A respite in Cambridge

October 10, 2022 • 9:45 am

I’m in Cambridge among old friends, and October has come again, has come again. All of the bright and bitter leaves, flare up; the maples turn a blazing bitter red, and other leaves turn yellow like a living light.

For old times’ sake, I took a walk down Massachusetts Avenue towards Harvard Square yesterday, though we didn’t quite make the Square due to the press of time. I was also waylaid by a new Indian/Asian grocery store nearby, which turns out to be fantastic. It’s even better than the big Indian grocery stores on Devon Avenue in Chicago, though it looks unprepossessing from the outside:

They had white eggplants, which I’d never seen before:

. . . and big jackfruits beside baby bananas. (Jackfruit is wonderful if you can get hold of a ripe one.)

Tons of chutney:

And the Muslim equivalent of Spam®. In the U.S. it’s made of pork shoulder,  but of course pork isn’t kosher for Muslims, so we have beef Spam-equivalent:

Look at all the different kinds of rice!

On the way to Harvard Square, we ran into HONK!, an annual three-day festival of “activist street bands,” full of, well, activist street bands, as well as jugglers, dancers, and immigrants who now live here, sporting their national finery. It’s quite a show, and tells you why the government should designate Cambridge (as well as Berkeley and Portland) as National Cultural Preserves.

Some scenes from HONK!

A rent-activist street band:

I’m not sure what nationalities are indicated by the costumes in the next two photos. Perhaps readers can help.

The old Art Deco Sears building in Porter Square was built in 1928, It went out of business years ago, became an Asian food court, and in 1994 became part of Lesley University.

We stopped for a minute to visit my friend Andrew Berry, who has often featured in these pages. He teaches evolution and also advises biology students at Harvard, and in the few minutes we visited he managed, as Brits do, to jokingly insult me several times. At least I hope he was joking. One never knows with Brits!

Just a block away is a landmark for movie buffs: the Oxford Laundry and Dry Cleaning emporium, where you do your own washing.

Why is it famous? Because of this 1970 movie:

From the link:

[The laundry] was best known for its cameo in the blockbuster “Love Story,” based on Harvard graduate Erich Segal’s tale of star-crossed love between rich and poor Harvard and Radcliffe students. Some of the movie’s key scenes were shot at Harvard and in the Baldwin neighborhood – including at 104 Oxford, then the Gold Star Laundry. Segal’s novel spent more than a year on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list; the film went on to break 1970s box office records and get seven Academy Award nominations, winning the Oscar for Best Original Score.

The movie was pretty sappy, as I recall, though I haven’t seen it in decades. It starred Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal as two Harvard students who meet in the laundromat, fall in love, get married, and she dies (of leukemia, as I recall). It’s a real tear-jerker, and the iconic phrase “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” comes from the film. Here’s the 50th anniversary trailer that features the famous phrase:

Inside the laundry:

It was at the pet store below, in 1975 or so, that I. bought a baby skunk whom I named Pinkus after my father’s college roommate, Irving Pinkus (it was a Jewish fraternity). I had Pinkus the Skunk for seven years or so before he died. The pet store is still there.

Last night I took my friends to dinner at this old favorite, a Mexican-American restaurant on the Cambridge-Somerville border. The menu is here.

You can’t eat there without starting with “Guacamole en molcajete”, guacamole prepared tableside with (and served in) a mortar and pestle:

A good starter with chips:

. . . and a pitcher of their spicy mango margaritas, which were quite spicy. They didn’t stint on the tequila, so we were a bit tipsy after dinner.

Tacos baja: “beer-battered fish with jicama slaw, cilantro-garlic aioli, and sesame seeds:

Pescado a la Veracruzana: “pan-seared seasonal fish with chunk tomatoes, green olives, and capers. Served with Mexican rice, grilled lemon, and steamed vegetables.”

And my go-to choice to judge a Mexican restaurant: Chilies rellenos, “roasted poblano peppers served with plantains, creme and ranchero sauce, and Mexican rice. stuffed with cheese and pork.  They had duck breast en mole, but I find myself unable to eat duck any more .

21 thoughts on “A respite in Cambridge

  1. I do miss the Fall colors. Ian brought in noticeably temperate weather. It’s cooler and less humid here than it’s been for October in a long time. Definitely feels like Fall, but no colors.

