NYC Oddities: Morbid Anatomy Museum

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Curiosities on sale at the Morbid Anatomy Museum

What is it about the morbid and the disturbing that has fascinated so many throughout time? Is it the mystery of the unknown, of what lurks in the shadows? Is it the desire to push ourselves to the brink of what our minds can endure–a cerebral equivalent of physical death-defying sports like BASE jumping or ice climbing? At its heart, I think, it’s the need to imagine that our world extends behind the purely physical and into a realm we don’t quite know or understand. There’s a spiritual optimism to it, a curiosity that is–at its heart–undeniably human.

The Morbid Anatomy Museum, which opened last year in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood, explores this fascination. The ground floor houses a coffee shop and gift shop with items like squirrel tales, unsettling photographs, wax modules of maladies like an ocular horn (do not Google this) and taxidermy everything. The second floor space is devoted to the current exhibition (Do The Spirits Return?: From Dark Arts to Sleight of Hand in Early 20th Century Magic; April 11, 2015 to January 5, 2016) as well as a research library borne of museum founder Joanna Ebenstein’s own collection of books, photographs, art and objects devoted to anatomy, medical anomalies, death and other curiosities.

The museum also offers an intriguing lecture series featuring talks, movie showings, and more by academics and historians discussing such varied topics as “A History of Serial Murder from One Billion, B.C. to the Present” (May 5)  and “Psychedelics and Death: A Brief Introduction” (May 21), both already sold out. Taxidermy classes help participants create animal displays like a two-headed mouse or a squirrel shoulder mount.

What Makes a City Great?

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A view of the Richmond, Va. skyline (via Will Fisher, Flickr.com; made available via Creative Commons license)

I’ve always been an urban enthusiast. I love cities. I love exploring them, examining them, studying them. My husband and I have always preferred a new city to a beach as a vacation destination. Even as I enjoy walking around a new place, I can’t help but take stock of what works–on an urban planning level–and what doesn’t.

A few years ago, when I read the seminal modern planning tome “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” by Jane Jacobs, I found myself nodding along with nearly all of Jacobs’ assertions. The book is not at all academic; in fact, it’s conversational and heavily anecdotal. Jacobs makes assertions that seem plainly obvious to a modern reader, but ones that were diametrically opposed to the principles of the early and mid-century planning movement still popular at the time (whose origins can be traced back to de-slumming efforts).

A few of Jacobs’ salient points:

  • Areas should mixed-use, that is: zoned and used for work, living and play, to ensure vibrancy and safety. There should be “eyes on the street” at all hours of the day, from residents, business owners, workers, shoppers and those out on the town. This “diversity of use” creates a sense of community and place.
  • Pedestrian traffic, and in turn, density, is absolutely essential for a healthy city. Too many people, however, decrease sight lines and damage self-policing.
  • Too many tall residential buildings surrounded by unused greens pace–especially in the form of isolated housing projects–create a sense disconnect.
  • Parks should ideally be placed in sunny, well-trafficked areas, not in in isolated courtyards or on the edges of neighborhoods.
  • Architecture should be varied to ensure variety of use and economic diversity (since rent for new construction can often be prohibitively expensive for existing businesses and residents).

This is all well and good for cities like New York and San Francisco and London, with existing infrastructure that allows for revitalization and a heavy concentration of pedestrians.

What of smaller cities, especially in the U.S., whose residents have migrated to the suburbs and whose downtowns, zoned almost entirely for work, stand vacant by 5:01 p.m.? Yes, young people are moving to city centers, but is it enough to counteract nearly 100 years of destructive urban policy?

In my hometown of Richmond, Va., downtown tobacco warehouses were converted into lofts in recent years, but some are, according to what would be Jacobs’ outlook, isolated. Yes, they have river views, and they’re a short walk from a number of good restaurants, but their backs front confined courtyards, vacant green space or parking lots, effectively disconnecting them from the rest of the community and creating safety concerns. The residents’ eyes are diverted away from the street because, well, who’d want to stare at a parking lot? Also, would they want to cross that same empty lot on their own, in the dark, on their way home from a night out?

