Friday, December 14, 2012

Ghosts of Albany's Christmas Past

My own little family's first 2 kid Xmas tree.

I am 32 years old. I spent my early childhood in the City of Albany, moved to McKownville (the bit of Guilderland that is almost in Albany) when I was 8, and have been residing in Delmar for the past four years. I just recently purchased a home in "Olde Delmar" which I insist on pronouncing "Old-uh Delmar." That is all to say that I have spent the majority of my mortal years within less than 10 miles of the center of the City of Albany.

As we are within 12 days of Christmas, last night it occurred to me to try to count the Christmas' that I have spent within the warm, comforting confines of Albany County. I have been lucky in regards to Xmas. You see, I am a ramblin' man. I have been taken away from my beloved home for extended periods of time for various reasons throughout my life. However, I always seem to be lucky in regards to coming home for Xmas. I think the year that I ate some takeout Bulgogi by myself in a hotel in Southern Arizona is the only time I have actually missed an Albany County Xmas.

Thanksgiving is another matter... I have spent no end of Thanksgivings in strange places in this country and abroad. I have been forced to eat icky, sweet cornbread stuffing down south and all sorts of other travesties in odd nooks and crannies of the world. Heck, I ate a can of Chef Boyardee in a dusty trailer in Mesopotamia to avoid the dinner line once... I do recall a nice thanksgiving that Mrs. Dave and I had at a Western Sizzler outside of Oklahoma City some years back. We marveled at some frightfully green form of pistachio pudding dessert that they sold and just had a good time of it. That was a tough period in our lives where I was away for long stretches but we made it through. We are hearty stock.

As I think back, I do believe that I have spent 31 of my 32 Christmas Holiday seasons in Albany County. There may have been some excursions down to Long Island to visit my Grandparents for the Eve or Xmas dinner, but the majority of my Xmas' were spent right here in my hardscrabble Albany County homeland.

I was thinking back over all of these years and holidays and reminiscing about times gone by. There are so many memories of faces that are now forever gone, moments that will never come again, my child self's glee at piles of presents. I see the much younger faces of my parents joyful at providing me with the bounty that all their hard work could provide on Xmas morning (Ma, Dad... You don't know that I write this blog, but that time you got me all the Star Wars stuff? I think about that almost everyday). If you want to get me started on these more personal sorts of memories then catch me out at a bar and buy me a couple belts of something strong. I will stop here on this forum.

This blog is a blog about the wonderful foods and experiences to be had in Upstate NY (mostly Albany County a lot of the time, that is where my heart tree grows I guess) so I thought I would stay on subject. I am calling this post "The Ghosts of Albany's Xmas Past" and am going to try to resurrect some memories of all the long forgotten taste memories of the past. It is good to remember sometimes... The following are just some odd bits and ends that came to mind.

-Who remembers when there was a Hot Dog Charlie's in the food court at Crossgates Mall? Remember when the food court had those booths with the high divider sorts of things? I threw up Mountain Dew in one once when I was small... Anyway, I didn't have the taste for my beloved Capital Region style hot dog meat sauce back then (or mustard, or onions). I would get 3 mini-dogs with luscious, bright yellow cheese sauce. This was my undisputed favorite food as a kid. This is what bound me forever to the glorious small dogs of my home. Luckily there are still Hot Dog Charlie's locations around, but not my Hot Dog Charlie's location.

-Who remembers the Mike's NEBA that was on the corner of Central and Colvin? I think there is a Valvoline oil change place there. I think they had some awesome primary colored signage... Of course the places main trade was in one our indigenous sandwichs, i.e. the eponymous NEBA (this is its own story, read more here). I didn't give a hoot about roast beef sandwichs with horseradish sauce back as a kid. What I remember most about that Mike's NEBA is the icy cool feeling of a real deal slush puppy sipped through a straw on a summers day walk to Westland Hills park. I loved green or blue if I remember correctly. I remember once, I was probably 6, trying to throw a rock across Colvin Ave. and failing. I hit an old lady's car and she was none too pleased...

