I first moved to north Brooklyn in 1990 when I was 28 and just starting out in life. I lived on Graham off Metropolitan Avenue, above a Laundromat, in a small one-bedroom apartment with a skylight in the tiled bathroom, a parquet floor, and a roof deck outside my bedroom door. It cost $350 a month. I had hardly any furniture; the kitchen had no refrigerator, so I only bought whatever food I could eat immediately. It never occurred to me that refrigerators were cheap; everything was so provisional and tentative for me back then. I never planted anything on the roof deck.
I had no money and was consequently often late with my rent. My landlord was a ginger-haired, irascible, possibly borderline-psychotic guy who looked a little like a stupid Vincent van Gogh. He owned the Laundromat and was always there. When I came in to give him my week-late rent in cash (he no longer accepted checks from me; too many had bounced), I had to walk past the rows of washers and dryers, all the people sitting in the plastic molded chairs or standing at tables folding laundry. No one ever said a word in there; every pair of eyes tracked my hangdog progress to the little office in the back. It was my own version of the Walk of Shame.
Back in those days, Greenpoint was old-world Brooklyn, a profoundly local place. I was a stranger in a strange land on Graham Avenue. Italian guys sat in lawn chairs smoking cigars and drinking Peroni; black-haired women in cotton housedresses carried bulging shopping bags along the sidewalks. I felt very safe in that part of Greenpoint; all local crime was in the hands of the professionals – but I didn’t belong there. When I came up out of the L station, I was very obviously the only person to get off at my stop who hadn’t been born and raised within a ten-block radius. Graham Avenue felt very far from Manhattan, light years away.
There was an Italian deli on the corner between the L stop and my apartment. Because my apartment had no fridge, I did little cooking there, and so, on most weekday nights, on my way home from whatever menial job I had at the time, I stopped into the deli to get a sub, some chips, and a few cold bottles of Peroni. The deli subs were insanely good. I sometimes salivated like a dog, watching the guy build the one I’d ordered. On a foot-long Italian loaf, soft and white and spongy, he slathered about half a jar each of mustard and mayo and then piled a mound of shredded iceberg, greasy rounds of salami and ham, hot green pepperoncini, and rectangular slabs of provolone. At the end, he squirted oil and vinegar from plastic bottles, sprinkled it with black pepper and salt, folded it closed, cut it in half, rolled it in white paper and taped it shut and slid it into a paper sack between the beer and the chips. I took my dinner straight home. In warm months, I sat outside on my bare tar roof deck, staring at the sky. I always ate and drank every drop and crumb. Later, I went inside to my hot little apartment to lie in bed with my brain in a snarl of wonderment. I had no idea how my life was going to go, but I knew that no one was going to help me; it was all up to me. I was very worried about this, all the time.
Five years later, when I was working as a secretary in the World Trade Center, I paid $450 a month for a huge, high-ceilinged, beautiful place on North Henry Street just off Norman Avenue, way up near McGolrick Park and the sewage treatment plant. On my long hike home from the L train after work, I passed the Busy Bee Supermarket, a Polish grocery. I did much of my shopping there. The shelves were full of beer, hot mustard, pickled beets, herring in jars, canned meats, and sauerkraut. Behind the cash register were heaps of uncut loaves of fresh Polish rye bread. The register was next to a deli case piled high with cured meats, blocks of cheese, kielbasy, and cold salads. The cashier and the deli guy were one and the same person; the entire line had to wait while he sliced each customer’s bread, meat, and cheese. The inefficiency of this system drove me a little batty with impatience, but it also afforded me a certain amount of entertainment. It was easy to tell who was from the neighborhood and who wasn’t by the degree of irritation versus resignation they exhibited.
I got married a year later and moved down to Williamsburg, to my new husband’s huge industrial loft on Metropolitan and Wythe. In those days, he was paying $700 a month for 1100 square feet. Up on Bedford Avenue were two butchers, the “red butcher” and the “blue butcher,” so called because of the colors they were painted inside; they had official names, but no one used them. According to anyone who knew anything about the neighborhood, one of them was good and the other was bad. I could never remember which was which. I went into one and sniffed hard, then did the same thing in the other one, hoping to ferret out the bad one by any hint of putridness or rot. I never could tell any difference; they both smelled equally of garlicky sausage and the tangy stink of fresh meat. I generally bought kielbasy in either one and felt perfectly safe in both. Once, though, I bought a piece of beef from the blue butcher and brought it home and cooked it. It tasted gamey, and the texture was sinisterly stringy but tender; I was convinced that it was horsemeat. Now, both butchers are long-gone. One is a bubble tea place, the other a fancy ice-cream parlor.
