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

Getting Fancy

Bio-Revival's "Burst Active" fruit pearls.

Bio-Revival’s “Burst Active” fruit pearls.

The words “fancy food” make my heart swell, for better or worse. In 1970, “fancy food” is what we called it when my father got a gift basket from his boss full of special jams and cheeses that weren’t Kraft Singles and chocolates that were not from Hershey. That basket thrilled me. (The cheeses were still processed ones, but it was 1970 and for them not to have been, we would have had to be Italian-American or a different income level.) The words artisanal and upscale, and that strange new term “noms,” had not yet been applied to food, but I would get a feeling of world-shaking satisfaction whenever I’d go to the Jewish “appetizing” store on Avenue J, where there were preternaturally bright dried fruits and smoked fish that magically smelled delightful, not offputting. Hence “fancy,” special. We seldom could buy anything there, but seeing it was enough. So it was with a sense of being in a childhood paradise that I found myself at the Summer Fancy Food Show last week, the national trade show for the Specialty Food Association, the 64-year-old association of producers and purveyors who sell “high perceived value” food to the American market.

In booths throughout the mammoth Jacob Javits Convention Center, there were literally thousands of entrepreneurs proffering samples of soft elite French cheeses, Wagyu beef from Japan, blood orange juice from Italy. Miles of pickles and goat ice cream and quince paste, an overwhelming largess of “special” crackers and snacks and cookies, so many proffered fancy chocolates I literally could not stand to see another one. (Really!) Eight-year-old me would have run naked through the convention center snatching up foods into my mouth, but 52-year-old me tried to go for the healthy stuff. In this context, that meant the meats and cheeses, dried fruit, smoked and cooked fish, and fermented pickles and sauerkraut. There are no fresh fruits or vegetables in the Fancy Food Show, and despite labels of “non-GMO,” “gluten-free,” “high-protein,” “superfood” and “natural” slapped on everything, there seemed to be many more processed foods than whole ones.

Foodie culture has had such an enormous influence on our eating habits that Specialty Food Association delights often turn into what are ever-after considered plain-old normal foods stocked in every supermarket: Chobani, Roland canned vegetables and sauces, Jelly Belly beans, and Season sardines are all members. So are the companies that make the seaweed snacks, kale chips, Barilla pasta, and coconut water you can now find all over New York.

And you could (if you wanted to) sample all those now ho-hum products at the food fair. But like capitalism (and often, our appetites), the Fancy Food Show is focused on the new and different. Here are the five items from the show that made my toes curl:

The food that excited me most was something called Bio-Revival “Burst Active,” which, embarrassingly, was… not exactly a whole food. Well, maybe. Sort of. I loved it. Bio-Revival, a company in Jupiter, Florida, uses molecular gastronomy to create bright, glorious, “fruit caviar” pearls out of (variously) fruit juices, honey, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar.

My favorite were the blackcurrant-juice pearls, which looked like large rubies and burst under my tongue. They were delicious. I wanted to give them to my guests at parties: they were beautiful, gleaming spheres of juice encapsulated in a ultrathin, taste-free layer of seaweed. (The molecular gastronomy process is called “spherification.”) I wanted to hand a spoonful to my best friend. The strawberry-juice caviar were also superb. (Bio-Revival also makes these jewels out of pomegranate, orange, and apple juice, though I didn’t get to taste these flavors.) The honey, balsamic, and even the olive oil spheres tasted exquisite, and they were were some of the most beautiful-looking foods I have ever eaten. I would have liked to put all but the olive oil caviar in my cereal, or in pancakes. (The company recommends the olive oil and balsamic ones for use in salads, where they will not soak or wilt the greens.)

Pricing on Bio-Revival’s website is utterly confusing, but company vice president Eugene Richter informs me that in contradistinction to the prices listed on the website, all products are now available for the promotional price of $12 for 113 grams, which I think is reasonable considering that these pearls can, as Bio-Revival’s brochure says, “surprise your family and party guests with innovation and fantasy.” They are all preservative and GMO-free. “Pearls” can be ordered with or without sugar, although the tasty ones I tried all turned out to have come with. (I suggest calling or emailing Bio-Revival to order.)

My second favorite product was something called Cocorau, subtitled “Raw Couture Collection.” Frankly, I am also faintly embarrassed by this choice. Not because it’s a line of raw chocolate truffles, but because a) they are tiny, 1-ounce candies that retail for $6 a piece, and b) their maker, Konstanze Zeller, is a makeup artist who says she created the candies for “models,” intended as “beautifying” agents for their skin, with “antiaging nutrients that are good for your whole being.” The four flavors of “Raw Power Bites” have names that come from yoga and Hindu philosophy, and they are all made with raw, organic ingredients like cacao paste, pistachios, coconut oil, and molasses. Except for the green matcha -flavored one, which has some honey, they are all vegan. The thing is — they are the most exciting chocolates I have eaten in years. I tried two, the “SAMADHI – orange bliss – desire” and the “TURIYA – espresso – energizing.” Samadhi is defined (according to Google Definitions, at least) as “the stage at which union with the divine is reached (before or at death).” (Sounds like desire to me.) It truly tasted like desire, too — the orange essence and Mexican chile powder combine with the raw cacao and almonds and hazelnut pieces to provide a truly sexy, genuinely beautiful bite. Zeller also says she designed the chocolates to look “attractive,” and they do — surprisingly, that makes a real difference. Turiya, according to various websites which may or may not have any authority whatsoever, means “pure consciousness,” “the serene and blessed state,” “the highest Brahmic consciousness.” I find it mildly hilarious (but not offputting) that this is the yogic state Zeller decided to associate with espresso. But the chocolate, which I tried three times, is astounding. It did taste like it was giving me pure consciousness (in ways that just slurping espresso would not have). The almond flour and cacao and molasses (which is, in fact, loaded with great nutrients) actually did make the bite feel nourishing. Eating this caffeinated, healthy-tasting, delicious thing, I was willing to suspend disbelief and think for a minute that this bite might be anti-aging me.

It’s too expensive for a regular treat, so buy it for someone you care about for the holidays.

My third favorite (also not a health food): Les Trois Petites Cochons’ new Terrine Des Trois Rois, a sort of meat spumoni made of alternating layers of Armagnac-marinated prunes, chicken, and duck foie gras. For some of you, this will be an ethical horror as well as a cholesterol- and fat-bomb. But for me, it was like eating a wonderfully basso-profundo jam that somehow blended aptly with the butchest chopped liver you could find. It retails for about $18.99 online for 7 ounces (which is a lot even for foie gras, but more than you can eat at several sittings, and more than enough for a dinner party).

Fourth favorite: a new Italian blue cheese covered in coffee — yes, coffee — and slices of coffee beans, from the Italian cheesemakers Luigi Guffanti, called Erborinato Sancarlone Caffé. This lovely, almost dessertlike cheese — the coffee tasted at some points like chocolate, but the blue cheese itself was not sweet — was exhibited by an American cheese distributor out of Armonk, N.Y. called World’s Best Cheeses, which had an enormous booth full of little-known cheeses that were nearly all extraordinary.

Fifth favorite: finally, a healthy one. Cleveland Kraut, a newish maker of great live, fermented sauerkrauts, has a fantastic new flavor out called Gnar Gnar. Most of the sauerkraut you’ll find at the grocery is shelf-stable and made with vinegar; Cleveland Kraut’s kind, fermented and probiotic, is far superior both nutritionally and in taste. Gnar Gnar, made with jalapenos, sriracha, green peppers, garlic, and leeks as well as cabbage, tastes both spicy and extra-fermented; a funky sauerkraut that you would be proud to have represent you in the world. The straight-seeming young men who make it, who I met at the show, say that queer fermentation revivalist Sandor Katz is their hero.

