Growing Up Golem

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

Ron Ben Israel, Queerest Chef of All

Ron cascade

Is there something gay about the wild visual and tactile fantasies at play in dessert-making?

“Of course, it’s a gay sensibility! We don’t say it in public anymore, but fuck them, of course it’s a gay sensibility!” said Ron Ben Israel, one of the most elite wedding-cake makers in America and the queerest queer to have ever starred in a TV food series.

You’ll remember him as the madman behind Sweet Genius, the Food Network pastry-competition show where he subjected patissiers to amusingly cruel tests like making a cake with duck fat and fusilli that somehow reflected the artistic inspiration of a diamond. The surrealism of Ben Israel’s tests seemed queer in itself: on the show, he made chefs confect chocolates out of Pop Rocks and beef jerky, inspired by a disco ball, and insisted on another occasion that they create a frozen dessert out of squid ink that also somehow got across the idea of butterflies. Continue reading

Getting Fancy

Bio-Revival's "Burst Active" fruit pearls. bio-revival.com

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

The Revolution Will Not Be Consumed at Smorgasburg

MINKOWITZ-pennsy-IS


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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading