Tag Archives: butch

Cooking Up Rebellion

In times of trouble, cooking makes me whole. I may be tired, irritable, I may have gotten home late, I may even be sick, but I stand at my fry pan tossing in onions, that base of almost every culture’s cooking. To me, it might as well be the base of life itself, as I stand there trying to make something tasty and satisfying and warming out of a few teensy bits of vegetables and some shreds of meat.

Cooking, which I came to only in my 40s and disabled, like someone clutching a lifeline, reminds me of the sacredness of the act of creation. It feels like making something out of nothing: whatever’s assembled on my cutting board – a little mess of garlic bits and bitter vegetables and cheese snips – always seems so poignantly small to me as the basis of a hot dinner that will somehow sustain two adults. The process that transforms these scraps into a whole always seems mystical to me: what god created this eggplant parmigiano pasta?

Certainly not me.

With cooking, as with writing, providence comes in and accomplishes what we ourselves, with our conscious minds, can barely accomplish. When I say providence, I don’t exactly mean God. Who made this dish? It was the fire (which reshapes molecules and “denatures” proteins and divinely caramelizes eggplants). It was the balsamic vinegar in all its oddness, sour, acid, musty, sweet, powerfully itself and shaped by hands and minds other than my own. It was the traditions of a million years of hominids cooking (while humans have only been around and making dinner for 200,000 years, our hominid ancestors have been cooking for even longer). It was my innumerable memories of meals out and Food Network snippets and half-remembered recipes, plus glimmering images in my brain (my mother’s ancient Italian friend’s fresh sausage and tomato sauce), and, maybe most of all, dumb luck and inspiration!

It was also me, yes, along with all of these. It was my own arm strength and my thinking mind, saying “Now! A dab more tomato paste!” and “Now! I want sesame oil and more parsley!” In point of fact, I feel really butch when I cook, much more butch than I do when writing, say, or making love. Turning the flame up and down, I am Hephaestus at the forge; I am Casey at the switch. I feel powerful, capable, gripping my 11-inch pan and smelting tomatoes, refining wine, building skyscrapers out of flour and beef. I am doing this for my family which consists of my partner and me, making things to keep us good and warm inside, and feeling loved. I am blending tahini in a machine noisy as a cement mixer, making a sauce so sumptuous it can make steamed zucchini taste good. I am butchering squashes and making rebellious Jewish bricks out of walnuts, apples and wine that will make our conquerors choke. I am constructing fantasy universes out of ground turkey and breadcrumbs and spices and egg. The turkey meatballs I make will make our hearts happy as we eat them in a radiant red sauce before going to the demonstration.

So, gentle reader who loves the taste of food, dear one who loves kimchi, posole, and democracy: go to the demonstration. There are a lot this week, and there will be more the week after, and the week after that. Keep going. Eat something hot before and after. Take care of yourself. Take care of other people, too. There is no contradiction between activism and compassion, no contradiction between activism and tenderness or sweetness: remember that. What I am trying to say is: everything we do, whether we are masters or novices, we do in the context of other people. I’m no great chef by any measure, but I learned to make a damn good dinner, and so can you. Individual writers don’t create literature, individual cooks don’t create the art of cooking, and individual actors don’t create entire movements. Everyone is needed, and everyone needs others.

Everyone is important in cooking up this struggle, even and especially you.

Originally published in Gay City News on January 19, 2017.

Sex and Italian Food

Hugo pizza

From my new review in in Gay City News: Hugo and Sons, Park Slope, Brooklyn.

The waitress welcomed us as though she had been waiting all her life just to ply us with glasses of nerello mascalese and plates of pasta à la chitarra with tuna, chilies, and mint.

That’s the kind of service I like. When you pay your hard-earned money to a restaurant, you should be treated as though you were making each staffer’s day just by sticking your foot in the door and exciting them for life just by placing your queenly butt in their chairs. Hugo and Sons, a convivial, three-month-old Italian restaurant in Park Slope, offers a much better experience than its delicious but snooty next-door neighbors, Talde and Applewood. The tiny portions and cool welcomes at those eminences should by rights direct diners to this happy, generous new kid on the block.

A lot of the food will make you smile as warmly as the waitstaff do. That chitarra pasta (square-edged, long, spaghetti-like strands made on a traditional, cut-by-hand device) was surprisingly voluptuous, a special one night with unctuous lumps of cooked tuna. Lovers of pearls and diving, come to Brooklyn: I haven’t had cooked tuna this lewd in decades. (American chefs have forgotten how to make anything in between a near-raw sear and dead-and-dry.)

