Brooklyn Writer Updates Eloise

DUMBO writer Mallory Kasdan is signing copies of her newly published children’s book, ELLA, this Friday night at BookCourt. Illustrated by Marcos Chin, Kasdan’s cheeky parody gives a fresh spin to Kay Thompson’s beloved Eloise, but instead of setting the scene at Manhattan’s iconic Plaza Hotel, the book features a cool six-year-old who lives at a hip, designer spot called The Local Hotel. Think Eloise run thorough a Brooklyn artisan grinder, with pickled everything and pizza cooked in an oven with “logs from the country.”

Like Eloise, Ella lives large; only now she has a male nanny called Manny who has tattoo sleeves. She sometimes weaves purses from Ziploc bags, and altogether has attended “62 events, including that Hillary Clinton fundraiser.” Her mother works in the “Entertainment Industry,” and would very much like Ella to be well rounded. Kasdan’s voice is pitch perfect and the text is a joy—layered with hilarious detail and whimsy, but also moments of beautiful melancholy. It’s kid friendly and grown-up witty.

I met with Kasdan recently to talk about the book, her life in Brooklyn raising two children, and how she came to chronicle the satirical version of one of our most beloved literary characters.

RD: Tell me how ELLA began. Was writing a children’s book always in your plans?

MK: Not exactly, no. First of all, I didn’t feel as though the original Eloise was really a children’s book. It just didn’t feel that way to me. And it was surprising that no one had done this yet—there was no 80’s version, no 90’s version. It was an opportunity to put out into the world all of the stuff I’ve soaked up living here for a long time and being a parent here. The kernel of the idea initially came from picturing someone in my life having an experience from a classic book. Many of these kinds of ideas and books are timeless and we reinvent the same ideas again and again. Sometimes they’re good. I hope this is a good one.

RD: Were you an Eloise lover as a child?

MK: Yes, I was a big fan. I thought she had such a dreamy set up, she seemed so droll, so sophisticated. I loved books about kids who lived in apartment buildings. I grew up in a house in Pittsburgh. And I thought how amazing it would be to not have to go outside to visit a friend. Just go down the elevator or go down the hall. I thought that was very exciting.

RD: Of course raising our children in Brooklyn often leads to wishing for larger spaces. A house sounds great from time to time.

MK: I know! Now I sometimes think…wouldn’t it be great to just let them go into a backyard?

RD: So obviously Eloise was on your mind, but this is your first children’s book, so tell me how the idea found its way onto the page?

MK: Even though I didn’t have this plan specifically, when it happened it was really exciting to me. It felt very inspired by things happening with my own kids, in my own life. To be able to have a dialogue with my kids that could spur something like this was great. A lot of my daughter, Zoe’s intonations and shtick made it into the book.

She was six when this began. She was obsessed with Eloise as well, and also with staying in hotels. I don’t know how that happened—usually on vacation we rent houses or stay with family, but somehow she still was into the hotel thing.

I’d won a night at the Wythe Hotel from her school auction. Before my husband and I went that night—it was my birthday—Zoe kept asking if she could come with us. I said no!—the Wythe is a fun, hip, cool place—not a place you go to stay with your kids. But once we were there, I found myself thinking, God this would be hilarious if she was here. It was definitely not a kid situation. I thought, she’d be in the middle of this scene acting noisy and bossy, breaking things, scootering around. And then I realized, Oh! This is so obviously where Eloise would live if she were still with us. Eloise would live right here! That was my light bulb.

RD: Then Ella’s beloved Local Hotel is indeed the Wythe? I guess there are lots of theories… 

MK: Well, the hotel is now really an amalgamation, but I was inspired by the Wythe, definitely. Marcos did some sketching there as well. Nowadays there’s a whole hotel style though—the ACE, the Standard, others too, that could fit this description. We moved away from getting Brooklyn-specific in the book as the process went on. That’s been one of the best parts of the experience: working with a publisher who understood the reader and guided me. They loved the book, but wanted it a bit more generic. Things can feel very saturated with Brooklyn-ness and this needed to be broader.

RD: In a review I did of ELLA, I mentioned the self-awareness that’s taken hold in places like Brooklyn and Portland—often leading to Preciousness Fatigue but also some fantastic parody—great stuff like Portlandia. I think your book fits into this way of looking at things. I think we apologize a little bit for our behavior, our preoccupations here. Being able to laugh at ourselves and the relentlessly branded scene becomes essential as stores start stocking shelves with toilet paper stamped BKLYN. 

MK: Yes, definitely. I think I had more snark and satire in me when first I began. Initially I sent it to places like McSweeney’s. I was thinking it would remain satirical, more of a straight-forward parody, more edgy. Ultimately I’m so happy it went the way it did—the publisher wanted it as a children’s book. Working with an editor who knows what they’re doing and has a full understanding of children’s books, led me to shape it in a way that would read affectionately to the audience. It was a nice thing to see that develop during the process.

RD: Yes, I’d love to talk about that. There is such a lovely balance between satire and deep affection in the book. There’s a ton of humor—the mint muddling, Ella’s online shop where she sells her photographs, etc.—but also real love for this place and this character, and for many of the adult characters populating the book. Talk to me about your feelings about Brooklyn in that regard. Despite it being a great place to live and raise a family, do you feel things have tipped to the ridiculous at this point? And how do you write it in a way that reconciles your affection for it?

