“It has a little bit of espresso in it, is that okay?” Chef Claire Criscuolo of Claire’s Corner Copia is offering me a cup of Hawaiian hot cocoa after our interview, and it’s twenty degrees outside. I’m almost positive hot cocoa isn’t ethnically Hawaiian cuisine, and I’m trying to put my finger on what characteristics would make hot cocoa Hawaiian when Claire says “It comes with chocolate coconut milk, okay?” Okay.
It’s good. Kind of thick and fruity like Swiss Miss’s funky uncle. Claire’s uncle was a law student at Yale. That and her New Haven childhood were the beginning of her connection to the University. Now Claire is an Associate Hopper College fellow and shared that she thinks the residential college system is “fabulous.” When Claire’s Corner Copia opened in 1975, Old Campus was closed and students would tie sheets together to climb out the windows and drink her fruit smoothies.
Claire named one of these smoothies “Ellen’s Ecstacy” after a student — Ellen — who got it every day. Today, one of the store’s billion crafty handwritten signs near the counter is about “Sick Girls tea.” I’m sitting against a pillar decorated with a rusty “cafe open” sign and the store’s kosher dairy certification, and the little “sick girls” label tells me to “Zing in the new year with Ginger, tumeric, blended with a touch of cayenne topped with organic lemon! Optional honey.”
Claire is passionate about zinging. She really likes preventive medicine, and she was a nurse before opening Claire’s Corner Copia. She also says that food was medicine in her family. You got warm olive oil rubbed on your temples if you had a headache and bay leaf tea if you had period cramps. Her grandparents immigrated from the Amalfi Coast, Italy, and she grew up on Wooster Street, where she didn’t do any cooking beyond rolling tiny meatballs and stirring sauce pots but did do a lot of watching and a lot of eating.
Claire’s mother, Anna Bigio LaPia was obsessed with eating “delicious, fresh foods, homemade food, with lots of fruits and vegetables, grains and beans.” “Eat this, it’s good for you” and “We don’t eat foods with ingredients I can’t pronounce” were her mantras.
Today Claire is happy that her mother’s food philosophies are supported by food science. She’s intrigued by the fact that “you can’t change your DNA but you can change the way your cells express themselves,” as she told me. She thinks food science is becoming more influential in what food Claire’s Corner Copia makes, or at least what it believes about the food that it makes. That’s one of the ways the restaurant has changed in the past decade or so.
In fact, Claire and the Corner Copia radiate this kind of food worship, a sort of obsession with the transformative power of human-kneaded bread and homemade yogurt. The part of the counter closer to the door has little quote-bricks on it reminding me that “the best is yet to come,” and then a woman in a navy striped sweater comes across the room with a slice of moist, moist carrot cake smeared with frosting.
The Corner Copia wasn’t always vegetarian, but the original restaurant before Claire and her husband Frank bought it had a caramel corn maker, and as soon as they purchased the store space she took the light out of the bin, added ice and made it a salad bar.
Claire said she and Frank, who was a musician and businessman, opened the restaurant because they really wanted to work together, and that when they human-kneaded their own bread and cooked their own yogurt (is that how you make yogurt? You cook it?) everyone thought they were “a bunch of hippies.” She admits to me at our little table near the kosher dairy certification that yes, she had a Volkswagen and still wears Birkenstocks, and she says this with a smile framed by her black and white tie-on headband that “looks good” on her, according to one of the other brick quotes above the baked goods.
Frank and Claire’s commitment to cooking all their food seemed kind of crazy, but Claire herself didn’t know that pudding out of a box existed until she went to college. Her mom made her Italian creme, chocolate or vanilla and lemonade in the summer, the kind of lemonade “where you squeeze lemons and put water and sugar.”
Claire and her store relish in this spirit of homemade-ness, feed off it, in everything down to the deliciously entertaining little food signs. Each table has a colorful note reminding eaters to bus their own dishes, that “We hope you loved your meal as much as we love you” but the O’s in “love” are hearts. The ketchup bottle is pencil-on-a-notecard labeled “ketchup!” and the exclamation point makes me smile, which is great because the brick quote says that smiles look good on me, too.
About how she and her Corner Copia have changed, Claire says “I worry less than I worried then.” She explains, adding “I was always terrified that I would never have things ready for lunch, then I realized that the world wouldn’t come off the axel if I didn’t have it ready for lunch.” As I’m working on this article my online course selection calendar looks like a Jackson Pollock masterwork and a very small part of me thinks the world is at risk of tripping out into space. She says that her realization “took a long time.”
Now, Claire likes reading, swimming and going to movies. She doesn’t eat all her meals at Claire’s Corner Copia (“Oh no! Goodness no!”) because she likes other restaurants and her close family members all cook well, but when she does eat at Claire’s, her choices are easily swayed by what looks good or what people are ordering. She tells me that if she’s up front and a lot of customers order a cobb salad then she’s thinking “I want a cobb salad,” but in general she’s happy to go for soup, bread, Mexican food, anything Italian and sometimes a falafel.
She does lots of philanthropy in New Haven, like teaching kids to grow fresh foods and cook with them, and wants to start manufacturing to create more local jobs, maybe making the Corner Copia’s chai, Mexican hot cocoa, and even Hawaiian hot cocoa mixes available for sale. She also wants to go to Santa Fe.
The store has a shower curtain covering some electrical equipment, and the print is a loud blue and green rainforest pattern. I notice the brick quote “Be kinder than necessary” while Claire talks about her incredible staff who she loves so much, and how she tasks them with taking extra time with customers if the store seems busy, picking up on cues ranging from a hesitancy to try beets to having a crummy day. “Do you know how hard it is to be a freshman for some of the kids?” She asks me, “It’s lonely and it’s difficult.”
Claire is protective of her homemade-ness, of the community and of the together culture she breathes into her Corner Copia. I ask her about Grubhub, and she says immediately “I don’t feel comfortable yet about other people taking our food to bring it to other people.”
“How are we ever going to respect humanity and love each other if we don’t see each other?” she continued. I think this and the transformative omnipotence of homemade-ness are what she’s about, and what’s stirred into my funky uncle Hawaiian hot cocoa.
Emily Schussheim | firstname.lastname@example.org .