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

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, dominiqueansel.com. 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, dominiqueansel.com. 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. http://gaycitynews.nyc/fantasy-encounters-dessert/

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 Gmail.com. 🙂

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, saltieny.com, 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, www.dirtcandy.com. 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

Tibetan_Fast_food_Long_Lafing

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, www.werkstattbrooklyn.com). 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 🙂

Spring 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 January 27 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 $325.

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 18 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 March 16.

FAQ: Refund Policy: Withdrawal by January 22: full refund. Withdrawal by January 26: 50% refund. No refund available for withdrawal after January 29.

Steamed, Grilled, or Raw

lump crab

Happy holidays, folks! This column is my favorite thing I worked on all year.

We cracked the lobster’s claws together, and shoved the meat in our mouths. There was drawn butter all over the table and my hands. My wife kept slipping me more fresh-killed meat. “You need to keep your strength up.”

I pulled off one of the lobster’s legs and sucked the little hole, marveling. I’d never found a Homarus americanus worth going after the minuscule meat in the legs before. This inexpensive one on Bleecker Street was worth thrusting one way, then the other, wrenching, cracking, drawing out with your teeth, and sucking.

Fish Restaurant is the opposite of a fancy place. On the mirror over the bar it says, “Please throw your peanut shells on the floor,” and people do. Cute, un-wellheeled diners of all colors seek out crab, oysters, and clams in the somewhat narrow space, where a table in the front is disturbingly made level with a now-filthy cloth napkin shoved under its leg.

I don’t order steamed lobsters outside of Rhode Island or Massachusetts all that often, because I expect to be disappointed. They are usually (a) rubbery or (b) untenably expensive for what is actually happening in your mouth.

But the lobster dinner at Fish (a “market price,” often $29, includes fries, corn on the cob, and clams) was served piping hot, straight out of the pot, and cooked for exactly the right amount of time. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a lobster more, not even on Block Island, where nearly every shellfish served could make you go out of your mind. That lobstery taste – a mixture of labia, mushroom, and nipple (and then all of those flavors, dipped in butter) was the best thing I’ve had in many years. The 1 1/4 pounds of it went wonderfully with Fish’s prosecco (Pergolo, $11 a glass; other terrific wines can be had for $7-$9).

I have to say straight out that the three small half-ears of corn on the plate tasted like packing peanuts. They were overcooked and had been kept far away from butter or salt. If the waiter lets you, substitute one of the excellent green-vegetable sides (sauteed spinach was a delicate, garlicky marvel, and collard greens were Southern and ripe). But the fries were great and crispy, and the three top-neck clams (not steamers as the menu claimed, but better, in my view) had been prepared with a very light touch and were probably the best steamed clams I’ve ever had.

On a second visit, I got what was called an appetizer portion of steamed King Crab legs ($22), which, most oddly for Manhattan, was large enough to serve as my dinner entrée. The taste was more delicate than lobster but just as sexy. Lesbians and gay men, come on down and sample that ephemeral, moist, froggy, genital taste. It was rich and peculiar dipped in a little drawn butter, and completely satisfying.

The crab turned out to be so far superior to the $45-$60 version served at the yuppie Village restaurant Fatty Crab that it could make you organize a demonstration at the latter. It came with an unlikely, delicious and very fresh salad of field greens and tomatoes.

Where did this place come from, table-balancing dirty napkin, cheap wonders and all? It was opened in 1998 by local seafood distributor Edward Taylor and initially intended as a fine-dining joint. But when the original chef, his business partner, left two years later, Taylor, who got his start storing clams in the basement of the apartment house where he lived on Christopher Street, decided to change it up. “I wanted it to be a simple, simple seafood place, as reasonably priced as possible”, he said in a recent interview. The former porter, Christian Perez, became the chef. A straight man who lived in the then-gayest part of the city for 30 years, Taylor has beautifully windswept, slightly long gray hair and dark eyes, like a handsome version of Captain Ahab. He now divides his time between Gay Street and Purdy’s, New York, and owns Down East Seafood, which supplies over 200 restaurants and caterers.

Down East has over 70 employees in its 17,000-foot location in the South Bronx, and Taylor says many are gay men, leading to a new tradition in the warehouse: every Friday is Tiara Day. Women, including Taylor’s current business partner, Tanya Maczko, are also leading figures in the company.

Alas, not everything at Fish is delicious. You can get awesome fried clams at just about every cheap joint on the coast from Connecticut to Maine, but here they are a bready abomination ($15 for an appetizer, $26 for an entrée with two sides). Canned potato chips and diner oatmeal (these clams taste like a combination of them) would be more worth the calories. And we actually bit down on big pieces of clamshell that had been breaded accidentally and somehow lost among those poor, bread-smothered nubs of clam. Dine at Fish anyway. Fried calamari ($14) were only okay, but the fried hush puppies served with a blackened catfish dinner (good, $21, and including the collard greens) were complex and terrific. In addition to fried seafood, I would advise you to avoid the soups. Seafood gumbo had lovely, fresh shrimp and one nice oyster, but the soup base itself was bland, gummy, and weirdly spiced, and did not blend with the proteins. The gumbo definitely wasn’t worth $8 for a cup ($10 for a bowl). The New England clam chowder was even worse, with hardly any clams and an overly thin broth. In general, I’d advise you to steer clear of items on the menu that are not steamed, grilled, or raw.

This is probably one of the best places in the city to get raw oysters and clams. A popular special, available at all hours, gets you half a dozen clams or Blue Point oysters, along with an excellent chardonnay or merlot or a Pabst Blue Ribbon, for $9. The clams were fantastic, the Blue Points only okay, a little smaller and less meaty than usual. Both came with two phenomenal sauces, housemade cocktail sauce more subtle and less sweet than many and a reddish mignonette that was the best I’ve tried. I’ve never been a big fan of Blue Points anyway, and would suggest going with more exotic oysters, like West Coast Kumamotos ($2.75 each) or Fanny Bays ($2.25), or Wellfleets ($2) or Spinney Creeks ($2). All the oysters are wonderfully cheap, evidently a result of Taylor sourcing them himself. (The Blue Points, if you like them, are only $1.25.)

As I’m trying to get across, this is a great date restaurant, much more so than any joint with a snooty maître d’. Waitstaff are friendly and helpful (plastic bibs are handed out with the lobsters, and wait and bar staff give honest advice when asked). The place can get crowded, especially on weekend nights, so it’s best to go early.

One sophisticated dish, a scallop ceviche with tomato and jalapeno, was fresh and surprisingly good ($14 and enormous, like all the appetizers here). But my most startling dish at Fish was a so-called tuna salad sandwich at lunch ($16). I love tuna in almost all its forms, including the canned stuff with mayonnaise on rye. But this grilled variety, roughly chopped and very lightly infiltrated with mayo on a split bun, was like an elite lobster roll or crab roll that had somehow happened to a tuna. It tasted of the sea and our bodies, and was sexy in a way I have never found tuna salad before.

Fish Restaurant, 280 Bleecker Street at Jones Street, 212-727-2879, fishrestaurant.nyc. No reservations. The entrance is narrow, and bathrooms are down a long flight of stairs. Hours: Sunday-Thursday, noon to 11 PM, Friday and Saturday, noon to midnight.

This was originally published in Gay City News on November 27, 2015.

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.