The contrast could not be more stark. The colors on a recent walk were mono chromatic; I felt as if I was in an old black white film. Time to write about a trip to the New York Botanical Garden in September 2021, when I viewed the eccentric, whimsical and boldly colorful work of the contemporary Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama.
Pre-pandemic, my usual routine was to commute to New York on Fridays to teach at Hofstra University and then if I did not have a rehearsal scheduled for Saturday, I would excitedly plan a food/art/ethnic neighborhood exploration. I had great fun finding unusual places and small out of the way Mom and Pop ethnic restaurants. This all ended abruptly in March of 2020.
Last September, during a lull in the covid case rate, I started teaching in person again at Hofstra and felt safe enough to go on one of my Saturday excursions. I decided to return to an area of the Bronx and The New York Botanical Garden that I had last visited in 2019. I had the wonderful fortune to view Yayoi Kusema’s featured exhibition. Before I headed up to the Bronx, I made a visit to Zabars, a beloved Westside fancy food store selling the freshest cheeses, the best smoked fish, coffee, breads, etc.; complete with rude but skillful countermen at the smoked fish counter. I loved listening to their sarcastic banter as they expertly sliced nova lox, whitefish and sable; I had missed the aroma of lox and freshly baked bagels mingling in the air with Mozart playing softly in the background.
When I arrived at the Botanical Gardens, proof of vaccination was required and we were asked to wear masks at all of the indoor locations. I felt completely safe and even though there were crowds of people, it felt almost normal!
Yayoi Kusama’s wildly colorful and playful sculptures were placed throughout the gardens; some outside and others inside galleries and the Haupt Conservatory.
The artist wrapped trees with dotted fabric and this moved in perfect lockstep with my love of anthromorphizing trees, one of which became a favorite “Tree of the Week”.
I was also touched by the artists’s compelling bio; this is from her website:
“Yayoi Kusama dazzles audiences worldwide with her immersive “Infinity Mirror Rooms” and an aesthetic that embraces light, polka dots, and pumpkins. The avant-garde artist first rose to prominence in 1960s New York, where she staged provocative Happenings and exhibited hallucinatory paintings of loops and dots that she called “Infinity Nets.” Kusama also influenced Andy Warhol and augured the rise of feminist and Pop art. She has been the subject of major exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, Centre Pompidou, Tate Modern, and the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo. In 1993, Kusama represented Japan at the Venice Biennale. Today, her work regularly sells for seven figures on the secondary market. Throughout her disparate practice, Kusama has continued to explore her own obsessive-compulsive disorder, sexuality, freedom, and perception. In 1977, Kusama voluntarily checked herself into a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo, where she continues to live today.“
Continuing on my walk through the gardens, I was also fascinated by plants and giant lily pads in the pond outside of the Haupt Conservatory.
After walking quite a distance through the gardens, not wanting to miss any of the installations, I became quite hungry. It was time to revisit Dukagjini Burek, I had last been there in 2019. Only a five minute drive from the Botanical Gardens, I was delighted to discover that the small Albanian restaurant located at 758 Lydig Avenue had made it through the pandemic! I was also heartened to learn that my aggressive instinct for finding parking spots in NYC had not disappeared! As I entered the small restaurant, that for the time being is only open for takeout, the hard working counter person and a few customers were speaking Albanian. To my ear, the soft lilting sounds fell somewhere between Greek and Slavic.
The small menu includes three kinds of bureks; meat, spinach and cheese. I ordered a slice of the spinach burek and a small plastic container of plain yogurt; nothing fancy here! I took my treasures back to my car a few blocks away and had a lovely picnic. The crisp buttery crust of the burek had the texture of phyllo dough with a bit more heft to it and the spinach filling was mixed with bits of soft onion, feta and herbs. The yogurt complimented the richness of the pastry and filling; simply put- totally delicious! I think it would be well worth a trip to the Bronx just for bureks!!
The days are visibly brightening up, the sun is stronger and I hear the sweet sounds of bird song ; some hearty souls that have made an early return!
Still, the weather is cold and bracing and calls for hearty comfort food. Paul recently showed me a recipe that he saw on a website called Little Spice Jar for Pesto Chicken Meatball Soup. It sounded delicious and this is the version that I came up with! If you have the time to make a batch of home made chicken broth, this is great, but store bought will also work in a pinch.
2 quarts chicken stock
6-7 pieces of lacinato kale- tough centers removed and cut into ribbons
1/2 cup small dried pasta (any small shape is fine)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 pound ground chicken
- ½ cup panko breadcrumbs (add more if mixture seems too soft)
- 1 large egg
- 2 tablespoons minced Italian parsley
- 2 tablespoons prepared pesto
- 2 small garlic cloves finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- few grinds of freshly ground pepper
To Make Meatballs:
Combine all of the above ingredients and mix well.
Heat olive oil in a large skillet.
With wet hands, form mixture into medium size meatballs and saute in olive oil until nicely browned on all sides.
To Make Soup:
Place chicken stock in a large pot and bring to a simmer.
Add meatballs, kale and bring to a boil.
Lower hear to a simmer and cook for about an hour.
To Serve Soup:
Place a serving in each bowl, add desired amount of pasta
Top with grated percorino cheese and freshly ground black pepper
AND, here is the “Tree of the Week”!
STAY SAFE AND WARM!!