There’s a mayoral proposal to place a minor league baseball team near this same nightlife area (Shockoe Bottom), which has been the focus of multiple revitalization efforts. The most salient argument against development comes from those who want to preserve the space, which was the site of the second largest slave market in the country. But what to make of the proposal from a revitalization perspective? I haven’t done enough research to see how many visitors a stadium would attract, but it doesn’t seem as though a seasonal attraction–not even an everyday seasonal attraction–is enough to make sure the area meets Jacobs’ diversity of use criteria. Like the current minor league stadium nearby, it’ll stand empty most days and nights, exacerbating the vacant feel of the ‘hood.

What the immediate neighborhood has little of is large-scale office space, though some are trying to change that. There are few people on the streets before 8 p.m. About 1.5 miles across the James River in Manchester, the Corrugated Box Building, a 40,000 square foot loft-style brick building, houses the Richmond-based offices of Tumblr and a bevy of other creative companies. Seems as though similar office space in Shockoe Bottom would greatly increase pedestrian traffic–a hallmark of a healthy city neighborhood–during the middle of the day. Pedestrian traffic tends to initiate a snowball effect–the more pedestrians others witness, the more likely they are to park and walk around themselves. Pedestrian safety is essential, too, and Richmond, as the 20th most dangerous city for walking in the U.S., has a long way to go.

Car culture is ingrained in medium-sized city like Richmond. I was reading a positive Yelp review of a buzzy new restaurant out in the ‘burbs. The reviewer listed his criteria for a great restaurant: unique food, interesting cocktails and…plenty of parking. And I’m sure a lot of people feel the same way. How to counteract that? Well, I’m not exactly sure. Side-street, small scale parking decks can help bring in people from the suburbs who are reluctant to troll for street parking. This is especially true for the emerging Broad Street district, where parking can be hard find. Carytown, a quirky nearly mile-long shopping area concentrated along West Cary Street does a good job of hiding small lots and decks off nearby streets. Large lots and decks, which syphon space and character, shouldn’t be an option.

Richmond has plenty of attractions, but few attractive hotels. Aside from the 5-star classic Jefferson hotel, most are generic corporate giants on a business-only stretch of Broad Street or off the Interstate near office parks. I’m surprised no enterprising person has erected a boutique hotel in a neighborhood like The Fan, a historic Victorian district with restaurants, bars and easy walking access to Carytown, various parks and the museums of North Boulevard. A modern, low-lying, industrial-style hotel like the Renaissance New Orleans Arts would fit right in on Main Street, the main commercial thoroughfare.

Visitors can help local businesses thrive, but it’s locals who determine the culture and character of their neighborhood, and effectively, their city. I’m optimistic about Richmond. There are a number of creative, committed people who love the city and want to make it a renowned destination. And there are so many things the city does have going for it: a variety of museums–both large and smallunique eateries and shops, one of the most beautiful city parks in the country, historic architecture and varied neighborhoods. RVA is on the rise.

The Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookie Roundup

There’s something about a chocolate chip cookie (CCC, for short) that embodies a certain casual American exceptionalism. The French, Kings of Pastry as they deservedly are, take hours to make and assemble the perfect croissant or ideal Paris-Brest or any number of other complex dough-and-cream concoctions. We Americans get to waltz in with our flour and our sugar and our eggs and our chocolate chips and–in 10 minutes flat–create something near Godliness. Hold off on those U-S-A!, U-S-A! cheers, though. In NYC it’s French bakeries, with their supreme attention to detail, that are churning out some of the best versions of the CCC in the city.

For this roundup, I sampled 18 cookies all across NYC. There were plenty of winners, and I found it difficult to whittle down my favorites to a “Top 5″ so I went with a “Top 6.” All are exceptional in their own way.

Top 6 (in no particular order)

Smile To Go: This cookie has an intense brown sugar flavor that plays off of the saltiness of large visible flakes (seen below), creating an ideal medley of salty-sweet. The chocolate disks are ideally distributed throughout.

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Maman: If I were to award an official No. 1, this gargantuan cookie would be it. From the cutesy new French bakery in Soho, this CCC is perfectly browned on the edges with an incredibly melty, gooey middle. Also, I’m usually a hater of nuts-in-cookies, but the whole hazelnuts here add great texture.

