Growing Up Golem

This is an excerpt from my memoir Growing Up Golem, published by Riverdale Avenue Books and available from Barnes & Noble, Powells, Amazon, and your favorite independent bookstore:

My mother loved to make things. One day, when I was thirty-two years old, my mother created a giant, half-lifesize doll that looked just like me. (This is absolutely true.) It had yarn hair the same color and kink as mine, and real corduroy pants just like the ones I wear. My mother called it the Dyke Donna doll. (Mom was very pro-gay and lesbian, so she always felt very happy using words like “dyke.”) The doll wore a stripey red shirt like a circus performer, along with real, removable, bright red booties made of felt, and extravagantly long curling eyelashes that my mother drew in by hand, quite lovingly. It had big red apple blush-marks on its cheeks, like Pinocchio as I have always seen him drawn. It stood a discomfiting three feet tall (I myself am only five feet two). My mother gave it to me as her gift, to keep in my tiny apartment. I had to keep it under my bed because I couldn’t bear to see it sitting in my chair. But I felt like I was hiding a child away there, without food or anyone to talk to.

Starting in her early 20s, my mother had made a whole series of dolls and wooden soldiers and little straw figurines and puppets, and I believe that one of them was me. A few years after the Dyke Donna doll appeared, my arms broke. (This, also, is true.) I don’t mean that my arm bones broke – I’ve never had a broken bone – but that my arms’ capacity as limbs, their functionality and coherence, suddenly ended. Continue reading

Indigenous Food in the South Bronx

(c) La Morada 2015

Sometimes you eat something that’s blissfully unlike anything you’ve ever had before. For me, the mole blanco at La Morada in the South Bronx was one of those dishes that make you stop, get quiet, taste again, and search your senses, sniffing, almost listening for something, to comprehend the mystery.

Ladled over two huge chicken legs, the thick white sauce made of pine nuts and other items had a surprisingly warm, forceful stir of habaneros underneath the sauce’s slightly sweet blandness, made among other things of cashews, almonds, peanuts, coconut oil, and garlic ($15).

I kept wanting to taste it again and feel that warm, attractive spice calling to me from inside the deceptively homey, rather autumnal and vegetal blanket of mole. (The vegan sauce is made with 10 different kinds of nuts in total.) The dish came with a side of rice and black beans, but not just any beans: it was in fact the most distinctive, fresh-tasting, and well-spiced side dish of black beans I’ve ever had, as though someone actually cared to make the supposedly throwaway sides taste as good as entrées. If you’re from Mexico’s Oaxaca province, source of this restaurant’s cuisine, La Morada’s mole blanco may not be as much of a mystery to you, but then again, it might. The cooking at this inexpensive café run by an activist immigrant family is extraordinary, perhaps the finest Mexican cooking I’ve ever had in New York.

The five adult family members are Mixteca Indians from the overwhelmingly indigenous Oaxaca, whose cooking traditions are almost entirely unrepresented in this city. (Don’t let the name of the offensively bland, hipster chain Oaxaca Taqueria fool you. There’s nothing remotely Oaxacan about its unspiced chicken, pork, and potatoes.) There are six moles on the menu, all made entirely from scratch, a process taking many days. In New York, it’s usually possible to find only a too-sweet chocolate mole poblano.

Most restaurants don’t have a personal motto, but La Morada has one, written in Mixteca on its website and menu: “Kushi Vaa.” According to Yajaira Saavedra, one of the daughters, this means roughly, “We want everyone who eats here to be nourished, and to grow.” Saavedra says the motto reflects a Mixteca spiritual belief that those who cook put their emotional energy and attitudes into the food, and that cooks are therefore responsible to project an intense goodwill into their product. Eating an enchilada of hibiscus flowers and leaves, grilled cactus, and other vegetables, strewn with buttery quesillo cheese and a little tomatillo sauce ($14 with rice and beans), I felt something of that goodwill. The enchilada tasted exceedingly fresh, as if the vegetables had just been picked. (Strangely, a leftover even tasted fresh two days later, in my kitchen.) Perhaps it’s because La Morada sources most of its produce from local community gardens and local immigrant-run farms. Saavedra, a recent CUNY grad in her 20s, says some even provide fruits and vegetables to the restaurant for free, or allow La Morada to plant freely on their land. “Folks help us out as much as they can.” She says they do this in appreciation for the community space for food, activism, and even literature the Saavedras have created in the poorest neighborhood in the city.

(A lending library in the back of La Morada offers a terrific selection mostly in English, from “Bartleby the Scrivener” to W. E. B. De Bois’ “The Souls of Black Folk.”)

But here’s something even more notable than a locavore café in the South Bronx. All of the Saavedras (except the youngest, who was born here) are open about being undocumented, which makes eating here an interesting political experience. The food industry in this country is utterly dependent on the labor of undocumented Mexicans, who staff its most vital positions, from farmworkers and slaughterhouse workers to restaurant cooks, dishwashers, and bussers. Very few of them own restaurants, or can be open about their status. Most are paid ridiculously low wages.

Here, finally, is a restaurant where undocumented Mexicans come out from the back of the joint, own the place, and proudly and feelingly make their own food.

Mother Natalia Mendez is the chef, assisted by her daughter Carolina. On my first visit, an entrée of camarones (shrimp) a la diabla ($15) wearing little “devils’ horns” made of chilies came with a complex sauce of chipotle peppers and herbs that Mendez makes herself. The peppers in the sauce packed delicious fruit and, again, “vegetalness,” along with their smoke and heat. The shrimp themselves were delicate.

