Sunday, November 18, 2018

An Abundant Life - A Voice For The People

I met the actor, writer and world traveler Chris Brandt at an alumni event for Sarah Lawrence College. We did not graduate in the same year, and were not on campus at the same time, but there is something about the people who go to Sarah Lawrence or are a part of its campus and faculty that knits us together no matter how many years of difference may separate us. The event we attended was something called "Faculty On The Road," and the discussion that evening was political in nature. What I didn't know then, but began to discover as Chris and I sat down recently to talk for this blog post, is that he began his well traveled and diverse theater career, in his own words, "by way of politics." Traveling to Germany in the years during the Viet Nam War, he fell into the way of people who were creating theater pieces as a way of educating the communities they lived in about issues around politics and social justice. Realizing that not only did he have an affinity to working in this area but that he was also very good at it, he continued to connect with groups he met during his travels, eventually coming back to the United States and New York City and finding a home with the Medicine Show Theatre Ensemble which was founded by Barbara Vann and James Barbosa. Over time as his relationships within the theater company grew stronger and his own practice of his craft enhanced his work, his commitment to the company and the work that they were doing was so great that when the Founders had died and the members of the company wanted to continue, they very naturally approached him to ask him to fill those shoes. At the time, though he was very dedicated, he also knew that he could not fulfill that mission without a team of support, so he made it a condition of his agreement to lead that there needed to be a group of equally committed members who would help carry the torch. And so now three years later the company is still bringing its work into the public sphere, and it was his work with that company that began our conversation when we met at the Sarah Lawrence event.

When I sat down to talk with Chris recently, he had suggested that we meet at Grand Central Station which I thought was a perfect suggestion. In his own way because of the work that he has done with Medicine Show and the well traveled life and myriad adventures he's had, Chris is someone who I would consider an iconic presence, and so to meet with him in a place so full of history that is itself an icon of New York City's presence in the world and in the history of travel made a sort of wonderful sense. We met first under the clock in the Great Hall, and then made our way to the Campbell Apartment which is a favorite hideaway meeting place of mine that I have written about in these pages before. Itself full of history, the Campbell Apartment has a wonderfully comfortable feel to it, a quiet luxury and classic beauty that is also very relaxed. As we sat in our leather backed chairs and banquette and spoke over our craft spirits and cocktails, Chris began to tell me his story, and it was so varied and extensive in information and history that I had to ask him to send me some words of his own to back up the story that I would write. I have a very good memory, but there was so much information and I wanted to make sure that my sharing of it was as accurate as possible because in its own way his history is quite incredible.

Beginning in the fall of 1969, while he was in Freiburg, Germany for his third year of graduate work in  medieval comparative literature at the University of Freiburg, he took a month long trip to Florence, Italy to visit friends. Although his friends warned him not to get involved in the demonstrations and marches, in his own words, "it was too exhilarating a temptation not to." In the brief history he sent me that he plans to continue writing for a book, he goes on to describe, "Besides, these masses of people were marching for the same causes I'd been demonstrating for back in the States - peace and justice, an end to police states and old-white-male domination of the world, freedom from misery and to explore the opportunities of the new spirit." At the suggestion of E.F. Schumacher, who he had met through a friend of his mother's, he describes how he "went to a meeting of a group that was planning a demonstration on the relations of third world economic woes to German well-being," and that when an announcement was made that "anyone interested in street theatre should go to to the auditorium" he joined that discussion. In the story he shared with me, he relates that "I told two anecdotes I'd heard from Schumacher a few weeks earlier. Schumacher's stories were eerie and funny, told dead-pan from the point of view of a well-informed, commonsensical traveler astounded at the stupidity and social contortion that attach to money and ideology." His ideas were immediately accepted, again in his words, "the stories were a hit," and the demonstration created by the group in the guise of street theater was a success.

Having been immersed in this kind of street theater experience, when he arrived back in the United States and discovered Medicine Show, the rest as they say is history. Continuing his education at Sarah Lawrence College through a Shubert Playwriting Fellowship and gaining a Master of Fine Arts in Theatre with an emphasis on dramatic writing in 1972, he went on to teach and perform and encourage students and actors and writers through a variety of programs and initiatives to be socially and politically aware and to use their voices for peace and justice and the common good. In addition to his work in theater and as a teacher and mentor, he is among other things a carpenter and furniture designer and builder, a Master cabinet maker, a translator of Cuban poetry, and a widely published poet, essayist, translator and contributor to bi-lingual editions of the works of Latin American writers.