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The Dessert Club by Chikalicious: This has been one of my favorite CCCs for years (at the sister location in the East Village), and the one at the new spot is just as lovely. It’s slightly underdone with crunchy edges and a chewy interior. They know to warm up the cookie to order for just the right amount of time to achieve optimal softness.

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Levain Bakery: The most famous of the bunch, this French bakery is perpetually mobbed–and with good reason. They churn out large mounds of deliciously under-baked CCCs that are so heavy, you could use them for weight training. Bring a friend and indulge in the cookie dough-like interior. There are walnuts, but they’re not super loud about making their presence known, if you know what I mean.

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Pret a Manger: Yes, it’s a chain, but so what? These cookies can compete with some of the top bakeries on this list. They’re kept under a warming lamp, so they’re toasty and gooey no matter what time of day you purchase one. There’s a crunchiness at the edges that gives them a nice textural balance.

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Épicerie Boulud: Another Frenchy on our list, this cookie has it all. It’s buttery and soft, with a proportional combination of dark chocolate and milk chocolate chips. I’ve only ever had it warm, so in order to experience the magic, it would be worth it to ask if the ones on display are fresh out of the kitchen.

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Honorable Mentions

Blue Ribbon Bakery Market: The smallest (and cheapest, at $1) of the bunch, this cookie has a lovely home-baked quality. It’s soft, crumbly and not overly buttery. A perfect CCC for when you want a cookie all to yourself, but don’t want to consume a 500-calorie sugar bomb.

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Macchiato: A great spot for cookie cravings in Midtown, this European coffee shop stocks perpetually warm cookies with intense chocolate flavor.

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Bouchon Bakery: Yet another French bakery with a great CCC. This cookie is huge–nearly literally the size of one’s head. The edges are crunchy, but take one more bite and you’re in pliant, chewy heaven.

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The City Bakery: This institution has expanded its dessert empire with Birdbath Bakeries all around Manhattan, featuring the original icon’s famous cookies. The CCC here is flat, chewy and just right amount of underdone. It goes well with their exceptional hot chocolate, if you’re looking to spend the subsequent hours in a blissful sugar coma.

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Jacques Torres Chocolate: Jacques knows his customers, and what he knows is they want a warm CCC. They keep some of the cookies on a hot plate all day to ensure the one you receive is warm and soft. Mine may have spent a little too much time on the plate; it was falling apart when I held it up for a photo. Jacques is also the king of chocolate chip layering–a cross section resembles sedimentary rocks, which is perhaps why his chocolate chip cookie recipe is an Internet favorite.

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Other cookies sampled: Amy’s Bread, BKLYN Larder, Milk & Cookies Bakery, Breads Bakery, Baked, Maison Kayser, Roasting Plant.

The February Slump

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About a decade ago, my father was filming footage of our mostly beautiful hometown, Richmond, Va., in order to send it to family back in Moscow. When he turned his camera on the the blighted areas surrounding the interstate, near downtown, I was annoyed. “Why would you want to show that?” I asked.

“Because I want to show a full picture of where we live. You know where else they glossed over all the bad parts?” he asked rhetorically. “Communist Russia.”

“Uh huh,” I said, as his camera grazed over the abandoned houses and trash-covered parking lots.

Weather-wise, New York City in February is sort of like that dirty parking lot in the middle of a quaint city. It is the worst. Snow has fallen and collected in dingy brown piles on the sidewalk. In addition, because the city is medieval when it comes to trash collecting and bags are stacked high on the street, pieces of random garbage are strewn in and around the snow and are iced over inside of it. The tableau resembles a sort of nightmarish memory box.

There are still a few bright spots: the blueish-almost-turquoise haze of a wintry city at sunset, a near silent night of softly falling snow, the cozy warmth of a neighborhood restaurant.

Still, there’s no shame in hibernation. Though I’ve written about the importance of venturing out into the cold in order to combat SAD, sometimes it’s okay to stay in and avoid the soul-crush temperatures and grimy slush. Maybe make this tasty bolognese or decadent babka as you wile away the hours until May.