Random other things I liked: Malai, a line of delicate ice creams in Indian flavors like rose and star anise, made in Brooklyn. Brewla, a popsicle made of cold brew, awesome and also from Brooklyn. A line of dried fruits called Fruit Bliss — also made in the borough of my birth — that are the most luscious, juicy, fresh-tasting dried apricots, prunes, and Turkish figs I have ever tasted, and all organic. (They get a steam bath at some point to keep the fruit “wet,” but managed to avoid becoming slimy like other “wet” dried fruit.) Another line of organic dried fruit called Made in Nature that makes the fruit into something called “supersnacks” I would normally disdain, except that these are both healthy and addictive (their Figgy Pops, “energy balls” made of figs plus things like coconut, nuts, seeds, cherries, and chocolate, made me happy). An odd thing called Coffee Blocks, coffee made with grass-fed butter, egg yolks, and coconut oil, that I hope this culture adopts.

This originally appeared in in the July 7, 2016 issue of Gay City News.

Pleasures That Cannot Be Bought


grapes creative Commons
One of the main things our movement is about is pleasure. The right to pleasure, and the goodness and innocence of all pleasure that hurts no one, is what we, more than anyone else in our time (and perhaps any time), assert and defend. In honor of Pride, this is a column full of pleasures that cannot be bought, as we ourselves cannot be bought and sold. Screw the corporatization of Pride, here is a list of stark raving pleasures you don’t have to go into debt for, not make rent for, or even post about so that some advertiser will reward you.

The play of air on your bare legs in shorts. Lips like roses, soft and with that rose-texture and even the smell of roses, overwhelming you with kisses. An entire mouth, open and trusting, on your nipples, exploring them around and around and through. (You might protest that you could buy this experience, but you cannot buy the specific pleasure of having this done to you by someone who is doing it for free, for no other reason than because they really, really wanted to.) You, going swimming in the ocean and letting the waves jump you. Someone’s vagina like a volcano in your fingers.

Taking over the street for a demonstration with a group like the Dyke March or Black Lives Matter or the Drag March, instead of submitting yourself into the tightly confined police pens of Heritage of Pride. Believe me, if you’ve never taken over the street with a bunch of people, it gives a feeling of exhilaration and camaraderie and sweetness that no one can ever take away from you. (This only applies if the organizers have taken steps to keep you safe, as all the above groups do.) When I was younger this was one of the few things that ever made me feel like I was part of a “community.” Now, my humanist congregation in Brooklyn does it for me, too, along with many other pockets of liberation and beauty in this city. But you’ll find your own spaces where you will be welcomed as you are, for free. People of color spaces, trans spaces, women’s spaces, radical spaces, libraries. Faerie groves and artists’ spaces and caring circles. Though you’ll like some of the spaces better than others, there will be at least one flowering oasis in the desert waiting for you — a spiritual or political or healing site where people will listen to you and expect you to listen to them, too, even when you disagree.

Make an omelette in your own house, with your own toast — not free, but cheap and very easy: Fry some onions and mushrooms. Put scrambled egg mixture in. Invite others over for brunch or eat your omelette wonderfully alone, naked and relaxing and listening to free old bossa nova music online, while admiring your naked belly in the mirror and discovering how scrambled egg feels on your stomach. Get Nalo Hopkinson’s Falling in Love with Hominids out of the library and read her astonishing story-version of The Tempest, narrated by the Caribbeans Ariel and Caliban and their mother.

Read in bed. Read lying on the couch, if you have one. If you don’t have a bed, read propped against a wall. Read Gerard Manley Hopkins from the library or online, a 19th century Jesuit priest who wasn’t out but wrote the most gorgeous poems I have ever read, about the beautiful bodies of men and the sexiness of God. Find a man somewhere outside with a beautiful naked chest and feast your eyes on him. Read Hopkins’ lovely S/M love poem to Jesus, “The Windhover: To Christ Our Lord.” (Somewhat surprisingly, Hopkins writes Jesus as a top: “Brute beauty… O my chevalier!”)

As though you were in preschool, make art with crayons and cutouts and macaroni and finger paint, even if you don’t think you’re good at all. Make your lover an artwork with finger paint. Make music with children’s instruments. Drums, maracas, tambourine, chimes, bells, plastic recorder! Make a wild rumpus. Dance around. Remember the writer Kurt Vonnegut saying, “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” Invite all your friends over to read aloud to one another work by themselves and others.

Put the flowers right up against your nose and smush them onto your face at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden on Saturday before noon or all day Tuesday, the free times. Do the same thing at the crazy-good flower garden at Fort Tryon Park, which is right near the entrance and always free. Jump in the surf at Coney Island instead of going to the amusement park. Go to Forest Park in Queens and breathe in the greeny, forest-y air. Take a bath with salt in the water while listening to your favorite loud, fast music. Go on the Staten Island Ferry, the best place to bring a date in Gotham. Speak a foreign language to native speakers, even if you’re terrible at it. Take in: the man with the ices cart who smiles at you, the woman who lets you take a seat on the train, the person with the beautiful orange scarf, the calf muscles of the dude in the red shorts, the shoulder muscles of the butch in the navy tank top, the lipstick and the skirt of the glorious woman in the market, the last praise you received, your memory of what your parent cooked for you that you liked, transwoman Roz Kaveney’s What If What’s Imagined Were All True, a book of magical poems from A Midsummer Night’s Press, the recognition that you could make something with your own hands that would taste delicious, even if it was only peanut butter and jelly on whatever bread you could find.

Happy Pride.

This is my Gay City News column for Pride, 2016. Happy Pride to everyone! 🙂

The Revolution Will Not Be Consumed at Smorgasburg


I was thrilled when the food writing goddess Molly O’Neill recently called this “a terrific piece looking at the intersection of food, real estate, life and the commodification of the modern, the local, the sustainable and the imaginative by the wonderful Donna Minkowitz.” It was published in Gay City News on June 9, 2016.

Under normal circumstances, my reaction to the news that a new artisanal food hall had opened in the city might be rage. In the extraordinarily beautiful river park next to Battery Park City, new kids in town Le District and Hudson Eats are revoltingly overpriced and offensively underwhelming. ($15 for bad, small “Skinny Pizza”? $12.50 for a teeny bagel with a tiny bit of beet-cured lox at Black Seed?) And they replaced the perfectly good, cheaper eats you used to be able to enjoy in that complex (Brookfield Place), while looking out at the the shimmery Hudson and listening to interesting free music and performance art.

I like the food at Brooklyn Flea, but its bigger offspring, Smorgasburg, is too crowded to enjoy, with diners competing madly for savviest-foodie-hipster status and for a sadistically small number of seats. (As with David Chang’s deliberately painful seating at his Momofuko restaurants, upscale food promoters are trying to train diners to accept ever-smaller and more uncomfortable spaces as the value per foot of city real estate goes ever up.)

Marcuse coined the phrase “repressive desublimation” to mean the pleasures that consumer culture promises you, only to have the supposed ecstasies of the Berkshire pork taco (say) vanish as soon as you take the first bite. Pleasures fade exactly this quickly at the Gotham West Market, The Plaza Food Hall, Chelsea Market — all the carnivals of fake-bacchanalian fressing. It’s easy (if you’re not poor, that is) to be swept away with excitement by the sight of all that quivering, umami, gleaming, exciting food. Smoked whitefish with rice from Ivan Ramen! Hibiscus doughnuts from Dough! Popsicles made from cherry blossoms! Wow! But when you finally eat them, the revolutionary pleasures they seemed to offer are compressed out of all existence by the crowded, uncomfortable, competitive space, the lackluster culinary skills of the preparers, and the pressures of doing what is in effect the unpaid job of Instagraming, tweeting, and blogging about the hyped-up food you just ate. In an age when it’s mandatory to have social media profiles and to build your personal status by any means necessary, we pay once for the artisanal grub and then a second time, by promoting it for free.

There’s more. Alyssa Katz, an editorial writer for the New York Daily News who has covered real estate for decades, says luxury developers are using the upscale food halls and festivals to escalate gentrification in their neighborhoods. “There’s been a very deliberate investment by these developers” in yuppie food hubs, she says, for the express purpose of luring high-income tenants and buyers. In fact, Smorgasburg owners Jonathan Butler and Eric Demby say they were invited to set up shop on the Williamsburg waterfront by real-estate developers who “were trying to sell [apartments in] their buildings.” And Uprose, Sunset Park’s anti-gentrification group, has sharply criticized Industry City, the “disruption hub” in Sunset Park whose food hall (including a Smorgasburg) is spurring yuppie relocation that will lead to the displacement of thousands of low-income Sunset Parkers.