My own pearl girl and I were eating in Hugo’s pizzeria annex, which serves everything on the regular menu except entrées, plus pizzas and specials. The pizza place’s outdoor seating on 11th Street turns out to be Hugo’s most romantic setting, amid abundant plants, Shabby Chic red metal chairs, leafy street trees, and the nearby outdoor diners from Applewood and their dinner plates to gawk at and compare. It was only a South Slope pizzeria, but we seemed to be dining in Paris.

I was in the mood for a girly drink: a prosecco cocktail with strawberry purée making glowy red shapes at the bottom like a lava lamp, which I had seen two women drinking at the bar inside ($12). (Yes, I do call myself a butch. So sue me. If we can’t subvert our identities whenever we want, why be queer?) The drink was indeed pretty and festive, but I couldn’t taste enough strawberry. My aggressive femme partner had a glass of the nerello ($17), an earthy, tannic, dark-colored Sicilian wine that we both adored with her pizza fiamma (sopressata, crushed red chilies, pesto, tomato, and fior di latte mozzarella, $16).

Karen loved her pizza, and I liked it (it would have benefited from a more generous hand with the chilies, but was perfectly satisfying anyhow, like a little Mack truck made of sausage, cheese and tomatoes). The same went for a kale salad enmeshed in a rich Parmesan dressing ($9), also enjoyable to the max but not anything that could make me fall in love. I was falling in love with the evening, though, especially by the time my pasta came. The lesbo-friendly hosts and waitress smiled and winked at our arm-grabbing and knee-knocking in the warm June sunlight, the wine was delicious, and I noticed that the table next to us had a nicoise salad dominated by meaty-looking, blood-red slices of seared tuna (I like those, too) that I wanted to grab and eat.

Then came the bill, with a surprise: they’d comped our drinks because we’d had to wait quite a while for our entrées. I’ve endured far longer waits in restaurants without anything resembling an apology, much less free prosecco.

On our next visit, we took a luxurious, red-banquetted table in the main section, which has a jolly, let’s-eat-and-drink-life-is-short vibe. I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the “assorted crostini” – stick a bunch of stuff on little pieces of toast for $9? – but the chefs proved that sticking some stuff on crisped bread can actually be a matter of talent and even profundity. One had what looked like guacamole (actually, an odd, delicious spread made of sweet peas) underneath thin slices of funky, salami-like Tuscan pecorino cheese. My favorite was the crust with buttery balls of burrata set off with lemon, chili, and marjoram.

Karen’s strozapreti genovese ($16), literally “priest-chokers,” were fat, long, phallic, thickly-braided twists, perfectly shaped to stick on and into the braised-brisket ragú and sublime ball of ricotta that accompanied them. Yes, they were as sexy as fuck. (The glistening brisket sauce and breast-like ricotta helped in this.)

My entrée, however, was the worst thing I’ve been served in a restaurant since 2013. Chicken milanese ($18) came as deep-fried, unpounded, repellently thick ships of chicken breast (the word”cutlet” cannot properly be applied here), that had strangely not been touched by salt, spice, or even lemon. I don’t know if it was a good or bad thing that they served me enough to feed a large family.

An odd thing happened just before my entrée appeared. A handsome, swaggery man in a white silk shirt was walking the room, checking on the needs of the tables – obviously a manager (or perhaps it was the chef, Andrea Taormina, who owns the restaurant with his wife, caterer Rebecca Tory). I asked him for coffee – preferably iced, or if that was unavailable, decaf americano or plain old cappuccino. I basically wanted coffee of any kind. The preening man regrettably thought there was no coffee, especially not iced, but began to flirt heavily with Karen and me. He would, ah, try and see what he could do, but could make no guarantees.

I was surprised when a truly delicious glass of iced coffee turned up. The manager explained that while iced coffee would not have been offered to most diners, he had wanted to make some for me (I was lucky, he said, that the place was beginning brunch service the next day and so some coffee happened to be on hand). I began to wonder if he had recognized me as a reviewer. Or perhaps the dude was just into flirting as a hosting strategy? Still, the vibe at the end – that he was doing a real favor for me and I would owe him – was borderline unpleasant. He was overbearing, yet we also sort of enjoyed him.

Whether Handsome Man was Taormina or not, come and eat at his restaurant. The chef, who was born in Sicily, has also worked as a sommelier, and many of the the wines are little-known finds from southern Europe. All of them are minimally processed. And the place is fun.

Hugo and Sons, 367 Seventh Avenue at 11th St., Park Slope, Brooklyn. The restaurant is one step up from the sidewalk, but a side door provides level though perhaps slightly narrow access. The restroom is wheelchair accessible.

To view this post on Gay City News’ site  and to see my other reviews there, go 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.