I wasn’t expecting to find a queer-friendly place in the South Bronx, but I did. On a recent visit, Karen and I were not the only visibly queer diners in the place; another group with funky haircuts and a gender backspace say that queer aspect was being hugged goodbye by Mendez and Yajaira. In an interview, the latter said, “The trans community is vitally involved in the immigration movement right now. We are very connected to anyone who is pro-gay rights and pro-LGBTQ, and besides, we understand that all struggles are interconnected.” According to Yajaira, “Lots of trans folks are being detained unjustly right now” by immigration authorities. She and Marco, who both came to this country as very young children, are highly active in the Dreamers movement (young undocumented Mexican-Americans who came here as children and are fighting for legal status and other benefits available to citizens, such as education benefits). Marco, a friendly, bespectacled, twentysomething poet and painter who is the restaurant’s main waiter, committed civil disobedience two years ago by returning to Mexico and then openly reentering this country as an undocumented person. He served three weeks in a detention center in Florida. Says Yajaira, “My mother has a rule now: only one of us is allowed to get arrested at any given time.”

After Marco and Yajaira became very public about their status, Mendez and father Antonio Saavedra followed their children out of the immigration closet.

I took a dessert home from my last dinner at La Morada, tres leches cake, the wildly popular Mexican dessert made of cake soaked in heavy cream, evaporated milk, and condensed milk, and topped with coconut and whipped cream. It was luxurious and light at once, with a custardy bottom and a slight hint of vanilla and rum, and again, far more fresh-tasting than other versions I’ve had in this city. Some have tasted heavy and dead, but this was lively.

The restaurant is painted purple and decorated with a Bosch-like anti-globalization poster and many of Marco’s paintings, including one of Michael Brown’s family. If you search your Spanish dictionary, you may conclude La Morada was named from the word for purple, but it actually comes from a Bible verse Antonio thought had special resonance for immigrants, Yajaira says: “In the house of my Father, there are many dwelling places.…As I told you, I am going to prepare a place for you.” Thankfully, La Morada has become a dwelling place for many.

La Morada, 308 Willis Avenue near 140th Street, open daily 9 AM-9:30 PM except Sundays. (The restaurant may resume Sunday hours in the next several months.) The restaurant is wheelchair accessible, but the bathroom is narrow and lacks a handrail. Reservations accepted but not necessary.

This was originally published in Gay City News on October 30, 2015. You can view it here.

The Politics of Whole Foods

whole foods tomatoes

How do you live in New York City on $12 an hour or less? How can you buy organic food on even a middle-class income here? How can you afford meat that doesn’t come from E. coli- laden feedlots where the animals have no room to lie down or move? How can you eat food that’s good for you and the planet without taking on (even more) debt?

These are the burning questions for anyone thinking about the politics of food in New York right now. (Here’s one more: how will the organic revolution help the 1.4 million New Yorkers who currently depend on soup kitchens and food banks?) All of these questions come into play in the politics of Whole Foods, a “green mission” corporation so contradictory I had to write about it twice.

Last time, if you’ll remember, we were considering Whole Foods’ flagship store in Brooklyn, made of tastefully reclaimed bricks and wood but sitting on the banks of the Gowanus Canal, which seethes with PCBs, mercury, and pathogens. Activists had opposed the store’s siting on the grounds that it would fail to absorb dangerously polluted runoff from the channel, which floods regularly. They also said that the megastore would gentrify the neighborhood (leading to luxury condos that will make the canal even more flood-prone), and substitute low-paying Whole Foods jobs for the high-paying manufacturing jobs the neighborhood was previously zoned for.

The last two predictions have already happened. (On the first point, environmental science suggests that the wetlands restoration locals were calling for would have provided much better protection for Brooklyn residents.) Still, Whole Foods is there now, and I myself, sadly, have bought barbecued organic turkey legs there. I’ve even enjoyed the beautiful roofdeck/restaurant/bar, a half-indoor, half-outdoor space where sufficiently well-groomed-looking people can sit for hours and take in the view even if they haven’t purchased anything. The question for part two of this column is, is Whole Foods – not just this store, but the entire corporation and its 412 stores around the country – good for the world or bad, beyond my personal convenience and enjoyment?

First, let’s talk about its major claim to fame – making organic food more available. Food activist and fermentation revivalist Sandor Katz, who is probably the most prominent LGBT voice in the food movement, says, “Whole Foods has gotten big through a strategy of swallowing up all the small local and regional natural food stores. Sourcing supposedly ‘organic’ produce and meat at the scale they’re doing it results in food that has much lower nutritional value and that is produced and distributed at a great cost to the environment.” For example, says the former ACT UP/New York member, “If you’re trying to raise pastured animals, there’s a limit to what scale you can do it at. If you have 5000 cows, you can’t actually give them access to pasture.” So your “grass-fed” burgers and “free-range” eggs may not be exactly that, depending on where you buy them. No matter what nice labels products are given, says Katz, “environmentally sound practices are far easier to do on a small scale.” Notably, Whole Foods’ product sourcing results in meat and produce being trucked for many hundreds or thousands of miles, leading to a far higher carbon output than farmers markets or food co-ops.

Katz’s first concern is echoed by nutrition scientist Marion Nestle, one of the doyennes of food activism in America: “Big Organic [the big agribusinesses that have become major players in organic farming] always tries to add more pesticides to what is allowed under the ‘Certified Organic’ label.” Fruit and vegetables can, in fact, be certified organic but still contain some pesticides, Nestle says, and Big Organic is always pushing to allow more and more harmful chemicals to be allowed under the designation. Still, she says, “There was no place to get that kind of food in my neighborhood until Whole Foods came to New York. They have high quality food for people who can afford it.”

That category most definitely does not apply to Whole Foods’ workers. Ryan Faulkner, who worked at the store in San Francisco for two years and was an activist in the IWW’s union drive there in 2014, says that neither he nor his fellow employees could ever afford to shop there, despite their 20% employee discount. “As a cashier, I was making $12 an hour – the checks were like jokes.” Even after Faulkner went on to work receiving in the regional distribution center, his wages only went up to $15.23. It wasn’t possible for employees to live on those wages inside the city limits, and many commuted two hours or more from outside the city to work. The other major grievance was computer-driven scheduling, which changed all workers’ schedules wildly week to week, “which made it impossible if you were going to school, or if you had kids,” Faulkner says. “The people with kids would just get in impossible situations. They would never know if they could pick their kids up.” In fact, Rhiannon Broschat, a Chicago employee, was fired for staying home with her child when schools were closed because of the polar vortex last year, and Trish Kahle, another Chicago worker, was fired when she was injured in a bicycle accident but couldn’t bring in a doctor’s note to account for her absences because she couldn’t afford a visit to the doctor.