Which brings me to the city’s newest food hall, The Pennsy. It’s a yuppie gastro-hub that has somehow opened on top of Penn Station, which could be described as the stinking asshole of New York City. In that benighted neighborhood, the brain-killing giant neon billboards make you want to die even more than the ugly, dark, and dirty confines of Penn Station underneath. In the station, of course, there is no food that could even be called tolerable, stranding the 600,000 who enter it daily to use Amtrak, the LIRR, and New Jersey Transit.

If ever there was a place in need of nurturing food, this would be it. The Pennsy is perched on top of the station’s entrance, on the slightly-raised ground floor of the big building atop Penn Station’s rat-warrens. There’s a banner in the window noting that Pat LaFrieda (the king of trendy chopped-meat blends) has a sandwich stall inside, and a huge sign reading EAT DRINK REPEAT.

The first thing I noticed was that it is really nice inside, much nicer than most of the other food halls. There are actually fresh flowers on the tables (yellow lilies with blood-red streaks, on one occasion), and smiling greeters who truly made me feel welcome.

About those greeters, however: one of their functions is surely to keep away the visible homeless and other scruffy folk who can be found right outside The Pennsy’s doors, both within Penn Station and on the plaza outside it. Mary Giuliani (no relation to Rudy), a caterer who has developed the food hall in association with realty giant Vornado, told me that the hall is “Vornado’s attempt to start the change in the neighborhood.” The company owns a great deal of real estate nearby, she said, including the building that The Pennsy sits in.

Giuliani says she and Vornado were also thinking of the $20 billion Hudson Yards development when they created their foodie plaza, which is just two blocks away from that elite complex. Hudson Yards, which has such very wealthy tenants and anticipated condo buyers that that the place already has its own, operational subway stop even though none of the residences have yet opened, is “the largest private real estate development in the history of the United States,” according to its developer.

To be fair to Giuliani, who owns the catering and lifestyle company Giuliani Social with her husband, Ryan, she also said she is making an effort to have the place be “cool but very inclusive”and maintain “diversity.” Says Giuliani, “Looking around at lunch one day, I saw all walks of life.” In a limited way, she has a point. While the poor (and, for that matter, most Penn Station travelers) are not buying food at The Pennsy, the hall was partly intended to draw attendees from events at Madison Square Garden. And though ticket prices at the Garden are stratospheric, people who are not wealthy have been known to pay them on occasion to see sports and concerts. They could do worse than to repair to this sandwich-and-vodka hall afterwards (a large bar anchors The Pennsy, along the back wall).

A note about logistics, however: the charming table-and-chair clusters provide wonderfully sufficient seating for lunch and dinner, but they would definitely be overwhelmed by the rush of people after a Knicks game. And there is a weird state of affairs with the bathrooms: they are hard to find unless you ask a greeter, all the way at the back and then up an elevator or escalator. Even stranger, there are only two stalls in the women’s room. I saw cleaners there all the time, but on one visit there was a persistent smell of urine.

The half-welcoming, half-unwelcoming aspect of the hall (the bathrooms are surely hidden to keep homeless folks away) jibes with the reason an airy, friendly food mecca has suddenly opened on top of this disgusting transit hub. When is it that services suddenly appear out of nowhere in this city? When rich people are about to move in who, it is hoped, are in need of them.

So much the worse for them. As it happens, most of the food here isn’t very good. When I ate at The Cinnamon Snail’s astounding vegan food truck in the past, I found it magical. But here (where the chef, Adam Sobel, told me he rarely appears), a Beastmode Burger Deluxe ($10.95), made of “ancho chili seitan” grilled “in maple bourbon bbq sauce with jalapeno mac n cheese, arugula, smoke chili coconut bacon, and chipotle mayo,” tasted distressingly like a Big Mac. It was overwhelmed with something that tasted an awful lot like “special sauce” (the “chipotle mayo,” not spicy at all but plenty sweet). The mac n cheese bits, scattered on top of the burger, were the best part, though they didn’t taste of jalapeno. The Thai BBQ Tempeh with pickled red onions, Thai basil, and sriracha mayonnaise wasn’t much better. It was swimming in a different, teeth-achingly sweet sauce ($9.95, plus $2.80 if you want it served over red quinoa pilaf instead of bread). But almost all The Cinnamon Snail’s food is organic, and some of the vegan doughnuts are outstanding.

At Pat LaFrieda, things were worse. Grandpa’s Meatball Sandwich ($12) tasted like something I might have gotten at my high school cafeteria. I didn’t try the lobster sandwich at The Lobster Press booth by the famous chef Marc Forgione, because it sounded like a terrible idea to press a lobster roll thin in a sandwich press and stick cheese on it ($18). But my friend’s lobster bisque ($9.25 for a small, plastic bowl) was oily, with an odd chemical aftertaste. My friend reported that he found only two chunks of lobster in the soup, and that some pieces of shell had made it into the bowl.

I didn’t get to try anything at The Little Beet, a so-called “100% guiltin’ free” booth that is part of a chain of gluten-free fast food joints. The best dishes I tried in The Pennsy were from Mary Giuliani’s own booth, Mario by Mary, for which she uses some recipes by Mario Batali as well as some of her own. The eggplant nonna ($11.02, breaded, fried eggplant with fresh whipped ricotta, scamorza, and tomato) was rich, umami, and napped with creaminess. Giuliani’s unusual rainbow cookies (called here “Venetian rainbow cake,” $3.68) were delicate and delicious. The La Colombe coffee, served at the bar in the back, was astringent and off-tasting.

The Pennsy, 2 Pennsylvania Plaza (33rd Street and Seventh Avenue),, 917-475-1830. Hours: daily, 11 AM to 9 PM. (On some days, the bar is open additional hours.) The hall is wheelchair-accessible via a ramp at street level, and restrooms are accessible and reachable by elevator.

Fantasy Encounters with Dessert

Dominique Valentine's


Fantasy plays an enormous role in eating. But in the realm of pastry it is off the charts. At Cronut founder Dominique Ansel’s two bakeries in Manhattan, I saw a pastry made of sesame and cherry imitating a Japanese paper crane. I saw another confection made to look and taste like a giant blackberry. I saw orange-pink grapefruit arranged to appear (it was clear to me, at least) as an excited vulva, spreading itself atop a lemon-thyme tart. And none of this effort was about looks alone, for the taste and textures of each of Ansel’s extravagant, superb objects was as rich and complex as a novel.

Let me get one thing out of the way – this is not going to be a review of the Cronut. In a way, I wish it were, for the croissant-doughnut with fillings like Blueberry Lemon Verbena and Gianduja Blood Orange looks divine on Instagram, but I do not get up at six in the morning to purchase anything. Still, in an oblique way you could say this IS a review of the Cronut, for the legend of the Cronut utterly shapes the experience of dining at its creator’s bakeries, even at the West Village location that has never sold them.

My best time at Dominique Ansel (in either location) was my first visit, to the Soho store on Spring Street. There were two traveling-model types cutesily taking pictures of each other next to famous chocolate desserts, but there were only two of them, and the shop is large once you get past the narrowish front. In the back there is a large, lovely seating area whose ceiling is one vast skylight, so the room is filled with sun. There is lemon water available for guests, and the space looks out onto an outdoor garden that also has abundant tables and chairs.

Sitting in the sunny back room, I ate the giant blackberry. It turned out to be a dark purple globe of blackberry geleé encircling a mousse made of milk chocolate and rosemary. The mousse in turn enclosed a core of housemade blackberry jam, and mousse and jam stood together atop a little chocolate dacquoise cake. The milk chocolate, the rosemary, and various blackberry formations startlingly combined to taste like blackberry in the mouth. Or, I should say, to taste more like blackberry than an actual blackberry would. The globe tasted like what Wallace Stevens might have called The Blackberry at the End of the Mind, with the heft and darkness (here from chocolate) that you always find yourself wanting in blackberry to complement and reconcile its high, acid notes.

