Not So Starving Artists: Katie Boyts on Cozy Corner in Mt. Vernon
This is a story about tuna melts. But actually it’s about my mother, sort of.
Chris is away in Ireland at an artist residency at Burren College of Art at the National University of Ireland. He sent me a sandwich picture – country ham, celeriac slaw, and cheddar on a bap. Funny how some friendships evolve around the most random of topics, like a taco or a sandwich. In Chris’s absence, I invited my friend Richard Gorelick, the former Sun food critic, to the Cozy Corner with me.
Cozy Corner is a small cafe touting “Breakfast, Lunch, and Asian Specialties” right across the street from the Walters Art Museum. Walking down the steps into this near cellar-like spot, I am always immediately hit with with its quiet. Except for the low hum of a fan the space is exquisitely absent of noise. And I like it. There are cafes out there that fill up with the raucous rumble of kitchen staff or the chatter of its many guests or its stylish Pandora station blaring MGMT. Which are all fine, but there’s something pure about Cozy Corner’s commitment to no sound. It is not here to give you a cafe “experience.” It is here to serve you breakfast and lunch.
It’s a one woman (middle-aged, Korean) operation. I live in the neighborhood and occasionally see her walking down Cathedral Street. Her name is Bokhee. She tells me to call her Kim. She walks slowly, not with the urgent, frenetic pace of most chefs, and I often wonder about her. Maybe she doesn’t play music because maybe she doesn’t like music. Or maybe she listens exclusively to Bruce Springsteen and she knows her guests wouldn’t really like that. So she just leaves the music off. Maybe.
Sticking to the sandwich side of the menu (this is a sandwich column afterall) Richard and I ordered the chicken salad, the tuna melt, and two ginger iced teas. All of which arrived in the most classic versions of themselves, sans side. We discussed toaster ovens and careers and how much we liked this little tucked-away spot.
The chicken salad had no delusions of grandeur but was lovely and substantial with crisp lettuce and ripe tomato. The ginger iced tea was cloying but cold. The tuna melt came open-faced and warm, on an English muffin with perfectly-seasoned tuna salad and a square slice of melted American cheese. That’s all. If you’re waiting for more descriptors… Insert cricket noise here. Much like the absence of music, you don’t get noise. Just the tasty tuna melt you asked for. I went back one morning to try the egg sandwich. This too was deliciously quiet and nourishing. Wheat toast, ham, egg cooked over-medium, and a slice of American cheese.
After a bit of research, I saw it. There in the comments, reviews, and our conversations, a distinctly maternal theme emerged: Cozy Corner food reminds us of our mothers. This is the tuna melt your mother would make.
On one of my visits a young woman, I would guess about 20 years old, came in with an older couple and sat at the table across from me. She looked like a student, and I imagined she was starting Peabody. Probably violin. And here were her parents, in the last week of August, helping her move to the big city and find a decent spot for the necessary student diet of egg sandwiches and coffee. I listened to them talk through a Baltimore guide and order breakfast. I watched Kim walk out with her maternal aura following close behind, doing the job of easing all parental anxieties. She wore a blue floral print apron and a welcoming smile. All that, with the warm cadence in her voice, told them, “I’ll take care of her. It’s safe here.”
My mother was always in the kitchen when we were growing up, although she didn’t wear an apron like Kim. Our food was a special kind of idyllic where we all sat around the table at dinnertime over the most American of meals she had prepared – hamburgers, taco salad, spaghetti, various casseroles. In the morning she would send us on our way with the most American of lunches. My favorite: a peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich with a bag of cheetos, a crisp dill pickle, an oatmeal cream pie and a carton of milk. Somewhere in that flavor and texture combination the sweet spot sits. Probably it has nothing to do with the cheetos or jelly and more to do with how my palate connects those things to a special human connection.
There are days as a child, in all your young emotional intensity, that you need that lunch from your mom. Maybe last night you didn’t sleep and the other children’s eyes are like daggers and your throat feels full of pennies. Maybe all is unfamiliar and not so safe. And so, maybe a single white plate with a warm tuna melt or the unwrapping of a peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich is just… absolutely everything. Because it came from a mother, yours or someone else’s.
I buy tuna. I make tuna salad. I put boiled eggs in it and just a bit of mayo. In an act of desperate hunger, I once made an omelet w/ tuna and taco seasoning. It was surprisingly delicious and exoctic. But it is never quite the same as when someone else makes it. It never quite hits the spot as when my mom, err I mean Kim, makes it.
And I like egg salad but never eat it for some reason. Despite my enjoyment of it, egg salad mostly just intrigues me… Who eats egg salad on a regular basis? I would love to meet you and talk with you. What motivates you? What do you eat for breakfast? Coffee or tea? You don’t have trust issues, do you?
To these questions, from Ireland, Chris wrote me: “I eat egg salad on a regular basis- it happened when I was a vegetarian, I could order it in a deli. Then in grad school it was cheap and easy. I like mine with hot tea (Irish breakfast with milk and sugar). Breakfast is all over the place, typically with someone else though- I like breakfast with people, food varies. Coffee in the morning, tea all day. I don’t think I have trust issues, more commitment issues…..”
So I’ll go back to Cozy Corner for the egg salad. I think I’m getting over my trust issues. Moms can sometimes help with that.
Author Katie Boyts is a pastry chef with a love of affordable carbs and the host of the Baltimore chapter of CreativeMornings.
*All photos by Katie Boyts
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