Have you ever smelled or tasted food that brings back warm memories? That’s how I feel about the food of Ithaca –– it’s a place where people put their love, life stories and history onto a plate.
I’ve been a resident of Ithaca for the past three-and-a-half years: first, as a student at Cornell University, and now as a new Food, Drink and Culture reporter clutching onto a fresh diploma. In this new role, I want to pay homage to the people and places who have nourished my body during my tumultuous undergrad and, now official, adult life. This is my love letter to them.
In the following months, I hope to create relationships with restaurateurs new and old, grocers, agricultural workers and other people who are a part of the Ithaca food and drink scene through narrative storytelling, so that the Ithaca community can better know about the hard work and care put into the meals they eat.
Come with me down memory lane as I go through the seasons of my favorite Ithaca comfort foods: waffles, soul food and Indian cuisine. Welcome to the first-ever “Caroline Eats!” column.
Waffle Frolic: A weekend spring brunch worth the wait
When I think of spring, the welcoming smell of Waffle Frolic’s food comes to mind. It’s 2021, the waterfalls have thawed, the flowers have started to bud and my parents are visiting for the weekend.
We sit at my small gray dining table, stomachs rumbling, doing our usual routine of bickering and going in circles to decide on food. It goes: Dad asks me what I want, I ask Mom what she wants and she replies, “I’ll have whatever you guys want.” What can possibly satisfy such an indecisive family’s concerns in that hazy window between morning and noon?
I consult my dear friend Google and stumble upon Waffle Frolic, a place that has been recommended to me for about two and a half years, but I never visited. The menu is divided into savory and sweet waffles, veggie options, cornbread batter and breakfast sandwiches. Aha! A brunch place that can satisfy everyone’s cravings.
Our order reflects our unspoken agreement to order different items so we can try out as many things on the menu as possible: a “Hangover Sammie” (a bacon, egg and turkey sausage sandwich), “Chicken and Waffles” and a “Mr.Popular” (waffles with strawberries, Nutella and whip cream).
When I enter the establishment for the first time ever, the warm smell of waffles, the buzz and chatter of its patrons, and the smiling eyes of its Waffle Frolic’s employees greet me. I’m quite an awkward person who fumbles and struggles with maneuvering in busy places, but the welcoming ambiance helps me.
There I am, swinging the bag of our food all the way home, waiting to open it up. And when I do, my mouth waters. Imagine. Sweet, savory and a mild spice, all in one place.
The “Hangover Sammie” is a cornbread batter waffle (which I’ve never had in my life) as the sandwich patties, cheddar cheese, crispy pieces of bacon, turkey sausage and Maple Hot Sauce blend together to make the perfect balance on my tastebuds. The “Chicken and Waffles,” a staple to my brunch outings, do the job. The sweet, decadent Nutella and strawberries on the “Mr. Popular” waffles melt effortlessly.
If you want a place that will fill your belly, provide a great assortment of flavors to share with your friends and family and bring you to a sleepy haze or an invigorating start with a cup of coffee to balance it out, I recommend stopping here. My one piece of advice –– eat as soon as you get it so you can enjoy the warmth and non-mushy structure of a fresh waffle.
Open from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on weekends and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. from Wednesday to Friday at the Ithaca Commons, 146 E. State St., Waffle Frolic does not disappoint.
Soul of the South Cooking: A memorable summertime ‘soulful experience’
When I think of summertime, I think of sharing lunch in 2018 with friends, new and old. Sun beating down on our skin in the summer prior to my first official year at Cornell, I take solace in the coolness of one of the campus buildings. Slick with sweat and stressed with schoolwork, it comes to great relief when a fellow student in my summer program invites me to a late lunch with two other people.
His name, William Henderson, a chef whose food would continue to grow in breadth, flavor and scale.
At a wooden table, he sets down a classic southern meal: collard greens, fried chicken, mac and cheese and candied yams, which I later came to find out in a recent interview I had with him is his favorite meal to prepare. On a single plate, the sweet, savory, grounding flavors blend seamlessly and wholly.
“It’s a bunch of steps, but when you put them on the plate together, it just makes it so perfect,” Henderson said, when I asked him about his favorite meal. “It’s like magic.”
After weeks of meals from the dining hall that summer, having home-cooked food by the hands of a person who placed their love into a plate was a true joy and a warm memory that lives with me to this day.
That meal reflected his years of cooking experience –– a journey that began all the way back to when he was tall enough to reach the cabinets of his kitchen in the Kentucky suburbs. “My parents didn’t want me to watch a lot of cartoons when I was younger. so instead what I always ended up watching was the Food Network.”
Although he graduated in December from Cornell University and is currently expanding his clientele in New York City, Ithaca provided a place to expand his palate (when he started catering for Caribbean and African student organization events), his consumer base and resources so that he could further channel his passion into the meals he curates.
“It’s a soulful experience,” he said about his food. “It’s not just the food that’s sitting on the plate. It’s the hours of work that came behind it. So, when you get a bit of it, you’re gonna understand that the flavor. Everything is so much more complex than just the visuals.”
While he is growing his clientele in New York City in hopes of one day establishing a storefront in Atlanta, he will be returning to Ithaca in March with meal prep plans available and large catering events (for groups of 12 or plus people). If you’re looking for a taste of the South or want to eat a meal prepared by a brilliant chef who offers a range of foods, including vegan options, visit Henderson’s Instagram to make an order.
Sangam Indian Cuisine: Dinner on Eddy Street in fall and winter
When I think of my comfort dinners in the fall and winter, I think of a warm, colorful plate of chicken tikka masala, garlic naan and vegetable samosas on a Friday night. The place that comes to mind is Sangam Indian Cuisine at 424 Eddy St. –– the same restaurant that nourished my friends and me in the aftermath of a massive snowstorm in 2019.
Across from Cascadilla Hall on Cornell’s campus, the restaurant sits next to a deli.
With frigid temperatures outside, the brisk breeze from the aftermath of an Ithaca snowstorm, two of my best friends who lived on the same floor as me my sophomore year sit dumbfounded. The dining halls are too far in the frigid temperatures, our brains are scrambled from being cooped inside all day and our taste buds crave something that can brighten our mood with its flavor and love. The answer is Sangam.
In the warmth of the restaurant and mixture of overlapping flavorful scents, we sit near the window and watch cars pass by slowly, the cold wind dusts snow through the air and people wrap in bundles as we share the warm food before us. The garlic naan is for the garlic lovers, the chicken tikka masala is a welcoming reddish-orange delight tender to bite and the vegetable samosas crunches beautifully.
Now, every other Friday evening I order to enjoy this wonderful meal.
Their restaurant is open from 11:30 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. and 5:30 to 10 p.m. every day, now available for takeout and delivery.
Now, it’s your turn
Thank you to all of these places and people for being there when I needed them most!
What’re your favorites? What meals remind you of different seasons? Where would you like me to try out? I’m excited to hear from you all and explore your comfort foods.