There is so much to the story of who Chris Brandt is that I would need the space and breadth of a book to write about him fully. Now that I've had the opportunity to sit down and speak with him and to read some of what he has written about his history, I'm looking forward to reading his book when he finishes it, and to continuing the conversation we began at our first meeting. It's a rare person who has such an amazing story to tell who can tell it in such an entertaining way while still remaining humble. As an artist who uses his craft for the betterment of the world, his voice is a voice for the people.

Chris Brandt
At The Campbell Apartment
Grand Central Station
New York City



Jannie Susan

Sunday, November 11, 2018

An Abundant Life - New York Classic

When my father was a young man, the thing to do if you lived in Westchester County and were going to college at Yale was to stop off at The Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant on your way to or from New York City and one place or the other. I'm not sure if it was his father who had first taken him there or if it was one of his uncles, perhaps Uncle Howard, who was my great uncle and whose name graces the title pages of Modern Library Edition books as the bookbinder. My father was given his middle name after Uncle Howard, so perhaps it was that uncle or another one of the literary types or other entrepreneurial businessmen in the family who learned that the best way to get from one place to the other when traveling by railroad was to have something delicious to look forward to on the way.

The way I learned from my father, and what he also taught my mother who shared many adventures with me, was that though the Oyster Bar does have wonderful places to sit at regular tables in the dining rooms the place to make a bee line to was the actual oyster bar itself, not a bar in the sense of a place where the alcohol was stored, though you could always order a beer or a martini, but the place where generations of men shucked oysters and clams all day long to serve on the half shell, with shrimp cocktail, or made into a stew. And the thing to do once you'd found a seat at the oyster bar was to look up on the menu hanging above the men shucking oysters and choose a pan roast made of oysters or clams. My father's favorite was clam pan roast, and he loved it so much that he got the recipe for it from one of the men who makes it on the spot there to order. As you sit at the bar you can watch them prepare it after your order is called out and started, as a catch and receive sort of business that is almost impossible to understand as you wonder how they keep everything so straight and running so smoothly with all of the orders they are filling. But fill them they do, and perfectly too, and through the many years of my life that I have been going there I've never been disappointed.

This past week I was meeting a friend at Grand Central who I know through my college - he graduated some years before me and we had met at a gathering of alums. We had scheduled our meeting for 2:30pm near the clock in the central hall, and my earlier meeting had let out much earlier than I expected, so I found myself able to head to the station with time to spare. I could have done anything with my time, but something seemed to be propelling me there, and after I'd arrived and saw that it was only 1:30, I suddenly remembered the Oyster Bar and walked down the passageway to see if I could find a seat at the bar. There was one seat open, in a perfect viewing spot of the shuckers and pan roast preparers, so I sat down and placed my order. I felt a smile from deep in my memory come over me as I heard the order called out and responded to, a slice of white toast put into a large white soup tureen with deep edges, and the specially made steam kettle that is fired and heated from a hidden valve began to heat the seafood and cream that was poured into it. I had ordered a "combination", something that I'd never had before - usually I stick to my father's favorite or occasionally have oysters, but it had been a long time and I thought I'd try something new because I had a feeling that after my long time away I'd be coming back often. As the different pieces of shellfish - oysters, clams, scallops, lobster and shrimp - were heating, the Chef began to add dollops of sweet chili sauce and a splash of Worcestershire, and at just the right moment when everything was reaching the boiling point without boiling, he turned the handle and poured the steaming hot creamy broth into the bowl, covering the toast at the bottom and finishing it off with a good heavy sprinkling of paprika. By this time I had a smile on my face from ear to ear, and when it was placed in front of me I was beaming. With the first taste I knew I had come to the perfect place, where memories meet the senses and warm the heart with the love of living the best life.

While I savored my combination pan roast, and the seats on either side of me began to empty, a man came to sit at the bar and after looking at the regular menu asked me which soup I was having. I explained what it was, pointing up at the hanging list of different types of pan roasts and stews, and said it was a family tradition. He said his father had taken him there too, and his father's father had done the same for his son, and so it seems that the story of generations was continuing. He decided to order a combination pan roast, as much I think from the wonderfully appetizing aroma and the beautiful way it looks in its pristine white bowl as from my enthusiastic recommendation, and as we continued our conversation I learned that he worked in a very special area of real estate that focuses on projects for renewable energy and sustainability. It was not surprising to find such a wonderful conversation at that bar that has held many a wonderful conversation over these many long years, because the Oyster Bar is one of those places where a conversation like that can happen. It's a place where you can meet someone new while waiting to meet someone you know, and in the space of an hour's time, order a pan roast, watch it be prepared, and enjoy it without feeling in a hurry. Within the space of that sixty minutes while the world rushes by, you can take a moment to savor something simply delicious and make a connection with history and the ebb and flow of life.

Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant
Lower Level
Grand Central Terminal
89 East 42nd Street
New York City



Jannie Susan      

Sunday, November 4, 2018

An Abundant Life - C'est Délicieux

In September of 2016, I wrote about a beautiful bakery that brought back delicious memories and started to make new ones, and in the two years since then, its owner and Founder, Clemence Danko has created two more spaces to dream in for foodies who love delicious bakery goods. Choc*O*Pain French Bakery & Cafe had started on First Street in Hoboken, New Jersey, as a dream of Clemence's to bring the true taste of French boulangeries to the streets of the city she now called home. A delicious success, the bakery thrived and Clemence made many friends in the regulars who loved the breads and pastries and sweet and savory treats her Chefs were creating as much as they loved to meet her in the bakery or while she did her errands around town. She is another of these wonderful entrepreneurs who has created something very special that is an extension of her own unique personality and history and taste, but who treats her business as something that she just simply does where the focus is on the people who come in to enjoy their time there. As with other wonderful artists and designers and Chefs and entrepreneurs I have written about in these pages, if you haven't ever met Clemence, you would not know that she is the owner of the bakeries she has created at all - you might think she was a friendly neighborhood person who just happens to be kind enough to bus your table when you are finished enjoying your meal or snack or perhaps a manager of some kind, because she is always careful to stay in the background unless someone needs something that she can be helpful with.

As I wrote in these pages before, the atmosphere in her first location was simply delightful, and she has continued on with the beautiful touches in her newer cafes while allowing each one to be uniquely its own space. In the Tea Building where I met her for some lovely coffee and the sweet and savory tastes of a very special lunch, the space is open and light and airy, embracing its more industrial modern feel while helping visitors to feel at home. With the sweet and lovely floral designs by the lovely Christina Andersen, another local favorite of mine and so many others, and a collaboration with freelance photo stylist and interior designer Siobhan Macdona, Founder of SKM Design, Clemence has created a very special feel that integrates into this space as if it was made for exactly what it is. A room off of the main room has space to work at a table with additional space for children to play, and there is art work on the walls, currently by the local artist Donna L. O'Grady, that adds a gallery dimension and opens up another world of possibility. Starting on November 17th and running through December 24th, the beloved downtown bookstore Little City Books will be adding some of its titles to a shelf space in the main area, as a holiday pop-up shop to bring its special books and childhood adventures to the parents and families who live in the buildings further uptown.

The food in the Tea Building as always wherever Clemence creates her cafes is simply delightful, bringing back memories with textures and tastes and ingredients that remind us of days gone by, family histories, trips abroad and countryside holidays and that make our every day travels a culinary adventure. On the day I visited, I had a perfect Croque Monsieur, something that is nearly impossible to find made in what I consider the real way unless I make it myself, a vegan sandwich with roasted cauliflower and sweet potato that definitely delighted this non-vegan palate, and a chocolate ganache and almond tarte that was a new addition for the Thanksgiving holiday menu and that was so sublimely complimented with my perfect and lovely cappuccino that I said yes to the offer of a cortado to continue the dreamy taste.

Clemence herself is delightful, and if you have a chance to talk to her you'll find a wealth of knowledge and a very big heart. Her focus is on bringing the highest quality of food that is as local and sustainable as possible in a way that is reminiscent of a true French Bakery while having its own very local flavor. I will be writing about her other location that opened in Jersey City Heights in a few weeks, and there as in all of her bakeries and cafes you will find local touches, a community minded spirit, artisanal goods, speciality items, and a comfortable space to learn about the French methods of baking and making healthy choices while visiting with friends or taking a relaxing moment for yourself. With the work of local artists on the walls, seasonal delights to treat your palate, an eye for lovely and comfortable design and a view to the community, well being and health, a visit to Choc*O*Pain is a visit with Clemence, a walk into her memories, her history and her world.

Clemence Danko
At Choc*O*Pain French Bakery & Cafe
1500 Hudson Street, Tea Building
Hoboken, New Jersey


A Croque Monsieur

The Most Delicious Vegan Sandwich

A Decadently Delicious
Chocolate Ganache And Almond Tarte

A Heavenly Bliss Of Cortado

A Space To Work 

To Dream

Or To Play


Jannie Susan