How to Survive Midsummer in New York

In the summer in New York, everything is covered in airborne grit; it’s not anything so clean and fine as dust, and not quite ash, just ambient black specks pirouetting through the air in a kind of Brownian motion toward any uncovered surface. Every arm and thigh in the city is slick with sweat: When the air isn’t still and glassed-in like a hot bell jar, it’s buffeted by moist, swollen zephyrs. It takes a thunderstorm to wring all that humidity out of the air, let the crust of grime wash from buildings down to the street, where by noon it will dry out enough to flake to bits, and be cast forth on the wet hot wind.

Everyone with enough money deserts the city for weeks at a time. Select portions of Upper Manhattan look not dissimilar to an evangelical church after the Rapture: Behind the high windows is an enormous absence. Those left behind are free to envision orthodontically perfect grins and bronzed limbs sprawled out by the sea, while we gasp for air.

By August, it’s the proles and tourists that control the sidewalks. The entire psychiatric profession hits pause. The air gets thick as caramel; the sun a disc of violent light; the thunder starts long before the rain arrives, if it ever does. The bodega line grows to conga length, and everybody’s buying ice. It gets hard to eat.

There are days when it’s so hot outside — or the A/C is on the fritz or just dripping feebly — that the whole damp fabric of the heat hovers like a chloroformed rag around my face. On days like this, my throat feels pinched and arid. It begrudgingly accepts cold water and cold coffee and little else.

Running on cigarettes and stimulants, I get shaky. My brain feeds on itself and excretes neuroses. Bad memories waft up in brackish gusts — loves lost and friendships ended, searing fumes of shame and regret. It’s too hot to become a madwoman in an attic — heat rises — but it’s also too hot to control my nerves and my anger, my fear of the future and rumination on the past.

All this is my betrayal of an essentially American doctrine of resilience. In this country, we are supposed to turn suffering into motivation; the will to work ought to stay intact no matter the time of year. The flow of capital never ceases, and neither should you. In New York, city of wealth and capitol of capital, the doctrine of work reigns in the congested streets from the north Bronx down to Brooklyn, condenses in the air and runs down our clenched jaws in salty drops. The pursuit of success — in work, in love, in investments — should never stop or sleep; neither should you, even if, in the heat, all you want to do is halt your bloom.

On days like this, I have precisely one solution to get out of this crucible of inner bile. It’s not medicine or moderate exercise or even HVAC repair. It’s not Superman’s icy Fortress of Solitude, or a ticket to the tropics. In fact it will cost less than ten dollars and only a few blocks’ worth of fortitude. It will require a blender, a few tomatoes, a piece of old bread, a little oil and vinegar and salt. It will require someone to feed, even if that someone is only hungry, baking, trembling little you.

There’s a quiet alchemy to cooking — a stillness of the mind brought on by rhythmic actions of the hands. There’s a congruity of mental and physical effort that’s rare in my life, so driven by a restless and self-cannibalizing mind, that I come to crave it. I enjoy cooking more than I enjoy eating; when drunk or anxious or sad, I cook too much, more than I can eat, and scramble to find hungry friends. Peeling garlic — slipping the pale cloves out one by one, prying the skins loose with my thumbnail – is a small act; peeling a head of garlic, mincing it, letting it foam aromatically in sizzling butter, is a little reclamation.

I got divorced a few years ago and fell apart spectacularly. I cried in public so often I learned the etiquette of crying in public — minimize noise, carry tissues, mutely shake your head if ever offered help. (New York City is a wonderful city in which to cry in public, as no one wants to offer any help.) A month ago I left a very good job in less-than-ideal circumstances, and I found out the muscle memory of grief was intact in me. Each circumstance represented my life diverting from a path that was easy to explain, appealing on paper; if not authentically ennobling, or enough to make me happy, being married and working at an institution with an excellent reputation were circumstances I could point to as external evidence of my worth.

In the aftermath of each I had to learn — slower than I’d hoped — how to rebuild myself piecemeal. Absent a husband, I had to muster friends who didn’t mind my ghostly presence on their couches, as I struggled not to disappear into my own grief. Absent the good job, I found out who cared about me only because of the job, or who would let the taint of scandal drive them away.

Each time, I learned to let fragments of me die and turned to nourish other parts. When the clamor in my head overcame me, I let my hands work at the cutting board, in the slow, sawing rhythm of return.

In the full and ghastly heat of summer, or in the grip of powerful emotion, it can be too much to ask of yourself to stand in front of a stove. Enter the cold soup — friend of the weary and the scorched. I have built a repertoire over the years — gazpacho foremost, but also other exemplars of the genre: Russian yogurt-and-radish soup, Hungarian sour-cherry soup, French vichyssoise topped with a fan of chives. Each asks so little of you and gives so much. There are few things on this Earth that can quench your thirst and fill your belly and soothe your restless heart at once.