Is This the Best Jewish Bakery in Brooklyn?

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There was a time when Jewish bakeries in the outer boroughs were as ubiquitous as patisseries in Paris. Turn a corner, grab a babka. Walk up the street, pick up an onion board. Much like other vestiges of Old New York, they’re growing rarer by the day. Check any food forum (like chowhound.com) and you’ll see a lot of posters lamenting the Jewish bakeries of yesteryear. Many owners have retired, and, along with the clientele, moved away. All hope is not lost! On a random trek through hasidic Crown Heights, my husband and I encountered Gombo’s Heimishe Bakery. The only bakery on Kingston Avenue, the only major commerce strip in the neighborhood, the shop does brisk business.

It reminded me of one of the best Jewish bakeries I’d ever been to, Cheskie Boulangerie in Montreal, Canada. On its signage, it also describes itself as “heimishe.”

In Yiddish parlance heimishe or haimish means down-home and unpretentious. As a type of bakery, the term seems to convey an Eastern European-style pastry shop that features a variety of rustic sweets.There are a lot of Jewish desserts, like rugelach, as well as non-Jewish specific regional treats like danishes.

The chocolate danish-like pastry we sampled at Cheskie was warm, chewy–incredible–and the babka we brought back for family prompted an attempted from-scratch reconstruction.

At Gombo’s, there are nearly a dozen items that could be described as “chocolate and dough in rolled-up form.” Soft chocolate rugelach (a type popular in Israel), drier American-style chocolate rugelach covered in powdered sugar, chocolate danishes, large chocolate croissants, chocolate cigars…I think you get the idea. My favorite items were a poppy seed bun and slice of the chocolate strudel-like pastry by the counter, which is cut to order. The local kids, though, were all making a beeline for the bright glaze-covered yeast doughnuts.

Mornings or early afternoons are the best times to snag fresh pastry, and there’s a line on Fridays for their fresh challah.

Off the Beaten Path: Gowanus

The industrial Gowanus neighborhood in Brooklyn, situated on the Gowanus Canal between Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, has been a citywide punchline for years. The canal is so polluted (typhoid, cholera and gonorrhea have all been detected, among many other microbes), the EPA declared it a Superfund site in 2010. There’s a distinct sour garbage odor that wafts from the oil-slicked water in the summer, when the wind blows just so. An ill-fated whale who accidentally swam into the canal in 2007 was nicknamed “Sludgy” for obvious reasons.

There’s more to Gowanus than a smelly, refuse-filled waterway. The area has long been home to a prideful Italian-American community–an extension of nearby Carroll Gardens, some of whom still remain, nestled in the few residential streets surrounding the canal. Artists and musicians moved in at the end of the 20th century, seeking low rents and an off-the grid vibe. The enormous “Batcave,” an abandoned power station, was home to squatters, graffiti artists and impromptu punk rock shows up until a year ago.

Changes are afoot. The Batcave is being turned into an arts center. And, with a scheduled $500 million cleanup starting soon and a bevy of real estate development, the rest of the neighborhood is quickly transforming into a bit of an adult playground. Warehouses are turning into Miami-style shuffleboard palaces and live music venues. The industrial chic Green Building event space, which sits directly adjacent to the canal, is one of the most coveted wedding venues in the borough. It’s so popular, in fact, that sister space 501 Union opened across the street in 2013. My husband jokes that the expansive South Brooklyn Casket Co. warehouse, situated on prime Union Street, is weeks away from selling its space to a generic speakeasy bar, which will be named… “The South Brooklyn Casket Co.,” complete with cocktails like “The Mahogany.” (Too soon?) The ‘hood is still a long way away from turning into the next DUMBO, with plenty of curiosities, industry and grit along the quiet, uncrowded streets.

Below, a few places to check out in the area.

