Category Archives: Reported

Desire in Whole Foods

whole foods berry pie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Malaysian Curry Beckoning Me Like Pie

Credit: Eating in Translation, Dave Cook

Credit: Eating in Translation, Dave Cook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the rest of the review, click here.

Seafood

lump crab littleneck

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the rest of the review, click here.

First Impressions of Talde

I don’t want to tell you about Talde being hot, or about how annoying its chef, Dale Talde, was on Top Chef. What I want to tell you is what eating at Talde was like in spite of that, or, better yet, having nothing whatever to do with that.

I went for brunch even though I had no one to go with me, because dishes like “pretzel pork chive dumplings” and “lobster buns with chile mayo” prickled the pleasure centers in my brain as soon as I heard of them, and wouldn’t stop prickling them. My wife was busy having brunch out herself with a friend, and I wanted something fancy, special, and delicious, too, to compensate for not having been invited.

I was surprised that in this case, hotness did not mean superciliousness, and I was welcomed with warmth even though I was a woman dining alone who did not want to sit at the bar. Also that Talde was so good that it made me want to communicate minutely about every aspect of the food I could, as though it were a piece of poetry or a weird white flower growing on the moon.

Talde is an Asian-American restaurant (that’s what its owners call it) in Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York. I ate the bacon pad Thai, which is an oyster-and-bacon pad Thai at dinner, and was stirred to a degree that bordered on emotion by its sour, complicated, enlivening flavors. With fat chunks of bacon, it tasted of lime, of fish funk from the great sauce called nam pla, of salt, and an almost indescribable tanginess. I wanted more fat and even more of that funky fishiness – probably the addition of oysters at dinner helps it. There were some peanuts, but I wanted more, and some more minced herbs for contrast. Even so, I loved it so much that its peculiar sour mix of flavors has stayed with me a month later. I ate the entire bowl, even though it was huge and mostly noodles.

One more thing: Talde’s cappuccino. I got it because they only had Americano, cappuccino and latte, and for me cappuccino is the least offensive of the three. (I prefer coffee, and I need it at brunch.) Usually cappuccino at restaurants that do not specialize in outrageously-good coffee is terrible. This cappuccino was, strangely, the best I’ve ever had.

It was strong and buzzy enough to hold up to all that milk, it did not taste like a would-be coffee dessert or coffee for weaklings. It was bracing, yet a little fruity – coffee, with a dose of steamed milk, the way they do it in Spain.

(c) Donna Minkowitz 2012

Mile End Sandwich

So sad to go to Mile End Sandwich last week — the new Manhattan offshoot of the delicious (and ultra-hip) Montréal Jewish deli in Brooklyn — and have there be no seating there whatsoever. THERE WERE NO CHAIRS THERE. We were supposed to take our voluptuous but ridiculously expensive sandwiches and cram them down our digestive cavities in the time we could muster standing at a long ugly beige “standing table.” The standing table made the experience of eating comfortable only for a maximum of five minutes. Clearly, the intent was for us to fress down our food and get out of there as soon as possible, freeing up the space for a new cohort of suckers.

Indeed I felt exactly like a factory-farmed cow, making money for the Mile End empire at the maximum rate per time spent at the trough. My tongue sandwich on pumpernickel was really tasty but tiny, and it certainly didn’t make up for the feeling that the owners didn’t care one bit about my comfort or my sense of being welcome and at ease. It reminded me of eating at the Momofuku Ssam Bar, where David Chang deliberately installed wooden boxes to sit on that were as uncomfortable as possible, and polluted all the vegetable dishes with a soupçon of meat to assert his contempt for the vegetarians who had hoped to be able to eat at his restaurant.

Or of once, when I was having dinner at Rosewater in Park Slope and I asked the waitress if they could please leave a certain side dish off the entrée because I knew it would play havoc with my acid reflux. The waitress furrowed her brow. “Chef really doesn’t like being asked to change things.”

I like food. It’s true. A lot. So much that I am willing to spend a crazy portion of my 99% income paying for fancy, delightful, hormone-free stuff. But I am not willing to eat at restaurants that ignore the original meaning of the word: to restore, to make feel at home. It’s called the hospitality industry because proprietors are supposed to make us feel like we’ve been given hospitality, as though we were guests at somebody’s house.

Chefs, even really good chefs, are not rock stars. They are there to serve us, in exchange for our hard-earned dollars. They are there, at the most basic level, to care for us. Despite the less-than-stellar seating at Mile End Brooklyn — most the seats don’t have back support, but a significant minority of them do — I have always felt cared for there. The servers are warm and welcoming. And there are seats to sit in. At Mile End Manhattan, I felt like just another critter to stuff with silage to advance the bottom line.

 

(c) Donna Minkowitz 2012

Lust on the Corner of South Third

Photo: nyctaxiphoto.com

Lust on the Corner of South Third

I wrote this piece around 1988, when Williamsburg was extremely poor and  druggy. I had a part-time job there as a bookkeeper to a pair of rapacious artist/landlords. Just found this little essay/prose poem in a drawer.

