Gut Instinct: For the Birds

One day, I'll own a car just like this.

My last car died an overheated death in December 1999, not long after I drove to Mexico during a hurricane. In my haste to make hay home, I pushed my Nissan Stanza (charitably speaking, a tan box with sliding doors) to the breaking point, damaging the engine's pistons beyond repair—well, the meager funds of a college student.

I consigned my car to a junkyard and, not long after, relocated from Ohio to this fair metropolis. Here I needed no automobile. Subways and buses served my transportation needs and transformed my life. Untethered from car keys, I could have one or, let's be honest, five more drinks. I indulged in bad ideas till sunrise, when I would wobble to the train on custard legs, my head as scrambled as the eggs that'd soothe my stomach the following morn. Mass transportation meant my youth was wasted.

But it's been years since I've witnessed sunrise through beer-reddened eyes. I'm climbing the creaky ladder up my thirties. I'm engaged. I have a dog. I'm a somewhat domesticated creature, creating fewer wilder stories such as this tale: When I was 23 and trying to quit smoking, I became addicted to toothpicks soaked in tea tree oil. Sucking on one approximated inhaling smoke, soothing my detoxing system. One terribly intoxicated evening, likely after some open bar serving Sparks, I boarded the subway with buddies. At our stop, I lurched from my seat and dropped the toothpicks. "Noooooooooo!" I screamed, as distraught as a dad who just watched zombies devour his daughter. I lunged for my sticks, but my friends pulled me from the train. In my nicotine rage, I head-butted the subway car's seemingly shatterproof window. It shattered.

I could use this anecdote to illustrate the perceived invincibility of youth, or maybe how I'm hardheaded. "That's for certain," my fiancée chimes in, peeved that I won't replace the yellowed food processor I've owned since I was 14 (thanks, Mom!). The more salient point: I'm no longer head-butting subway cars. My dearth of after-dark shenanigans means I'm not as reliant on mass transit. I've softened my anti-car stance, discovering the freedom and independence that four wheels permit. Driving an automobile means one need not stand crotch-to-crotch with a stranger while listening to an ear-splitting mariachi band.

As it happens, my pal Matt was looking for friends with whom to share his station wagon. "Let's do it!" my fiancée said. "We can go antiquing or hiking!" I paused.

Hiking and antiquing fill me with the same dread that accompanies a proctology exam. "Maybe we can use the car to explore some great restaurants upstate?" I suggested. Sold. Last Sunday morn, we cruised north to Peekskill, located an hour from the city. Like so many Hudson River towns, a declining manufacturing base battered Peekskill. By the 1990s, the stately downtown was becoming a ghost town. But an influx of artists and Hispanic immigrants have reversed Peekskill's decline, and last year the town welcomed a bona fide destination restaurant, the Birdsall House (970 Main St., 914-930- 1880;

Named after an area hotel frequented by George Washington, Birdsall is the brainstorm of John Sharp and Tim Reinke, a co-owner of Blind Tiger Ale House. Like that Greenwich Village standout, the '50s-flavored Birdsall centers on craft beer, with 20 taps pouring local and national standouts such as Captain Lawrence and Stone. Sip 'em at the room-spanning mahogany bar, or take a booth bathed in skylight sun. "Let's sit in the sunlight," my fiancée said, basking in rays like a lazy cat. I found contentment in the menu: Chez Panisse vet Matt Hutchins devised a locally sourced, Southern-leaning, rib-sticking bill of fare filled with house-made charcuterie, Hudson Valley cheeses, sustainably raised burgers, hubcap-size buttermilk pancakes and maple-bacon ice cream. I settled on the Reuben, while my fiancée opted for polenta freighted with oyster mushrooms, a poached duck egg and chunks of blue cheese.

"Going for the make-out special, eh?" I said. Since each brunch comes with booze, I ordered Captain Lawrence's medium-bodied Fresh Chester Pale Ale; she finagled a bloody Mary. Its pickled carrot curbed her appetite till our repast's photo-worthy arrival. The polenta featured the prettiest poached egg I'd ever seen, covered in a translucent white cloak and boasting a thick 'n' runny interior. Served on crisp rye bread, my Reuben was a plate-dwarfing giant freighted with house-cured corned beef, braised cabbage and New York cheddar, along with zippy Cajun rémoulade—Ireland with a bayou detour. I devoured every tender, salty nib of beef and mopped up drippings with skin-on fries. It was a sandwich worthy of a road trip.