Eating it, as I drank down good, strong coffee and sat in the warm sunlight, going back for more and more lemon water, I thought, “This would be a great place for a date!” People could eat luscious pastries together and relax in the sun. And it would all be affordable, as dates go. Even at $6.50 a pop for most desserts, and $3.50 for a large coffee, it would still be cheaper than going out to dinner.

My fantasy came crashing down on my next visit to Spring Street. At least 20 people in identical yellow T-shirts milled around in the narrowest part of the store, in front of the counters — American tourists in two different large groups, led by leaders with whistles and clipboards. I am overwhelmed in a sea of butter-yellow people who don’t know where to stand. I am trying to figure out how to place my order, but it’s confusing. Finally a counterperson summons me for my turn, frowning: “Oh, you’re not with the group.” “No.” “I thought you were. You could have ordered much sooner if I’d known.” Not even taking the time to be embarrassed, I order a grapefruit thyme panna cotta (not the vulva tart, a different dessert made with grapefruit and thyme).

I settle down with it at one of the nice tables in the front. (The tourists have overrun the back, but the front of the bakery is relatively wide, with two comfortable tables by a window, before it constricts to the tiny floor-through area with counters.) I will pretend I’m on a date, all I have to do is imagine that someone is with me and that the swarming tourists are gone.

I ordered the grapefruit panna cotta because it’s the most voluptuous thing in the display case — different shades of red, pink, and golden grapefruit segments curling merrily on top of a dish of white creamy stuff. They are poached in honey and colored like jewels, their red juice exploding in my mouth as it hits the panna cotta, cream cooked with gelatin and sugar. The panna cotta tastes preternaturally fresh, rich and sweet and airy, even floaty. The fruit is so vivid and bright that the dish tastes light despite the richness of the cream.

I want my wedding cake to taste like this. All I can think of is sex, eating it. The red fruit is curled like shrimp. It sticks in and out of its custard. Also, I think of religious ecstasy. “The land of milk and honey” was my favorite Bible line in yeshiva. But as I got older, I loved “May I find your breasts like clusters of grapes on the vine. Syrup and milk are under your tongue.” Inside the panna cotta are tiny bits of excellent candied fruit. And in the center of the bowl is what looks like a gleaming golden gumdrop, which turns out to be “local bamboo honey geleé.” Geleé is something thickened with gelatin, and this gumdrop functions as the big yankable clitoris of this dessert, or, you could say, the cherry on top.

Grounding the dish is a tiny olive oil cake, which provides a nice bass note.

My religious experience with the red fruits and their cream was quite real, but now I’m noticing that my normally cast-iron stomach is starting to hurt from how rich the thing was. “Food!” I think. “I’ll put real food in there to settle me down.” I order a “roasted pork club” — Dominique Ansel Bakery and Dominique Ansel Kitchen both have extensive food selections — but the sandwich ($12) is too dry despite some nice pieces of pork, and counter staff do not alert me that the sandwich will take 30 minutes because they are waiting on a huge order from a group of 20 tourists.

I decide that Dominique Ansel Kitchen, the chef’s outpost on Seventh Avenue and Charles Street, must have been invented so that New Yorkers could enjoy the paradise of his pastries without tourist intervention. (Sincere disclaimer: I have nothing against tourists. I don’t think they’re unfashionable or uncool or ugly. I just wish they would all spread out and go to different places, not converge on the same ones.) The West Village shop is a little prettier, with dark woods on the inside and lovely lavender and white picnic tables in an outdoor seating area in front, with extraordinary (and copious) lavender and white flowers in urns. More importantly, they do not sell the Cronut! I’m excited. The savory food items on the menu sound so good that I’m determined to try one despite my experience with the overly bread-laden and tough-pigskin-infested pork club.

There’s a dish called the Egg-clipse, which consists of “squid ink brioche, mashed potatoes, mushroom béchamel, and two confit egg yolks” ($8.25). I have to have it. According to their website, the Kitchen’s focus is pastries and food cooked “à la minute,” which means right then at the very moment that you order it. “For Chef Dominique and our team, eating things at the wrong moment is just as bad as over- or under- salting your food.” I sit at one of the beautiful white-and-lavender tables in front, although to do so I must squeeze awkwardly past some young women at the next picnic table, because one table has been slapped down right behind the other, with no room to move between them. The young ladies are extremely annoyed when I apologetically go behind their bench.

Tourists? I don’t think so, but they do seem to be wealthy but insecure newcomers, boasting about which famous restaurants they’re going to go to and where their “fiancés” are taking them for the weekend.

Finally the Egg-clipse comes. My server’s at a loss for how to get the dish to me, pausing for a minute, paralyzed by the restaurant’s configuration. Your call will go to sleep Finally, shrugging, he heroically squeezes his narrow butt past a flower urn, breaking one of my egg yolks in the process. Digging in, I find the eggs are also cold. Has the dish really been cooked à la minute? The squid ink brioche, presenting as a very black, very thick slice of bread, surprises by being the best part. Note to Chef Dominique: please remove all but a little of the weird mountain of mashed potatoes on the open-faced sandwich, add more cheese, and serve the eggs hot.

I was going to say this experience taught me that one shouldn’t order the real food in bakeries, but then I remembered the delicious ham, goat, and chicken tortas at the Don Paco Lopez Panaderia in Sunset Park, recently profiled in the Times, and the nice sandwiches at at Colson Patisserie in Park Slope, conveniently across from the YMCA.

I grab two chocolate chunk cookies to go (Karen’s favorite, $3.50 each). The cookie is buttery and yielding and complex, but the chocolate is not nearly chocolatey or intense enough.

Final visit: I return to Spring Street to bring two pastries home. Grumpy staff try to force me to take a pavlova with whitish, unripe-looking blackberries and a pastry bird missing its head. “You’re not allowed to pick the one you want.”

I rebel, bringing home a salted caramel eclair for Karen, delightfully 8 1/2 inches long and melty and exquisite ($6). Bliss. BLISS. Bliss. How can I describe the taste? Perhaps it is like the nipples of your very favorite person.

For me, I get the “Sesame Cherry Origami ‘Crane,’ ” the very thing that first grabbed my attention in Dominique Ansel’s display case. “Toasted white sesame mousse, black sesame dacquoise with a cherry sake geleé center,” the menu says of it ($6.50). With tiny white chocolate “wings,” it really does look like a paper crane. But it tastes… not great. The black cherry center is okay. The white sesame mousse is a little too creamy, and okay. Can’t find the black sesame dacquoise, it must be a small part of this. The different textures and tastes don’t hold together, and I can’t make sense of them as a cohesive dish. Then my stomach starts to hurt.

Dominique Ansel Bakery, 189 Spring Street between Thompson and Sullivan, 212-219-2773, Hours: Monday to Saturday, 8 AM -7 PM, Sunday, 9 AM – 7 PM. Wheelchair access: a wheelchair may be able to get in the door, but good luck getting to the ordering counter or finding space to station it inside. The restroom is narrow. Dominique Ansel Kitchen, 137 7th Avenue S. between Charles and W. 10th (not far from The Center), 212-242-5111, Hours: Monday to Sunday, 9 AM-9 PM. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible. The restroom can fit a wheelchair, but there are no handrails.

Originally published in Gay City News, May 12, 2016.

Summer Memoir Writing Workshop

Brooklyn writing classes

Hey, I’ll be teaching a five-week summer memoir writing workshop in Brooklyn! The class will meet on Wednesday nights starting June 29 in Windsor Terrace, and run from 7 to 9 PM. The last class is August 5 (no class the week of July 20). The fee is $250.

The workshop focuses on craft – particularly on using emotion, sensory details, critical thinking, and imagination to construct profound and relatable works of personal writing. Students will get frequent feedback in a supportive atmosphere. The number of students is limited to 8.

Students at all levels are welcome.

Please let me know if you’re interested. You can contact me at growingupgolem AT 🙂

Bio: Donna Minkowitz has taught memoir writing for 18 years, at venues including the 92nd Street Y, The Kitchen, the Mt. Chocorua Writing Workshop, and the NY 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, and she won a Lammy for her first memoir, Ferocious Romance. A former columnist at The Village Voice, she’s also written for The New York Times Book Review, Salon, and The Nation, and she is the restaurant columnist for Gay City News.