MK: I love Brooklyn. I’ve lived here for almost fourteen years, before I was married to my husband. And I’ve seen everything explode and change, but not necessarily in a bad way, and it’s dovetailed with my needs in most ways. It’s absolutely worth laughing at, but I’m not above it—I’m deeply in it. I recognize myself as an archetype. I’m a Brooklyn mom. I’ve got these stupid clog boots. (We both gesture down at our feet.) We all have these uniforms, and that’s why the book is visually successful because it’s an affectionate depiction of things that are over the top, but that we’re kind of used to here. If you saturate it with color and make it move the way Marcos has, without making anyone looking cartoonish, it works. I knew that if this were going to be a book for kids, it would have to balance the sweet with the satire. I’m definitely sometimes exhausted by the coolness, especially as a mother who often feels Not Cool. But the idea is to not be mad about the Brooklyn-ness of Brooklyn, to not be snarky, but still be able to put a point on it. I love the idea of writing from exactly this vantage, this place and time, as a mother and a writer. My husband calls me an overzealous New York convert, which I am. But I can still laugh at myself.

RD: I agree. It’s really just the branding with a capital B and the authentic, approved stamping of our life here that’s gotten so tiresome, not the actual daily life itself. Look at Ella—like a lot of our kids, she has a great life.

MK: Right, and she didn’t need to be identified as living in Brooklyn for the reader to recognize her.

RD: Ella could be found in lots of places these days—Austin, Portland, maybe there’s a Wythe Pittsburgh coming soon.

MK: Right. It’s just worth thinking about and looking at. I’ve always been conscious of my environment, secretly thinking about it and writing about it. Being aware of the artificial nature of what might make something look and feel a certain way. That’s why I love New York—there are so many worlds to immerse yourself in—sometimes I fear less and less so, but it’s still a rich life for my family and me. I feel at the moment that this works well for us. Having a peaceful life can be hard here, but if you want action and energy and to have the potential to have adventures and good conversations and to be with people who are like-minded, there is going to be inconvenience sometimes.

RD: How did you begin working with Marcos Chin? His drawings, like Hilary Knight’s in the original Eloise, add such humor and magic to the book.

MK: He’s so talented. His art is filled with movement and energy—he perfectly grabs a place and moment in time. In general, publishers like to pair you with someone and really prefer you not get in one another’s way. If you’re the author/illustrator it’s different, but as just an author, they pair you. One day, I saw a piece for the MTA that Marcus had done—a 150th anniversary mural for Grand Central. It had people walking through Grand Central with shopping bags—it’s a bit surreal—he had people wearing the cornices and marble details of Grand Central as hats. It was such a beautiful, active mural. I wrote it down and thought, well, ok, either Marcos Chin or Maira Kalman then—one of the world’s most famous and respected illustrators—either of them would be just great! As if Maira Kalman would have done my book—I just didn’t know many illustrators, so you could say I was aiming fairly high there. And then…the publisher picked Marcos! I was thrilled. He’d never done a children’s book either and I realized then that they were really going to get this project and direct the book the right way.

RD: So you gave him minimal input during the illustration process?

MK: Marcos got my text and then he started to work. We talked a few times and a few things from my life made it into the book. For example, my daughter has a rainbow on the wall in her bedroom and that made it in to Ella’s room. My friends got married at the Wythe – two women—and I suggested that we needed a gay wedding in the book and so we have one in there. I’m so jealous of his talent. I always thought ok, I can write, but now I just wish I could draw.

RD: Tell me about the more serious passages. There are a few that are very moving, particularly when we learn more about Ella’s mother, who she Skype’s with before bed.

MK: Ella is a famous kid. I thought about the Jolie-Pitt sort of kids we know so much about. Kids living in hotels, the ones we see in US Weekly and think we know. Her mother is working—she’s an actress or a producer and humanitarian—but she wants to be connected to Ella. When Eloise was written, no one was all that worried about her—this kid who was basically abandoned! There’s the bit about her mother “maybe sending for her if it’s warm.” I tried to mirror Eloise in a modern parlance, but in this case, I wanted to make it clear that even though we don’t see Ella’s mother, we feel her anxiousness, her desire to be close. She wants to be a big deal actress but she wants to keep an eye on Ella too. In Eloise, there is a long passage about her waking nightmare, and it’s quite dark. It didn’t feel right to be dark in exactly the same way so I made it more sentimental, more about feeling sad and lonely.

RD: Tell me about Ella looking up at the stars and thinking we are all one. It’s a very memorable moment.

MK: That was another thing that I used to think about as a kid. I still do when I’m up at night. What can you do with that feeling? You have to calm yourself down. So you say I’m insignificant, but all of us are, and we can still make the most of our lives.

RD: I love the passage about Ella looking into other people’s windows. And it struck me how that’s not something you can do living in other places, like the suburbs. It can be comforting to know people are all around you. 

MK: I know for me that I like that—the feeling of people all stacked up around one another. And I wonder how my kids will feel about it—they won’t know any different. I know they love the country when we go on vacation, but I don’t know how they will eventually feel about it. For me it’s calming.

RD: All of our children will probably grow up and live on enormous ranches.

MK: You’re right!

RD: So what’s next? Will you write more children’s books? I hope so.

MK: I have lots of ideas for children’s books, yes. Some kids at a reading recently asked, “Is Ella going to be a movie? Is Ella going to be a series?” I’d like Ella to have more adventures. Maybe she’ll take a trip with Manny. Maybe he’ll become a yoga instructor and they’ll move to Costa Rica for a while. I’d like Ella to have a longer life—it’s a nice world to be in. I have some ideas about other kinds of kids too—maybe a character that is struggling a bit with life in New York.

