There is a dish you can eat in a cellar in Brooklyn that is a work of art, and also soulful. It costs $12, and will fill you up.
That dish is Mekelburg’s salt-baked potato with crème fraîche, black caviar, and smoked black cod.
You may think it’s not for you because caviar is a token of luxury, in a city where you finally understand you cannot afford luxury. You may assume the roe must be inferior and the dish somehow a sham, because the really good stuff wouldn’t cost $12, not even as a dollop on top of a potato. Ignore your thoughts, though, and just eat the thing: a huge potato completely covering a small plate, with unctuous, salty bits of smoked fish around it (and, you will discover, thoroughly veined in a little network inside it, like eggs or seeds).
That fish is smoked sable, what “black cod” is called when it’s at home. Ashkenazi Jews of a certain age know sable as the best thing to put on a bagel, so much better than lox it’s not funny. On top of the potato is a creamy mound of crème fraîche with a huge load of unusually buttery, unsalty, even fruity-tasting caviar on it. There is softened butter with dill (and more bits of sable) around the edges of the plate. Together, the potato and sable and only-slightly-sour cream and caviar make up a food that mixes Jewish and Gentile, the feeling of being cared for by one’s mother and the delights you can get when you go out on your own into the world. How that plate brought together salt, sweet, fat, sophisticated, homey almost made me cry.
It’s an odd time for eating out in New York. The places most likely to be reviewed by critics are restaurants where entrées cost $30 and tasting menus cost $100 and more. They are tiny food-temples and shiny mega-boîtes where most of us can’t go even if, by normal US standards, we are “upper income” — little palaces where, we, reader, certainly can’t eat if we are what the government calls either low income or middle-class. (Note that $55,575 is the median household income in the United States; median household income in the city is $67,201.) Reading the reviews has become an exercise in tantalized frustration: breathing in paragon writer Pete Wells’ description, in the New York Times, of the grated frozen foie gras appetizer at Momofuko Ko, you could be forgiven for feeling like the orphan cousin not invited to the party. “A cook behind the counter would rub a frozen cured brick of it across a Microplane held above a bowl with pine nut brittle, riesling jelly and lobes of lychee, showering them with falling pink flakes of airborne pleasure.” (The liver is part of the $195 tasting menu for lunch or dinner, the only way that you can eat at Ko.) The other spots in critics’ reviews – restaurants like Cosme and Blue Hill and even Contra and The Spotted Pig — are not for us, either, unless we’re in the top 5%, or interested in acquiring a load of debt that will cripple us. Continue reading “Caviar for the 99%”
I was thrilled when the food writing goddess Molly O’Neill recently called this “a terrific piece looking at the intersection of food, real estate, life and the commodification of the modern, the local, the sustainable and the imaginative by the wonderful Donna Minkowitz.” It was published in Gay City News on June 9, 2016.
Under normal circumstances, my reaction to the news that a new artisanal food hall had opened in the city might be rage. In the extraordinarily beautiful river park next to Battery Park City, new kids in town Le District and Hudson Eats are revoltingly overpriced and offensively underwhelming. ($15 for bad, small “Skinny Pizza”? $12.50 for a teeny bagel with a tiny bit of beet-cured lox at Black Seed?) And they replaced the perfectly good, cheaper eats you used to be able to enjoy in that complex (Brookfield Place), while looking out at the the shimmery Hudson and listening to interesting free music and performance art.
I like the food at Brooklyn Flea, but its bigger offspring, Smorgasburg, is too crowded to enjoy, with diners competing madly for savviest-foodie-hipster status and for a sadistically small number of seats. (As with David Chang’s deliberately painful seating at his Momofuko restaurants, upscale food promoters are trying to train diners to accept ever-smaller and more uncomfortable spaces as the value per foot of city real estate goes ever up.)