In each crisis of mine in recent years, there was one friend who distinguished herself — who visited me in my mouse-infested first post-divorce apartment; who gathered my things and helped me move away from it; who slept in my bed when I couldn’t stop shaking, and watched marathons of sleazy true-crime shows with me. In Russian, one term for a perennial companion is a sobutilnik — “a friend who will share a bottle with you.” My own spin on this excellent word would be someone willing to make soup with you; to chop and blend and pour into the bowl. My best friend’s avid delight at the punch of garlic in the mix is better than rubies. There is little better than someone who understands that what you offer, when you offer a perfect soup, is all your love.

I first tasted Andalusian gazpacho in Spain with my mother; I made it for the first time with the man who would become my husband. It differs from most gazpachos I have encountered in America in that it is thick and smooth, a soup, not a salsa in a glass. The key is a heel of stale bread, which, when combined with olive oil, binds the broth, thick and cool and pale. When my husband left me I waited a year and made it again. Now I have made it for my mother, for friends, and even for myself, the first to receive my ire, the last to receive my gifts.

In the dog days of summer, when the grass dries pasta-pale, wildfires fill the news, and the skies portend collapse, find yourself a soup companion, and make gazpacho. Make too much — ideally, enough to fill the biggest container you have. Like resilience, you have to make it yourself; like healing, it will look a little different each time. Like forgiving yourself, it will brace you, make you stand upright again, cease the tremor in your hands. With each cold sour spoonful I restore myself, dilute the bile in my mind and my heart, return. Vinegar and oil and bread, bell pepper, cucumber, tomato, whirred and poured into a jar and sealed for tomorrow, and eaten at midnight anyway. One trip to the grocery store is all it takes me to remember that — even wending my way circuitously in a world of straight lines — I am moving forward, that there is cool and comfort to be had in this ashen city I love.

Andalusian-Style Gazpacho
Serves 2 to 4

1 pound vine tomatoes (don’t use beefsteak tomatoes, please)
2 medium-size cucumbers
1 fresh green bell pepper
1 small red onion
2 cloves fresh garlic
1 chunk stale bread, ideally French or Italian
A few generous glugs of olive oil (about a cup)
Two generous pours (about 2 tablespoons) of red wine or sherry vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Soak the bread in water for five or ten minutes, then squeeze it out with your fist till it’s a soggy solid.

2. Chop up all the vegetables and the garlic. De-seed the cucumbers and tomatoes unless you like tomato seeds getting stuck in your teeth.

3. Put all of the above in your blender or food processor.

4. Add the liquid ingredients and spices.

5. Pulse until it turns a pale red, reminiscent of vodka sauce.

6. Chill till it feels cold to your finger.

7. Eat when it’s too hot to eat anything else.


Favorite Dishes #66: Pulpo at Toro

Complicated as it can be to cook, octopus has emerged as something of a common menu item across the city. Few and far between, however, are the eateries that truly excel at this maritime delicacy. For a high-minded example of tasty tentacles as they are meant to be served, head straight to Toro, a Spanish-styled tapas bar in the West Village. Their pulpo — braised and seared in its own juices — reflects a traditional Galician preparation. An impossibly delicate exterior char provides only a slight crunch, before revealing an unending tenderness within.

Gilding the round tendril of seafood is a golden array of garnishes, including a charred-onion vinaigrette and crisped fingerling potatoes, peppered liberally with garden oregano fresh from the farmers’ market. The starch glides over the excess liquid, soaking up the deluge of flavor — saltiness from the octopus, caramelized sweetness in the dressing, even a subtle nod to smokiness. The tastes run analogous to any number of Toro’s well-balanced mezcal cocktails, most notably its TBD — a tongue tickler enhanced with smoked chile bitters, lime, and grapefruit zest.

Skip the rest — when you want octopus done right, Toro is leading the charge.

The Village Voice is counting down to our Best of New York City issue in October. We’re combing the city every day, one dish at a time, to guide you to the most delicious food in NYC. These are our 100 Favorite Dishes for 2015, in no particular order, save for the top 10.