RD: Well life here can certainly feel like an assault sometimes, particularly if you’re a very sensitive kid. 

MK: Yes, I’m interested in that. How some kids cope with life in a loud, busy world. I’m really excited about exploring that idea and writing about how some kids navigate it. I do think my strength is going to be writing about kids in our urban environment.

RD: I really hope to meet Ella again—all of my kids became attached to her and they got all the jokes. Already self-aware! Even if Ella hits the road. I’d love to see her take on places that are nothing like Brooklyn.

MK: Yeah, I really think she doesn’t need to be a thing attached to a certain place. We’re ALL kind of silly and it’s fine that way. No one is that unique, and you have to laugh how everyone is trying to be different all the time. But we’re all in this.

RD: Like Manny says, right? We are everything and we are nothing too.

MK: Exactly! We’re all looking up at the same sky.

As part of the Brooklyn Writers Space Reading Series, Mallory will be reading Friday, Feb. 6 at 7 p.m. at BookCourt, located at 163 Court Street.
She’ll be joined by Rachel Heiman, Matt Matros and Jamie Berk.

This interview first appeared on South Brooklyn Post on February 4, 2015.

The Tyranny of June

  Classrooms, in June

  Classrooms, in June

Of all the things I’ve written, or will eventually write, on topics like sex or love or food or kids or my own intimate domestic confessionals, this one definitely cannot be read by my children. It would crush them. It would twist their happy world-view into an impossible knot. They might toy with the idea of loving me less. They’d certainly rethink their allegiance to me as their trusted caregiver.

It concerns something too dear to them, too sacred for me to sully in public. It concerns… June Fun. Do you know what June Fun is? Have you had June Fun yourself? If you have any connection to the NYC public school system, particularly in certain parts of Brooklyn where there are excellent public schools, you may recognize it as the final month of school when school isn’t really…you know, school. June Fun goes by many sinister names, but all mean basically the same thing: Parents are expected to procure, prepare, create and celebrate a new concept each day in the month of June that will result in what the school hopes will be: FUN. Crazy Hat Day. Backwards Day. Opposite Day. Crazy Hair Day. There are a lot of crazy days in June. Community Worker Day. Dress Like Your Hero Day. Stress Out Working Parents At 10pm While They Try To Rustle Up An Outfit that Makes Their 42 lb. Son Look Like LeBron James Day. If You Fail, You’re Either A Bad Parent or Everyone Will Assume Your Kid is a Jehovah’s Witness Day. Which is perfectly appropriate if he is a practicing Jehovah’s Witness, but it happens that yours is not, so you’re a lazy mom. Day.

 

If the tradition continues this year, my school-wide community will receive a calendar for each school day in June, notated with special instructions that will create the recipe for aforementioned Fun. On the precipice of this, I await my June Fun calendar with trepidation and a kind of pre-exhaustion. The exhaustion resulting from my efforts to act as thrilled as my children are about June Fun, while inside I wish it could be, well, kind of, abolished. I’m trying to get So Much Done in June, before they are HERE, bless them, everyday until the fall. And if memory serves, the June Fun for each grade is not even synched! Do you understand what this means? Do you appreciate how sadistic this is? On a given day, your 4th grade boy might need to wear a backwards evening dress and pumps, while your 1st grade girl may require a wig and corncob pipe. If you have more than one child in elementary school at a time, this begins to feel like tyranny. I live in a small apartment, not the costume department of La Cage Aux Folles or a joke shop in Times Square.

A small disclaimer is that my children, in particular, binge hard on June Fun. Not everyone’s kids are such radicalized enthusiasts, so other parents’ feelings about June Fun may be less complicated. My son is an evangelizer for June Fun. He takes everything off the refrigerator and places the calendar in the center with magnets, where he admires it and talks about it at repetitive length. He really, really talks about it a lot. There is a very developed, very active school spirit at work there. The calendar menaces me, from the corner of my eye while I drink a cup of coffee or casually open the fridge for some water and am reminded that I have fifteen minutes to come up with a high-fashion roller derby look for my daughter.

This sounds terrible, I know! It’s a form of sinful thinking my children can never discover about me. I am torn between the sweetness of watching them relish these days of fun, and my general anxiety about meeting the expectations of it. The non-stop carnival of it. After the unpleasant, high stakes testing period, I understand the impulse to get loose, and if June Fun has its way with us, downright wacky. But after a week or so, it’s just too much wacky to navigate. I recognize it’s exciting for them to show up at school wearing old pajamas or tank tops with wide ties from the 90’s. Their joy is contagious. This is valuable, formative stuff. I get swept up too. What kind of crank pot would complain about fun? In practice, I’m useless in the face of the cute quotient—I cry at every classroom performance, no matter how small or lackluster. I recently wept watching my son do an average forward roll on a mat during a STREB performance. I swell with oceanic fathoms of pride just observing them entering school unattended, human beings with free will and bedhead, especially during June when they might have lime green hair and handlebar mustaches affixed to their little lips. Which is why this conversation is, in my mind anyway, between the administration and me.

Since local school children would put my head on a stake and deliver it to Carmen Farina if they knew I was questioning the institutional sanctity of June Fun, my own kids leading the charge with torches, maybe I could simply request to spre-e-e-a-a-d it out a bit? Could we have a few days of October Fun? Followed by Face-Paint Friday in December? And then ramp things up as we approach the multi-floor keg party the school seems to become in June? All I’m requesting is some pacing, an effort to not be so gluttonous for fun all in one crowded month’s time. Most critically, the month RIGHT BEFORE they are all released back into the wild, a period during which we cobble together childcare and participate in back-to-back July and August—you guessed it—Fun.

