Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Miss Manhattan Hangs Rani's Kitchen

In my mother’s kitchen, I have been forbidden from photographing two things:​
1) My mother
2) Her mandelbrot recipe
Which is challenging, because tonight she is making mandelbrot, pronounced “mondle bread,” which is like Jewish biscotti. She’s making three flavors, cherry almond, pineapple coconut, and chocolate coconut, to bring to her friend Roz’s house on Christmas. My mother, whose name is Rani, only started making mandelbrot in about the last 10 years. She baked occasionally when I was growing up, often with store-bought dough or mixes, always more of a (wonderful) cook than baker. Though I’m perpetually delighted to be on the receiving end of a boxful of the tasty, crunchy cookie-esque constructions, for whatever reason I’ve always been out of town when she’s made mandelbrot before, either in college or in New York. My roommate and I gobble the stuff up, and it gets compliments from everyone who tries it. I’ve regularly tried to convince my mother to go into business making the things--I’ve seen bakeries in Brooklyn making a killing selling the stuff in some nonsense “artisanal” style, when mandelbrot from mom’s kitchen is doubtlessly so much better.

She opens her recipe book, a binder into which she has handwritten all of her most famous recipes in her signature royal blue Pilot G2 ballpoint pen, and begins. I aim my camera at the page.

“DON’T YOU DARE!” she says.
“I KNOW, MA,” I say. “I’m just taking a picture of the title, relax!”
She relents. “Fine…”

She starts by slicing candied cherries and pineapple (both of which, I find out the hard way, taste terrible on their own. “That’s what you get,” she says, raising an eyebrow at me. But they are delicious in the cookies themselves). For the first batch, she whisks together [redacted, redacted, redacted], candied cherries and almonds, forming it into a dough that makes three loaf-like constructions. They’re baked, then sliced into that curved biscotti shape, then baked again. And then they’re done. Except she does it two more times, for the two other flavors. All the while, I point my camera into bowls and trays and her hands.

“Okay, NOW you’re getting in my way,” she says with faux annoyance, swatting her fingernails at my camera. “Crummy kid.” It’s one of her favorite nicknames for me, one I also enjoy because we both know she actually thinks the opposite and it makes us laugh. She asks me to turn the tray around in the oven when the timer dings so the loaves can cook evenly.

Soon the first batch is ready and I can hardly wait to get my hot little hands on them. I’ve never had mandelbrot fresh from the oven.

“I’ll only eat the broken ones!” I promise.
“Sure,” my mother laughs. “How many of them are you going to break??”
“You don’t know my life!” I say with faux indignation, holding back laughter.

I don’t break any of them, but I will admit, there are more broken than I thought there’d be….

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Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Miss Manhattan Hangs Bergdorf Goodman

I only have two holiday traditions: I call my parents on the phone to do the Hanukkah prayers with them, and I go see the windows at Bergdorf Goodman. There are other things I love, of course, but those are the only two things I’ve done with any consistency since I’ve moved to New York.

After a sumptuous dinner of seafood and wine at Fish on Bleecker Street with my friend Caitlin, I made my way uptown from the West Village to the Bergdorf windows on 58th Street and 5th Avenue. Earlier that day, in a gift-buying tizzy, I had trudged from the soon-to-depart Henri Bendel on 5th Avenue to Bloomingdale’s on Lexington and averted my eyes from Bergdorf's, knowing full well I would be back in the evening (in my opinion, the best time to see them) and not wanting to ruin the surprise. And, as ever, it was a beautiful, lavish, decadent surprise.

This year, too, it was especially decadent because the windows were themed “Bergdorf Goodies,” each window offering a different spin on a sugary treat, from chocolate to gingerbread to cotton candy, and more. Each window is designed and assembled by a staff of artisans, and the entire process from start to finish takes about 10 months.

In New York’s dizzying swirl of people and deadlines and subway mishaps, it can be easy to become jaded. But every time I cross in front of those windows, somehow all of my negative energy disappears. I’m sure the wine flowing through my veins tonight also has something to do with it, but suddenly my feet no longer ache, my anxieties about forthcoming travel disappear, and I’m simply immersed in the thoughtful, creative construction looking back at me from behind each glass window.