Worse, workers were pressured to work so much overtime and for so many days on end that, Faulkner says, accidents in the warehouse were common. “The least you ever worked was 12 hour days, and it was frequently 16. I saw one guy cut off a couple of his toes in the machinery. There was so much blood on the floor, but they just gave him a little award for working every day straight for a month.” As in many companies today, Whole Foods has preferred to have fewer employees working many more hours than to have to hire more staffers, which would result in higher costs overall. “They would threaten your job if you didn’t work 16 hours, and they put a lot of pressure on you to come in on your days off. I once passed out in the freezer from exhaustion.” If the chickens the store sold were treated in this way, Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey would likely protest. Whole Foods did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

If you’re wondering why Trish Kahle couldn’t see a doctor, take a good look at Whole Foods’ employee health insurance, where the individual deductible, Faulkner said, was $4500 after the Affordable Care Act went into effect. (Employees at other locations have cited deductibles ranging from $3500 to $5000.) As a result, according to Faulkner and other workers, very few employees opt to use the coverage. (Whole Foods does offer health savings accounts to workers, and those who been at the company 10 years or more can opt for a better insurance plan with a lower deductible.)

In June, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs announced that Whole Foods had been routinely overcharging its customers at all locations in the city. “New Yorkers who shop at Whole Foods have a good chance of being overcharged,” the Department of Consumer Affairs’ Abigail Lootens told GCN. In DCA’s investigation, 80 different types of prepackaged goods (from baked goods to nuts to meat, cheese, and seafood) were found to have packages with wildly overstated weights. The lowest was an $.80 overcharge for a package of pecan panko, and the highest was an overcharge of $14.84 for a pack of coconut shrimp.

Journalist Tracie McMillan, who has covered the economics of Whole Foods extensively for Slate and the Food and Environment Reporting Network, says the systematic overcharging may be a result of “Whole Foods as a company having a culture of, ‘They’ll pay it! It’s fine!’ ” But as economist Richard Wolff suggests, many of us are taking on further debt – for things exactly like overpriced coconut shrimp – in order to keep up with a lifestyle we imagine “normal” people can pay for.

Longtime New York State environmental activist Laura Haight says, “The bottom line is, Whole Foods is a big business. They don’t care about us.”

This is a companion piece to “Desire in Whole Foods,” and appeared in slightly different form in Gay City News, October 1, 2015.

Fall Memoir Workshop in Brooklyn

Brooklyn memoir classes

Hey, I’ll be teaching an 8-week memoir writing workshop in Brooklyn this fall! The class will meet on Wednesday nights starting September 23 in Windsor Terrace, from 7 to 9 PM.

This workshop focuses on craft – particularly on using emotion, sensory details, and storytelling in your long and short memoir projects. Students will get frequent feedback in a supportive atmosphere. The number of students is limited to eight. The cost is $300.

Let me know if you’re interested. You can contact me at growingupgolem AT Gmail. All best – Donna

Here’s some info on my background:

Donna Minkowitz has taught memoir writing for 17 years, at venues including the 92nd Street Y, The Kitchen, the JCC of the Upper West Side, and the New York Writers Workshop. Her recent memoir, Growing Up Golem: How I Survived My Mother, Brooklyn, and Some Really Bad Dates, was a finalist for both a Lambda Literary Award and the Judy Grahn Nonfiction Award. Her first memoir, Ferocious Romance, won a Lammie. A former feature writer at The Village Voice, she has also written for The New York Times Book Review, Salon, New York magazine, Ms. and The Nation.

More info: Location is near the F/G stop at Fort Hamilton Parkway. The last class date is November 11.

FAQ: Refund Policy: Withdrawal by September 18: full refund. Withdrawal by September 22: 50% refund. No refund available for withdrawal after September 22. If the workshop is cancelled by instructor, full refund to everyone.

Desire in Whole Foods

whole foods berry pie

I wanted to not be moved. I wanted to have no feelings. But there, it had happened: Whole Foods Brooklyn excited me. “Take the orange juice taste test,” sang a man in the fruit and vegetables section, proffering tiny free samples of special Whole Foods orange juice. “What are the different categories?” I asked, imagining satsuma, Jaffa, blood, bitter Sevilla – worlds of “heirloom” orange juices Whole Foods had squeezed and gotten ready for me to sample and compare, one by one. But the choices were only organic and nonorganic. I liked the nonorganic better, which bothered me. Still, it was free OJ, and handed me by the most cheery little man.

Not far from the cups of juice was a large glass globe full of reddish-yellow grapes free to all comers, like the guy who used to kneel with his mouth open in the basement of the Mineshaft. A woman grabbed one grape and pricked it between her teeth, then another. I didn’t actually like that kind of grape, but the giant glass globe offering them to everyone strangely touched me. (You mean I can have as many as I want? Right now? Without paying for them?) All sorts of people stepped up to the glass globe and reached inside for the promise of sweetness like a pill. Because I didn’t take a grape, I now needed some other sort of free food immediately; I proceeded to the southwest side of the store, the side with the bakery, where free samples of chickpea crostini, pear chutney with crackers, tiny delicious chocolate-and-cream cakes had offered on my first visit.

No such luck. My initial visit, soon after the store’s opening late in 2013, had been full of gratis cheese, soups, even two sampling stations for free Sixpoint beer! I went to both of the latter, one of them twice; I managed to get a nice buzz on and have my appetite slaked without spending a cent. Of course, all this largess had made me want to spend, and soon.