I left Greenpoint for good in 2010, exactly twenty years after I first moved there. My fifth and final place in North Brooklyn was a top-floor railroad apartment on Monitor Street just off Norman for which I had been paying $1800 a month. This was considered a good deal.
In August of 2008, I flew to Guadalajara to meet my husband, who had gone down a week earlier to hang his work for a group show at the Ex Convento del Carmen. It had been curated by two Mexican artist friends, both of them named Carlos, who had a loft in the building where Jon had his studio. All the artists in the show were from Brooklyn, a South Williamsburg collective the Carloses had dubbed the Leonard Codex. Guadalajarans evidently take art very seriously; hundreds of people, maybe even a thousand, came to the opening. Afterwards, a group of us went out to a Cuban dance hall to eat roast pork with rice and beans and drink mescal and dance. Jon and I sat alone together at a table and leaned our heads against each other, smiling at everyone. “You two are so in love,” said the smart, serious Dutch girlfriend of one of the Carloses. I felt a lurch in my chest.
The next night, Paco, the gallery director, invited a few of us over to his beautiful, strange, dark house, where every wall and surface was crammed full of small paintings and artifacts and his own work, an assemblage of eerie, mechanical, Victorian wind-up toys and boxes. Three guinea pigs and two reeking, semi-savage dogs had the run of the place. Paco played 1950s Mexican cha-cha on his old record player, and we all drank large quantities of tequila and danced. Jon and I sat close together on the couch, and then we danced together, by all appearances a devoted, affectionate couple.
Very late, all of us drunk and starving, we went out to a restaurant one of the Carloses knew would still be open. At his urging, we all ordered the house specialty, pork-skin and pig-feet tostadas. They were borderline-vile if I thought about it, and perfectly edible if I didn’t. My mind went back and forth as I ate them. I awoke at dawn, savagely thirsty, and drank all the bottled water we had in our hotel room.
That morning, Jon and I rented a car and drove to Cuyutlan, a tiny town on the Pacific coast, for two nights. It was the off-season. We were the only guests in the huge, crumbling, formerly super-mod hotel that must have been very swank about forty years earlier. It was like “The Shining” set in Brasilia, a long-gone architect’s modernistic sci-fi dream, rooms built around the inner wall of a huge curving shell, the lobby set within, with internal free-standing rooms, the now-closed bar, restaurant, and dance floor as grand as an MGM movie-musical set, now all falling to pieces, with chunks of concrete breaking off and plaster sconces detaching from walls. We were given the room on the top floor at the very end; we perched up in the furthermost corner in a little box with a tiled balcony that looked out over the black volcanic beach and the ocean. Except for the two of us, all seventy or so rooms were empty.
The main street felt like a movie set, too, waiters standing idle, music playing futilely, a hot ocean wind blowing across empty chairs and tables, ruffling placemats and napkins. Everyone eyed us with hopeful yearning as we strolled up and down the street, studying menus and consulting each other. We finally chose the restaurant directly across from our hotel. As we seated ourselves in the centermost of the empty tables, we could feel a collective sigh around us. Our waitress was a young girl, all merry smiles at having been the lucky winner of our business. She encouraged us to order the fish special, and so, of course, we did. We were served plates of well-fried whole sea fish with heads and tails intact, alongside yellow rice and a limp salad.
Although we had been passionate fellow eaters from our first date all through our fourteen years together, neither of us had much appetite. We didn’t discuss the fact that we both knew that I was leaving the marriage. We didn’t talk about the terrible summer we’d just had, during which Jon had worked night and day in his studio to get his photographs ready for the show, and I had gone very obviously insane with grief, longing, and panic. We sat over our dinners, trying to eat our fish, making quiet, grim jokes about being the only game in town.
