Foodies of the New York Mercantile Exchange

I have fond memories of observing eating habits on the New York Mercantile Exchange.  There was a direct parallel between the creature of habit, the risk embracing gambler, and the carnivore in every floor trader I ever met.  Keep in mind, back then there was no “vegan,” “farm to table,” or organic aisle.  Oversized east coast red-meat-eaters ruled this particular jungle.

I quickly nicknamed the Merc cafeteria, just off the Merc trading floor, “The Zoo” as a health-conscious twenty-something that happens to notice how other people eat.  That stems from bringing eggplant parmigiana on Italian bread to elementary school lunch tables where other 1st graders were eating peanut butter and jelly on white bread with the crusts cut off, and asking me, “what the heck are you eating?”

Keep in mind that the upstairs trading desk I had been working on included one adult male who never ate a thing, only consuming 3 large coffees and 2 diet cokes during trading hours, and another twenty-something male who only ever ate a ham sandwich on a roll for lunch for the 4 years we sat next to each other.  Want to laugh?  He was an extremely fit former Yale swimmer who only ate a single chocolate donut and black coffee for breakfast.  But down on the Merc in the late 90’s, there were dozens of observable creatures to hunt and connections to make.  Little did they know they’d soon be facing extinction, surprisingly NOT due to the astronomical number of calories and saturated fats they consumed daily.

On the Merc, breakfast was a serious ritual for what I call the “Clydesdales.”  The Clydesdale is any male over 6’ tall and 200 pounds, making them clinically obese.  Most of them don’t miss a single meal in any day and each seating is planned fastidiously. Having been physically steamrolled by several of these types of mammals in the ring, I can tell you they used their body extra mass to their advantage while feeding on market openings and closes.

Before market openings, the big breakfast hits were the omelets stuffed with bacon and cheese, pancakes smothered with butter and syrup, egg sandwiches on buttered rolls dripping with ketchup, or ½ pound bagels with a small mountain of scallion cream cheese on them.  There would be a smaller, leaner set of traders I called the “Fit Bunch” that would eat Special K cereal with banana, or a couple of yogurts (me) but these traders who were fleet of foot and ran in smaller packs were much less noticeable.  They darted around the trading floor and used eating the way God intended it – as a means of fueling their body.  Not the way the Clydesdales approached it – as a culinary X-Game.

From the time these guys wiped their lips and grabbed their pads to get out to the trading floor for the opening bell, often with egg yolk still in their mustache, they began pondering hunting down the sacred – “LUNCH PRINT.”  “Hey, you wanna do a Wanton soup & Szechuan Print from Hunan Pagoda!?” was not uncommon to hear walking out of breakfast on to the floor at 7:30 AM.

Meals on the Merc were immediately segregated into two bulge brackets – the “lunch print” or the “breakfast print,” and then into sub-categories for meal-types like “Burger Prints,” “’Za Prints” for pizza, and “hero prints” for sandwiches.  There was no job less thankless than being the point man on a Friday afternoon organizing a “Parmigiana Print” from Pizza Italia for a dozen hungover traders.

God forbid they delivered one meatball instead of a chicken or shrimp parm’ hero, no matter whose fault it was, there was hell to pay.  If it wasn’t downstairs at the pickup area by HIGH NOON, which meant that infamous 12:00:00 print on the Mercantile wall clock, that gave anyone on the order ticket free reign to shout across the trading floor:

“YO T.G…. WHERE IS MY F*CKING LUNCH!”

If that sounded at all chummy, I assure you, it was not.

On your way off the floor into “the Jungle” at lunch time you would pass traders from that Fit Bunch.  They were usually sitting, or standing, close enough to the Merc floor to hear and even see what was going on.  They’d peel back the wrapper from their tuna sandwich on whole wheat or falafel from the truck and peer up at the board with one eye.  They’d be quick about their meal, hit the head, and be back on the trading floor to take advantage of anyone that dared crossing the bid-offer during feeding time at the zoo.  If there were no Clydesdale sized traders in the ring to quote tight back month spreads, there was simply a feast to be had by smaller, more slender locals quoting wide spreads while the cows were off grazing.

As you waded into “the Jungle” you would see traders more serious about their meal.  They lost sight of the trading floor at their seat and they didn’t care.  The higher the lunch tray was piled, the fatter the guy eating lunch off it, it was that simple.  That’s the dynamic that I loved about men being men on the Merc.  They were tall, they were fat, and they undoubtedly relieved a lot of stress by eating fatty and delicious meals, and they did not try to hide it.

The true heavyweights would have enough food to feed a family of five on their lunch tray.  Consider the sight of a 6’4” bald 40-year old from Staten Island that weighs 20 stone in a mesh-back trading jacket ogling his lunch tray as he waddled from the cafeteria counter to his seat.  You can see the excitement in his eyes build as he gets closer to his seat among the other Big Eaters.

He had a large pea soup to start, because it filled half of his “vegetable group” diet requirement.  Then he had a half a dozen buffalo chicken wings with crudité and extra blue cheese dressing on the side because carrots and celery satisfied the other half of the vegetable group requirement.  Then for a main course he had a bacon double cheeseburger with cheese fries to satisfy the “meat” and “extra cheese” requirements in his every meal.  Then he had 2 Dr. Peppers, one for lunch and one to bring back to the floor, with a cup of ice on his tray tucked perfectly next to the 3-stack of ice cream sandwiches for dessert.  Why 3 ice-cream sandwiches?  Because one ice cream sandwich in the hands of a 300-pound floor trader looks like an Oreo cookie.

These guys would sit and enjoy their meal like it was the Last Supper.  They’d watch the new ESPN Sports center loop 11 times on the TV’s while they ate.  They’d memorize the sports page and be in no hurry whatsoever to get back on the floor.  Then, after a 15-minute ritual in the bathroom, they would emerge, hands washed, fresh stick of gum, big smile ready for the rest of the trading day.  Clydesdales at the Merc ate like baboons every day, but hygiene was still paramount.

One of the unspoken laws of working in tight quarters with adult males was “DON’T HAVE BAD BREATH.”  The beauty of the regimen on the Merc floor was that if you had it, someone would hand you a pack of gum and stick a slice in your mouth for good measure – “Here, take this Godzilla breath.”

I was particularly focused on another dynamic among the Foodies of the Mercantile exchange – their excitement for Happy Hour.  After their second 2,000 calorie meal of the day, they would settle back to their trading posts in the ring, chomping on a refreshing slice of gum, looking around the ring for the afternoon’s bounty.  I used to count how long it took before the first Clydesdale would finally give in, usually around 1:30 or 2:00 while opening his shirt collar 2 buttons, “O.K. sports fans…where we goin’ for drinks?”

Once consuming two high calorie, high fat content meals, and chasing them with 12 late afternoon adult beverages, Clydesdales of the Mercantile Exchange were well known for skipping dinner.  What happened at Happy Hour though, is another blog post entirely.