Maybe it’s this dissonance that keeps it going year after year—the pleasure we gain from seeing our kids pretend to be different selves for a day, incongruous with our To Do List stress. As overextended working parents, we are a tad oppressed by the efforts June Fun demands—minor in a global sense, as we are not sending them to one room schools ten miles from home without shoes. Or water. And not water in BPA-free Siggs, I mean no clean water. I’m aware these are inane complaints when one is privileged with access to a great public school filled with teachers that are actually game for fun. But when your second grader is red-faced, anxious and crying ten minutes before drop off that her crazy hair is NOT crazy enough and you did it WRONG and it’s your FAULT, one can find oneself thinking, PLEASE BUZZ OFF, June Fun, would you?

How about June 16th through 20th Fun? I could provide a concentrated, impressive cache of fun over the course of a solid week. I submit that for consideration. And full disclosure, if it happens, I will never admit to my children my sense of relief. I will act outraged and disappointed at the cruel limitation of their fun. I have to live with these fun-eating zombies after all! But for now, at the risk of disappointing them, and my community at large, I’m preparing the greasepaint and glitter. And stacking up the crisp pile of ones for the warm weather after-school treats wagons. If there’s anything that stresses me out while simultaneously making the dreams of my kids come true more than June Fun, it’s saying Yes to the question, Can I get an icy? Can I get any icy? Can I get an icy?

Gird yourself. Calendars are being slid into thousands of mangy backpacks right now. The fun is in your hands.

This essay first appeared on the South Brooklyn Post on May 28, 2014. 

Brooklyn's Best Eats

We’re all finally awake, aren’t we? Everyone wants to get out and embrace life again. In Brooklyn, this can mean all sorts of things. Which is wonderful, because all sorts of things are available to us, right outside our doors. Doors, up until now, that were shut tight to seal off the swirling dirt squalls and detritus of a torturous winter.

There’s art to see—I will insist my kin travel with me this weekend to see Kara Walker’s mind-blowing Marvelous Sugar Baby at the former Domino Sugar factory. There are glorious parks to explore. The expanses of Prospect Park for sports and picnics and soon, outdoor concerts. Brooklyn Bridge Park for biking, beach volleyball, and the democratic grilling of food on shared barbecues. There are thriving outdoor flea markets, and though I fear they’re growing more expensive—like all things in Brooklyn—than fleas have any right to be, it still feels like a triumph when you score a teal dress from 1982 that fits like it was made for you in 2014. My friend just bought a silky, pale pink bomber jacket with gigantic shoulder pads at the flea in Fort Greene. It was the highlight of my weekend just observing the transaction.

There are teeming playgrounds for playing on until long after bedtime. And, every couple of houses along my street, there are lemonade stands. Often with bonus cookies. I’m going broke on the gallons of teeth chatteringly-sweet lemonade I’ve had in the last few weeks. You know, for the kids.

In my family, spring renewal and the embracing of life often means the eating of Good Food. We picnic, we eat out, we are deeply intimate with Seamless dining. There’s a lot of promising talk about chia seeds and goji berries and overall longevity elixirs, which is valuable and useful info. Some of it even tastes great. But this is still chock-full-of-eats-Brooklyn, and there are many important things to devour that aren’t designed specifically for liver and colon vitality. There are the Devils on Horseback served at Five Leaves in Greenpoint, for example (medjool dates wrapped in bacon), the enthralled consumption of which I will think about on my deathbed without a shred of regret. In fact, I’ll feel bad about all of the Devils on Horseback I didn’t get to eat. I don’t know that I’ll lament the chia pods I’d missed. Maybe. This is probably misguided, but I will be nearly dead so it Will. Not. Matter.

I live with a man who would like to grill every morsel of food he eats from March until October—sausages, fish, vegetables, Cheerios, birthday cakes, you name it. It’s oppressive, all the grilling. He makes our morning toast outside in the yard, on a gas grill. But when he’s not barbecuing the entire contents of the kitchen, we can’t help eating out. You can sit outside now, on the sidewalk, in rickety chairs while people and their small dogs walk by and examine your plates! The food doesn’t taste any better out there—it’s not like we’re having lunch al fresco in a field of Provençal lavender—but being out of doors to dine is still just nice.

Sometimes the experience includes a refined, destination-dining spot we are compelled to visit constantly—like my ain true love, La Vara, where they know us well, and know what we like, and then always feed us the most inventive and thrilling flavors imaginable. We go for birthdays, anniversaries, Tuesdays. Our conversation is the same each time: Can you believe this place is here, right around the corner from us and we can just walk in and eat This Food? Moorish/Jewish/Spanish cuisine on any old weeknight? As celebrities like to say, We Are So Blessed.

Other times, we travel farther afield. Like the tiny, super-casual Fritzl’s Lunchbox on Irving Avenue in Bushwick. The lighting is too bright, but otherwise, this 19 seat, cozy spot is charming. The staff is warm, and everything we ate was terrific. One night, it was the just two of us and a pair of on-duty cops at the next table with their walkie-talkies down low. Our meal was great and the radio static was somehow romantic.

As daylight hours extend and you have more time during which to eat, and to drink, be sure to get out and test the selections below. Think of them as nearby spots for some of the Very Best Brooklyn Bites. And Sips. As for the chia, ancient grains and extracted nutrient nectars, you can eat those at home whenever you’d like.