How to get there: Class is near the F/G stop at Fort Hamilton Parkway (a short trip from downtown Manhattan or North Brooklyn.)

A scheduled make-up class will be available for those who must miss a week due to vacation.

Refund policy: full refund for withdrawal by June 22, 50% refund for withdrawal by June 28. Because of strict limits on class size, no refunds given after June 28.

Feel free to contact me by email or this contact form.

Debauched by A Scrambled Egg

ships biscuit

I got debauched with a piece of scrambled egg today. I didn’t expect to, but it was there, in between some ricotta and focaccia at Saltie. Some oozed out on my face ultra-creamily, and I didn’t feel disgusted, I felt exalted.

I thought of my friend the poet Michael Broder’s wonderful essay in The Rumpus about being a “sub bottom pig slut cumdump” and how it makes him create poetry.

I don’t remember having ever enjoyed having egg on my face before, but that egg scrambled and touched with ricotta by the cooks at Saltie is so good (even cold) it can get you beyond the disturbing chicken-ovum-on-cheek sensation.

Saltie in Williamsburg, helmed by two stellar women chefs, is a great place to get debauched by a sandwich. The place is beautiful, cheap (for food of this quality), and impeccably sourced with small-farm vegetables, fruits, dairy, eggs, and meat to a degree you’d be hard-pressed to find at any other sandwich shop in the city. The combination of the ingredients and the chefs’ brilliance means the amount of pleasure here is so much greater, the amplitude so much more intense, that even places like Num Pang, Coffeed, and No. 7 Sub pale by comparison.

One sandwich is called The Balmy, with this unlikely list of ingredients: “chicken liver pâté, ham, jalapeños, mayo, pickled veg, sesame seeds” ($12). On my first outing with the sandwich, the chicken liver could only barely be tasted on its own, but was like some sublime jam cementing the ham and pickled vegetables together, aided by the sesame seeds which joined in providing umami and fat (and nuttiness) in perfect counterpoint to the pickliness of spiced, vinegared carrots, mint, parsley, celery, and purple, beet-dyed onions. It’s the finest sandwich I can remember, and the only food I think I could honestly compare to a symphony.

Some downsides: Saltie is a tiny storefront where you have to order at the counter, and it has those high backless stools I almost always hate in a restaurant. They usually mean the place is trying to cram diners in and get them to leave as soon as possible from discomfort (really). But at Saltie, whether because the stools are somehow more comfortable than usual (with maplewood tops over white metal), or because the café is so upbeat and bright-looking, or because I was seduced by the food (most likely), I didn’t believe the chefs ever wanted us to leave.

A large front window lets in lots of sun, and the place is painted with a cheerful blue wave motif throughout the joint on a white background. The name “Saltie” is meant to evoke sailors and the sea, as well as, the chef-owners have variously claimed, their own personalities, their love of the flavor, and a dangerous saltwater crocodile. The little room, which includes eight stools, two counters, and a nice, long, indoor bench, is only open from 10 AM to 6 PM daily. Yet it’s a fabulous date spot for breakfast, brunch or lunch if, as in my relationship, it’s considered erotic in yours to squirt pimenton aïoli at each other from your plates, or watch each other moan from food.

Every day, there are many baked goods on offer, all more intense, interesting, and well-made than you’ll get elsewhere. Something called a “Sophisticated Lady Cake,” a not-small, individual round cake with chocolate ganache frosting, was a little top of a dessert, with what tasted like a jolt of espresso in the sticky, edgy, all-encompassing frosting, and molasses and spices in the cake ($3). A “Chocolate Nudge” cookie was a rich, almost flourless, slightly salty drop cookie with pistachios and bittersweet chocolate chips inside, not at all enormous yet satisfying enough for two ($2.50). Coffee was always excellent and very fresh, though once it had a chicory flavor I missed on the occasions it was absent. I like a loaf cake that tastes like real food, i.e. like it would sustain me for a long walk in the mountains; Saltie’s buttery zucchini bread with pistachios and chocolate ($4) fit the bill and more, like the elves’ *lembas*, which makes the eater feel brave and merry as well as strong enough for the journey.

The only sandwich not named after something having to do with the sea, The Little Chef ($12), was also the only vague disappointment. Made of mortadella, pecorino, and green olive (on focaccia like nearly all the sandwiches), it was tasty and rib-sticking, but not exciting. But The Clean Slate, a near-vegan sandwich of astonishingly garlicky, housemade hummus, bulgur wheat, pickled carrots, red cabbage, onions, scallions and more, with yogurt sauce on naan, had to be the oomphiest hummus sandwich in the city ($11). The strong garlic flavor plus the crunch and snap of the bulgur and vegetables recalled salami, but better.

Every day, there is a salad special (recently, shaved cauliflower with radishes, kohlrabi, almonds, pickled golden raisins, and shallot vinaigrette, $10; instead of cauliflower, the star is sometimes shaved romaine or celery root). There is also a daily special of focaccia pizza, a soup (heritage pork posole the other day, $10), and something called an “egg bowl” (in recent months, the egg bowl has been okonomiyaki, the Japanese bar-food pancake, here made of sweet potatoes and served with smoked whitefish, cabbage, “miso mayo,” pickled radish, sliced radish, and hard-boiled egg ($12). I can’t tell you how much I regret that I didn’t have time to try these on deadline.

The two chefs are Caroline Fidanza, who has been working at farm to table restaurants her entire career, from Savoy to Diner and Marlow and Sons; and openly lesbian Rebecca Collerton, also from Diner, who has recently been wowing diners at the evening incarnation of Saltie, a British-Indian farm to table restaurant called Mr. Curry . In a phone interview, Fidanza said, “I wanted to make the restaurant affordable for people. These days, if you go out to a regular restaurant three times a week, you’re going to be poor.” Collerton, reached by email, said,” I wouldn’t know how to describe lesbian food, but Saltie sometimes rolls out a lesbian breakfast cake chock full of prunes and bran, just knocking on the head all those tired stereotypes!”

Saltie, 378 Metropolitan Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn,, 718-387-4777. Open daily from 10 to 6 PM (Mr. Curry is open Thursday through Saturday evenings, 6:30 PM to 10:30 PM). Restaurant is wheelchair accessible, but there is no restroom. There are Fresh Naps (individualized napkins with hand sanitizer on them) at the counter, which I always appreciate. Cash only; there is an ATM onsite.

First published in Gay City News on March 17, 2016.

Dirt Candy’s False Choice

dirt candy

After eating at Amanda Cohen’s expensive New York restaurant, Dirt Candy, I felt light, as though I had just done a colonoscopy prep. If you’ve never done this, you feel like an anorexic who not only starves themself of food, but also uses laxatives for that ultimate feeling of the-light-going-through-you perfect emptiness.

The feeling was not entirely unpleasant, but it was not what the cooks had intended me to feel. Cohen describes her own cooking at Dirt Candy as “decadent” and “luxurious” and “luscious,” and ever since she opened the place in 2008, she’s portrayed the restaurant as a uniquely voluptuous and pleasure-hellbent palace, as over against all other vegetarian restaurants, which she says are “horrible.… I just don’t enjoy them.”

And the food media have fully bought her contention that other meatless cooking is pallid and joyless, a cuisine to which Cohen has, as the New York Times put it, arrived as a “thrilling” and “daring” antidote. So there I was, at Cohen’s big, white-leathered restaurant on Allen Street on the Lower East Side, eating some of my spouse’s entrée called “Cauliflower” ($18), which the menu said was “cauliflower and curry with green pea saag, papaya chutney and pappadum.” It was very small, and the taste was pleasant. Yet it consisted of dollhouse-sized bits of cauliflower and a few other vegetables, on a wee, dollhouse-sized pappadum, like a tiny disk of vaguely sweet and appealing cardboard for little pixies to munch on. The vegetables were in a mildly tasty, utterly unspicy curry, but so itty-bitty and denuded of their particular vegetable flavors that I felt like a baby eating baby food. “Decadent”?