Eat

  • Littleneck: Neighborhood-y seafood centric restaurant with an inventive menu and a killer clam roll
  • The Pines: Well-reviewed high-end restaurant with a seasonal menu
  • Ample Hills Creamery: Two-story ice cream palace with roof deck. Location-specific “It Came From the Gowanus” ice cream flavor pokes fun at the environs.
  • Runner & Stone: Serious bakery with a full lunch and dinner menu. We sometimes make the trek from our apartment for their buckwheat baguette, fresh out of the oven everyday around 4:30 p.m.
  • Four & Twenty Blackbirds: Crazy-good world-renowned bakery with a rotating roster of pies. I love any iteration of berry pie and black-bottom oatmeal pie.
  • Fletcher’s Brooklyn Barbeque: Brisket-driven BBQ restaurant
  • The Bahche: Huge cafe with an abundance of seating rare for NYC
  • Two Toms Restaurant: Old School Italian restaurant with indeterminate hours and a classic, red-sauce menu
  • Dinosaur Bar-B-Que: Syracuse-based BBQ temple that attracts patrons from all over the borough. The baked wings and fried green tomatoes are standouts.
  • Monte’s: Another throwback Italian restaurant whose first iteration opened in 1906. Stakes its claim as the oldest Italian restaurant in Brooklyn.

Drink

  • Canal Bar: A dive bar-lovers bar: good beers, good jukebox, free popcorn and a backyard in the summer
  • Threes Brewing: A brewery and beer hall that brews its offerings onsite. An expansive dining room and event space is packed with locals on weekends. A rotating cast of Brooklyn restaurants like Roberta’s serve a small menu alongside a curated beer list.
  • Haylards: Local’s bar with a pool table, live music, small bites and cocktails
  • Lavender Lake: Cocktail-driven bar with a large backyard popular for birthdays
  • Black Mountain Wine House: Cozy wine bar with a working fireplace

Do

  • Royal Palms Shuffleboard: Huge maybe-ironic (I don’t even know anymore) indoor shuffleboard club with South Florida-style cabanas, tropical drinks and a food truck that parks inside
  • Film Biz Recycling: A warehouse full of quirky film industry prop and set design remnants. Some are available to buy, while stranger items, like gurneys, can be rented by the week. Sixty percent of the materials this non-profit receives are donated to local charities.
  • Brooklyn Brine: The (tiny) storefront of the pickle company whose wares are sold all over the city and beyond
  • School of Rock: Learn to play a musical instrument or hit that high note at this one-stop music learning shop.
  • Brooklyn Boulders: A rock climbing facility with the kind of space big city climbing enthusiasts long for
  • Gowanus Print Lab: A screen printing studio with a variety of classes, including t-shirt printing, stationery and typography
  • The Bell House: A live music and events venue with a crowded calendar. See bands like Crooked Fingers, attend a Little Mermaid sing-along, Brooklyn comedian Eugene Mirman’s Comedy Festival or a Pat Kiernan-hosted trivia night.
  • Twig: Kooky moss terrariums filled with imaginative worlds in a variety of shapes and sizes. Workshops available for those who want to make their own
  • Whole Foods: A real sign of changing times, this 56,000 square foot Whole Foods features a greenhouse, a rooftop bar and a manicured canal-side walkway.
  • Morbid Anatomy Museum: a gift shop, library, exhibition space and lecture series exploring macabre fascinations.

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From top: Royal Palms Shuffleboard; the Derby pie at Four & Twenty Blackbirds (image via Howard Walfish, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license); Canal Bar (image via pixonomy, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license; rental items at Film Biz recycling–yes, that’s a prop electric chair; Gowanus location of Ample Hills Creamery

The Introvert’s City

It’s the weekend (finally!). After a long, tiring work week, you’re in a funk and looking to reenergize. How do you go about it? According to conventional wisdom, if you’re an extrovert, you hit up a bustling restaurant or go to a crowded party. If you’re an introvert, you hibernate indoors with a good book and lots of silence, or if you feel like socializing, you go to dinner with a good friend. While extroverts gain energy from others, an introvert’s energy is sapped by people and crowds. But why? According to a 2005 study, extroverts have heightened emotional responses to unexpected positive outcomes and may be more prone to seek them out. In other words, they want newness and thrills. They indulge in adventure, uncertainty, new friends and risky sports. Introverts, on the other hand, are often content with what (and whom) they already know and love.