–The Berenjena Con Miel at La Vara. This small miracle is composed of delicate pieces of crispy eggplant with honey, silky melted cheese, and nigella seed. The dish is yellow and black and striking to behold. I do believe it’s even better then their acclaimed fried artichokes. Yeah, I said it.

–The salt cod and egg salad sandwich at Fritzl’s Lunchbox. It’s served on thick slices of toasted white bread. We also had the linguini with clam sauce. Every twirled forkful contained the perfect amount of littlenecks, a hint of crunch from the breadcrumbs, and heat from the chili flakes.

--Veksler’s Rice & Egg. A soft-boiled duck egg is served over garlic rice, pork (or tofu) and swiss chard. Like everything about Veksler’s, somehow protected from the din of the BQE on Hicks Street, it’s unpredictable and very right. I was here recently with a big group, and everyone seemed to order something different. The menu is incredibly varied. There’s Arctic char, Shanghai Soup dumplings, and burgers. It sounds crazy but makes very good sense.

–Bien Cuit, the bakery on Smith Street, makes some of the very finest breads and pastries anywhere in the entire city. And easily as fine as many I ate in Paris. If you leave the shop with the gorgeous, nut-brown, enormous Miche, a loaf of blended rye and wheat flours, which boasts a 68-hour fermentation, I can promise you’ll tear many hunks of it from inside the bag long before you arrive home. Their croissants will wreck you for all other croissants permanently, and then wreck the lap of your pants with delicious crumbs—though not permanently, because you’ll collect every last sliver of the flakes with your fingers and eat them. Final Bien Cuit facts: Their tarts and cakes are pretty little pink, yellow, peach and caramel-colored works of art. Their breads are chewy and crunchy-firm in perfect measure. And people who love me bring me their Diamond Chocolate Chip Shortbreads. Or perhaps they brought the shortbread first and then I grew to love them.

–The smooth, minty Stinger at the Jake Walk on Smith Street. This actually isn’t on the cocktail list, but…if you ask, they’ll make you the best one you’ve ever tasted. Sometimes you need a Stinger. Jake Walk understands things.

–The chicken sandwich at Bar Bruno on Henry Street. Usually just the words Chicken Sandwich overwhelm me with malaise, crushing boredom and anticipatory TMJ, but their version shares nothing with the usual boneless/skinless miscarriage of justice. I’m starting to think it may not be a chicken sandwich at all.

–By all means, the iced coffee at Mazzola on Union Street. I love the New Orleans Iced Coffee at Blue Bottle on Dean Street when I’m feeling splurgy, but Mazzola’s, even without the roasted chicory and 18-hour brewing technology, is just as good. In fact, it’s an over-achiever. It’s strong and freezing cold, and also up the straw and gone far too quickly. A perfect infusion for the walk to the subway on a humid morning.

–The turkey leg sandwich at Henry Public is still one of my favorite things to eat in Cobble Hill. The turkey is braised in milk and served on slices of thick bread with fried onions. It impresses and satisfies with remarkable consistency. In fact it’s so huge and delicious and peppery, I’m usually impressed and satisfied well into the next day.

–After Henry the 8th-ing your turkey leg, wander across the street to the Long Island Bar on Atlantic Avenue and have any drink they make. They’re all good. Most important, the golden light and warm wood and red booths will make you look and feel better looking than you would in another bar.

–Visit Toum, the Lebanese food truck, which is usually parked at the Parade Grounds by the soccer fields on weekends. If it’s not there, I recommend finding it with the truck tracker on their site, and then paying them to hand you some food from the window. (They’ve been in Dumbo lately.) The falafel sandwich is dripping, literally, with pickled vegetables and flavor, and is excellent enough to distract from the most crushing loss your kid might be experiencing during their soccer game. For you at least. The kid’s playing. You’re eating.

–Dub Pies in Windsor Terrace makes an outstanding Cortado, which is half milk, half espresso. More milk than a macchiato, more coffee than a cappuccino.

–Paired with their mushroom ramen, Dassara’s non-alcoholic ginger drink, called the Calm & Stormy is perfection. Spicy, sweet and refreshing, it’s just what you need in between slurps of the rich, steaming ramen.

–The granola with stewed fruit and yogurt at Smith Canteen is usually the best thing I eat all day. Popping in there for a breakfast meeting or a just a procrastinatory morning “errand” always fills me with well-being. And granola.

–Rucola, a Northern Italian place on Dean Street, feels intimate if you’re having a quiet date, and boisterous if you’re with a group. Each of these vibes makes the other possible somehow. The balance of sexy/lively/fun/private at Rucola is addictive. I find I always want to eat there. Order the veal spiedini with anchovy, lemon and parsley. And then the spaghetti with green garlic. Or the pork schnitzel. Or…you get the idea.

–Hunter’s, an underestimated sleeper on Smith Street, serves an almost ridiculously tasty wild mushroom Pot Pie. Pot Pie demands caps. I promise myself I’m not ordering it again every time we’re there, but then I realize that’s just silly, and food promises are a waste of our precious time on this planet. Who am I to leave flaky, mushroom pastry unordered? I’m not doing that.

–Any and all bites/sips/slurps/shovellings listed above should be followed by a slice of Salty Honey pie from those talented and famous midwestern sisters, Emily and Melissa Elsen, at Four & Twenty Blackbirds in Gowanus. Or followed by more than just one slice. They are a full-service pie shop after all and pie slices come from Whole Pies, which means if you think ahead you can get yourself one of those. The Salty Honey Pie is the best pie that humankind has yet made. I have their fantastic cookbook, The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book, and I use it to visit photos of the pies when I’m not with them in person.