"But before we drive home," I told my fiancée, patting my belly, "let's take a walk."

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New York Press' Gut Instinct: Condiments to the Chef

Unappealing poster, yet awesome.

For this committed carnivore, watching the deli dude slice the soft, rose-hued corned beef was a lot like ogling lesbian porn. My pulse quickened, pupils dilated, sweat slicked my brow. I reached deep into my pants and pulled out my fat, bulging… wallet.

Damn, David’s Brisket House (533 Nostrand Ave. betw. Herkimer St. & Atlantic Ave., Brooklyn, 718-783-6109), you drive me crazy. For a half decade, I’ve been hitting this first-rate Jewish deli, which soldiers on in Caribbean Bed-Stuy like a reminder of an earlier, yarmulkewearing era. David is long gone, replaced by Muslim ownership. It sounds like a Borscht Belt joke (“A Jew and a Muslim walk into a deli…”), but it’s all kosher. Muslims are stricken from feasting on swine. Luckily, cows are the building blocks of David’s daily made corned beef, pastrami and brisket. Briny, tender, fatty, peppery, savory—name the adjective, it’s applicable. Hell, if you cinch your eyes and whistle a klezmer tune, you might envision that the meaty masterminds are men named Abe and Moe.

Today, I’ve taken my friend Dave to David’s. It was his virgin voyage. He ordered corned beef. Me, brisket. We watched rapturously as the counterman built our sandwiches to Empire State heights. Bread? Rye. Mustard? Yes. Mayo? Mayo?!

I gasped. Dave, a native West Coaster, nodded. “Yes, please,” he said, words that made me reevaluate our friendship. “No mayo, only mustard,” I said, changing his order. “You have so much to learn about condiments,” I said, keeping eagle eyes on the sandwich to ensure only brown mustard marred the pink flesh.

I have no hard feelings about mayo.

In fact, the creamy condiment is the reason I even have a girlfriend. About five years ago, my friends and I ganged up for the Idiotarod, a shopping-cart race in which drunk humans act as sled dogs. Our team was the Mayo Clinic, and we were despised. That’s because we flung mayonnaise willy-nilly, coating contestants’ carts, clothes and hair with Hellmann’s. It was terrible—and terribly hilarious.

A few weeks later, I was dining at Pacifico after a Jonathan Ames reading. Across from me sat a couple of girls, one blond, one brunette, discussing the Idiotarod. “Hey, I did that too,” I said, trying my hand at dinner conversation.

“Oh, what was your team?” the blond asked, batting her blue eyes.

“We were the Mayo Clinic.” “We hated you,” she said. And that, dear readers, was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

But while mayo has brought me love, it brings little to sandwiches. It’s little more than a lubricant, the K-Y Jelly of the condiment world. If moisture is needed, give me a splash of olive oil, or maybe mustard. Ketchup? Keep it. I learned my lesson long ago.

I must’ve been around 10 or 11, in New York for the third or fourth time. My family and I were visiting my grandparents, who lived in Washington Heights and the Bronx. Hunger hit. We stopped at a hot dog shop, and my parents sent me in to secure the frankfurters. Big man! Big man in a big city! I ordered griddle-crisped dogs, then painted narrow, ruler-precise stripes of ketchup. I brought the wieners outside. My parents looked at me as if I presented them dog shit on a bun.

“You can’t have ketchup on a hot dog,” my dad said. I was confused. Every kid in my suburban-Ohio elementary school coated hot dogs in Heinz 57. “Ketchup goes on a hamburger,” my dad instructed, “while you can only have mustard on a hot dog.” He sent me back inside to remove the tomato-based topping and replace it with a lonely yellow streak. It was embarrassing. It was instructive.

“I don’t remember that happening,” my dad will doubtlessly complain after reading this column. He often says that. But as a doctor, he should remember that though he can’t recall every incision, his patients remember every scar.

But hey, save your hankies and psychotherapy for someone else. Matters of taste are as much a product of nurture as nature. Who would I be if I didn’t grow up smearing mustard on Hebrew National hot dogs? Or if meatloaf decorated our dinner tables instead of fiery Thai curries and stir-fries with tofu and fermented black beans? I eat, therefore I am.