How does all of this play out in the big, bad city? It would seem NYC would be filled with only extroverts. It’s loud, chaotic, and rife with the possibility of the unexpected. We know, though, that’s not the case. The neurotic New Yorker is a long-used film and literary trope for a reason. I imagine thousands, if not millions of the city’s residents are wed to routine and are anxious if things don’t go exactly as planned–a trait, if not the defining one, of an introvert. There are also true introverts who live here, but seek out quiet corners where they’re able to hide away and unwind.

But what of the many introverted residents or visitors who, somewhat counterintuitively, relish the electricity of the crowds? What of people like me? I am in many ways an introvert. Small talk, parties with people I don’t know, being the center of attention–these tend to make me nervous. I’m fairly soft spoken and those who meet me would probably describe me as shy. On the other hand, being alone for an extended period of time tends to tire me out. How do I reconcile these seemingly conflicting traits? How do I recharge?

What works best is a walk down NYC’s streets, preferably in a crowded section of the city. A park bench is also ideal. There, I can feel the rush without feeling compelled to actually engage with anyone. Unless I want to engage, in which case the lack of necessity for conversation makes the act of conversing much less stressful.

Being out in the midst functions like a shot of espresso to jostle and excite me. (I’m not actually a coffee drinker, but I’ve heard things.) I’m an observer by nature. I study people–their mannerisms, their facial expressions, their conversations. In another life, I probably could have been a private detective. I imagine it’s why I’m drawn to writing, the ultimate observer’s profession.

The city is an observer’s dream. And, unlike the classic introvert who’s observant because that’s how he or she learns and engages with others, I observe because, like a classic extrovert, I’m looking for outside stimuli–something potentially inspiring or unusual to break up the everyday. Is the totally sane-looking man dressed in an old-timey prospector’s costume on a random Tuesday going somewhere or does he choose to dress this way because he enjoys it. If the latter, why? Does the man wearing a Rangers jersey singing opera in the subway feel accepted by his family? I want to know! Tell me! I want to know everything. I often wish tourists would ask me for directions just so I can find out where they’re from. We can share a short, unencumbered chat and be on our way.

I guess the real difference between me and a true extrovert is that the knowledge itself is enough. I don’t actually need to be a theater star or wear extravagant look-at-me clothes or skydive or rock climb. It’s enough to know and learn. And the city, she’s a pretty great teacher.

Holiday Meal Traditions

I’m of two minds about spending the holidays in New York. On the plus side, the city is decked out in her prettiest outfit, all sparkles and glitter and polish. On the other hand, it is swarming with tourists to the point where, if you’re not careful, you can literally get stuck among the scrum, just as my husband and I were last Christmas Eve Day near the Rockefeller Center tree. We had to make a harrowing escape via a small opening near Saks.

But there is a lot to love. The celebratory restaurants at your disposal, for one.

Hanukkah

We celebrate Hanukkah, and each year we make a pilgrimage to eat some latkes at a traditional Jewish deli. This year, though, we tried something different.

On the 6th night of Hanukkah we rented a Zipcar and drove to Stix Kosher Restaurant in Forest Hills, Queens. This homestyle establishment specializes in the cuisine of Bukharian Jews–a Central Asian population with a distinctive culture whose history in the region dates back millenia. Lamb is what they do best, and the varieties we sampled were tender and not-at-all gamey. We feasted on lamb plov, kebabs, chebureki and traditional tandoori bread. All around us, large tables of families were toasting to birthdays and the holiday with BYO bottles of vodka and brandy. It was an incredibly festive and warm atmosphere.

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After dinner, we were craving sufganiyot. These filled doughnuts are traditionally enjoyed during Hanukkah to commemorate the oil burning miracle at the center of the holiday. They’re similar to American-style jelly doughnuts, Italian bomboloni and German Berliners. We stumbled upon Queens Pita, which wasn’t just serving one variety of sufganiyot; they had prepared a veritable smorgasbord of the pastry. We were in deep-fried, powdered sugar-coated paradise. I mean, just look at that photo. The ones in the foreground are filled with Nutella. NUTELLA! Just as God had intended.