After dinner, we crossed the street for a drink, because there seemed to be another customer in the outdoor bar attached to the hotel, a man sitting alone, hunched over his laptop, wearing headphones. He turned out to be the owner and local expat; he was American, and he had married the daughter of the previous owner. He was a chain-smoking, shambolic, entertaining, obsessive music buff who mixed drink after drink for us – Herradura mixed with a weirdly delicious neon-blue soda – while he played us choice, rare old R&B and jazz he’d downloaded into his computer. At about 2 in the morning, we got up to go. He begged us not to leave. There were so many more songs he wanted to play for us.
We crossed the street to our dark, cavernous, vast hotel and climbed the stairs to our room. Its tiled floor was slick with condensation, and the air was stuffy and humid. We opened the window and went to bed. I lay awake for a long time, listening to the wind blowing steadily off the ocean.
In 2007, my then-husband and I went down to Mexico City for our friend Janice’s show in an art gallery there. We stayed at our usual place, the Hotel Isabel in the historical center, a colonial hotel built around a balustraded staircase and three-story courtyard with a huge skylight. The Isabel has enormous, cheap rooms furnished in basic-sixties drab with floor-to-ceiling casement windows that open onto the loud, heavily trafficked, cobblestoned streets.
There’s a bar downstairs off the entryway, a long dim room with wobbly tables and a TV. We drank our tequila there without sangrita because, instead of mixing tomato juice with spices and fruit juices, they poured a premade mix out of an industrial-sized jug that looked, and tasted, like neon cough syrup. Off the Isabel’s ornate lobby, with its leather brass-studded couches, oil paintings, stained glass, and giant fish tank, was a small restaurant where we went every morning for chilaquiles – that insanely delicious dish of fried tortilla strips simmered in salsa verde with scrambled eggs, pulled chicken, queso blanco, and refried beans.
The gallery showing Janice’s work, La Refaccionaria, was on the ground floor of a 17th century building in a narrow mews. Janice was showing a series of deliberately ugly-beautiful life-sized latex heads that bristled with knobs, wens, moles with sprouting hair, squinty heavy-lidded eyes, and thick lips, all the things plastic surgeons are paid a lot of money to change or eradicate. She had created an array of these grotesque, disembodied, colorful, funny, strangely gorgeous heads on pedestals. A crowd of people, most of them old friends, since the art world of Mexico City is a tightly-knit community, stood around drinking tequila out of small plastic cups and smoking and yakking.
Afterwards, a group of about fifteen of us took taxis to Covadonga, an old traditional dominos hall in Roma where men in their shirtsleeves sit tersely around small tables and keep score for decades on end, or so it seems. The art world of Mexico City seems to like to descend there after openings, for reasons possibly having to do with the historical clack of dominoes. We ordered plates of Spanish food, their specialty — fabada asturiana, a stew of fava beans and pork; potato, onion, and egg tortilla; and pulpos a la gallega, octopus with paprika, garlic and coarse salt.
The day after the opening, we met Janice in the Zocalo, and the three of us went into the Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de María, the biggest cathedral in the Americas. We wandered around the aisles and chapels and naves, gawping at the shadowy vastness of the place, struck through with shafts of light from faraway high-up windows. Near the front, we peered through velvet ropes at the enormous plumb bob hanging straight down from the ceiling, tracing elliptical lines in a layer of sand to show the movement of the stone floor, settling through the years, sinking and shifting with each earthquake and caving-in of the land it’s built on, a former Aztec sacred site.
We left the cathedral and bought plastic sacks of tepache, fermented pineapple juice with a chunk of ice, with straws sticking out of them, from a street vendor. Although we’d been to Mexico City several times before, it was fun being there with Janice. She’s Eastern European Jewish, born and raised in New York City, but she looks very much like a Mexican of Spanish descent – she is tiny, with hazel almond-shaped eyes and long thick wavy black hair and pale, creamy skin. She lived in Mexico City for 7 years, in the 1980s and early 90s, and she speaks Mexican Spanish fluently. Walking with her through the streets of D.F., we felt as if we were in the hands of a native guide.
