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.
“I’ve got you,” I say to myself as I bend over at the low drinking fountain at the Y. Bending this way has been a scary movement for me for years, with low back and shoulder injuries and a perennially weak body.
Perennially, yes, but changing. Talking to myself, I’m speaking in the voice of my abdominal muscles, of all my muscles in fact, the internal and external obliques, the transverse, the rectus, and the thighs and pelvic muscles too, reminding the individual cranky and scared parts of me that they are not alone, never alone, that they are held up and cared for by all of me together and I’m not letting them go.
My teacher taught me this on the weird Pilates contraption known as the Cadillac, the one that looks like the medieval torture device known as the rack. I almost didn’t get on it. But when he put those disconcerting-looking metal leg springs on my legs and showed me how to let my stomach take the weight so that my poor back wouldn’t have to, I felt a surprising Ah inside, the Ah of my chest opening and magically getting lighter, the Ah of my entire body becoming more spacious — whole apartments and subbasements and rooms, inside my body! Whole gathering spaces and meeting rooms and galleries, an entire city of bone and ligaments and muscle!
A big pink flower in my body, like a tall lily stretching from my collarbone to my coccyx, and the leaves of it coming down my legs!
It is hard to say this, the following thing: it is hard to say this. Fear and tightness have been a very big part of my life. Not just physically! It’s not at all uncommon for me to feel stifled, strangled, caught. Like a fish in a net gasping, unable to move one way or the other; literal torture. I have often been afraid “the worst” would come — So, what do I mean by that, “the worst”? I mean something like feeling agony forever, physical or mental, and being forcibly stuck and held there, feeling shame, being starved for care and connection, even from (perhaps most from) myself.
Some Christians say that “hell” means most of all alienation, alienation from “God” meaning being denied contact with anything, anyone that contains the sacred. Because I think all human beings partake of the sacred, to me hell means, most fundamentally, not being connected — to yourself or anyone else.
Oh my reader: sometimes I’m afraid that people who act like they like and respect me actually think I’m stupid. It gets worse: Almost everyone I talk to each day I think, in some deep way, is going to hit me. Almost everyone I email, too. Hit me over the head with a pipe for being such an inferior person.
Sometimes I want badly to tell a friend or a relative something about my life and for a reason completely unknown to me, I can’t. I mean literally, I can’t. I pause, my speech gets labored, I grimace and gesture and look like I’m being stabbed — perhaps I am being stabbed — I’m frustrated and I struggle to try and drag myself up a path my vocal chords do not want to go. The person I’m with often says, “Wow, it’s seems like this subject is really hard for you. You don’t have to tell me about it if you don’t want to!” But I do want to.
People think of Pilates as just a kind of trendy exercise. But as I’ve used it to heal from my body’s injuries, the system Joseph Pilates invented has also been startlingly applicable to emotional and psychological barriers, interpersonal tightness, pain of the mind.
Oh, pain of the mind. Surely we all have it. I bet it was the same back when the cheerily depressive author of the Tao Te Ching wrote, “I alone am confused/Desolate/Oh, like the sea/Adrift/… I alone am different from others/And value being fed by the mother.”
Pilates is actually about being fed by the mother — the mother in our bodies, the vastness inside ourselves. I called the author of the Tao Te Ching “cheerily depressive” just now because in fact, he wasn’t feeling too bad about being confused, desolate, adrift.
He was accepting these feelings, even celebrating them, because he was celebrating and accepting all his feelings and needs right then.
He trusted “the mother” in the Way, “the mother” in himself to supply what would feed him.
That is what I learned in Pilates starting about five years ago, to connect with “the core,” “the powerhouse,” “the center” in my body and mind. And I learned that all parts of the self must work together and support one another, that no parts of the self (or body), even the hurt parts, even the parts that are not yet strong enough, are bad. From a deceptively slight-looking former dancer I learned that human bodies are flexible, that the spine is supposed to move, that even the weakest person has inherent power and that all of us have a “magic belt” around us that can provide nearly infinite power if we only let it support us with its discernment and love. And I learned that mindfulness is the soil to grow it all.