Here’s our countdown up to now:
#100: Laminated Blueberry Brioche at Dominique Ansel Kitchen
#99: Egg Shop’s Golden Bucket Fried Chicken
#98: Ramen Lab’s Torigara Shoyu
#97: Cannoli at Ferdinando’s
#96: Breakfast Sandwich at Dimes
#95: Banana Royal at Eddie’s Sweet Shop
#94: Fletcher’s Burnt Ends
#93: Almayass’s Mante
#92: Empellon Taqueria’s Fish Taco
#91: El Rey’s Sardine Tostada
#90: General Tso’s Pig’s Head at the Cannibal
#89: The Vegetarian at Meat Hook Sandwich Shop
#88: The 21 Club’s Creamy Chicken Hash
#87: Deep-Fried Olives at Via Carota
#86: Pougi at Loi Estiatorio
#85: Shelsky’s Hot Pastrami Sandwich
#85: Pearl & Ash’s Smoked Bread with Chicken Butter
#84: Gluten-Free Pizza at Rossopomodoro
#83: Perry St’s Chocolate Pudding With Candied Violets
#82: Whit’s End’s ‘Fuckin’ Bluefish Dip’
#81: Morgenstern’s Salt and Pepper Pine Nut Ice Cream
#80: Levain Bakery’s Chocolate Chip Walnut Cookie
#79: Delmar Pizzeria’s Pizza
#78: Cafe Cluny’s Avocado Toast
#77: Brooklyn Star’s Cinnamon Bun
#76: Pork Belly Cotton Candy at Carnem
#75: Ippudo’s Pork Buns
#74: Mission Chinese Food’s Oil-Cured Anchovies
#73: Johnnycakes at LoLo’s Seafood Shack
#72: The Starving Artists Steak at Belle Reve
#71: The Spotted Pig’s Gnudi
#70: Xi’an Famous Foods’ Tiger Vegetable Salad
#69: Crème Brûlée Truffle at Kee’s Chocolates
#68: Pok Pok’s Muu Paa Kham Wong
#67: Cacio e Pepe at Upland


What’s Happening This Weekend: Burmese Taste Testing, Woks and Lox, Tango Party, Uni Dinner

After a week spent traveling, eating, and drinking more than you really need to, we don’t blame you if your weekend plan consists of lying on a couch with a remote control. If you’re game to go out, though, here’s a selection of happenings around town you can squeeze in before the end of 2013.

Burmese Taste Testing, Straight From the Lab Studio, 36-57 36th Street, Queens, Saturday, 5 p.m.

If trying new cuisines is right up your alley, traveling to Queens for a Burmese-style taste test is a no brainer. For $20, diners can sample ohn-no khao swe, a coconut chicken noodle soup, as well as access an open bar from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Early attendees will also have the chance to sample danbauk, a spiced chicken and rice dish similar to Indian biryani. There will also $5 shot specials along with $6 lychee martinis for attendees. Pick up your tickets in advance.

Woks and Lox, Nom Wah Tea Parlor, 13 Doyers Street, Saturday, 10 p.m.

Fans of cultural mash ups are invited to come out to this third annual party, which features a special SingleCut brewery born Woks and Lox beer made with matzoh and sichuan peppercorns. Nosh on Jewish-Chinese food courtesy of chefs Chichi Wang and Noah Arenstein in between traditional party games, and make a bid in the auction — all proceeds go towards relief in the Philippines from Typhoon Haiyan. Tickets are $68.

Happy New Year 1954, Centro Español Club, 41-01 Broadway, Queens, Sunday, 6 p.m.

Head out to this early New Year’s celebration where you can party like its 1954 with a night of tango, Spanish wine, and period-appropriate clothing: Gentlemen are invited to break out their fedoras and rock a crisp suit, while women are encouraged to put on the old circle skirt and gloves. Tickets for the performance by the Astoria Tango Orchestra are $20, and a selection of Spanish style food and beverages are available at an additional cost.

Uni Dinner, Louro, 142 West 10th Street, Sunday, 7 p.m.

If you want to cap off the year in style but don’t want to deal with the craziness on New Year’s Eve, check out David Santos’ all uni dinner on Sunday or Monday. Expect uni in each course, be it with short rib, ravioli, or a dessert pudding featuring sea urchin roe. Seatings are $75 per person and reservations can be made by emailing the restaurant directly at



La Vara: Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition

This week’s review is of La Vara, the new Spanish restaurant in Cobble Hill from chefs Alex Raij and Eder Montero, a husband-and-wife duo who take turns in the kitchen creating delicious, exciting food that’s unlike most Spanish restaurants in the city.

The restaurant plays with flavors established by Spain’s Jewish and Muslim communities during one of the darkest times in Spanish history, but it has a lot of fun doing so. Read the full review here.

I was reminded by a few folks to revisit Mel Brooks’s classic History of the World, in which Brooks plays the Grand Inquisitor in a song-and-dance parody:

And, of course, Monty Python’s famous sketch:

Which has me thinking that with great food, as with great comedy, historical accuracy is generally not the point. Historians will not find the dishes at La Vara to be exact replicas of their historical counterparts, but that’s because Raij and Montero aren’t going for correctness, they’re going for deliciousness.