She led us from the Zocalo over to the famous Bar l’Opera, with its bullet hole in the ceiling, legendarily made by Pancho Villa, galloping through on a horse. While we sat at a small wooden table in the bar area with a couple of rounds of tequila, Janice ordered caracoles en chipotle. The snails were small and garlicky and surprisingly tender. We sucked them out of their curly little shells and watched the afternoon crowd come and go and talk and smoke and drink and eat under the high, gilded, baroque ceiling, all of us reflected in the old beveled mirrors.
Back in New York, about a year later, after Jon and I had split up, Janice and I found ourselves single and lonely at the same time. We cooked for each other or went out for dinner at least once a week. She can’t eat gluten, like me, and, to make things even more complicated, she also can’t eat dairy, so our meals were of necessity limited and proscribed. When we went out together, we felt like special-needs, high-maintenance nudniks, interrogating the waiters, deliberating over menus, sometimes even sending things back, but when we cooked for each other, our meals were relaxed and luxurious-feeling.
I loved going over to her top-floor walk-up apartment in the East Village and sitting at her wooden table, drinking wine and talking, while she bustled around. She put on Mexican music and set out bowls of freshly roasted pepitas with sea salt, rice crackers with rich goat cheese, pulpo in garlic sauce, and red pepper-spiced green olives. While she cooked, we drank the wine I’d brought, and then we opened another bottle to drink with dinner.
Dinner could have been pescado en achiote, fish baked in banana leaves, or fish and scallop ceviche, or pollo pipian, chicken in pumpkin sauce with green chili. Whatever it was, it was always so perfectly cooked and savory and fresh and interesting that we were temporarily, happily unaware of our irritating dietary restrictions. We dined together like normal people, like people who could eat whatever the hell we wanted.
Fish in Banana Leaves
For 2 people, buy one pound (2 good-sized filets) of very fresh, firm ocean fish, such as red snapper or grouper.
Peel a head of garlic. Blend the cloves in the blender with enough olive oil, about ¼ cup, to make a thick paste.
Rub this olive oil/garlic mixture into the fish on both sides and then cover the fish with dried leaves of the Mexican herb hoja santa (available at Mexican specialty stores).
Wrap each filet in a banana leaf and tie into a packet with cooking twine. Bake the packets on a cookie sheet in a preheated 350 degree oven until done, about 20 minutes.
Serve with basmati rice with roasted corn, and kale cooked in olive oil with garlic.
For dessert, serve chocolate or coconut goat’s milk ice cream and glasses of a light dessert wine like vin santo.
Tacos are some of the most festively social foods I know of. My friend Janice likes to take groups of friends on a culinary field trip to Roosevelt Avenue in Queens to dine al fresco, as they say, at the taco trucks at 74th Street, which she has always claimed have the best tacos in New York City. She lived in Mexico City for many years and is a true traditional Mexican cook, so I take her word in all such matters. (She also makes amazing tacos, most notably squid.)
Those Queens taco trucks rival the best taco stands I’ve been to in Mexico City and Guadalajara. The greasy, spicy chorizo tacos from the stand just outside the Cantina Tlaquepaque in D.F.’s Colonia Centro are addictive, but if you want variety, you can get just about anything else in a pair of warm tortillas, including eye, tongue, cochinita pibil, and carna asada, which sizzle in batches on a hot oily metal drum and are scooped into double tortillas and handed to you on a paper plate. You can stand at a little counter on the sidewalk, just like at the taco trucks, helping yourself to the pickled jalapenos, radishes, crema, cilantro, and chopped onion, or you can take your food into the cantina, sit at a table, order glasses of tequila with sangrita, and listen to the jukebox play loud Mexican pop while everyone in the place sings along.
The other afternoon here in Portland, Maine in the middle of this weirdly warm, weirdly sunny winter, I was grocery shopping in Hannaford’s with Brendan, roaming around with a cart and no particular list or plan, as usual. Magpie-like, I found myself reaching for glossy dark-green jalapenos, an orangey-gold mango, plush-red tomatoes, spring-green cilantro, neon limes, and a pepper that was the lurid, unreal red of cherry candy. It dawned on me that I was planning to make shrimp tacos with mango-avocado salsa.