In the gem-colored juicing section, with beautiful plastic bottles and dixie-cup samples colored all the colors of the rainbow, there were free samples of a purple blend called Immunity Blast with beet, carrot, ginger, turmeric, cayenne, and spirulina. It tasted deep and spicy yet refreshing, like a beer. I don’t even believe in juicing. Yet I sucked it down. On another visit, Karen and I had downed cup after cup of mango juice and tangy Green Maca Blend samples, in an orgy of something-for-nothing fressing. Immediately after that, we’d spent about $75.

I found myself going crazy with desire in the meat section, with its seven kinds of “humane” fresh sausages laid out for purchase, garlic and herb chicken, sweet Italian pork, “Buffalo” and chorizo, all gleaming. There was a rack of lamb with its beautiful little bones looking like legs thrust in the air, a large, thick, grassfed steak far more succulent-looking than the kinds Karen and I always get, bone-in short ribs! I wanted everything, walking around the city-block-long store in a kind of hypnotic glaze: Cute dishtowels from Etsy, with grapes on them! Men’s cologne from Herban Cowboy! Macarons! It was clear that a master designer had been at work here, in fact an entire team of master food stylists, fruit-layout artists, coffee-bar sculptors, label-designers, and aisle-molders, because I have never wanted to buy and consume things as much as I did at Whole Foods Gowanus.

(In fact, the store employs four full-time visual artists, food stylists, and marketers, as well as several freelance firms and art directors who work at the regional level.)

Whole Foods has described its 56,000 square foot Gowanus store as a national flagship, and coming upon it from surreally quiet Third Avenue one afternoon last week, it was easy to see why. The company has constructed this market to rise on the banks of the fetid Gowanus canal like a palace of pro-environmentalism, a garden of morally righteous and sensually fulfilling delights. Next to the green-tinged canal, named a Superfund site in 2010 by the EPA and found by scientists to contain PCBs, cholera, dysentery, and even gonorrhea, Whole Foods has built beautiful paths with wooden benches, umbrella-covered tables, and gorgeous plantings of black-eyed susans, red-and-yellow lilies, and marigolds. There is a canister with Whole Foods- supplied dog-poop bags, although I wouldn’t let my dog eat anything onto which the Gowanus had overflowed in a storm. (The waters of the Gowanus have also been found to be radioactive.) On the Whole Foods side of the bank, there was also a large black barbecue smoker, looking like something out of a restored Colonial village. Even on a 90-degree day, that smoker was going, and the big, 18th-century-looking oven and its smell were an immediately effective visual and olfactory advertisement. Though I hadn’t on other visits, when I’d entered from the Third Street side, now I badly wanted to eat animal flesh cooked in that big artisanal thing.

Wouldn’t you know it, most of the meats served in the store’s rooftop restaurant and prepared foods section are made in that outdoor publicity symbol. The verdict: the actual meat in “Carolina gold BBQ” pork ribs was good, though its sauce was cloyingly sweet. Something surprising and welcome happened when I tried to suck the marrow from a small pig bone: the bone was soft and delicious enough that I actually ate it along with the candylike marrow, which nutritionists say is perfectly safe to do as long as there are no sharp pieces and nothing hard enough to choke on. A smoked chicken salad sandwich on buttered, griddled bread was exactly what I wanted to eat on a rooftop bar in the summer with a beer (though Karen, who ordered it, found it much too mayonnaise-y and buttery). On another visit, pulled turkey meat and Kansas City chicken legs from the prepared foods table had a lovely, smoky flavor, but were dry.

Vegetables prepared in the smoker, however, were hideous. So-called smoked ratatouille from the prepared foods table (green and yellow squash and eggplant, mostly) both looked and tasted muddled, even muddy, and the only reason to confront more of its squishy texture was obedience to Michael Pollan. The entire hot side of the prepared foods section, in fact, looked unappetizing and overheated, with meats, rice dishes and vegetables all appearing entirely in colors of brown and yellow, along with an occasional dark green. (It looked like a lot of the food I used to eat growing up in the 70s in Brooklyn.)

At the side of the steam table, on framed photos along the walls, on inventively painted posters throughout the store, was one message: how much Whole Foods had done for Brooklyn and the world by creating this store.

Next time: Part Two: Whole Foods’ environmental claims, “Brooklynitude,” and the politics of a beautiful rooftop bar and community space.

Whole Foods Gowanus, 214 3rd Street, Brooklyn. The grocery and its restrooms are wheelchair-accessible.

This piece appeared in slightly different form in Gay City News, August 6, 2015.

Sex and Italian Food

Hugo pizza

From my new review in in Gay City News: Hugo and Sons, Park Slope, Brooklyn.

The waitress welcomed us as though she had been waiting all her life just to ply us with glasses of nerello mascalese and plates of pasta à la chitarra with tuna, chilies, and mint.

That’s the kind of service I like. When you pay your hard-earned money to a restaurant, you should be treated as though you were making each staffer’s day just by sticking your foot in the door and exciting them for life just by placing your queenly butt in their chairs. Hugo and Sons, a convivial, three-month-old Italian restaurant in Park Slope, offers a much better experience than its delicious but snooty next-door neighbors, Talde and Applewood. The tiny portions and cool welcomes at those eminences should by rights direct diners to this happy, generous new kid on the block.

A lot of the food will make you smile as warmly as the waitstaff do. That chitarra pasta (square-edged, long, spaghetti-like strands made on a traditional, cut-by-hand device) was surprisingly voluptuous, a special one night with unctuous lumps of cooked tuna. Lovers of pearls and diving, come to Brooklyn: I haven’t had cooked tuna this lewd in decades. (American chefs have forgotten how to make anything in between a near-raw sear and dead-and-dry.)

My own pearl girl and I were eating in Hugo’s pizzeria annex, which serves everything on the regular menu except entrées, plus pizzas and specials. The pizza place’s outdoor seating on 11th Street turns out to be Hugo’s most romantic setting, amid abundant plants, Shabby Chic red metal chairs, leafy street trees, and the nearby outdoor diners from Applewood and their dinner plates to gawk at and compare. It was only a South Slope pizzeria, but we seemed to be dining in Paris.

