The following post first appeared in my newsletter, America Eats! Hope you enjoy it and will leap over to read more.
It is not always a welcoming sight to come upon a swarm of motorcycle riders. The formation appears to stretch for miles, clogging a narrow parkway known for tight curves and rarely obeyed speed limits. There they are, some riders veering close enough to read ‘Yonkers MC-NY’ patched in blue and white across leathered backs, their helmets and mirrored visors glinting in the Sunday morning sun. Everyone climbs together up into the hills and through the tight streets of Yonkers with hairpin bends and then, in one graceful chorographic swoop, down to the banks of the Hudson River. They park in neat long rows and dismount, walking as one towards the riverside marina where just by arriving in one piece they’ve raised a bit over $50,000 for one of their favorite charities.
Keith May, Cambridge educated and now the Yonkers Motorcycle Club’s resident historian, enumerates all the evidence he’s uncovered over the last decade to prove the club, established 118 years ago, is the oldest in the country.
“It’s all about this guy, George Ellis,” he says and holds up a book jammed with his research. The cover is a portrait of a proper businessman—wire-rimmed glasses, starch collar shirt and tie, fountain pen and handkerchief poking from the breast pocket of a double-vested suit jacket. Known in the Yonkers Bicycle Club for his love of speed and distant rides, Ellis was among the first in the club to attach a motor to his bike so he could go even faster and farther. He formed the club in 1903 and quickly distinguished it by creating a slew of competitions whose routes took riders over state lines and up into Canada on barely paved roads and on bikes that lacked suspension. Vice President Calvin Coolidge enlisted Ellis to be his personal messenger and club members were especially recruited to serve in motorcycle units during the World Wars.
In the decades that followed, the reputation of motorcycle clubs veered far from the image of Ellis’ proper businessman. This morning’s crowd doesn’t do much to dissuade otherwise. Lots of huge roaring machines, leather vests, bandanas, elaborate tattoos, straggly beards, silver chains. A Hells Angel walks around with a local member of the staunch Christian-centered Sons of God Motorcycle Ministry. The members are all white and male, the median age hovering in the mid- to late-forties range. On both points, May says this only reflects the current Yonkers’ membership. Women have joined in the past, it just happens there aren’t any now. The same goes in recruiting Black and ethnic members. In any case, to become a member you have to know someone who will invite you to the clubhouse. If judged that you have the makings of a good fit among them, you’re then required to pass a test of an unspecified nature. It has to be said that a real deterrence for some would be a horrible flashback to high school days and the hopelessness of knowing you’ll never fit into the cool kids click.
May counters motorcyclists’ outlaw image by enumerating the club’s heavy community involvements and charity work. Yonkers puts on one of the most successful toy drives in Westchester and their involvement with the Richmond Children’s Center goes beyond raising money to personal involvement with the Center’s disabled children. They cook up one hell of a chili benefit dinner and this—the Hogs 4 Hope Pig Roast—makes significant annual contributions to the local Ronald McDonald House to help support their work with families dealing with the financial, emotional and health challenges of taking care of their sick children.
“There’s a misconception in popular culture of motorcyclists,” May says. “The real truth is a major part of our identity is fostering comradery and contributing to our communities. We have each other’s backs and that extends to our own families and neighbors.”
And here is where the Yonkers Motorcycle Club’s Hogs 4 Hope reflectsone of American food’s great distinction from the rest of the world’s cuisines. In a nation formed by a continuous wash of strangers with unique customs and traditions, gatherings such as Yonkers’ helped fostered communities, and communities into a single nation. The table was a safe harbor to share foreign traditions. Dishes that required ingredients not available in this new land, by necessity, transformed into another dish. Most especially, the influence of slaves—the food traditions they preserved through all their oppression, the vegetables, greens and fruits they planted from seeds carried over from their homelands—became the backbone of American cooking. Many of the dishes we think of as native to us were first encountered at social events, at church suppers, house and barn raisings, civic organization banquets, county fairs, town fish fries, political barbecues, and cake sales.
The pig turning on a spit by the cooking pavilion was donated by a nearby Italian butcher. It’s a small suckling instead of the huge hog offered at more rural events and most state fairs. The luscious chicken tacos that the Yonkers Fire Department put together are encased in freshly made tortillas. The locally crafted dark lager beer at a nearby booth reflects a recipe straight out of Germany.
It all makes a fine convivial day for everyone who wanders into the mix. And there’s a slightly heightened sense of joy since the Roast is the first time people have seen each other in over a year. The club calls themselves lucky—only one member was hit hard with Covid and they saw to it that his family was taken care of while he recuperated. He’s now horsing around with Kenny, the retired fireman who helps organize the event and takes care of the food. By one o’clock the tables under the pavilion are all taken. Stacks of pulled pork sandwiches, the sweet meat moistened by a light splash of peppery vinegar, are being hungrily dismantled. Aluminum pans of tacos and Italian sausage sandwiches need replenishment. Firefighters labor over grills to keep up with the hamburger demand. Two other beer barrels have been tapped, the craft beer is in danger of running out.
Keith May, in a replica of an early 20th century leather helmet, pulls down his googles and, to clamorous cheers, varooms the Yonkers Motorcycle Club’s 1913 Pope motorcycle out for a spin.