I like to start at the southmost window on 5th Avenue to see if I can deduce what the theme is without seeing all of them at once. Two mannequins in glittering suits of neon sequins share a glass box with a giant electric blue lollipop. I gasp, “CANDY!” and am instantly excited for what’s in store as I round the corner. A Liza Minnelli-esque mannequin takes a spot behind an art deco chocolate counter, each tiny treat hand-designed; another in black boots laced in white perches atop a gingerbread clock; yet another, in a white feather and rhinestone coat, stares at an giant robot surrounded by ice cream; a Marie Antoinette-style figure features a towering wig of cotton candy; among other feasts for the eyes. With each few steps, a new gasp. The garments that adorn the mannequins in each display are themselves not unlike candy, with their curls of red and white beads, floaty tulle, flashy feathers. Standing in front of these windows, I am a child again. The experience is not unlike seeing the Bergdorf’s catalog that only came at the holidays, in awe of the intricacy and detail and luxury of what’s inside. I’m not just playing Candy Land but living it.

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Watch the making of “Bergdorf Goodies” on YouTube.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Miss Manhattan Hangs Low Life 8

Somehow, in my 30 years of loving, devouring, and being nostalgic for (despite having never actually lived in) East Village history, I had never been to the Pyramid Club. The Pyramid, the renowned incubator for great drag performers and artists for nearly 40 years, had eluded me for the last eight or so years, and perhaps not by chance. If I’m honest, I was worried I’d arrive at the legendary venue at some point and for whatever reason not fall in love with it as I was supposed to. But then Low Life came along, and I knew I had to go.

Low Life is a variety showcase inspired by the book Low Life: The Lures and Snares of Old New York by Luc Sante. Assembled by Chi Chi Valenti and Johnny Dynell, nightlife legends and creators of the iconic Jackie 60 party, the show was first held in 2007 at Tompkins Square Park to close out the annual Howl! Festival saluting East Village culture. But the show was on hiatus for several years, returning last week for its eighth edition, celebrating legendary East Village dives from The Slide to the Pyramid itself. Hosts Chi Chi Valenti and Paul Alexander (a former Jackie 60 MC) introduced acts inspired by both 1880s-1920s Bowery life and the 1980s Pyramid life, performed by a bevy of New York nightlife stars. Drag queen Sherry Vine, in a wig of blonde curls and a cascading robe of black feathers, sang the 1920s classic “After You’re Gone in a deep purr. Burlesque performer Dirty Martini sauntered onto the stage, cigarette dangling from a long holder, drenched in a velvet robe and glittery eyeshadow. John Kelly transitioned in song from suit and dress shoes to scarf and corset and heels. Heather Litteer performed a monologue after arriving onstage in a trash bag. Poison Eve performed as Tanya Ransom performing Nina Hagen, a teased purple wig on her head, a dress covered in buttons over her torso.

In between acts, Johnny Dynell, in a Klaus Nomi t-shirt and suspenders, spun ABBA and Grace Jones and people danced, toes tap-tap-tapping on the linoleum floor. Later, I shed my coat and scarf and even participated myself. I walked under the crepe paper decorations and Christmas lights and lanterns. I watched as drag queens in towering wigs and heels tiptoed to the bar.

It’s funny, making my way to Low Life that night I was tired almost to the point of tears. Why am I doing this? Shouldn’t I be home sleeping? What is it all FOR? What does it all MEAN? And all this typical tired nonsense I usually dream up for myself when my brain cells are just about to keel over. And yet, arriving at the Pyramid, seeing the show, I forgot all that. I wondered if maybe that’s how everyone felt when they walked in the door, if that’s what kept people coming back all these years. And I wondered why I had stayed away so long.

Follow on Instagram: The Pyramid Club, Johnny Dynell, The Jackie Factory, Sherry Vine, Dirty Martini, Heather Litteer, John Kelly, Poison Eve

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