I was in the mood for a girly drink: a prosecco cocktail with strawberry purée making glowy red shapes at the bottom like a lava lamp, which I had seen two women drinking at the bar inside ($12). (Yes, I do call myself a butch. So sue me. If we can’t subvert our identities whenever we want, why be queer?) The drink was indeed pretty and festive, but I couldn’t taste enough strawberry. My aggressive femme partner had a glass of the nerello ($17), an earthy, tannic, dark-colored Sicilian wine that we both adored with her pizza fiamma (sopressata, crushed red chilies, pesto, tomato, and fior di latte mozzarella, $16).

Karen loved her pizza, and I liked it (it would have benefited from a more generous hand with the chilies, but was perfectly satisfying anyhow, like a little Mack truck made of sausage, cheese and tomatoes). The same went for a kale salad enmeshed in a rich Parmesan dressing ($9), also enjoyable to the max but not anything that could make me fall in love. I was falling in love with the evening, though, especially by the time my pasta came. The lesbo-friendly hosts and waitress smiled and winked at our arm-grabbing and knee-knocking in the warm June sunlight, the wine was delicious, and I noticed that the table next to us had a nicoise salad dominated by meaty-looking, blood-red slices of seared tuna (I like those, too) that I wanted to grab and eat.

Then came the bill, with a surprise: they’d comped our drinks because we’d had to wait quite a while for our entrées. I’ve endured far longer waits in restaurants without anything resembling an apology, much less free prosecco.

On our next visit, we took a luxurious, red-banquetted table in the main section, which has a jolly, let’s-eat-and-drink-life-is-short vibe. I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the “assorted crostini” – stick a bunch of stuff on little pieces of toast for $9? – but the chefs proved that sticking some stuff on crisped bread can actually be a matter of talent and even profundity. One had what looked like guacamole (actually, an odd, delicious spread made of sweet peas) underneath thin slices of funky, salami-like Tuscan pecorino cheese. My favorite was the crust with buttery balls of burrata set off with lemon, chili, and marjoram.

Karen’s strozapreti genovese ($16), literally “priest-chokers,” were fat, long, phallic, thickly-braided twists, perfectly shaped to stick on and into the braised-brisket ragú and sublime ball of ricotta that accompanied them. Yes, they were as sexy as fuck. (The glistening brisket sauce and breast-like ricotta helped in this.)

My entrée, however, was the worst thing I’ve been served in a restaurant since 2013. Chicken milanese ($18) came as deep-fried, unpounded, repellently thick ships of chicken breast (the word”cutlet” cannot properly be applied here), that had strangely not been touched by salt, spice, or even lemon. I don’t know if it was a good or bad thing that they served me enough to feed a large family.

An odd thing happened just before my entrée appeared. A handsome, swaggery man in a white silk shirt was walking the room, checking on the needs of the tables – obviously a manager (or perhaps it was the chef, Andrea Taormina, who owns the restaurant with his wife, caterer Rebecca Tory). I asked him for coffee – preferably iced, or if that was unavailable, decaf americano or plain old cappuccino. I basically wanted coffee of any kind. The preening man regrettably thought there was no coffee, especially not iced, but began to flirt heavily with Karen and me. He would, ah, try and see what he could do, but could make no guarantees.

I was surprised when a truly delicious glass of iced coffee turned up. The manager explained that while iced coffee would not have been offered to most diners, he had wanted to make some for me (I was lucky, he said, that the place was beginning brunch service the next day and so some coffee happened to be on hand). I began to wonder if he had recognized me as a reviewer. Or perhaps the dude was just into flirting as a hosting strategy? Still, the vibe at the end – that he was doing a real favor for me and I would owe him – was borderline unpleasant. He was overbearing, yet we also sort of enjoyed him.

Whether Handsome Man was Taormina or not, come and eat at his restaurant. The chef, who was born in Sicily, has also worked as a sommelier, and many of the the wines are little-known finds from southern Europe. All of them are minimally processed. And the place is fun.

Hugo and Sons, 367 Seventh Avenue at 11th St., Park Slope, Brooklyn. The restaurant is one step up from the sidewalk, but a side door provides level though perhaps slightly narrow access. The restroom is wheelchair accessible.

To view this post on Gay City News’ site  and to see my other reviews there, go here.

Bad Fancy New Nordic

new Nordic food

Karen’s orange fish roe tacos were delicious, but they were each the size of my pinky (which is smaller than most women’s). The two miniscule tacos came, strangely, on an enormous branch of pine, looking as though a Christmas tree had been torn from the woods and hacked up to add a festive touch to our mid-May table.

It did add drama to our dinner. And each tiny taco was indeed pristine and lemony in its tiny shell, though the smoked fish that was supposed to be the main attraction consisted of dollhouse-sized bits and could barely be tasted. (These so-called “smoked fish tacos” are $14.) But when you’re still hungry after three courses, who needs drama?

My own appetizer, foie gras and langoustine ($19), puzzled me because it was not appetizing. To those of you who say it serves me right for eating force-fed duck, you’re probably right. But I was surprised that somehow Acme Restaurant, Noho base for the “new Nordic” cuisine that is currently the world’s most chic, had managed to make foie gras that wasn’t at all silky or luxuriant, and to make langoustine (a smaller, delicate, delicious European relative of the lobster) that tasted like nothing. The foie gras, which in terrine form at least tastes to me like liver that has somehow been made perfect and even addictive, didn’t taste like much of anything, either. It did have a discomfiting, slightly wet texture. The only element of the dish I could really perceive with my taste buds were the white walnuts scattered throughout the other two foods, which tasted just fine. Did I mention we were splurging at ridiculous risk to our solvency for my birthday dinner?