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Christmas

As Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan admitted during her confirmation hearing, most NYC Jews spend Christmas at a Chinese restaurant. It’s a funny tradition with origins in the mere fact that, for a long time, those restaurants were the only ones open on a day when the usually bustling city is uncharacteristically quiet. Local Chinese joints were the default place to grab a bite for cooking-averse New Yorkers. Many have also pontificated about the shared otherness both Jews and Chinese Buddhists experienced back when assimilation had a much stronger pull in predominately Christian American society.

In order to get a meal in with family members who were leaving the next day, we decided to partake in a spicy Szechuan outing on Christmas Eve night as opposed to the much busier Christmas Day dinner hour. Café China in Midtown was packed with families of all stripes (including The AmericansRichard Thomas, out with his wife and two kids!) Festooned with kitschy throwback decor, the restaurant is a nice option for a slightly-more-upscale Szechuan meal in the area. The foods of the Szechuan region are covered in spices and mouth numbing peppercorns (ma la, in Chinese parlance). If you can handle it, order their specialties and not the American-Chinese entrees on offer. We enjoyed Szechuan noodles, dumplings in chili oil, scallion pancakes, tea-smoked duck, ma po tofu, spicy lamb, fried strings beans and twice-cooked pork. Over-ordering and enjoying leftovers later that night in your PJs is half the fun.

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Christmas Day is a relaxing day for us. No presents to open. No fancy dinner to make. We spend it lazing about the apartment and baking something from scratch. We had a breakfast of corned beef hash with two eggs over-easy (my favorite!) at a standby diner down the street. It was quiet, low-key, perfect.

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After a stroll in the park, I spent nearly all of the rest of the day making these cinnamon rolls. They weren’t too difficult, and as I’ve been doing with nearly every dessert this season, I  spiked them with some bourbon–just a tablespoon or so added to the cream cheese frosting in order to give it a little extra sumthin’. We enjoyed the rolls with sparkling wine cocktails. A very merry Christmas, indeed.

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New Year’s Eve

NYE in the United States is mainly a going out holiday. It’s about drinking, dancing, counting down until midnight. In Russia it’s much more–it’s a Thanksgiving-level celebration. There, New Year’s Eve is a HUGE deal. After the Communist Revolution and the subsequent suppression of religion, the traditions surrounding the day mirrored those of Christmas–a decorated tree, a Santa Claus-like figure, presents–though completely void of any religious meaning. (Actual Russian Orthodox Christmas is celebrated on January 7th). Since moving to the U.S., my family has dropped most of the Christmas-like traditions (except for the presents part, natch), but NYE doesn’t feel right without a festive meal that includes caviar, sweets and champagne. My husband and I were going out with friends on the actual day, so we made the meal–complete with homemade crepes–on December 30th. It was freakin’ lovely.

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Favorite Things Lately, Volume 7

1 The Whispering Gallery in Grand Central Terminal: Stand in the corner of the domed chamber outside the entrance to Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant, diagonally across from a friend a loved one. Whisper a question. Listen as they answer back, their voice traveling across the ceiling through the power of reflected sound waves. It’s a magician’s parlor trick rooted in the science of physics. The gallery hosts a steady stream of people, whispering to one another, looking up and smiling.

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2. The park bench plaques in Central Park: Whenever I find myself alone in Central Park, I like to wander around and read the engraved plaques that decorate many of the benches. Mostly, they speak of loved ones lost and the deceased’s appreciation for this most beautiful of city attractions. I imagine the immortalized taking the same steps I’m taking. Did they love to people watch as much as I do? Did they find the park loveliest in the spring or the fall? What stories could they tell? Central Park’s Adopt-A-Bench program was born in 1986, and currently, a plaque will set you back $7,500 ($10,000 starting Jan. 1). The endowment is used to maintain the benches and conserve the landscape.