Happy eating, Brooklyn. But don’t overdo it, if possible. The crinkled ball of swimsuits in your drawer will soon be out, uncrinkled, and interested in menacing you.

This essay first appeared on the South Brooklyn Post on May 15, 2014.

Nachos, Blossoms, Taiwanese Pancakes

Spring might be here, moving quietly among us—it’s unclear—but the calendar orders us to behave as if it is. I know I’m still cold every weekend in Prospect Park, sunny skies or not, watching our kids’ games. I spend much of each contest remarking with indignant shock how chilly it is. I’m optimistically, chronically underdressed, and I end up grasping thin fabrics across my body to keep out the wind. April is the I’ll never learn month, every year. But still, it’s what we have to work with in New York. And it’s flat-out time To Do Spring Things before summer arrives and turns Brooklyn into a stifling, odiferous ghost town. Once the reliable, incessant rains of April have passed, May in Brooklyn is delightful, filled with all kinds of promise. Promises such as: It will smell like sautéed garbage in July and August, so go out and enjoy your city right now.

If you don’t have six distinct youth sports engagements this weekend like we do, plus a handful of birthday parties, there are many ways to pass the time, both in activity and repose. Do tell me what it’s like out there in the world. I’ll be watching four and a half footers kick and dribble balls, which is very pleasant, and then laundering the pounds of soccer gear that have become festooned with recycled tire bits and curly green fibers from the park, which is not as pleasant. (At a recent dinner party for showered grownups, I looked down and saw a cluster of the fake grass clinging to my pant leg. I hadn’t been to the soccer fields in a week.)

As always, there is an abundance of good things to eat and to see and to do. I picked out a few rewarding encounters that I’ve had in the last few weeks.

You can sate yourself, incrementally and with small, globally varied food servings, at the new Smorgasburg Brooklyn Bridge Park. No one needs another reason to visit the lively and stunning waterfront—the roller skating rink on Pier 2 is underway!—but I must praise the Flea’s All Food Market at Pier 5, which happens each Sunday and boasts 100 vendors. My not-even-anything-else-is-close favorite items during recent Sundays have been from a vendor called Outer Borough. They serve delicious, Taiwanese inspired food. Try the addictive Egg & Chinese Sausage Pancake—yes, pancake—which had me wishing it was triple the size. (Be warned that everything at Smorgasburg is two-thirds the size that it should be and then just Accept.)

The texture of the pancake and the flavor of the spicy-sweet sausage are truly unique. At least it is if you don’t eat a ton of Taiwanese cuisine. Which I don’t, but clearly should. Bring loads of sunblock—there is no shade while you inhale your treats by the sparkling waterfront. Ample Hills Ice Cream is there permanently too, and there’s not much to say about that that you don’t already understand.

There are the you-can’t-go-wrong-they’re-just-so-pleasing-to-look-at cherry blossoms. Hey, wake up! I know you know this already. But look, they’re here right now at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. I know you’ve done it a million times. I know it’s as crowded as a club during peak bloom. But still, strolling with pink all around you, and in every direction, is a rare and lovely thing. The Cherry Esplanade is a field of soft green grass bordered by two alleés of the stunning blossoms, and walking around in there can make your mind soar. I don’t mind when all the blossoms have fallen, either, creating a luxurious pink carpet under your feet. It’s dreamy.

If you’re freezing while walking the Esplanade, spread your love and admiration around the gardens, not just the greatest hits which are oversubscribed, and be sure to visit the Desert Pavilion. This particular house of plants is my favorite spot of all. I made many visits with my family during this endless, bleak winter. The temps inside the humid dome and all the craggy, hot weather cacti and varied succulents provided a spirit-lifting jolt. I always left feeling as if I’d had a restorative, bone-warming bath. You’ll find psychedelic looking cacti, beautiful succulents, shrubs with badass attitude, and purdy wildflowers from all over the world—the American Southwest, Mexico, Peru, Chile, South Africa and North Africa, as well. The magnificent plants in this dome have always seemed so alive with surly personality and heart! After the New York winter of 2013-2014, it’s informative to behold the ways desert plant-life develops measures in order to thrive in extreme climates. All we have to do to survive is buy more Polartec. For now. Looking ahead, I’d recommend a canoe.

Eat in Greenpoint the next time you’re planning a dinner out. River Styx, on Greenpoint Avenue, is currently making the Best Nachos in the World. I’ve checked and this turns out to be a real fact. They arrive in a composed, angled pile with sliced radishes, sprigs of cilantro, chives, jalapenos and spicy, shredded chicken. And let’s not fool ourselves, the most important part: a sauce of silky, melted American cheese mixed with heavy cream. We get them sitting at the bar, with a cold glass of the Muller-Thurgau, and ingest them with our hands at a speed not advisable in public. The dining area and the bar are casually sexy—peeling wall finishes painted grayish sage, beautiful mirrors, and two landings of intimate tables. I love a restaurant with steps. The overall effect and scene is nautical, but not preppy—the ocean liner design stands out in a sea of establishments attempting to create memorable atmosphere. Because, after all, it’s nice to feel like you’re having dinner far away, floating off to someplace distant. And also, it’s nice because of the Best Nachos in the World part.