Marcuse coined the phrase “repressive desublimation” to mean the pleasures that consumer culture promises you, only to have the supposed ecstasies of the Berkshire pork taco (say) vanish as soon as you take the first bite. Pleasures fade exactly this quickly at the Gotham West Market, The Plaza Food Hall, Chelsea Market — all the carnivals of fake-bacchanalian fressing. It’s easy (if you’re not poor, that is) to be swept away with excitement by the sight of all that quivering, umami, gleaming, exciting food. Smoked whitefish with rice from Ivan Ramen! Hibiscus doughnuts from Dough! Popsicles made from cherry blossoms! Wow! But when you finally eat them, the revolutionary pleasures they seemed to offer are compressed out of all existence by the crowded, uncomfortable, competitive space, the lackluster culinary skills of the preparers, and the pressures of doing what is in effect the unpaid job of Instagraming, tweeting, and blogging about the hyped-up food you just ate. In an age when it’s mandatory to have social media profiles and to build your personal status by any means necessary, we pay once for the artisanal grub and then a second time, by promoting it for free.
There’s more. Alyssa Katz, an editorial writer for the New York Daily News who has covered real estate for decades, says luxury developers are using the upscale food halls and festivals to escalate gentrification in their neighborhoods. “There’s been a very deliberate investment by these developers” in yuppie food hubs, she says, for the express purpose of luring high-income tenants and buyers. In fact, Smorgasburg owners Jonathan Butler and Eric Demby say they were invited to set up shop on the Williamsburg waterfront by real-estate developers who “were trying to sell [apartments in] their buildings.” And Uprose, Sunset Park’s anti-gentrification group, has sharply criticized Industry City, the “disruption hub” in Sunset Park whose food hall (including a Smorgasburg) is spurring yuppie relocation that will lead to the displacement of thousands of low-income Sunset Parkers.
Which brings me to the city’s newest food hall, The Pennsy. It’s a yuppie gastro-hub that has somehow opened on top of Penn Station, which could be described as the stinking asshole of New York City. In that benighted neighborhood, the brain-killing giant neon billboards make you want to die even more than the ugly, dark, and dirty confines of Penn Station underneath. In the station, of course, there is no food that could even be called tolerable, stranding the 600,000 who enter it daily to use Amtrak, the LIRR, and New Jersey Transit. Continue reading “The Revolution Will Not Be Consumed at Smorgasburg”
How do you live in New York City on $12 an hour or less? How can you buy organic food on even a middle-class income here? How can you afford meat that doesn’t come from E. coli- laden feedlots where the animals have no room to lie down or move? How can you eat food that’s good for you and the planet without taking on (even more) debt?
These are the burning questions for anyone thinking about the politics of food in New York right now. (Here’s one more: how will the organic revolution help the 1.4 million New Yorkers who currently depend on soup kitchens and food banks?) All of these questions come into play in the politics of Whole Foods, a “green mission” corporation so contradictory I had to write about it twice.
Last time, if you’ll remember, we were considering Whole Foods’ flagship store in Brooklyn, made of tastefully reclaimed bricks and wood but sitting on the banks of the Gowanus Canal, which seethes with PCBs, mercury, and pathogens. Activists had opposed the store’s siting on the grounds that it would fail to absorb dangerously polluted runoff from the channel, which floods regularly. They also said that the megastore would gentrify the neighborhood (leading to luxury condos that will make the canal even more flood-prone), and substitute low-paying Whole Foods jobs for the high-paying manufacturing jobs the neighborhood was previously zoned for.
The last two predictions have already happened. (On the first point, environmental science suggests that the wetlands restoration locals were calling for would have provided much better protection for Brooklyn residents.) Still, Whole Foods is there now, and I myself, sadly, have bought barbecued organic turkey legs there. I’ve even enjoyed the beautiful roofdeck/restaurant/bar, a half-indoor, half-outdoor space where sufficiently well-groomed-looking people can sit for hours and take in the view even if they haven’t purchased anything. The question for part two of this column is, is Whole Foods – not just this store, but the entire corporation and its 412 stores around the country – good for the world or bad, beyond my personal convenience and enjoyment?
First, let’s talk about its major claim to fame – making organic food more available. Food activist and fermentation revivalist Sandor Katz, who is probably the most prominent LGBT voice in the food movement, says, “Whole Foods has gotten big through a strategy of swallowing up all the small local and regional natural food stores. Sourcing supposedly ‘organic’ produce and meat at the scale they’re doing it results in food that has much lower nutritional value and that is produced and distributed at a great cost to the environment.” For example, says the former ACT UP/New York member, “If you’re trying to raise pastured animals, there’s a limit to what scale you can do it at. If you have 5000 cows, you can’t actually give them access to pasture.” So your “grass-fed” burgers and “free-range” eggs may not be exactly that, depending on where you buy them. No matter what nice labels products are given, says Katz, “environmentally sound practices are far easier to do on a small scale.” Notably, Whole Foods’ product sourcing results in meat and produce being trucked for many hundreds or thousands of miles, leading to a far higher carbon output than farmers markets or food co-ops.