I have had so many more heart-racing vegetarian curries at, yes, Indian restaurants, Sri Lankan boites, and Malaysian roadhouses, not to mention (not curries, but other hearty vegetarian dishes) at Uzbek, Egyptian, Ukrainian, Russian, and Chinese places.

There was one very good thing on the plate – thin slices of fresh paneer (an Indian cottage-like cheese, but so much richer and more delicious than that sounds).

Then came my own entrée, “Radish”($18). It consisted, the menu said, of “black radish spaghetti with radish ravioli, radish greens pesto, and horseradish,” which I have to say sounded pretty good to me. I love radishes. It was interesting – which is the very best I can say about it. The spaghetti tasted like slightly less sharp radishes, and the whole dish was sitting on a thin white sauce that I could not properly identify as either the “pesto” or the “horseradish,” because it mainly tasted sweet and a little vegetal. The sauce activated my brain (” hmm, I’m really curious what that flavor is”) but not its pleasure centers. I didn’t mind the dish, but I didn’t exactly enjoy it, either. I’ve gotten a far vegetarian bigger bite for my buck at Veselka on Second Avenue, where the pierogies satisfy the soul in a way that, frankly, none of the food does here.

One highlight, though, was what the menu called a “snack” of “Korean fried broccoli” ($8), which was a tiny clump of delicious, spicy, deep-fried breaded broccoli balls threaded with a sauce made from gochujang, the excellent Korean condiment of red chili with pungent, fermented soybeans. The gochujang was mixed with lots of garlic and soy sauce – too much soy sauce, for the balls turned out overly salty. Still, they had a nice bite, and had an appealing creamy white sauce on top that reminded me of tahini on falafel balls. I liked them very much.

The major problem of the evening came when after our appetizer and entrées, we were still hungry. We ordered, therefore, an emergency plate of “curried fries” ($8). I don’t often eat fries, because I usually want to spend the calories on something else. But I was ravenous and so joined Karen in scarfing them. The dish turned out to be something you should only eat to fill an empty stomach, not for pleasure. The best part was, again, the few bits of fresh paneer that came with the plate. The fries themselves were soggy from sitting in a vaguely brown sauce, supposedly curry but more like a sweet gravy.

Dessert, however, from pastry chef Alycia Harrington, was extraordinary: a slice of “carrot meringue pie” with sour cream ice cream ($13). The filling was like a cross between carrot jam and an elegant jello, a voluptuous – finally! – gelatinous, sweet mass that somehow managed to incarnate the carrot as a fruit. The meringue was silky. The sour cream ice cream was possibly even better – truly exciting.

All right, I spoke too harshly. That pie satisfied my soul, no question.

At brunch another day I had the “zucchini pancakes with squash blossom butter” ($11), which frankly sounds like one of the things in the world I would most want to eat for brunch. When it came, though, my pancakes were, once more, itsy-bitsy and precious. I should have taken photos of them and not tasted them, for when I did they were like mild zucchini cardboard with powdered sugar on top.

They only tasted good with lots of maple syrup and “squash blossom butter” daubed on (that butter, for what it’s worth, tasted like regular old butter). I like a pancake that taste good by itself so you can have some contrast when you eat, a naked bit next to a syrupy bit. But naked, these pancakes just tasted like nothing.

“Let the earth of my body be mixed with the earth/my beloved walks on,” the sacred cowgirl Radha tells her beloved, the god Krishna, in a traditional Hindu erotic-religious poem. But if there is sexy dirt at Dirt Candy, it’s not going into the food.

Strangely, in her hugely successful courting of the press, Cohen has put out the message that there is an inherent opposition between healthy eating and good food politics on the one hand, and wild insatiable pleasure on the other. She’s wrong. It is abundantly possible to have all three. If you want them all together, go to the madly delicious, organic vegan restaurant Caravan of Dreams, about a 15 minute walk from Dirt Candy. Go to La Morada in the Bronx, or Tanoreen in Bay Ridge; go to your own kitchen.

In an endless stream of marketing talk, Cohen has insisted that her own cooking must be orgasmic because she “doesn’t care about your health [or] your politics.” She proudly notes that her fruits and vegetables are not local, seasonal, or organic, as though an abundance of pesticides guaranteed pleasure.

It doesn’t.

Worse, at Dirt Candy you will spend lots of money eating your tomatoes grown to survive thousands of miles of travel and broccoli picked a long time ago at the other side of the world. Dinner for two came to $130, and when we got home we had to raid the Barbara’s Puffins box.

Dirt Candy, 86 Allen St. between Grand and Broome Streets, 212-228-7732, Reservations suggested, especially for dinner. Hours: Dinner, 5:30 to 11 PM, Tuesday through Saturday (closed for dinner Sundays and Mondays). Brunch, 11:30 AM-2:30 PM, Saturday and Sunday. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible, including an accessible restroom with a beautiful flower mural covering the entire inside wall. There is a no-tipping policy, but a 20% administration fee is applied to the final bill.

This was originally published in Gay City News on April 14, 2016. To read it in the paper, go here.

Talking Fred Phelps at the Brooklyn Museum

Donna with Phelps

This is a piece I had the privilege of reading with Queer Memoir at a recent Brooklyn Museum event for Women’s History Month, March 5, 2016. It’s a companion piece to the original article I wrote for Poz magazine in 1994 about the five days I spent with the Rev. Fred Phelps and his family in Topeka.

Anyone here remember the Rev. Fred Phelps? I can see that some of you do 🙂 He was this guy who had a church in Kansas that was almost all members of his family, and they would fly all over the country to celebrate at the funerals of people who died of AIDS.

He and his adult children would picket funerals in New York and LA and Topeka with enormous signs that said “Fags Equals Death” with a big smiley face. Or they would say “God Hates You. Filthy AIDS Spreaders.” Phelps liked to send personally-crafted, mean letters to bereaved family members. Right after Nick Rango died, Phelps mailed his mother a letter calling him a “famous fag” and “filthy piece of human garbage who checked into hell November 10.” “I love to use words that send them off the edge emotionally,” Fred said. “There’s nothing better than that.”

I decided to go visit the guy and write about him. I was a writer for the Village Voice at the time and for the past couple of years I’d specialized in getting in Christian disguise and writing about antigay activists. They really scared me and at that time, they were really getting powerful, even in New York. But Fred scared me more than the rest, not just because he was all about hurting us in a very personal, emotional way but because he had a history of violence.

Two of his adult children said he’d beaten them all, including their mother, with an axe handle, and starved some of them. They remembered a game involving Fred holding a child in the air and repeatedly smashing his knee into the child’s groin while laughing. Fred was convicted of battery on someone protesting one of his demonstrations in the 90s, and other folks his church had hit had filed charges. I called the church and said I was a writer for a conservative publication and I wanted to visit Phelps and his flock in Kansas. They said come on down.

A couple of days into my visit, I asked Fred about beating his kids, and he said, “Those boys saying I beat ’em when they were little are telling the absolute truth! You know, that word ‘nurture’ means corporal punishment.” Five of his loyal adult kids, the ones who still turned out every day for demos with him, had told a reporter that he’d routinely hit them with belts and hairbrushes but that it was “appropriate discipline.” To prepare for my visit, I arranged with my mother and sister that I would call them at regular intervals, and if I didn’t call when I was supposed to, they should call the police.

I wore a shoulder-length wig to cover my butch hair, a long, flowered dress, and I kept looking mild and smiling. I had a notebook in my hands at every moment

Fred, who was 66, turned out to be a tall, athletic guy in tight, sexy little bicycle shorts. His wife, a grim little gray cipher, served me cookies. She looked two decades older than Fred, but wasn’t. I was moved somehow by the cookies. She was the only one of them who did anything to make me feel welcome. She served me a plate with Oreos, and some pretty tasteless pink wafer cookies with the pink cream inside, and not very good supermarket chocolate cookies. I remember being weirdly disappointed that she hadn’t baked them herself.

