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”? Continue reading

Five Days with Fred Phelps

Donna with Phelps

I had the privilege of reading this piece at a recent Brooklyn Museum event with Queer Memoir 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 undercover 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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Indigenous Food in the South Bronx

(c) La Morada 2015

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

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

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