Katz’s first concern is echoed by nutrition scientist Marion Nestle, one of the doyennes of food activism in America: “Big Organic [the big agribusinesses that have become major players in organic farming] always tries to add more pesticides to what is allowed under the ‘Certified Organic’ label.” Fruit and vegetables can, in fact, be certified organic but still contain some pesticides, Nestle says, and Big Organic is always pushing to allow more and more harmful chemicals to be allowed under the designation. Still, she says, “There was no place to get that kind of food in my neighborhood until Whole Foods came to New York. They have high quality food for people who can afford it.”
That category most definitely does not apply to Whole Foods’ workers. Ryan Faulkner, who worked at the store in San Francisco for two years and was an activist in the IWW’s union drive there in 2014, says that neither he nor his fellow employees could ever afford to shop there, despite their 20% employee discount. “As a cashier, I was making $12 an hour – the checks were like jokes.” Even after Faulkner went on to work receiving in the regional distribution center, his wages only went up to $15.23. It wasn’t possible for employees to live on those wages inside the city limits, and many commuted two hours or more from outside the city to work. The other major grievance was computer-driven scheduling, which changed all workers’ schedules wildly week to week, “which made it impossible if you were going to school, or if you had kids,” Faulkner says. “The people with kids would just get in impossible situations. They would never know if they could pick their kids up.” In fact, Rhiannon Broschat, a Chicago employee, was fired for staying home with her child when schools were closed because of the polar vortex last year, and Trish Kahle, another Chicago worker, was fired when she was injured in a bicycle accident but couldn’t bring in a doctor’s note to account for her absences because she couldn’t afford a visit to the doctor.
Worse, workers were pressured to work so much overtime and for so many days on end that, Faulkner says, accidents in the warehouse were common. “The least you ever worked was 12 hour days, and it was frequently 16. I saw one guy cut off a couple of his toes in the machinery. There was so much blood on the floor, but they just gave him a little award for working every day straight for a month.” As in many companies today, Whole Foods has preferred to have fewer employees working many more hours than to have to hire more staffers, which would result in higher costs overall. “They would threaten your job if you didn’t work 16 hours, and they put a lot of pressure on you to come in on your days off. I once passed out in the freezer from exhaustion.” If the chickens the store sold were treated in this way, Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey would likely protest. Whole Foods did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
If you’re wondering why Trish Kahle couldn’t see a doctor, take a good look at Whole Foods’ employee health insurance, where the individual deductible, Faulkner said, was $4500 after the Affordable Care Act went into effect. (Employees at other locations have cited deductibles ranging from $3500 to $5000.) As a result, according to Faulkner and other workers, very few employees opt to use the coverage. (Whole Foods does offer health savings accounts to workers, and those who been at the company 10 years or more can opt for a better insurance plan with a lower deductible.)
In June, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs announced that Whole Foods had been routinely overcharging its customers at all locations in the city. “New Yorkers who shop at Whole Foods have a good chance of being overcharged,” the Department of Consumer Affairs’ Abigail Lootens told GCN. In DCA’s investigation, 80 different types of prepackaged goods (from baked goods to nuts to meat, cheese, and seafood) were found to have packages with wildly overstated weights. The lowest was an $.80 overcharge for a package of pecan panko, and the highest was an overcharge of $14.84 for a pack of coconut shrimp.
Journalist Tracie McMillan, who has covered the economics of Whole Foods extensively for Slate and the Food and Environment Reporting Network, says the systematic overcharging may be a result of “Whole Foods as a company having a culture of, ‘They’ll pay it! It’s fine!’ ” But as economist Richard Wolff suggests, many of us are taking on further debt – for things exactly like overpriced coconut shrimp – in order to keep up with a lifestyle we imagine “normal” people can pay for.
Longtime New York State environmental activist Laura Haight says, “The bottom line is, Whole Foods is a big business. They don’t care about us.”