Our kids demand a couple of trips each season to Coney Island. Yours do too. It’s fun, but the amusements of Luna Park are not cheap. The purchasing system for tickets routinely baffles us, but once that’s secured and we’ve handed over the better part of a weekly budget, there aren’t many things more wonderful than watching your kids’ faces as they whirl around on rides that would herniate all the discs in my back. If the powerful pull towards Nathans doesn’t take us hostage, we break from the predictable routine and eat at Totonno’s Pizzeria on Neptune Avenue, where it doesn’t matter if you’ve dined “with them before,” and there is little room for choice, and no one needs to “tell you about the menu.” All of this lack of chatter and options is excellent when feeding four hungry children. 

And speaking of feeding kids, I highly recommend Gloria’s on Nostrand Avenue in Crown Heights.  On the hunt for Caribbean food, we took our family there and ate the freshest and most delicious roti—we had the vegetarian pumpkin, the curry beef, and the potato and channa. Plus huge containers of steaming hot chicken soup we couldn’t have finished with ten additional people. Great Caribbean music blares from the speakers—our children were gleeful about the volume—and after feeding six people to maximum fullness, we’d only spent $40. Forty Dollars. In Brooklyn, this happens less often than Martin Amis sightings at the Met Grocer.

I’d love to pivot to homefront viewing now—because you can’t be outside your home eating Taiwanese breakfasts and frolicking in carpets of cherry blossom all the time. I need to share major enthusiasm for a new HBO sitcom, Silicon Valley. It’s a Mike Judge show, creator of Beavis & Butthead, King of the Hill and cult favorite, Office Space. The show is set in Palo Alto and follows the exploits of six socially challenged programmers—and possibly imminent multi-millionaires—as they attempt to claim their stake in the gold rush climate of Silicon Valley. The performances are riotous. And painfully awkward. Christopher Evan Welch, who sadly passed away at age 48 after the first season was shot, gives THE standout performance as Peter Gregory, a brilliant, wealthy investor who suffers most prominently from excruciating interpersonal awkwardness. His character will be terribly missed in Season 2, which has already been ordered by HBO.

Doll and Em

Doll and Em

A recent love affair I had with Doll & Em, another HBO half-hour comedy, starring real life friends, Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells, completely stole my heart. They are so smart. And so very, very funny. The resonant writing and plotting illuminate the complications, competitions and love between these two intelligent women, and feels like a triumph. They will make you shrink into your couch, cringing with mortification. For them, for yourself. Order yourself up some Doll & Em straight away. Get your cringe on—in the safety of your own home.

Mother’s Day is nearing, and if you’re wondering about a gift for a particular mother you might know, like, or love, visit my amazing and talented friend Lotta Jansdotter’s shop here,  Her studio is right in Gowanus, and it’s a destination stop for global travelers. Over the years, I’ve bought various mothers in my midst some of Lotta’s bags, dishware, and notebooks. Beautiful objects, all, much appreciated by the receivers.

On the domestic shores, everyone I know, have ever known, or will presumably come to know, is evangelizing for the NutriBullet. I have a number of emails in my inbox with links to the gadget sent from friends. This nifty little blender/extractor has become a popular fixture on the crowded countertops of Lilliputian Brooklyn kitchens because it’s small and easy to clean. My daughter wants one for “black & white milkshakes.” I suppose I need one too. For Superfood-stuffs? Not milkshakes? What if I add flax? Alright. Fine. This too, is a nice Mother’s Day item for my loved ones to bookmark if other sparkly baubles in silk pouches are not already secured.

When I get my tiny NutriBullet, I’ll have to be prepared to spend even more time avoiding putting green juices into my juices. And should I fail to become an adherent to a liquefied diet because I’m stuck on ballfields and ballcourts all weekend, I can dine at the snack bar by the soccer fields—which just happens to make the best egg, bacon and cheese sandwich I’ve had in ages. They GRILL the roll. And melt the cheese with artistic precision. It’s the kind of sandwich that you discuss the greatness of the entire time you’re consuming the sandwich. The NutriBullet can’t do that, no sir. If you’ve got the dreaded 8 a.m. soccer game on a Saturday morning, this information, and this sandwich, will be indispensable to you.

Now, onward. And put your umbrella away! The only things falling are pink blossoms.

This essay first appeared on The South Brooklyn Post on May 1, 2014. 

Ambivalence & Outrage BROOKLYN

Brooklyn, in spots: nostalgic, ruthless, sometimes perfect, exhausting, conflicted. And quite fancy.

Brooklyn, in spots: nostalgic, ruthless, sometimes perfect, exhausting, conflicted. And quite fancy.

I don’t suppose I see Rag & Bone’s arrival on Court Street as the ultimate death knell. At least not a louder or more ominous or more definitive death knell than any other high-end retailer that’s popped up around here with bells and bouncers on. First of all, a death knell for what exactly? Death of affordable commercial rents? Yes of course, silly! But that’s been going on for a while. You can eat at super-chain Chipotle a few doors down from Rag & Bone if you’d like. Spend big on the clothes (petite Acid Wash cutoffs for $165), and save big on the food. And after your burrito bowl you can head around the corner to Barneys on Atlantic Ave.—which is no longer the lowly Co-op but an outpost of the original Barneys, because the Co-op was too approachable and low rent, I guess—and spend mightily again on finery by Chloé and Isabel Marant. Barneys happens to sell Rag & Bone too. And enough La Mer creams, serums and potions to permanently infantilize your epidermis.