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3. Christmas Morning Cereal from Dominique Ansel Bakery: After excitedly munching on this dangerously delicious treat, my husband inquired as to how much it was, since the world-famous bakery is known to be pricey. My expression betrayed me. “$10?” he asked? “$12?!” his face growing more incredulous. “No way it was more than $15!” he said. “$15.50,” I blurted out. So, that’s the major caveat. Here are the positives: this “cereal” is everything I want out of a post-dinner dessert: sweet, salt, crunch, texture. It features a balanced combo of Rice Krispies, caramelized milk chocolate, sugared hazelnuts and mini cinnamon meringues. You only need a handful or two to feel sated. When you look at it that way, it’s almost a bargain, right?

christmascereal

4. Spiked everything: I believe it was Jean-Paul Sartre who said that everything tastes better when spiked with Maker’s Mark. Or was it Socrates? The holiday season is the absolute best time to add alcohol to your favorite foods and drinks. My favorite wintertime beverage is a bourbon-spiked hot chocolate. It has a double-warming effect. Plus, well, there’s chocolate! I also recently added bourbon to this pumpkin cheesecake recipe per the offhand recommendation of a commenter (thanks, stranger!), which gave it added complexity. One of my favorite baking successes is this chocolate pecan pie with bourbon. If it could speak, it would say, “I love winter, the holiday season, and you, sweet friend.”

photo 2

Memory Currency

Be forewarned, I’m about to get a bit philosophical.

Maybe it’s the pace of city living, or growing older–with fewer milestones to measure the years–but time seems to be moving exponentially faster with each passing day. Was that friend’s wedding two years ago or four? Did I turn 30 this year or last? The growing elusiveness of time and its shift from steady construct to malleable force can feel, well, disconcerting.

How do we reflect on our lives as we’re living them? What do we remember of the last year or the last decade if our immediate surroundings haven’t changed all that much? Enter what I like to call “memory currency.”

Memory currency, as I define it, refers to a database of meaningful memories that we can access when reflecting on our lives and ourselves. To get a bit existential here: it’s an affirmation of the nature of existence, that life–our lives, specifically–matter in some way if for no other reason than we have lived them. Unlike tradition understandings of harping on memory as “living in the past,” this sort of heartfelt nostalgia, according to research, actually imbues us with a better sense of self and with excitement for the future. The concept of memory currency is catching on. A psychologist quoted in a 2013 New York Times piece referred to a new line of research surrounding the seeking of soon-to-be-memorable moments as “anticipatory nostalgia

What is it that we remember? Unless we’re born with the gift (or, as some see it, curse) of hyperthymesia, most of us accurately recall only a tiny percentage of our waking lives. Events that are significant in some way are more likely to be remembered because of the intensity of the positive or negative emotions with which they’re often associated. Negative events are, in fact, more likely to be remembered because of the rumination that takes place surrounding them. The more we think about something, the more likely it is to be stored in the brain’s “filing cabinet.”

But what of the positive, or even just peaceful, memories? How do we build that stockpile? My approach is two-pronged. First, though it sounds like a self-help book cliche, schedule events that make memories, something to take you out of the work-eat-sleep-go-out-on-weekends doldrums. A local college course, a book club or volunteering are good places to start. Or, it can be something simpler, like starting a tradition with friends (pancakes every February, for example) or with a significant other (summer nights out in Brighton Beach). The easiest option, of course, is going on a trip. These don’t have to be grand, international excursions, and personally, I’m irked by “experience collectors” who’re only obsessed with their country count. Adventures are ready to be had an hour drive or a 20-hour plane ride from home. Pick a place you’ll anticipate going to (per a recent Atlantic article, we’re happiest when we spend money on experiences we’re excited about as opposed to on material things) and will want to document.

Second, facilitate the remembrance of events as they’re happening. Photos are important to the concept of memory currency–just a few, and not for the purposes of posting on social media. I also love the hippie-dippy-but-actually-useful concept of mindfulness. Stop and asses what’s happening and how you’re feeling. As an example: My husband and I had the best snowed-in day two winters ago. Nothing of importance happened aside from us playing in the park and making a gourmet lunch and from-scratch hot chocolate, but I took photos, and I tried really hard to capsulize those contentment-filled emotions. The day is fresh in my memory while I’d be hard pressed to recall the details of many other days from around that time period.

Living in a global city like New York can make us complacent, that just by virtue of existing here, in this kinetic space, we’re creating memorable moments. It’s not always so easy. Memory currency, much like regular currency, should be sought, earned and stored safely away.

JulieKevin-114

Image courtesy of Andrea Hubbell Photography

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