-Who remembers the Chinese restaurant that was on Madison Ave. (I think Junior's is there now)? I think it was called Hunan and the owner was Charley Chow if I remember correctly? This was my neighborhood way back when and my parents would take the the sis and I here all of the time. It was one of my earliest experiences with the cuisine of the world. I have vivid memories of fighting it out with my sister over pieces of meat in the family style dish of pepper steak... I think some of the staff of this place later opened the Dumpling House (also now shuttered) over on Everett Road. That was probably the best Chinese in the area during its heyday.

-Who remembers when there was that penny candy store on Ontario Street right near where it runs into Washington Ave.? This was probably there in the 80's as my memories of it are very hazy. I remember pointing into a glass case filled with small cardboard boxes of ribbon candy, sixlets, Necco wafers, Bazooka Joe, wax candy, and endless other delightful things. An elderly gentlemen would put your choices in a little brown paper bags. The happiness I felt during my visits to that place (I don't even remember what it was called) was indescribable. If I had a million bucks I would build a penny candy store to the old standards just so my kids could have that experience. Just once.

-Who remembers the old ice cream shop (I think it was an ice cream shop) that was next to the Madison Theater? That is where I tasted my first chocolate malt. It was just a sip of my dad's, but I still remember it to this day. It was a taste revelation and instilled a lifelong mania for all things malted. Heck I would drink a Carnation malted milk if you gave it to me right now... Also, I still remember seeing ET for the first time at the Madison. Remember when they switched the sign to the "Norma Jean" nonsense and then it got struck by lightning? Maybe that is a legend, I don't know.

-Who remembers Emil Meister's Market on Ontario Street? Capital Q is there now. I remember my dad bringing us there during the summer. You would know you were there because of the creepy mural on the building. You know what I mean. My dad would always get a big box of hot dogs. I thought of them as the "snappy" dogs because they had natural casings which were a departure from the usual cheese filled, skinless, Ballpark dogs I fancied back then. I don't know what we would do for a good German butcher shop these days if we weren't blessed with Rolf's.

-Anyone remember when the Picottes used to throw a holiday party at the Egg? There would be a staggering amount of food and snacks and then you would see a play... I think the family and I went about three times over the years. I don't really remember why these parties were held or why we went, but it sticks out as a happy memory so I thought I would see if anyone else ever attended.

In any event, I am done blathering. Sorry to confront you with this enormous wall of text, but I thought I might preserve some of these memories for posterity lest I get hit by a bus or something.

One last thing. Remember when it used to snow around here? Like, all winter. Sometimes from October until April. Winter and snow were inextricably tied together for the length of my Albany childhood. The past couple years have necessitated a paradigm shift in how I view the Xmas season and winter in general. The stodgy stoutness with which we faced the bitter cold temperature and mounds of snow is something we base a bit of our identity upon around here. Will this change in weather patterns make us soft? I just don't know...

Anyhow, I have recorded here some ghosts of the past. Enough on all of that, it is time for me (and you) to busy ourselves with the present and future holiday seasons. It is my mission to give my children all sorts of happy memories that tie them forever to their home and hearth. I hope that one day beautiful Giblet and the adventurous Mr. Dave Jr. will be recording their musings on some future blog (hopefully better than this one). They will probably write about ice cream at Stewart's or about those funny little hot dogs that dear old dad used to get so excited for...

Best wishes to you and yours this year, whatever holiday you may celebrate. I wish happiness and unending good fortune for you in the coming year. I wish your larder to always be full of bacon (or turkey bacon), your spouse to be always good natured, and your children's cheeks to always be rosy! Drink deeply of your egg nog!

Oh yeah, here is last years sappy Christmas post - An Albany Holiday Story.

P.S. Hope with me for some cheery old snow too...


  1. Great blog with fun observations! I had to comment that the Twelve Days of Christmas actually begin on Christmas Day and run thru Epiphany (when the Three Wise Men first made it to the manger), on January 6th. All the days leading up to Christmas are just the Christmas "shopping' season. Christmastide with all it's associated feasting and fun isn't meant to start until the 25th....and last thru the Twelve Days of Christmas.

  2. I too lament the lack of snow we've been having of late.


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