Like many, I grew up in a largely Jewish, suburban neighborhood. Yes, it was on Long Island. And yes, there were multiple all-kosher grocery stores, each stocked with a wide array of produce and countless packaged products. When I moved to the Heights two years ago, it was difficult to shlep food from home. But how would I survive without my Persian cucumbers and seasonal fruit year-round?
Turns out, the local bodegas and fruit stands in Washington Heights make for a pretty sweet shopping experience. Shopping here is nothing like shopping in Great Neck or Teaneck or the Five Towns, but I've learned to make it a fun, exciting experience, and I think you can too.
For one, Washington Heights is home to a host of diverse communities, including a large Dominican community and different Jewish groups. Frequenting local establishments helps maintain a friendly, neighborly dynamic and creates a more pleasant neighborhood. When we integrate into the community, we help develop a culture where we are not perceived as “others”. A strong sense of community between YU and the rest of the Washington Heights neighborhood benefits all of us.
By participating in this community, I’ve learned that Dominican culture is fun and warm. A couple of months ago, I saw a fruit vendor selling little berries I did not recognize (and I eat fruits my friends didn't even know existed). I asked what they were, and he offered me a taste. He even laughed and let me off the hook when I made a grossed-out face after realizing the little berries were filled with slimy fruit goop. The local vendors are fun, inviting, and love sharing their culture with us. Those with Sephardic parents or grandparents may see some similarities in character and cuisine between the Dominican population and what they're used to back at home, and everyone with a Jewish mother can appreciate the motherly care an elderly Dominican woman provides when she sees that you don't know how to pick fruit properly.
Not only does local shopping benefit us as shoppers and neighbors, it also supports local businesses, which is always a good thing to do. So go ahead, and shop at the corner store for your favorite cereal or the oranges on sale. I highly recommend the fruit shop on the corner of St. Nicholas and 183rd. The sidewalk is lined with barrels of fresh wonders. You can't miss it.
Still, even the larger produce shops don’t always carry the fruits we are familiar with. We're used to supermarkets having everything we need in one place. I have a friend who has been complaining about not finding pears in any Washington Heights fruit markets. When I explained that they simply were not in season, he told me that the supermarket by his parents' house always had two or three pear varieties available. That's not how it works here in the Heights, or almost anywhere else. Produce is largely seasonal. It can be inconvenient, but it's also an adventure. When I shop for fresh produce on Erev Shabbat, I know exactly which shops have the freshest greens, which have the good fruits, and which sell those funky cactus leaves for the best price. It's not a one-stop-shop if you're shopping for a variety of products, but it's an experience that many of us were not accustomed to growing up, and it's nice to try shopping a bit differently.
Shopping locally also helps save money. Some local shops have slightly higher prices to help pay their rent and make ends meet. Nevertheless, there are tons of fairly priced products sold in bodegas and produce stores on St. Nicholas and Audubon Ave, and they often beat the prices at larger chain stores. It goes without saying that chopping up and throwing together your own homemade salad is not only more delicious than a pre-made salad you buy in a shop, but it also makes a lot more financial sense. If you've seen me around campus, you've definitely caught me walking around with a baggie of kale or a tupperware container filled with leaves and cucumbers and all sorts of other stuff. So join the fun! Catch me at one of the local Washington Heights shops and I'll show you around.
Photo Caption: A local fruit market
Photo Credit: Clem Onojeghuo / Unsplash