Is it a death knell for our urban Mayberry, a portentous good-bye to local businesses, just before the neighborhood turns fully and irrevocably into a mega-touristy European shopping destination? Attractive, tan people, in slim-cut pants, milling around with shopping heat-maps, hoovering up knits and leathers on full suction. Perhaps. But really, this is just the most recent incarnation of a rapidly gentrifying, increasingly fancy neighborhood. It’s been getting quite titsy around here for quite a while. The “changes” on Court and Smith might even announce my personal expiration date here—the canary in the coal mine moment when I should pack up my family and move to, I don’t know, Pittsburgh. And not because I don’t love living here. Also, not because I don’t like Rag & Bone. They make many, many excellent things that I’d love to own. I’m not virtuous, or even immune to covetous feelings for luxury goods, just a writer living in a cramped, rented apartment so my kids can attend a solid public school in a solid neighborhood.

I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel about it. Or more precisely, do about it. Besides continue to shop and eat local, which I do. There’s been lots of tough talk from people I know about the J. Crew that is supposed to open on Court Street as well. I’ve stayed mum because what if I promise to protest and behave with moral outrage, and then you see me in there buying stocking stuffers one day? Will I have to lie and say I’m in there defacing heritage American garments with a Sharpie? The point is, I do look around the neighborhood and lament what’s no longer, and I do get the shivers worrying about what this is all going to mean, but then what?

When I read the analyses of neighborhood scholars or sociologists or economists, I get very armed up with opinions. Of course I think I understand the implications of these shifts. Of course I feel the remarkable, staggering wealth rushing into the neighborhood. And of course I dread the Manhattanization and mallification of my environment. Many are left behind and excluded from this tsunami of “progress.” It’s terrifying how quickly rents are rising, and small businesses and working families are getting squeezed/choked/sent elsewhere. Or worse, sent nowhere.

Initially, I wondered if I’d see Rag & Bone Brooklyn (they don’t call it that, but I couldn’t resist—the shameless BROOKLYN at the end of company names must be reaching backlash levels) from my frequent perch in the window at BookCourt Brooklyn. Hands down, my most cherished spot in the neighborhood. They don’t call themselves BookCourt Brooklyn either—they’d never do that of course! See? See what I mean? When naming your new artisanal paperclip company, just ask, WWBCD? What Would BookCourt Do? It’s a nice, solid guide.

Should I feel guilty for never having set foot in the bar that was there before Rag & Bone? Probably. I’m certainly part of that particular problem. But I must admit, before news of a major fashion brand moving in, I’d never been compelled to enter that spot. I actually couldn’t recall the name of the previous business without concentrating. The thing is, by the time I arrived in the neighborhood, that business would already have been considered part of an “old” version of Cobble Hill. Or at least would have belonged to a version of Cobble Hill that was not, if I’m being honest, among the main reasons I’d moved here. Neighborhood nostalgia for businesses I didn’t regularly or ever patronize is unjustified, but not so unusual. If I felt strongly, and selfishly, that the very existence of these businesses contributed in a meaningful way to the milieu I wanted to live in, perhaps I should have given them some of my business. These conflicting allegiances, contradictions and shifting marketplace values are the reason that pricey restaurants like Dover can thrive across the street from behemoths like CVS, which likely put a handful of independent pharmacies out of business a long time ago.  

Should I seize this moment of real estate insanity to feel despair that I’ll never have enough cabbage to buy my family a home in the neighborhood we love? I swallow that fact every day, as many of us do, like a Brooklyn fortitude vitamin. At least we’re lucky enough to afford to rent and live in a safe, beautiful part of the city. There’s always my internal back and forth about why I’m willing to live in too small a space with too many financial shortfalls, just to be Here. And irritation that I live in a place where I have to keep pasta and oatmeal in the fridge because the kitchen has no storage? The kitchen also has no kitchen. And most important, is any of this Rag & Bone’s fault?  

The surprise, the smirks and wise cracks, the worry for the small businesses struggling to pay the rent, are all typical reactions, but I have no idea why I or anyone else would feel surprise. What’s to be surprised about anymore? Unremarkable single family homes in this neighborhood sell for $3 million. Owning a lovely Rag & Bone sweater isn’t a sin or a crime or even an attack on poor people. I’d like a Rag & Bone sweater. My friend wore one to lunch the other day and I reflexively reached over to feel the pretty white sleeves. Rag & Bone is simply the place holder du jour in our well-meaning conversations about Brooklyn’s unbalanced, blossoming affluence. We have conversations and concerns here with unbroken constancy. We’re exhausting in many ways. Exhaustion Brooklyn.

Sometimes, Brooklyn responds to change by reversing it. Only in Cobble Hill could a Five Guys Burger chain remain as empty as that location always was, and ultimately close its doors, while the organic-meat serving Moo Burger just up the block triumphed, and continues to be a booming, much loved, independent restaurant. With food at least, Brooklyn, for the time being, routinely demands excellence, the small and local, and often as a result, the expensive.  

When I walk by the as yet unopened Rag & Bone, I have zero feelings of warmth or particular excitement. And no specific murderous feelings either. I’m certain there will be all kinds of important garments for sale inside once it opens, and I’m certain I’ll pop in and caress them on their hangers from time to time and then exit with a kindly thank you to the sales clerk. And then, if there is a God Brooklyn, I’ll always be able to go across the street to BookCourt, where I can breathe and exercise my own idiosyncratic value judgments. And there I shall spend undisclosed sums that I don’t have on even more books. Books that I actually don’t have any place to put.

This essay originally appeared on South Brooklyn Post on April 24, 2014.