At home, I diced 2 tomatoes, a red onion, 3 jalapenos, 4 garlic cloves, a ripe mango, a ripe avocado, and a red pepper, then added some salt and black pepper and an entire bunch of minced cilantro. I squeezed 2 juicy limes over it all and stirred and let it sit. Then, after consulting Janice, who recommended garlic and red pepper flakes, I minced a whole head of garlic and put it into a glass bowl with lots of fresh lime juice, lots of red pepper flakes, and another entire bunch of minced cilantro. While a pound of large raw peeled shrimp marinated in this, I simmered two well-rinsed cans of black beans with garlic, jalapeno, red onion, and chopped tomatoes, cumin, bay leaves, oregano, and paprika, and just enough vegetable broth to bind it all. Then I ran the shrimp under the broiler until they were pink and cooked through. We scooped them into warm corn tortillas with chopped iceberg lettuce and the mango salsa and devoured them with a side of black beans.
Last night, to use up the leftover tortillas, salsa, and beans, and inspired by my friend Rosie’s recipe, I bought a pound of fresh local haddock, 2 big filets, and marinated them in the adobo sauce from a can of chipotles and then dredged them in cornmeal. I panfried them till they were just cooked through. Rosie likes to flash-pickle jalapenos and radishes and whizz more adobo in the blender with crema for a sauce, but even without these accoutrements, the tacos were fantastic. We ate every scrap of everything on blue plastic plates in the still-unfinished house, sitting on mismatched old chairs at a small table by the fireplace in the box-filled living room. We drank red wine out of some small blue-patterned mugs I bought years ago in the covered market in Mexico City.
Taco-Stand Chicken Tacos
This is one of my few bona-fide published recipes. It appeared in a collection of various writers’ favorite recipes called Table of Contents. It’s adapted from a recipe I found online; I made it for a guy who was coming over to interview me about my novel, Trouble, which takes place partially in Mexico City, so I figured I should serve a Mexican lunch. He came in, saw the table set with plates and wine and napkins, glanced at the pot of stewing chicken, and announced that he had done some online research and had learned that I like to cook for my interviewers. “I think it’s a gimmick,” he said, “and I’m not impressed.” I laughed, said nothing, and served him these tacos. After hoovering up five or six of them with all the trimmings, he took it back in no uncertain terms.
For the filling
3 pounds bone-in chicken breasts (3-4 breasts)
2 jalapeño chiles
2 cups finely chopped tomato (fresh or canned)
1/3 cup finely chopped onion
3 tablespoons minced garlic
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro leaves
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
18 corn tortillas
For the garnish
Minced red onion
Chopped cilantro leaves
Green and red salsas
Pickled jalapeño chiles
Thinly sliced radishes, fresh or pickled
To make the filling: Place the chicken breasts in a large pot and cover with at least 1½ inches of water. Bring to a boil and cook, uncovered, for 30-40 minutes. Use a large metal spoon to occasionally skim the scum that rises to the surface. Remove chicken and reserve 1½ cups of chicken broth. When chicken is cool enough to handle, shred the chicken into bite-size pieces, discarding the skin and bones. You should have about 5 cups of shredded chicken.
If you have a gas range, roast the chiles over an open flame until tender and blackened on all sides. If you have an electric range, place the chiles on a broiling tray covered with foil and broil, turning occasionally, until skin is blackened and blistered on all sides. Place chiles in a small bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and let sit for 5 minutes. Remove stems and peel off blackened skin.
Place reserved broth, tomatoes, onion, garlic, cilantro, chiles, salt, and pepper in a blender and puree for 1-3 minutes (depending on the efficiency of your blender.)
Place shredded chicken and puréed sauce in a skillet or saucepan and simmer for 45 minutes on low heat, stirring occasionally.
Preheat oven to 300°F. Warm the tortillas: Place tortillas on two baking sheets (they can overlap slightly) and bake until tortillas are soft and pliable, about 4 minutes.
To assemble the tacos: Place a few tablespoons of chicken mixture into a warm corn tortilla, and garnish with avocado, red onion, cilantro, green and red salsas, sour cream, lime wedges, pickled jalapeños, and radishes.
