Mallory Hagan and the New American Dream

The Miss America Pageant began in 1921, and in many ways has stayed there. Try as it may to keep up with the times, from sacking longtime host Bert Parks to moving to Las Vegas from Atlantic City, it’s remained the definition of retro: A parade of beautiful, doe-eyed young ladies, each armed with a passel of superficial talents, but ultimately little more than eye candy. The pageant has long represented the homey warmth of the original American dream: embrace faith and family and remain relentlessly optimistic and you may one day be beloved by the nation—provided you’re drop dead gorgeous, of course. And yet there she is, Miss America 2013, Mallory Hagan: plucky and cool, with a decidedly funky edge. She might have been born and raised in Alabama, but when it came time to leave her small town to pursue fame in New York, she gave Manhattan a pass and moved straight to Brooklyn. A modern choice for a savvy young woman.

Since she donned her crown on Saturday, the city has been buzzing, not only because Miss New York won the national title, but because she lives in Park Slope. Well, Windsor Terrace if you like, but she refers to her 17th Street flat as the Slope, and it’s borderline enough to give it to her. Jokes have been flying about yoga and dog-walking and working in the Co-op, but they miss the point. After all, she’s only been in the yuppie part of Brooklyn a short time. In the four years she’s been here, she’s lived all over the borough, hopping from Bed-Stuy to Williamsburg to Bensonhurst to Sunset Park, enough shout out-worthy neighborhoods to fill a rap album. She has never lived in Manhattan, and, if Brooklyn gets its wish, she never will.

Times have certainly changed. It wasn’t that long ago that Brooklyn was the place you moved when you failed to make it in "real" New York. When "bridge and tunnel" referred not just to New Jersey, but to every outer borough. It may be hard for the twenty-somethings lining Bedford Avenue to grasp, but through most of the nineties, Brooklyn was, at best, a cool place to be from, but no place to be.

To my regret, I bought into this lie when I arrived in New York back in 1994, not even considering the option of spacious, affordable apartments in the County of Kings. Instead, I overpaid for a room in a soulless high rise on the Upper East Side, with a hellish commute on the 6 train that still required a transfer to get to my first job at Rockefeller Center. If only I had taken that cool flat on Court Street, I’d be at the office in 25 minutes and twice as happy on the weekends. And yet, as I cringe to admit, the words "fuck Brooklyn" passed from my lips more than once. How ignorant I was.

Thankfully, I came to my senses before Y2K, moving to Williamsburg back when Galapagos, Oznot’s Dish, and Planet Thailand (then known as Plan Eat Thailand) were the places to go. And then, as marriage and children entered the picture, Park Slope became home, a cozy, tidy little neighborhood that has, amazingly, become just a little bit cool.

But my move to Brooklyn came after far too many years slugging it out in Manhattan, paying three-quarters of my salary on rent and drifting into debt for the privilege of a shoe box above a bar on Third Street near the Hells Angels headquarters and a smelly one-bedroom on Amsterdam where a guy was murdered on my doorstep one night (I saw the body). Like I said, I should have known better.

Mallory Hagan knew better, and chose better. Somehow, throughout her childhood in Opelika, Alabama (pop. 26,477), she never bought into the myth that living in Manhattan is the only way to have an authentic New York experience. Somehow, she knew about Brooklyn, and could feel its pull. Her foresight makes me wonder: has the longtime American dream of leaving the small town and moving to New York City evolved to now prefer a Brooklyn one-bedroom over a Manhattan studio?

Sure, plenty of New Yorkers have weighed their options and moved accordingly, and for the country at large, Williamsburg, Brooklyn may be close to passing Williamsburg, Virginia in name recognition. But for generations of youngsters outgrowing their childhood bedrooms in farm towns and suburbs from Oregon to Louisiana, the dream has always been an apartment in Greenwich Village or some similarly perfect Manhattan neighborhood. Hagan’s choice of Brooklyn over Manhattan suggests a watershed moment in the American psyche. The truth has finally come out: living in Brooklyn isn’t a compromise at all. It’s better.

And now all those little girls who still covet the evening dress, sash, and tiara have a role model who, finally, blissfully, keeps it real, living in Brooklyn, tap dancing to James Brown, and working for the prevention of child sexual abuse. Let’s hope Hagan celebrates her well-earned victory at a great neighborhood spot like Applewood or Talde or Pork Slope. If you see her there, fellow Brooklynites, buy the girl a drink. A $50,000 prize only goes so far, even in Brooklyn.

[Composite image by Lorenna Gomez-Sanchez]

New York Opening: Talde

Park Slope, Brooklyn is a lovely, if simplistically-named neighborhood. There’s a park, there’s a slope, there are about 8 billion kids under the age of ten, and there are countless businesses that cater to them and their families. There aren’t very many truly exciting restaurants, at least compared to Manhattan, but that’s starting to change, if the opening of Talde on Seventh Avenue near the F train stop is any indication. Top Chef All-Star Dale Talde‘s new restaurant – which he opened with partners David Massoni and John Bush of nearby Thistle Hill Tavern – began welcoming diners on Sunday, and judging from the crowds that have flocked to the place since then, the sleek Asian-American restaurant has already won the neighborhood’s heart. 

Ironically, Talde is located just around the corner from Seventh Avenue’s only other truly fine-dining restaurant, Applewood, which recently got dissed by New York‘s Adam Platt, but is still pretty great. For its part, Talde is going to keep it (somewhat) simple, with dishes like Korean fried chicken and barbecued pork shoulder. But there’s clearly a fanciness here that’s been missed in the area, and the gorgeous space, with huge picture windows, plenty of dark wood and brass, and a strikingly handsome bar with all my favorite spirits and beers, beckons passersby with good food and a hip, comfortable atmosphere. I live around the corner and I’ll admit I’ve been peeking through the windows for months, waiting for the big news. I predict that Talde will quickly become a neighborhood staple, with locals happily skipping the trip into Manhattan (and saving an hour of babysitting fees in the process) to dine in this hot spot. 

