The young guys who ran this stall had cheerfully rocked up at around 11:00, proceeded to throw out a handfull of cupcakes that had been damaged getting there (as we looked on and our hearts cried at the terrible waste) and then hung, adorned with baseball caps, behind their stall in a manner that could only be referred to as ‘chilling’. Wanting to share just one cupacke between the two of us, and deciding on the cream cheese frosting (which I just love due to its slightly tart flavour which really complements the sweetness of any good cake), we were told that we could chose between banana which was “awesome” or chocolate which was “also awesome”. We chose banana which was light and moist with the occasional little lump of banana in it – just as it should be. Butterlane are very highly regarded in a city brimming with artisanal cupcake stores, and this was certainly one of, if not the best cupcake I have had here so far.
Our final stop was at Macaron Parlour‘s stall to pick up macarons to bring along to a dinner that evening. The stall is run by Simon Tung, a very charming and cheerful man who someone once described to me as “the best possible ambassador for macarons”. We knew which flavours we wanted due to prior extensive research and testing (passionfruit is the clear winner, followed by pistachio – we also got nutella flavour and red velvet, both of which were very good), and as we bought eight, they were wrapped up beautifully in a lovely little double-layered box (which I then mucked around with to get a nice photo when we got home). As Tung wrapped up our collection, a small boy came running up to the stand calling “I want a macaron!”, and, noting the urgency of the situation, he took a minute out of processing our order to make sure the boy was supplied with his blue maracon (Earl Grey flavour). On more than one previous occasion I have also been given two maracons for the price of one if they have been slightly smaller than usual or have a tiny bit of superficial damage. It is these little features that means that I never fail to leave the fair with at least one maracon in hand.
Hester Street Fair, cnr Hester and Essex Street (NYC). Open every Saturday, 10am-6pm, May-October.