Here’s my review of Lakruwana in Staten Island, in New York’s Gay City News:
I like looking at the people of Staten Island. I especially like looking at people who are waiting with me to board the ferry, not chic, never chic but beautiful. This man or woman with shaved sides of the head but long hair down their back, this woman fat with big breasts overflowing eating an ice cream cone and laughing with her friends, this guy with a large dagger tattoo holding his five-year-old’s hands, Puerto Rican, Italian, Liberian, African-American, Irish-Mayan.
Staten Island resists the homogenization that has been happening all over New York, and for this I celebrate it. The island is one of the last holdouts against gentrification, and one of the main ways it has accomplished this is by being poor. The other way is by being independent, and refusing to link to the rest of the city’s subway system. Staten Island is not the queer-friendliest place in the city, but Sarah Schulman teaches in its local CUNY college, the late, great Harry Wieder was an activist here, and queer folk live throughout the borough, some of them quite openly.
There’s also food you won’t find anywhere else. The island is home to the country’s largest population of Sri Lankans, and if you live off-island one of the best weekend daytrips you can take is a lunchtime outing to one of several extraordinary Sri Lankan restaurants. Unless you’re driving, take the ferry; it’s gorgeous, and it’s free. One of the food stalls at the Manhattan terminal sells excellent half bottles of wine, which you can drink on the ferry with one of their freshly-baked brownies, or carry to the BYO restaurants.
For today, let’s consider Lakruwana, whose weekend buffet is one of the few lunch buffets in Gotham I would recommend. A short bus ride from the ferry terminal (or a nice walk down sunny Bay Street, which runs parallel to the eastern shore), Lakruwana is surrounded on nearby streets by beautiful and unsettling graffiti murals (one shows a menacing hydra-headed figure, drawn in a Mexican idiom).
Because the restaurant is popular on weekends, service can be a bit disorganized. No matter. If you’re getting the buffet, as soon as you’re seated you can just grab a plate and start serving yourself. A member of the waitstaff will appear shortly with water and to see if you need anything else. Do take a moment to look around the room and notice the delirious assemblage of diverse artworks hanging from the rafters and climbing up the walls. As you come in, there are three august and enormous stone Buddhas standing next to the bar, dozens of masks by ingenious Sri Lankan sculptors, some of them brilliantly colored demon masks and others beige but intensely emotionally expressive, and metalwork depicting (among other things) women with unusually vibrant breasts and prominent nipples.
There’s much more, but you’re hungry. The buffet looks much smaller than it is, because instead of being laid out on an unappealing steam table, it curves around a wall in a procession of clay pots mounted over tiny flames. There are two kinds of tasty, fluffy white rice. Use either as your base. The first thing you might want to put on top of one of them is an odd but appealing dish of hard-boiled eggs floating in a mild, psychedelic-purple curry (asked what had made it purple, one of the owners, Lakruwana Wijesinghe, would only say, “the coconut.”)
For the rest – I have to come right out and tell you that the vegetarian dishes are far better than the meat ones. After the eggs, ignore the containers of pork and chicken next in line. Proceed immediately to the far left side of the group of pots and get yourself some of a strange-looking dense, black item labeled “eggplant curry.” (In a lovely innovation, Lakruwana posts little handscripted labels identifying every dish, avoiding a common buffet pitfall.) Unless you’re accustomed to the food of the Sinhalese of Sri Lanka (the majority ethnic group), it’s unlike anything you’ve ever eaten anywhere. Very thin, long strips of eggplant are fried seemingly forever and caramelized, and come out sweet, tangy, and smoked, with a consistency somewhere between chunky jam and the Jewish Sabbath dish *chulent* (beans simmered for many hours with brisket and other items). I kept going back for more, dishing it over the rice.
Nearby was pineapple curry, a dish Sri Lankans often eat for lunch. Note that it was not chicken or tofu or vegetables, say, in a pineapple curry. Pineapple was no mere condiment here, but the star. Coconut and a little curry leaf and cinnamon were the base for ample, juicy chunks of the fruit. To me, the dish felt like a fantasy fulfillment – I get to eat pineapple as a regular entrée? I’m not a stoner, but it did seem like ideal stoner food. Even absolutely sober, I found the pineapple curry and that eggplant the best things I’d eaten in months.