  2. Jerry, you’ll appreciate that Betsy & Tim took me to see Love Story at a drive-in in Galax (near Fries) & they made fun of the movie the entire time (I’m talking snort laughing) & also made fun of me for crying! I was 15 or16 at the time. I still give them a hard time about this.

    1. Hi Margaret–long time no see! Thanks for the anecdote; you may know that I’m staying at Tim and Betsy’s right now for a few days. I’ll be sure to convey what you’ve said and give them an additional hard time for their heartlessness!

      1. Wonderful!!! I love it!
        I did know that you were visiting them. Betsy & I texted last night- she said the dinner at your Mexican restaurant was incredible. Take good care, Jerry.

    2. There are hard truths in life, Margaret. And better one should learn them about a sappy picture like Love Story in the privacy of an automobile at a drive-in theater in one’s mid-teens. You should thank your sister & brother-in-law. 🙂

      1. Ken, I think you are right. And of course, I am just as hardened as my sister & brother-in-law now. I secretly delighted in being such fodder for them in my teen queen years. I loved making them laugh & I was good at it! I still am!

    3. Hi Margaret. Goood to meet you. I knew your sister and brother-in-law through undergrad years and was at their wedding. Maybe I can see Tim doing this, but never sweet Betsy…never ever!

      1. Ha! I was such a bratty little sister, it is a wonder I lived to be 16! Nice to meet you, too, Jim!

  3. I do like that grocery! I’ve always enjoyed curries, and have missed having such a choice of Indian takeaways and restaurants since moving to Nova Scotia. So I did the proper thing, and learned to do it myself. I recommend reading Rick Stein’s
    India and Lizzie Collingham’s Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors.

  4. Bangladeshi, American, Indian and Pakistani Groceries … The U.S. really is the world’s smelting pot indeed.

  5. I loved my time in Cambridge. It was an amazing combination of cosmopolitan and parochial. You had all kinds of worldly intellectuals coming through to lecture at Harvard and MIT and, at the same time, you had the cultures and flavors of both old New England and the Boston area working class. My first year in graduate school, I lived on Kirkland Street on the third floor of a laundromat ($62.50 per month for my share of the rent). Seven minutes walking distance away were the Harvard Science Center and the MCZ where I worked. One minute away was the border with Somerville. Studley’s bar was on the corner across from my building (police had to show up every weekend at closing time). Savenors market was two buildings away from where I lived. They had hippo and lion meat for sale (IIRC). Sometimes I would go there just to see the exotica. I doubts that’s the case today. 🙂

  6. … of course pork isn’t kosher for Muslims …

    I hear it’s not halal for Jews who observe Kashrut, either. 🙂

  7. The ladies in the silver dresses are Filipino. NAFFAA, as written on their sashes, is an acronym. It stands for the National Federation of Filipino American Associations. As for the other picture I am not sure. Montserrat has tartan in its national dress, but it is in the caribbean rather than the Asia pacific region. I did some googling, but could not find an Asian or Pacific Island nation with any similar national dress.

  8. Thanks for that great portfolio of photos.

    It’s interesting, and I think heartening, to see the increase in the number of ‘ethnic’ stores (for want of a better term). The town where I live in England has become almost a byword for stuffy conservatism (quite unjustly, I should add). We have had one predominantly Asian foodstore in town for some years. Now we have four, which between them stock West Indian and African goods as well as Asian. They’re all thriving, and it’s clearly not because they depend on customers from their own community. Let a thousand spices bloom!

    PS: we also have a couple of great Italian stores. They’re thriving too.

  9. Thanks for the trip down memory lane. My first apartment when I moved from Greece to Cambridge in 1974 was on Oxford Street, from which I walked through Harvard Yard to my job at the Harvard Book Store. I later moved to 123 Elm Street in Somerville (right behind the Star Market), where the rents went down and the wallpaper went up.

  10. 1957-58, lived on Green Street, shared an unheated apartment for $35 a month. We went to visit friends to get a shower. Though we could heat water on the stove. And we cycled to MIT, where we changed from slacks to acceptable female attire.

  11. I’d be there now, if I could afford it. My last apartment was the size of my current living room here in Buffalo. & that was in Lowell. But I could take the commuter train to Boston & then go to Harvard Yard. Man, I loved it there!

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