I guessed that regular flyer-making and activism were more important activities in the Phelps household than the traditional housewifely skills. A straight woman whose brother’s funeral the Phelpses had picketed told me an old lady regularly called her house and said, “Is this the house of fags?” and “is this the house where fags live?” Sometimes a really little kid would call instead and ask the same questions.

Wearing my bad wig and my dowdy dress, I felt like I was performing one of those hunting rituals where the hunter puts on the skin of the kind of animal she’s hunting. It felt like an initiation ritual – I wanted to hunt them, to get as close to the monster as I could and escape, to bring back some kind of trophy, knowledge of them, understanding of them, but more.

But there’s also something perilous about dressing up as anybody, and there’s a way that you become whatever you pretend to be. And for six days, I had also become a silent and unthreatening Christian woman. There’s a way that all reporting, all journalism is like that – oh, I’m just like you, I don’t have any opinions, I’m not angry at you, just keep telling me stuff that I can write down! But somehow, when I reported on homophobes, there was something weird I was always enacting. Sometimes I did phone interviews with queerhaters, like one I remember with the Oregon Citizens Alliance, and I would just keep listening and writing down what they said about “fags and dykes” and how homos are serial killers, and I would feel like a battered woman.

Or like a battered child. I’m here listening. I’m here and you may not know that I’m listening, but when I get away from you I’m going to use what you said against you!

In other words, I felt like Marge, Fred’s wife, or like all of his kids.

He forced them all, the ones who hadn’t left the family, to become lawyers so they could defend him in court, and to have houses right next to his house with shared backyards. All of them had to go to 5 to 10 demonstrations a day, a lot of them against people who were actually seriously antigay, like the Topeka Police Department and Jerry Falwell. Fred just liked taking his anger out on everyone.

And the kids liked taking their anger at him out on everyone, in an endlessly recursive series.

The last day had almost a festival air, they were picketing in Kansas City against Deepak Chopra, it was an airy summer evening with bigger crowds than usual and Phelps’s granddaughter Sara, who was 13 and had mirrored sunglasses, was holding up a sign that said LYDIA IN HELL. A passerby asked her who Lydia was and Sara answered merrily, “Lydia Moore, she was a 38-year-old dyke, coming back from vacation with her dyke lover, and and a semi crashed into their car and killed them!”

It felt like a punch in the face.

And I don’t know why it took me that long to feel it.

The irony is that my mother and sister, who I was relying on to protect me in case Fred got violent, were some of the real reason I was going to Fred in first place. I wanted to find out what made the monster tick and if I could spend six days with the monster because I had grown up with the monster in a working class, intellectual, leftist family in Brooklyn. My family weren’t homophobic, but they were violent. They had great politics, but they were violent.

And I was too scared to confront my mother and sister, who along with my father were the sources of that violence, but I could come face-to-face with Fred Phelps and expose him in print, and come out with my skin intact.

Spongy, Big Balls of Tingmo


The hot salad called logo-patsel was one of the brightest things I’ve ever eaten, a blisteringly spicy bowl of shredded carrots, cabbage, a little tomato, and chopped cilantro in a warm tomato-vinegar broth with lots of chilies, garlic, and ginger. The Tibetan entrée was boringly referred to as “stir-fried cabbage with carrot” on the menu, but though the vegetables were cooked, it must have only been for five seconds. They retained a vivid freshness that made me want to keep digging my spoon into the enormous bowl they came in ($8.50, available with optional beef, chicken, or tofu). Colored in beautiful yellows, oranges, and reds, they were a perfect thing to eat in winter.

The next day, the leftovers had mysteriously lost their bite of heat. But they still tasted good, now like some particularly fervent and authentic version of borscht. Tibetan food is often compared to Indian and Chinese cuisines, but the dishes at Brooklyn’s Café Tibet in Ditmas Park also reminded me of a number of Eastern European and Ashkenazi Jewish delights. The excellent beef momo (steamed dumplings) with an unusual, fruity, yellow hot sauce ($8.99 for eight large dumplings) owed more to pierogie than to Chinese jiaozi. And some of the vegetable dishes, like tsam-thuk, the Tibetan nomad soup made with roasted barley, radishes, carrot, and cottage cheese ($4.25), evoke the old Jewish dairy restaurants like Ratner’s. Others recall the pungent salads and pickles of Jewish “appetizing” stores, or, in a different way, those of Korea.

A narrow, badly painted room perched on top of the outdoor Q station on queer-friendly Cortelyou Road, Café Tibet is as dingy as Dubrow’s, the dairy cafeteria on Kings Highway whose food was always much worse than Ratner’s. The room does have its charms – tiny masks of dogs, cows, demons, and horses by every table, Buddhist fabric hangings with haunting images of faceless eyes, framed quotations from the Dalai Lama that say things like “Develop the heart/ Too much energy in your country is spent developing the mind instead of the heart/Develop the heart.” But Café Tibet also has some visible dirt – a little bit on the green-painted walls, which symbolize balance and harmony in Tibetan Buddhism, and some, sadly, in the bathroom, where the side of the white wastebasket and the bottom of a sink fixture were filthy. (The toilet and the sink appear clean.) The only reason I would recommend the place anyway is that the food is that good.

For the record, Café Tibet has an A rating from the health department. Take heart in that, and in the fact that the restaurant is so popular that ingredients turn over daily. I wasn’t expecting the “la-phing, a popular street snack, extracted from mung beans, drizzled with soy sauce, vinegar, garlic with Tibetan hot sauce” ($3.99) to be a cold, quivering pile of savory jello cubes made from mung beans, with a mouth-tingling chili sauce. It was one of the weirdest and most delicious appetizers I’ve had in quite a while.

The Tibetan diet is full of meat, milk, and carbs because of the country’s difficult terrain. Little else is available in the highest areas but yak products and barley, and the diet also helps keep Tibetans going in the low-oxygen, often very cold environment. Butter tea, classically made with black tea mixed with salt and butter from a dri (a female yak), is the national drink. Friends succeeded in warning me off the butter tea at Café Tibet on my initial visits (“Really, really nasty,” cautioned one who’d had the drink elsewhere), but they proved misguided. When I finally had one ($1.50), it tasted nurturing and good, like a sauce or gravy. True, I couldn’t stand to drink more than a couple of sips because of the richness, but I dunked my steamed bread (tingmo) in it, alternating it with dunks in the hot sauce and a fruity soy sauce, for a very satisfying experience.

All of the food I had at Café Tibet tasted nurturing, but I need to focus on that tingmo, which you should choose instead of the perfectly fine rice as your free accompaniment to entrées (or on its own for $1.50). Soft and springy, like lumps of Play-Doh, the big balls of white tingmo (made from yeasted wheat flour) tasted elemental and a little sweet, the way I always imagined manna tasting as a child. The floppy texture made the tingmo fun to eat. It tasted heavenly dipped over and over in the yellow hot sauce, which charmingly comes in plastic mustard squirt bottles and is made from tomatoes, chilies, onion, and perhaps celery. Dipped in butter tea, or in the restaurant’s lovely, sweetish, and very fresh vegetable curry ($8.99), tingmo also reminded me of kreplach, or the very lightest matzoh balls. As a lesbian, I’ve had scant experience with testicles, but tingmo’s happy, spongy texture made me think they might have a similar feel.

But the dumplings are even finer. The momo are available in veggie, chicken or beef varieties (or combo of all three), but get the beef if your personal guidelines allow it. The inside is spicy with ginger and Sichuan peppercorns, which Tibetans prefer call emma. The buttery outside, dipped in burning hot sauce, is what you want in your mouth in a blizzard.

Café Tibet, 1510 Cortelyou Road, Brooklyn, between East 15th and East 16th Streets (no website, 718-941-2725). Open daily except for Tibetan holidays, noon – 10:30 PM. Many items are suitable for vegetarians or vegans, and the chef is happy to accommodate requests to remove meat or dairy or to change the spice level. Cash only, BYOB (the owners also own a grocery next door, where many international beers and an ATM are available). No reservations; be prepared to wait on weekend evenings. No wheelchair access except in warmer months, when outdoor seating with an interesting view of the subway below can accommodate wheelchairs; the restroom is not accessible.