A little later, at age 10, the hot, fried apple pie from, yes, McDonald’s was the wild fulcrum of my most intense pre-sexual desires. I did not understand them.
I was moved deeply by something about the burning liquid inside the pastry package, the near-searing of my lips when I took a bite, the mystery of the musky, tangy ooze cut with cinnamon. I wanted the pie in a way I have never wanted any other food. (I think I was literally in love with it.)
My longing was for more than merely to eat it. It was a more basic and primal one than that, and probably one that could not have been satisfied in space and time.
That McDonald’s hot apple pie carried my sexuality through underneath the soil till it was finally ready to be revealed, first in the vague pleasure I got from holding my armpits in the fresh spring of sixth grade (my mom: “What are you doing that for? Stop!”), and then in the dawning of confusing fantasies about punishing women’s breasts (seventh grade) and very clear ones about lying on Michael Zappalini’s lap.
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.
Been thinking lately about what my “sexuality,” if I had one, was like for me as a child. Early on, it meant being attracted to Charlie the Tuna, the handsome, cartooned face of a tuna representing the Starkist company. Charlie had big, dark, masculine eyebrows, glasses, and a flirtatious smile, tongue slightly revealed in that inimitable cartoon way and lips almost scooping the viewer up. I realize now he shares some of the ineffable qualities that draw me most compellingly to my wife, Karen. How could I try to name these things? “Masculine, affectionate mischief?” A funky and winking confidence, plus goofiness and muscle?
When I say “attracted” I mean I believe I was actually sexually attracted to that cartoon tuna. I think I also imagined his taste, and a sense of sexy “slipperiness” that I have learned is certainly true of tuna sushi. Some of my friends, men and women, say that they masturbated from a very young age. This was not true for me, but I did feel discernibly “erotic” feelings for animated characters, for a few foods, and for certain smells.
At around five, I had been even more attracted to Tony the Tiger, the champion of Frosted Flakes. In fact I can’t stop thinking of Karen now when I see Tony’s sexy leap across the cereal bowl in the commercials of today. Tony leapt, then and now, with paws that looked like arms ready to embrace a person. He stirred me in a way I couldn’t explain.
Sometimes at 47, I will smell a particular “crazy, sweet smell” that made my nostrils flare when I was 3 and a half feet tall. It still stirs me, hard, so that I come to attention like an Army private. The scent was on my bamboo bathroom towel today, but what is it, smells like the woods in June, like an animal, like an armpit? It pushed my brain’s pleasure centers in a way that made me want to take it to my nose and smell it again and again and again, like (later) some girls’ panties. Did I encounter it en route to a family picnic, through the car window? Was it a forest animal’s pheromones?
This is from a talk I gave at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture in October 2010. It’s about why memoir is good. 🙂 For writers, readers, and the entire world.
I started writing memoir in the early 90s, when I was a journalist at the Village Voice. And almost inevitably, when I was at a party or the gym or a political meeting and said what I was doing, someone would ask, “Aren’t you a little young for that?” I was 28 when I began. And I would take a deep breath and answer, “No.”
Before the late 1980s, people generally used the word “memoir” to mean a fat and comprehensive book written by someone at the end of their lives, almost always someone very famous, like a president or a movie star or a Titan of Industry.
Of course, people who weren’t as prominent as that had been writing personal accounts of their lives for hundreds of years, thousands if you count poetry. They just hadn’t been calling them memoirs. Continue reading “What’s Spiritual about Memoir?”
I wrote this piece around 1988, when Williamsburg was a very different place.
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.
I saw gray hairs in my pubic hair for just the second time today. I can hardly think of a more potent memento mori. There’s nothing remotely hopeful about gray pubic hair. I have never even seen it drawn or photographed — perhaps gray pubic hair is the real Medusa’s Head? Just to think about it freezes your heart. Continue reading “Compline”