I’ve always loved pricey restaurants, though increasingly, I am not sure why. I grew up working class, and the first time I entered a rich people’s restaurant, at age 14 in Truro, Massachusetts, I wanted to go back again and again until I was mentally stuffed with the beautiful garden setting and the silver breadbasket from which the waiter haughtily lifted out, for each member of my family, a single slice of bread with his silver tongs. (My father, bless him, to the waiter: “You can just leave the whole basket on the table, ‘ cause we’re gonna want more.”)

That restaurant, at least, had delicious entrées. (Thirty-seven years later, I can still remember the best bluefish I have ever eaten.) But at Acme, my entrée, Cast-Iron Duck Egg with peas, garbanzo beans, and spinach, was only as tasty as something I myself might throw together at home on an indifferent night. It was much less satisfying than that dinner I might cook at home because of its wee size ($14). There was one, count ’em, one fried duck egg on the child-size cast-iron skillet delivered to me on a bed of hay. (The bored, clearly suffering waitress did not want to to answer our questions about the food, but finally told us, gritting her teeth, that the hay had not been used to add any flavor to the dish, but was merely decorative. In a telephone interview, a manager, Charlie Smith, informed me that the hay was visually intended to “evoke a duck laying an egg in a bed of hay.”)

For the rest of this review in Gay City News, click here.

Sri Lanka by Way of Staten Island

Lakruwana image

Here’s my review of Lakruwana in Staten Island, in New York’s Gay City News:

I like looking at the people of Staten Island. I especially like looking at people who are waiting with me to board the ferry, not chic, never chic but beautiful. This man or woman with shaved sides of the head but long hair down their back, this woman fat with big breasts overflowing eating an ice cream cone and laughing with her friends, this guy with a large dagger tattoo holding his five-year-old’s hands, Puerto Rican, Italian, Liberian, African-American, Irish-Mayan.

Staten Island resists the homogenization that has been happening all over New York, and for this I celebrate it. The island is one of the last holdouts against gentrification, and one of the main ways it has accomplished this is by being poor. The other way is by being independent, and refusing to link to the rest of the city’s subway system. Staten Island is not the queer-friendliest place in the city, but Sarah Schulman teaches in its local CUNY college, the late, great Harry Wieder was an activist here, and queer folk live throughout the borough, some of them quite openly.

There’s also food you won’t find anywhere else. The island is home to the country’s largest population of Sri Lankans, and if you live off-island one of the best weekend daytrips you can take is a lunchtime outing to one of several extraordinary Sri Lankan restaurants. Unless you’re driving, take the ferry; it’s gorgeous, and it’s free. One of the food stalls at the Manhattan terminal sells excellent half bottles of wine, which you can drink on the ferry with one of their freshly-baked brownies, or carry to the BYO restaurants.

For today, let’s consider Lakruwana, whose weekend buffet is one of the few lunch buffets in Gotham I would recommend. A short bus ride from the ferry terminal (or a nice walk down sunny Bay Street, which runs parallel to the eastern shore), Lakruwana is surrounded on nearby streets by beautiful and unsettling graffiti murals (one shows a menacing hydra-headed figure, drawn in a Mexican idiom).

Because the restaurant is popular on weekends, service can be a bit disorganized. No matter. If you’re getting the buffet, as soon as you’re seated you can just grab a plate and start serving yourself. A member of the waitstaff will appear shortly with water and to see if you need anything else. Do take a moment to look around the room and notice the delirious assemblage of diverse artworks hanging from the rafters and climbing up the walls. As you come in, there are three august and enormous stone Buddhas standing next to the bar, dozens of masks by ingenious Sri Lankan sculptors, some of them brilliantly colored demon masks and others beige but intensely emotionally expressive, and metalwork depicting (among other things) women with unusually vibrant breasts and prominent nipples.

There’s much more, but you’re hungry. The buffet looks much smaller than it is, because instead of being laid out on an unappealing steam table, it curves around a wall in a procession of clay pots mounted over tiny flames. There are two kinds of tasty, fluffy white rice. Use either as your base. The first thing you might want to put on top of one of them is an odd but appealing dish of hard-boiled eggs floating in a mild, psychedelic-purple curry (asked what had made it purple, one of the owners, Lakruwana Wijesinghe, would only say, “the coconut.”)

For the rest – I have to come right out and tell you that the vegetarian dishes are far better than the meat ones. After the eggs, ignore the containers of pork and chicken next in line. Proceed immediately to the far left side of the group of pots and get yourself some of a strange-looking dense, black item labeled “eggplant curry.” (In a lovely innovation, Lakruwana posts little handscripted labels identifying every dish, avoiding a common buffet pitfall.) Unless you’re accustomed to the food of the Sinhalese of Sri Lanka (the majority ethnic group), it’s unlike anything you’ve ever eaten anywhere. Very thin, long strips of eggplant are fried seemingly forever and caramelized, and come out sweet, tangy, and smoked, with a consistency somewhere between chunky jam and the Jewish Sabbath dish *chulent* (beans simmered for many hours with brisket and other items). I kept going back for more, dishing it over the rice.

Nearby was pineapple curry, a dish Sri Lankans often eat for lunch. Note that it was not chicken or tofu or vegetables, say, in a pineapple curry. Pineapple was no mere condiment here, but the star. Coconut and a little curry leaf and cinnamon were the base for ample, juicy chunks of the fruit. To me, the dish felt like a fantasy fulfillment – I get to eat pineapple as a regular entrée? I’m not a stoner, but it did seem like ideal stoner food. Even absolutely sober, I found the pineapple curry and that eggplant the best things I’d eaten in months.

For the rest of the review, click here.

Malaysian Curry Beckoning Me Like Pie

Credit: Eating in Translation, Dave Cook

Credit: Eating in Translation, Dave Cook

This is my review of Laut, a Malaysian-Singaporean-Thai restaurant in  New York’s Union Square, from Gay City News.

