Favorite Things Lately, Volume 1

1 WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum: This installation was a punch in the gut. It explored the history of modern wars through 400 images and objects dating back to the mid 1800s. Some of the images were graphically violent. Others were uplifting. The complex tangle of emotions I felt from start to finish was raw and ran the spectrum from shame and disgust to euphoria and joy. The stoic wedding photo of a severely burned marine and his wife, whose love-conquers-all story I vividly remember reading in 2006, was brought into real-world focus when the placard explained that they divorced in 2008 and he died in 2012. Though spread over only two rooms (albeit, one quite large), the exhibit felt incredibly comprehensive. A visitor’s comment card posted to a wall as you exit summarized my–and I’m sure many others’–feelings perfectly: “We can do better.” See it before it closes February 2nd. While you’re there, check out the imaginative, over-the-top Jean Paul Gualtier fashion retrospective as well.

Displaying Palu - OJ Orjuela

Louie Palu (Canadian, b. 1968). U.S. Marine Gysgt. Carlos “OJ” Orjuela, age 31, Garmsir District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, from Project: Home Front, 2008; courtesy of Brooklyn Museum

2. The garden at Elizabeth Street Gallery & Garden: This striking sculpture garden adjacent to an antiques gallery was only recently opened to the public. And residents are currently embroiled in a battle to save it from development. It’s a worthy fight. The green space is the Secret Garden of Nolita, filled with classical statues, stone benches, flower beds and a romantic gazebo. Since passersby aren’t always sure what it is, they’re often hesitant to go in, usually making for a pleasantly uncrowded experience. On a mild fall afternoon filled with changing leaves, a visit here was a nice way to bid adieu to the temperate weather.

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The garden in late October

3. Tom Swafford at the 7th Avenue Q/B and Grand Army Plaza 2/3: One of my favorite things about commuting from the aforementioned subway stops is that Tom Swafford is often busking. Tom is an accomplished violinist who plays an eclectic array of music, from weepy dirges to twangy ditties. If I’m not in too much of a hurry I’m often secretly relieved to have just missed the train.


4. Tacos at Los Tacos No. 1: This may just be New York City’s answer to LA’s taco superiority. Small, well-crafted tacos using freshly-pressed tortillas, tender meats (and for the vegetarians: grilled cactus) and authentic toppings like onions, a thin guacamole sauce and cilantro. A one-star rating on Yelp complained that there was no cheese or sour cream–the best kind of unintentional endorsement.

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Courtesy of Los Tacos No. 1

5. This recipe for a chocolate chip skillet cookie: This is a show-stopper of a homemade dessert. Who doesn’t love a frisbee sized melty chocolate chip cookie straight out of the oven? Top it with vanilla bean ice cream, grab a bunch of spoons and let people dig in. I’ve made it twice and it was a certifiable hit both times. And, it’s actually easy to make. No joke. I highly recommend chopping up a gourmet chocolate bar (which is usually about 3 oz., the recommended amount) over using bagged chocolate chips–it makes for a better texture. If you’re preparing it for a party and don’t want to spend more than 10 or so minutes in the kitchen, divvy the ingredients up into tupperware containers beforehand.

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On Good Deeds

During the holiday season, there are constant reminders of the concentrated power of good deeds. There are talk show segments, and books, and stories that illustrate how even anonymous kindness can determine how you’ll be remembered.

Scientific findings concur that preforming or even witnessing acts of kindness can make you feel better, by releasing serotonin to improve your mood and strengthening your immune system to make you healthier. And even though it’s easy to fall into the dark pit of cynicism here in NYC (as I often do), the times that you don’t are the moments that are likely to stay with you forever.

A few years ago, I was walking in my neighborhood when I came across a woman crying hysterically on the sidewalk. She seemed manic, unhinged, and people were crossing the street to avoid her. She was yelling out: “Please help me!” “Please!”

She made me nervous, and I knew if I stopped she’d try to engage me. But I did stop. Her tears were heart-wrenching. As I got closer, I could see her eyes conveyed coherence–and total and utter despair.

“Please,” she said, quieter now, ready for conversation. “My boyfriend just kicked me out. I’m trying to get home to South Carolina. Can you spare anything?”

I offered to buy her lunch at a diner two blocks away. As we sat, she calmly explained her circumstances. “I don’t know why I followed him here,” she said, tears flowing in steady ribbons down her cheeks, “I never should have come here. I have nothing here. I hate it.”

She seemed delighted when I told her she could order whatever she’d like.  She picked a BLT and Dr. Brown’s Black Cherry soda. As we waited for the food, I ran down the street to an ATM. I took out some money–either $40 or $60, I don’t remember exactly. Not that much in the scheme of things, but I’d hoped it’d put a dent in the cost of a bus ticket down to SC. When I presented the money to her, her eyes lit up. She was so grateful, I almost felt ashamed–for how much it meant to her, for the power it had.

We parted with a hug, and I wished her good luck.

I think about her sometimes. About whether she made it back. The question of whether her story was real never really crosses my mind. Even then I realized: It doesn’t really matter.

Food as Cultural Ambassador

There are those nights in NYC when the last thing I want to do is go to that place with the young, tattooed chef cooking million-ingredient new American cuisine. I don’t want the fancy crowds or the hour-long wait or the communal tables. And I really, really don’t want the scene.

What I want instead is an escape, to go to a place that feels immersive and homey and a vacation from the money-d sameness of downtown Manhattan and brownstone Brooklyn. (Hey, we all have our cynical days.)

I’ve written about how Queens is a world away while only a 15 minute subway ride from Midtown. But there are places all over the five boroughs that offer the same kind of transportive experience.

My husband and I hit up three such spots, three weekends in a row.

First up was San Matteo Pizza and Espresso Bar on the Upper East Side. We were looking for something low-key after a visit to the Met, and this place was just right. It’s small, minimally decorated with maps and Italian football club scarves and churns out top-notch Neopolitan pies (I’d stick to the classic Margherita). Their specialty, though, is a panuozzo, a type of pizza dough sandwich that’s native to the Salerno province in Italy. The restaurant was filled with Italian tourists looking for a taste of home while on vacation.

Next was Chayhana Salom, a new-ish Uzbek restaurant in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay. We indulged in kebabs, plov, a regional lamb and rice dish with as many variations as there are grandmothers, and lagman, a toothsome, homemade noodle, egg and beef creation, which turned out to be our favorite dish of the night. Around us, Russian and Central Asian families were indulging in a celebratory night out. And, of course, like other similar restaurants in the ‘hood, it’s BYO (vodka).

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The plates at Chayhana Salom

On the third weekend, we hit up BCD Tofu House in Manhattan’s Koreatown. This chain has locations all over California and an outpost in Seoul. Their specialty is a tofu stew called soondubu. The stew is spicy, funky, and filled with silken tofu as well as your choice of add-ins. It’s the ultimate cold-weather comfort food! The dish is served with multiple small plates called banchan. At BCD Tofu House, this means various pickled things, a fried fish and a raw egg to crack into your boiling pot of soondubu. Their bulgogi, a type of grilled and marinated steak, was saucy, sweet and delicious. It’s a great spot to enjoy the buzz of K-town and a variety of unique–and addictive–Korean specialites.

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Soondobu and bulgogi at BCD Tofu House

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