Dark hair, sexy, with an arrogant face like a dyke or a thief, harder chin and hotter eyes than any other woman in decaying Williamsburg. White, with jagged short black hair. Are you a lesbian? One of the most beautiful heads, mouths and jawlines I have seen, here in this wasteland. On Lorimer Street all the women look beaten. Quickly scan the legs, which come out tan and hairless out of light blue shorts. Shaving seldom means everything. I know thousands — but how could I miss so much? Even from far away this one looks sick, every thirty seconds like she’s hit in the face, a slap of confusion, or nausea, or loss. Like a stick across the eyes. She’s tall, and stoops a little. As she passes close to me I feel attraction and pity at the same time, I want to fuck her and to give her aspirins, water, toast. “Sweetheart,” she says, and my heart’s racing, my hips take on warm speed, “do you have fifteen cents for a little juice?” Juice — You bet I want to give you juice, I want to give you mango, guava, apple — I say “Sorry” because I am and “NO” in as loud a voice as I can, I step back. I think she wants me to fish in my pockets so she can step in, step closer and — my instincts say to move. My karate teacher said to always follow my instincts.

Did she have a knife in her pockets or was that just the knife of her face, I was expecting peril but a different peril. Do they really resemble each other? Genet sees a murderer and moans. I don’t, I want a different lover, a different loving — Not this smack in the guts — Not wide nausea filling all the throats on Lorimer — Was her pain as sexy as her rocky jaw, why did my heart move to her fists? I know one hundred reasons women should be tough as rocks. The same: the reasons why I want to open for an avalanche.

(c) Donna Minkowitz 2012

Happy Birthday, Occupy Wall Street

Photo: david_shankbone's photostream

Mayor Bloomberg just made a ridiculous remark about the 10,000 or more folks who rallied with Occupy Wall Street yesterday, including me. He said in his radio address that we were just “a bunch of unions,” not the “real” Occupy Wall Street folks, so therefore the enormous size, power and hope of the march should not be credited to the Occupy movement.

That is absurd. I love unions, and Zuccotti Park protesters, and students, and old people, and nurses, and homeless people, and nannies, and feminists, and writers, and all sorts of folks who just lost their jobs and houses.  And we were all there yesterday. All of us were, and are, Occupy Wall Street.

“The 99%” is the most hopeful — and brilliant — concept I have ever encountered in American politics.   We don’t have to be set against each other to accomplish radical change — the opposite is what is true.

Bless the Y (poem)

Photo: Kenny Holston 21

Bless the women’s locker room where I refresh myself with moisturizer on all
    my limbs my chest my back my feet,
where I lie completely long and stretched in the sauna
warm loose big myself in myself, Continue reading

Lebanese Tomato Sauce

By Giff Constable

I had the most extraordinary sauce at Tripoli Restaurant on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. It was an okra dish with lamb “chunks,” as the menu put it — I love it when chefs use that word — in tomato sauce. The tomato had gotten infused with the mysterious flavor and a little bit of the texture of the okra, and also much more subtly with the lamb chunks, until it had a delicate vegetal umami I wanted to keep tasting all day.

Served with white rice.

Russell, Aaron and Me

Photo: Federico Novaro

All the facts in this piece are as reported by major newspapers, or by me for a Nation article in 1999. This piece was published in Salon in October of that year.

Sometimes the news takes you farther than you really want to go. After I read the first blood-spattered story in the Times, I found myself identifying with Matthew Shepard’s killers, the boys who tortured him for being gay.  I still identify in a way that makes me flinch. I am gay. I hate violence. And I never tortured anybody. Why would I feel any sense of kinship for the creeps who hit Shepard with a pistol butt?

I’ve been channeling them ever since the murder. I can see them in the bar, as he pays for their drinks, as he gets affectionate. They’re 21 years old, and they are starting to get stirred up in a way that’s unusual for them, heavenly and enraging all at once. There is nothing wrong with what Matthew Shepard is doing; he is a beautiful boy who is lonely and romantic and who thinks he may finally have a date. In Laramie, it’s hard to meet people if you’re gay. It’s even hard to meet people if you’re straight.

Maybe, he thinks, he has a lead on a date, even if not the actual date. Gay people in Laramie like to meet other gay people just to socialize, just to meet people who might have friends who’d be dates. I have felt that way, too; it is a universal feeling shared by everyone who has ever really wanted a date, and I can channel Matthew, wanting somebody tender, somebody who might really know the way to treat a boy, someone with lips wine-dark and soft.

Russell and Aaron look like they could be gay, they even look cute. Their hands are dirty, but that only adds to their appeal. They are, after all, roofers. Walt Whitman noticed how sexy roofers are, and they are — those bare chests perched precariously on houses, sunburned awkwardly. But these are also boys who think they’re nobodies, they’re wimps. Continue reading