As it came to our table, the tiny bowl of curry dip was preceded by its smell, a mix of coconut, cinnamon, turmeric, and a small amount of chili that literally turned my head, like a cartoon character following the aroma of pie. The curry dip accompanied our appetizer of roti canai ($7.50), a Malaysian bread that looked like a South Asian dosa but was softer and doughier. It is difficult to convey how the slightly sweet, aromatic curry sauce attracted my mouth over and over, or how fine it was to stick that bread in it. The dish was simple, delicious and enormous, a perfect appetizer for two hungry people drinking beer, and the first sign that Laut was better than it looked.

I’m dubious of restaurants that serve more than one Asian cuisine – it usually means they don’t do any of them well. But my wife and I were in Union Square after a stress-inducing visit to the accountant, and it was dinnertime. Very little food nearby was both appealing and cheap enough, or, if it was, had no relaxing seating on which to stretch our weary bones. (I’m calling you out, Num Pang Sandwich Shop and Republic – being delicious isn’t enough when people have had a hectic day!) Suddenly, there was Laut looming before us on 17th Street and Fifth Avenue, proudly announcing it served “Malaysian, Singaporean, and Thai cuisine.” It wasn’t very expensive, at least by Manhattan standards.

I was ignorant of the fact that Singaporean and Malaysian cooking are inherently very similar anyway, and that both share influences from Thai cuisine as well. More unpardonable is that I was also ignorant of these countries’ geography. Half of Malaysia sits on the same peninsula as South Thailand, and the island of Singapore immediately abuts Malaysia’s shore. The word Laut means “sea,” and Malaysia is bordered by five different seas that connect it to the rest of Southeast and South Asia. All of these countries, including Indonesia (and India, and even China if you want to go that far north on the map), share some food traditions and blend them and reformulate them. I’ve had “sambal” (a tangy chili sauce in several variations) from Sri Lanka, but here was my Laut waitress serving me an authentically Malaysian sambal with squid, my entrée ($15).

One of the Malaysian versions of sambal is made with shrimp paste crushed with chilies ( *belacan* ), and came, in this instance, with okra, string beans, bell peppers, onions, and that squid, in amazingly soft and delicate cylindrical segments. It was the nicest squid I’ve ever had in my mouth, and delicious in the very hot and slightly funky sauce.

My wife had the curry laksa with vegetables ($12). Yes, laksa, the Malay-Singaporean-Indonesian soup that snotty but occasionally adorable butch Lisa Fernandes cooked on Top Chef. (Fangirls, she has opened a food truck in the city called Sweet Chili that alternately parks in Dumbo, in the Wall Street area, and in Chelsea.) Yes, among my many weaknesses is that I can be strongly influenced by Top Chef. The reverence with which Fernandes, Anthony Bourdain and other chefs on the show had spoken of this complex, spicy soup had made me always want to have it. Laut’s version was profound and homey, its broth thick with coconut cream, lemongrass, galangal, and chili paste, and almost too spicy for me to eat. The laksa was studded with noodles, carrots, string beans, cucumber, Vietnamese mint, fish balls and fried tofu, and Karen adored it. I myself found it addictive as a leftover the next day.

Laut’s setting isn’t fancy, but there are beautiful murals on its brick walls, including an elaborate one with a squid, a bird, and a large land animal turning into flowers and other objects in the midst of a psychedelic bright blue sea. Still, the plasticated paper dinner menus are banged up and even a little funky, and the bathroom plumbing is not perfect. Service is excellent even when the place is full to the gills, as it often is for lunch and dinner. The only time I had poor service was when I came for a very late lunch and found the lone waitress too occupied with her table of dining friends to be at all attentive to me, the only other diner in the place.

But I’d rather have this food than be at a yuppie showcase. At a second meal, we had the “crispy and spicy anchovies with peanuts” and little rounds of green chile ($6), described as “must-have Malaysian style beer snacks.” Blisteringly hot, salty, and sweet from the caramelization on the peanuts, they were indeed ideal snacks with or without beer, and I’ve found myself craving them almost every day since. The translucent fried anchovies were like Lilliputian, salty noodles in the mix.

For the rest of the review, click here.


lump crab littleneck

Review of Brooklyn seafood restaurant Littleneck, by me in Gay City News:

Some gay men refer to women’s bodies as “fish” or “sushi,” and as a foodie, part of me is shocked that they don’t mean it as a compliment. To me, sushi, in the form of naked, unadorned salmon, tuna or shrimp surrounding vinegared rice and a dab of wasabi, is one of the sexiest foods there is. Lobster, oysters, clams, and scallops are even sexier, with a combination of bracingness, sweetness, salt and the teeniest little bit of funk or oddity that all good sex should have.

I thought about this recently while eating the extraordinary “full belly Ipswich clam roll” at Littleneck, which tasted oceanic. I intend the word in all its meanings here: Freud used “oceanic” when he was talking about religious feeling, which he related to the newborn’s sense that there was a limitless supply of milk available for it, and that it was absolutely at one with its mother. That is how I felt eating that clam roll, one of the few fried foods I am willing to eat on a regular basis (because it’s just so damn worth it). I admit I love cheap, random clam rolls, too, but this was a costly ($17), superlative clam roll, utterly fresh, and tasting clean and frisky at once. (It comes with homemade tartar sauce and two kinds of pickles.)

Littleneck, in Gowanus, Brooklyn, is a great date restaurant, with a smart, queer-friendly staff and an attractive room full of nautical gear. There are a lot of sailors’ ropes, a beautiful, tiny mirror inserted in a porthole, a waggish lamp with Captain Ahab as its base. I usually don’t like the decorating style known as Shabby Chic (why do rich people think it’s pretty not to repaint or fix things?) but Littleneck made me reconsider this reflex. There are white-enameled metal tables that suggest the ’50s, and white, not-fully-painted wooden chairs and hutches that suggest a dilapidated beach shack somehow made elegant. Edison bulbs, a punk-rock mirror over the bar partly smeared with black paint, and flowers on every table round things out.