Today is my father’s 88th birthday. I haven’t seen him in nearly a quarter of a century, but I always think of him on February 15th and wonder, for a moment, how he’s doing, how his health is, whether he’s still compos mentis, by which I mean as compos mentis as he ever was, which isn’t very. I’m betting he is, since my family on both sides keeps every one of their marbles till they die — I don’t know of a single relative who’s gone even slightly gaga. My father’s mother died of what was essentially old age, I think, in the 1980s. My father’s father died in the late 1960s in Hawaii, the story goes, when he choked to death on a chicken bone, or maybe it was a fishbone.
Obviously, I don’t have much of a clue about my father or his family. I know that his two sisters, my aunts, are both alive and well in their eighties, and I know I have a lot of cousins somewhere. But, since my father ditched every single person he’s related to decades ago and resolutely went on with his life, free of his mother, two ex-wives, two sisters, and five daughters (so many women; the mere thought of us must have suffocated him), that whole side of my bloodline is shrouded in a strange fog. My half-sister Thea has shed some light on a few things, because she sort of knows our aunts, and she grew up on the same Minnesota lake where her mother and our father grew up – but our paternal relatives are essentially a mystery to her, too.
It’s always interested me that my father’s birthday falls on the day after St. Valentine’s Day, a holiday that’s given me both romantic consternation and romantic contentment. There’s the day of love, and then there’s Ralph’s birthday, hard on its heels, a yearly reminder of my father’s charismatic, scary, diffident presence in the family until I was ten, and then his abrupt, eternal absence from the rest of my life. It’s hard not to draw some sort of connection.
Yesterday at noon or so, Brendan and Dingo and I took a long walk along the road, down the path through the woods to the lake, and then out onto the frozen lake and back toward home. The ice seemed thick enough, but we didn’t know for absolutely sure. It made strange whale-groaning sounds far out on the lake and at one point it cracked thickly under Brendan’s feet. We were a little spooked, but not enough to go sensibly back to shore. We continued out over an inlet. Dingo, highly intelligent as always, walked far enough away from us, closer to shore, so that if we fell in, he’d be safe. We humans burbled along like daring eight-year-olds, shoe-skating and light-stepping and whooping with suspense. Out there on the flat, frozen surface, we had a dazzling view of the White Mountains just to the north. It was a clear day, and the far-off, snow-covered, looming Mt. Washington seemed close enough to walk to.
After about a mile, we made it safely to the dock we usually jump off to swim in the summertime. We climbed up through the woods and came home along the road. In the warm house, we shed our coats, out of breath. I made us buckwheat blini with fine black mild caviar and sour cream. We drank cava with a dash of orange juice and listened to Antonio Carlos Jobim, the most innocuous, elevator-music-like bossa nova in the world; we laughed at ourselves for liking it. Dingo scored a piece of plain blini. Although rationally we knew the danger was minimal, we were giddy from the relief of not falling into the freezing-cold lake.
We ate and drank all day long. Brendan shucked eighteen very fresh raw Maine oysters, which we ate on ice by the fire with shallots in white wine vinegar and a sauce of lemon juice, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, and horseradish.
I dismantled 2 small endives and, on twinned pairs of the crisp, subtly bitter leaves, I slathered sour cream and loaded each with capers, fresh basil, and oil-packed artichoke hearts. We ate the whole plateful with a fresh batch of blini with slabs of two rather spectacular mild cheeses and some seedless purple grapes.
Then I steamed a bunch of slender asparagus spears and served them with a fantastic dipping sauce made of the rest of the white wine vinegar-and-shallots mixed with mayonnaise and Dijon mustard. After this, I steamed eighteen clams, which we dipped in hot butter.
Later, I melted a bar of very dark chocolate in a double boiler while I cut the stems off some eerily ripe, preternaturally juicy California strawberries. I dipped ten of them in the chocolate and put them into the fridge on waxed paper. While they set, we revisited the blini and cheese course.
And then, with small glasses of Marques de Caceres, to finish this day of insanely luxurious, happy eating, we ate the chocolate-dipped strawberries.
I woke up this morning with a well-fed glow, aware that it was my father’s birthday. I thought about all four of my brothers-in-law, my sisters’ husbands, all of them strong-minded, intelligent, interesting, caring, handsome men – just like my ex-husband, just like Brendan. Good for us, all five of his daughters. And happy birthday, Ralph.