As for the case of Dave at David’s Brisket, his empty plate told me he didn’t miss mayo too much.

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New York Press' Gut Instinct: (Dinner) Party of Five

Good advice, all around.

Every so often, I’ll glimpse an episode of Mad Men and think, “Heavens, I would’ve made a handsome, happy 1960s housewife!” As a kept lady, I’d spend my days wandering around in bright, loose-fitting frocks, puffing unfiltered cigarettes (“Extra tar for an extra-healthy baby!”) and popping Valium as if it were movie-theater popcorn. “Be a dear and make mommy a drink—and don’t skimp on the gin,” I’d tell my children while, with a functional drunk’s practiced precision, I’d plan the day’s highlight: the dinner party.

Happy days! While preparing a meal for four, six or eight may cause some cooks to erupt in cold sweats, I relish the task—even more than hypothetically fantasizing about cross-dressing. Or going out to dinner with friends.Which might be this article’s most salient, lucid point. At its core, I have no qualms with restaurant dining. Who doesn’t like being waited on hand and foot and fed delicious foodstuffs? Just like masturbation, though, dining is best done alone.

I know, I know: I’m missing camaraderie and conversation, and other words that begin with c. But see, dining with friends always ends as badly as a stroll through a minefield.Think about it:You just had a lovely meal, with impeccable service and food, and enough alcohol to facilitate human interaction.This experience ain’t cheap, underscored by the bill’s arrival. Initially, everyone avoids eyeballing the tab, as if it were a midget leper or a small, blinding sun. Eventually, a brave soul—usually the meal’s alpha male, who typically possesses the math skills of a boulder —will glance at the invoice and say something terrible, like, “Why don’t we split this evenly?” Have more unjust words ever been spoken? An even-steven split is patently unfair.

Someone always glugged an extra drink, or ordered well-aged steak instead of the inexpensive vegetarian entrée. Diners will always pay more, or less, and one unlucky soul will hold the bill and a stack of crumpled greenbacks and proclaim, “I think we’re short 10 dollars for tip.” It leaves a beautiful evening with a bitter finish.

To avoid this, one magnanimous soul may cover the bill. Not me: I can’t sell enough plasma to express such largesse— my friends’ tastes, if I may, are too rich for my blood. Instead I turn to the dinner party. It’s not something to fear, like nationalized health care. The meal’s success is predicated on two very simple tenets: divide the labor, and don’t bite off more than you can chew.

I like to divide Team Dinner Party into two teams. The first will handle cooking the food. I like a menu that’s heavy on vast heaps of foods that can be prepared ahead of guests’ arrival, such as soups, stews, salads, roast meats and baked pastas. Do you want to slave over the stove when company floods through the front door, bearing gifts of delicious, delicious booze?

(Important point! Instruct your guests on what beverage to bring. You don’t want to be stuck with five bottles of Yellow Tail and a carafe of Carlo Rossi. You will drink it. You will regret it.)

The second part of Team Dinner Party is what I like to call “look and feel.” It entails tasking artistic types to set a table and the mood—perhaps with candles! This is not my strong suit. If it were up to me, I’d set the table with Taco Bell sporks and shreds of my ancient ironic T-shirts (perhaps WORLD’S LARGEST SOURCE OF NATURAL GAS?) as napkins. Luckily, my girlfriend went to art school. She puts her $80,000 education to good use in decorating the table in a novel and appealing fashion.

“I have a complete set of wildlife-themed dinnerware,” she told me excitedly one evening while I was furiously breading and frying up eggplant parm (a dinner party crowd-pleaser). She displayed a bowl featuring a bald eagle. Even more endangered, however, was my patience. “Hon,” I said, my hands encased in floury goo, “the look-and-feel team has no place in the kitchen.” She slunk off, grabbing a carved wooden owl to serve as the centerpiece.

Unexpected touches like the owl really wow guests, serving as conversation starters before alcohol kicks in. And as long as there’s enough booze, any dinner party will be a success. It’s not tough. Everyone arrives with low expectations. Serve anything more enticing than prison gruel, and you’ll be showered with enough compliments to require a raincoat. No one’s coming to dinner to post a poor Yelp review. Or, sadly, wash the dishes. Consider it the cost of not splitting a bill.

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