Originally published in Gay City News, February 17, 2016.

Kensington Austrian Newcomer Rises To Not Bad

werkstatt motorcycle

When I hear a restaurant called “hot,” I usually want to turn and walk the other way. There are many terrible things about our happy-shiny new food culture, but the worst may be its lust for trendiness. So when I saw that the new Austrian restaurant near where I live in not-very-gentrified Kensington had made Eater’s list of “the hottest restaurants in Brooklyn,” I grimaced. For one thing, it was going to drive the price of housing up.

But I’m human. So it also made me think of visiting and trying Werkstatt’s celery schnitzel.

Some of you will remember the last restaurant from this chef, Austrian-born Thomas Ferlesch. Called Thomas Beisl (that’s German for “tavern,” more or less), it was right across the street from BAM and, at least for the two scant meals I ate there, excellent.

The restaurant near BAM was white-tablecloth fancy. Werkstatt actually looks much more like the kind of working-class pub that is supposed to be conveyed by “beisl,” with a dark, drab front room full of weathered wooden tables that reminds me of the two best-loved bars near my undergraduate campus. The back room is much more chic-ified Brooklyn, with a wood-burning stove and a beautiful, hip light fixture made of amber-colored bottles suspended below a skylight. There is also an unfortunate motorcycle hanging on the wall, part of a macho overlay with a Shell oil sign and a few long picnic tables where working men can presumably besport themselves. (There are twisted wire chairs and tables for those who need a modicum of back support.)

If you’re lucky, you’ll get one of the city’s most delightful waiters, who was here every evening we tried the place (and not macho in the slightest). A short, middle-aged Brit with wonderfully nerdy, no-color glasses, he cosseted Karen and me so that every moment under his care was deliciousness, even if some of the food was not. A salad of endive, Gorgonzola, pear and grapes ($9, a frequent special), was merely pleasant, but as we ate it the Brit elf charmed us with descriptions of the wines I was interested in, wry advice about pairings, and at my request, on-the-spot translations of the metal German signage on the walls (“In this tram, smoking or carrying a light or fire is forbidden by the police”).

A Köstriker black beer from Germany (on draft, $7) had little taste but looked dramatic, served in a fetish-y thin and enormously tall glass that looked a little like a stylized boot. (I can’t entirely blame the Brit. I’d first proposed the Köstriker myself for its cool black color.) Karen, however, got Strongbow hard cider from England (also on tap, $7), with a fresh flavor that nicely mixed tart and sweet, like Macintosh apples.

An entrée of chicken livers with Riesling-sautéed apples and mashed potatoes ($16) puzzled my liver-loving soul. I hoped because of the Riesling and the apples that there would be some sweetness in the chicken livers’ sauce, but there was none. Nor did the meat have that nice liver umami that would have gone nicely with the sweet fruit and wine. Instead, it tasted mild and like not much of anything, although it did have a faintly unpleasant organ-y texture, so that you felt the edge of every lobe, not the silkiness I had hoped for. But the apples and the mashed potatoes were good.


Karen adored the monstrous housemade bratwurst that came with the most delicious sauerkraut I’ve ever had, tasting a little sweet from (again) a few apples mixed in with the vinegared, fermented cabbage ($16). The bratwurst itself was glorious and meaty, made from pork belly and shoulder, though on a second visit it was a little muted. Rösti, the Swiss-German fried grated potatoes, also came on the plate and were tasty if underseasoned.

Desserts ($7) continued the pattern of hit-and-miss. Mine, palatschinken, a delightfully thin crêpe with a texture like noodles, had a plentiful but inedibly oversweet filling of apricot jam. I had to eat around it and just eat the noodley part, because I was still hungry. But Karen’s Linzer torte was superb, with a rich, deep crust of hazelnut and almond providing a terrific grounding for the raspberry.

Dinner number two: it’s a Saturday night and the frazzled hostess, Robin Wertheimer, who co-owns Werkstatt along with her husband, chef Ferlesch, takes her frazzlement out on us. “Can’t you just wait a moment?” she screeches, though we haven’t asked her for anything. We’ve just been waiting quietly. “Um… Sure. No problem.” It casts a bit of a pall on the meal. And instead of the motherly Brit, we get a dizzy, smiley woman who has no interest in telling us the specials (“Oh, they’re on the board over there”), freshening our drinks, or aiding us in securing anything else on the menu.

Surprise: that’s the night we get the best dish of all, käse spaëtzle (German housemade, tiny egg noodles with cheese, $14). It’s like mac and cheese made by tough-minded angels, and comes with caramelized onions and, if you wish, bacon. It also comes with a trio of lovely and lively salads: potato salad, cucumber salad, and an interesting salad made of tomatoes. (The salads are also available as a large plate of their own, along with superb housemade dill pickles, $9).

Third visit: we decide to sit at the bar, where the stools have backs and are surprisingly comfortable, and where, from 5 to 7 PM during the week, all drinks on tap are $5. The bartender is an attractive man with great tattoos, but he isn’t terribly attentive, even though most of the time we are the only customers. He looks off in the distance at some private dream of his own, but happily before he does so, he takes our orders: I get the Werkstatt Burger with blue cheese and bacon-onion marmalade ($15, plus $1.50 each for toppings). What can I say? It’s a burger with blue cheese and something made from bacon and onions: heavenly. The umami quality of my dreams. But it seems a little chintzy to charge $18 for it just because it has some cheese and a housemade condiment.

It may not be intentional, but I found Werkstatt’s description of the burger’s sourcing a bit misleading: the chopped meat is described on the menu as “Sterling Silver beef,” which I guessed, before I did any research, was the name of some local farm, the way a menu’s chicken might be described as Goffle Road or Bobo. But it turns out that Sterling Silver merely designates a line of feedlot beef and pork from Cargill, the giant agribusiness concern that is arguably the largest meatpacking company in the US, as well as a major player in feed, fuel, and fertilizer. The Sterling Silver line is supposed to be “premium,” yes, but that only applies to its level of marbling, i.e. the number of months the animal has spent putting on fat from environmentally detrimental corn-feeding in overcrowded feedlots. Sterling Silver meat is not hormone- or antibiotic-free, and the designation does not guarantee that the animal had an all-vegetarian diet, either. Cargill boasts on the Sterling Silver website that all of its slaughterhouses are designed by humane-slaughter engineer Temple Grandin, but then again, half of all US slaughterhouses are.

Good thing it tasted so good. Werkstatt sources all its beef and almost all its pork from Sterling Silver, but the chicken is hormone- and antibiotic-free. I almost never order cocktails, because even one can make me fall in the street, but along with my delicious feedlot burg I spring for Werkstatt’s signature cocktail, an homage to the pink grapefruit, a fruit that I love. It’s made from Giffard pamplemousse (a pink grapefruit liqueur from France), Schöfferhoffer grapefruit beer, and sparkling wine ($11), and is fantastically celebratory, ass-kicking, delicious. Karen orders an odd special that combines calamari, kielbasa, and garlic aioli ($12); she finds it thrilling, but to me it is a little muddy in texture and taste. But with it she gets a glass of Baumgartner zweigelt, a marvelous, rough and raspy red wine from Austria, one of several interesting wines on tap.

It’s our best evening here. We’re having a wonderful time; we sit very close to each other at the bar. The place is definitely lesbian-friendly enough. I forgot to mention that the music here is great, with lots of Johnny Cash and old blues. The two straight men at the bar share the most gigantic, baked pretzel I’ve ever seen ($9, served with a crock of Liptauer cheese). Wertheimer, the hostess, says goodbye to us tenderly at the door.

We will come back: it’s a lot of fun, and we live only a short walk away. But one of the hottest restaurants in the borough?

Werkstatt (“workshop” in German) is at 509 Coney Island Avenue near Turner Place, a short block from Church Avenue (718-284-5800, Cash and American Express only: there is an ATM on premises. The front room is wheelchair accessible, and there is one accessible restroom. Hours: Monday through Friday 5-11 PM, Saturday and Sunday 11 AM-11 PM.

Originally published in slightly different form in Gay City News (NYC) on December 24, 2015. Go to their site and show them some love 🙂