The casual butch style made me feel at home, but the charm of the place made evenings there magical. One night when I visited, The Clash was playing at a gentle volume; another night, it was the Rolling Stones (less wonderful to me, but it did suit the overall aesthetic). In fact, the two polite and welcoming owners, who also serve as some of the waitstaff and bartenders, are punk musicians who had never worked in the food business before. Their generally good taste in music is another swell reason to visit (at Littleneck’s tiny sister location in Greenpoint, the extraordinary country singer Buck Owens was on the sound system one lunchtime).

A smallish lobster roll ($18) had me gasping in pleasure, with the sweetest, freshest crustacean meat in recent memory. Normally I’d be annoyed by the small size, but the lobster went straight to my brain’s pleasure centers, and I couldn’t care less. A grilled romaine salad was served in one huge paleo hunk, like a Fred Flintstone-size bone made of delicious charred vegetation ($13). It came with a strongly garlic flavored dressing (I silently applauded) and substantial chunks of bacon. My partner, Karen, insisted on attacking my plate.

For the rest of the review, click here.

Ecstasy in Your Mouth, From Egypt

Credit: Eating in Translation, Dave Cook

Credit: Eating in Translation, Dave Cook


This is from my review of Kabob Café in Astoria, published in New York’s Gay City News. Please pay no attention to the first paragraph about the rumored “vermin,” and go straight to the pomegranate molasses:

I was afraid of Astoria’s Kabob Café because of Yelp. I’m not proud of it, but I was. Several Yelpers had claimed there was “filth,” “cobwebs,” and even a roach spotted crawling on the unique Egyptian café’s art-laden walls. I try to be open-minded about restaurants, but I do draw the line at vermin.

Still, new friends Karen Taylor (the celebrated community organizer) and her wife, Laura Antoniou (the celebrated BDSM author), had recommended the place, and the food sounded thrilling: Lamb cheeks in pickled lemon sauce. Grilled goat cooked in honey. Oh vegetarians, I know I have neglected you in these reviews so far, so think on this: “Three kinds of mushrooms ground and spread… [with] spicy tomatoes and homemade yogurt,” according to Kabob Café’s menu, which only exists online and guides the physical distribution of food there only as a sort of spiritual template. Pumpkin dumplings, according to a Yelper. Humita (a Quechua Indian dish from South America, what was it doing on this otherwise Egyptian bill?): a “crêpe filled with stewed corn served in fresh tomato sauce and topped with homemade farmer’s cheese.”

When I met Karen and Laura there one wintry Saturday afternoon, I entered the tiny storefront on Steinway Street, in the far less yuppie and more Arab section of Astoria. I saw mismatched chairs with velvet cushions, and some variously beautiful and cheesy-looking paintings and souvenirs of Cairo, but no cobwebs or insects.

Many restaurants have been said to make you feel like you are guests in somebody’s home, but this is the only one that has ever really made me feel that way, for good or ill.

The chef and only staffer, Ali El Sayed, had just gotten back from vacation, and said his cupboards were barer than usual. As though he were our mom, he asked us to pick among the following things for lunch: cauliflower, beets with lemon, apples, garlic, and dill, green fava-bean falafel, lamb, duck, chicken, porgy, squid, and rabbit. Ali, tall, big-bellied, and gray-haired, in a black artist’s beret and chef’s whites, began to cook for us as my friends and I sat and talked. I knew from Yelp and from my friends that Ali’s meals take a long time, so we asked for hot tea, which he served us in glasses, with loads of mint leaves floating at the top.

The chef’s miniscule kitchen goes the length of the tiny room, and perhaps dominates it. I’ve eaten in restaurants with “open kitchens” before, but none has ever been as open as this. El Sayed is courtly and gracious, but he’s also occasionally overly talkative, on subjects ranging from politics (leftist, thankfully) to religion (he’s against it) and sex (he’s for it, in all of its varieties). Sometimes he even makes fun of his diners. Still, if you come with friends, he will not interrupt you much.

After Laura, Karen and I had discussed (solely among ourselves) A Song of Ice and Fire, Snape from Harry Potter, and a recent controversy in the International Ms. Leather contest, Ali brought out three naked plates for us, strewn decorously with the spice blend called zaatar and with sumac, plus a few drops of olive oil. Then he brought the first entrée for us to spoon onto those plates: roasted cauliflower in an extraordinary pomegranate sauce, with pinenuts, skinny slivers of red pepper, and sautéed chicory leaves.

I’ve had some amazing cauliflower dishes around town, but this one was different. This roasted cauliflower dish reminded me of a parable from the gnostic Gospel of Thomas where Jesus asks his disciples to tell him what he is like. One says, “You are like a righteous angel.” Another says, “You are like a wise philosopher.” But the disciple to whom Jesus gives the prize says, “Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying what you are like.” Jesus says (more or less), “That’s exactly what I wanted! You’ve become drunk from the intoxicating stream I have been tending.”

It was far better than (and amazing) similar dish at the Palestinian restaurant Tanoreen in Bay Ridge, hitherto my standard for the best Arab food in New York. I wanted to go on eating it until cauliflower came out of my nose.

Though in that gnostic text Thomas was rewarded for not trying to put into words what his own, spiritual version of that cauliflower dish was like, I will now put my foot in it and try anyway. With most attempts to make cauliflower taste good, the challenge is to temper its aggressiveness, but not so much that it loses its unique flavor. This cauliflower somehow blended with its tangy pomegranate friend (I believe lemon was also involved) in such a way that there was no tension between its pungency and the sweet, lappable sauce.

Next Ali brought duck, which, reader, is not my favorite animal to eat. But pieces of the roast thigh were succulent, with a wonderful, mysterious sweetness. They were served with dollops of a gelatinous-textured grain that Ali told us was a “polenta of cassava,” slim wedges of buttery roasted squash, and an appetizing wild green called horta. I like foods that quiver, and my fork went back again and again to that curious cassava jello-polenta. It bounced in my mouth.

For the rest of the review, click here.