You can describe it as the smell of an overused litter box, a pile of rotting cheese or any Upper East Side sidewalk on a Friday night at 2 am. But regardless of how you sniff it, our neighborhood, notably on Hicks Street between Montague and Pierrepont streets, stinks thanks to the gingko.
But like a well-aged French Camembert, the stench doesn’t tell the whole story.
Yes, the massive gingko biloba trees are the root cause of the smell.
It may have rubbery fanlike leaves and a striking canopy, but it drops globular stink bombs (its fruitlike seed pods, sometimes called nuts), onto the street. Pedestrians then end up smashing the pods into the concrete and releasing their stench.
“Unlike human beings, with gingkos, it’s the female of the species that has the nuts,” joked Brooklyn’s star horticulturist, Wildman Steve Brill, who leads gingko-picking expeditions in the borough. And with the gingko trees currently at their seasonal peak, there is no better time to pick their fruit.
It may sound disgusting, but if you’re willing to plug your nose and don some rubber gloves, the vomit-inducing nut is a culinary delight. The gloves are to protect your hands from the potential rash that the fruit is known to cause. The nose plug, well, no explanation is needed.
Once you’ve removed the seeds, carefully shell the nuts as not to smash them, and toast in a hot skillet, or in a 350-degree oven. Add some sea salt and voila, you have an addictive and classic Japanese bar snack straight from the streets.
Brill loves the nut for its cheesy undertones, making it his favorite ingredient for vegan cheese salad dressing. Just blend it with oil, vinegar and mellow miso for a creamy vegetable topping.
You may have already eaten the gingko without knowing it.
It’s commonly used in Asian soup, stuffing, stir-fry, and desserts. You can even pick up canned or dried ginkgo nuts in most Asian grocery stores.
If you don’t have a chance to roast your first gingko nuts this fall, don’t despair. They’ve been around since the age of the dinosaurs, so it’s likely they are here to stay.
“Gingkos are good for planting in urban areas because they are so hearty,” said landscape architect Stephanie Stillman. “They are pretty much resistant to pollution and pests.”
Not surprisingly, the ginkgo is one of the top 10 street trees in the city, according to the Parks and Recreation Department.
“We try to plant male trees, which do not bare fruit,” said Stillman. “But often you can’t determine the sex until it’s too late.”
And that’s when we get to enjoy the smell that, according to Brill, once repelled dinosaurs.
So next time you’re strolling down Hicks Street and you start to accuse that guy walking the dog ahead of you of not picking up after his mutt, remember the gingko nut.
Now if only we could find something delicious inside the Gowanus Canal.
Juliana Bunim is a writer who lives in Brooklyn Heights.
The Kitchen Sink
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