But will it draw Manhattanites to Brooklyn? It might, if they knew how easy it was to get there. Just jump on an F train, marvel at the fact that you can see the Statue of Liberty from the windows along the way, hop out at Seventh Avenue, and walk two blocks from the station. It’s just 20 minutes from West 4th Street, maybe 30 door-to-door, max.  If there’s a wait and the bar is packed, pop into nearby Beer Table for a brew and marvel at how nice the Slope has gotten in recent years. You could live here, right? Well, maybe when you have kids. 

Death’s Door White Whisky: Finally, a Whisky That’s Not Ridiculously Old

For years, big liquor companies have been pulling a fast one and getting away with it, unloading old whisky on a drinking public too timid or complacent to demand better. I’ve seen 12-year, 18-year, even 40-year-old whiskies selling for ridiculous prices. No matter the cost or cobwebs, millions of otherwise cultured people drink it by the tumblerful in bars and basement rec rooms around the world. Until recently, I was one of them. But then my wife took me to dinner for my birthday at Applewood in Brooklyn and an item on the dessert menu caught my eye: Death’s Door White Whisky. The waiter explained that it was white – or, more accurately, clear – because it was a new whisky, not having spent years in wooden barrels. One sip and the gig was up for the Macallans and Glenlivets of the world: fresh whisky is better.

I ordered it neat and added a couple of drops of water to open it up. Sure enough, it was clear as gin, which was hard to reconcile with the aroma, an unmistakable mix of fermented wheat and barley. It certainly smelled like whisky. I took a sip and let it penetrate my tongue for a few moments. There was the astringent burn of any hard liquor, but it slowly released a bouquet of pleasant flavors: caramel, vanilla, spice, clove, pear. I swallowed, exhaled, and looked again at the clear liquid in my glass. Sure enough, it tasted like whisky too, smooth, warm, and delicious. A delightful after-dinner drink.

The color, or lack thereof, takes some getting used to, but once you do, it’s pure pleasure. I looked Death’s Door up online and learned that it’s made of “hard red winter wheat” from Washington Island, Wisconsin and spends less than 72 hours in American white oak barrels. Boy does that make those other whisky makers look bad. They let their booze languish in wooden barrels for so long that it actually turns brown before they get around to bottling it.

Not so those eager go-getters at Death’s Door – the name is a nod to the legendary Death’s Door passage between Washington Island and the Door Peninsula – who understand the importance of freshness. Let’s hope their success causes the major whisky makers to step up their game and add a little hustle to the production process. I’m not getting any younger here.

New York: Top 10 Brooklyn Restaurants Worth the Wait

Flatbush Farm (Prospect Heights) – Everything you’d expect from a restaurant with “Farm” in the name: local, organic, sustainable. Decor is more modern than country, save for the bangin’ backyard overflowing with green. ● Vinegar Hill House (Dumbo) – Cast iron dishes, straight from the wood fire oven, are killer tasty and surprisingly affordable. Mismatched knickknacks and vintage furniture make the space a real charmer. ● Rose Water (Park Slope) – It’s not surprising that a seasonal menu helps the coop crowd get off. Park Slope’s favorite date spot comes with flickering candles and chocolate pot de crème.

Buttermilk Channel (Carroll Gardens) – Brooklyn’s M.V.P. in the fancy-fried-chicken craze serves their birds with cheddar waffles. A clean interior — large windows, industrial lighting, dark wood floors — is the epitome of Brooklyn chic. ● James (Prospect Heights) – Hidden in the first floor of a brownstone, the restaurant draws a neighborhood crowd, but the food — New American with local ingredients — is worth a commute. ● Al di Là (Park Slope) – Park Slope’s favorite Italian job comes with the longest wait. Rustic fare (pork loin scallopine, tagliatelle al ragu, roasted duck) is served in a purposefully deteriorating dining room. ● Franny’s (Prospect Heights) – Ultra-thin pizza fancied up with super fresh — and yes, you guessed it, sustainable — toppings like clams and mussels. Husband and wife owners don’t skimp on the salads or apps, either. ● Acqua Santa (Williamsburg)- The romantic, go-to spot for the more committed hipster types. Italian favorites, like spaghetti puttanesca and fettucine amatriciana, are easily paired with a bottle of vino. ● Applewood (Park Slope)- Mom and pop joint serves up responsible food in a cozy, ski-lodge setting; think fireplace, wooden tables, and flowers. The meal won’t weigh as heavily on your conscience as it will your wallet. ● The Good Fork (Red Hook)- A reason to go to Red Hook other than IKEA. This eclectic restaurant serves global bites like Korean style steak and eggs, as well as neighborhood favorites like Steve’s Key lime pie.

New York: Top 5 Date-Night Dinners 2.0

imageA new generation of creative spots covers your foreplay duties …

1. Dressler Williamsburg elegance defined, stepping up from Dumont with brilliant fish dishes and top wines. 2. Little Owl Top Mediterranean fare fueled by Greenmarket’s latest arrivals, West Village looks quaint as all get-out through paned windows. 3. Applewood Sates your Earth Day alter ego with sumptuous organic bites and an atmosphere like a Vermont B ‘n’ B.

4. Dovetail Stealth door, minimal but warm brick and slate brownstone. Seriously sophisticated cooking delivers on all counts. 5. Freeman’s Hunting lodge chic, worth the effort to find, with a meaty menu and perfect lighting.