Please don’t treat this as some sort of “bizarre foods” gross-out post. The “head” in tacos de cabeza doesn’t stare back at you or anything like that. It’s nothing more than shreds of meat painstakingly removed from the head of a roasted animal, then steamed to melting tenderness.
Nothing more, but also nothing less; while I normally go for strong flavors and crunch and char, I’ve come to appreciate the unadorned, unctuous meatiness of cabeza. It’s my go-to order from the Tacos El Bronco truck stationed on Fifth Av between 37th and 38th streets, across from the Jackie Gleason Bus Depot in Sunset Park. Taking advantage of a thaw in the weather and (mostly) clear sidewalks, that’s where I went for lunch today.
I ran to and around Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood twice last week: once on a long-shot quest for Snowy Owls (they’ve been showing up in all kinds of unlikely places this year, so why not a warehouse roof somewhere in Red Hook?), once to get sandwiches from Defonte’s. It was on the first run, which meandered through likely unlikely Snowy Owl habitat and yielded no owls, but an inordinate number of Fish Crows, that I saw these cool examples of poster art.
The amorous skeletons at the top of this post were pasted on an expanse of brick wall on one of the quiet streets leading west from Van Brunt toward the waterfront – Van Dyke, maybe? (I made a mental note to remember the location, then promptly forgot it.) They shared the wall with this tagged-over jaguar by the same artist(s) . . .
. . . and this delicate plant, in a very different style.
And finally, not art, but a reminder of how long it had been since my last Red Hook run . . . and how fast the neighborhood is changing; I’m pretty sure this Potemkin building had four walls the last time I was on Coffey St.
It was long past embarrassing – approaching shameful – to have lived in Brooklyn for the better part of a decade without once crossing the threshold of Defonte’s Sandwich Shop. I have no excuse: not ignorance (Defonte’s was a favorite of the old Outer Boroughs Chowhound board, which I used to read avidly); not convenience (it’s a bit out of the way, but I run and bike close by often enough); not lack of hunger (obviously).
It’s time – past time, honestly, but who among us isn’t mired in the deep lethargy of another pandemic winter? – for a look back at the last year in birds. It was a great year for them. Northern finches descended on Brooklyn in abundance, for reasons I won’t go into here, but which folks who study such things will cheerfully explain if you’re at all interested, or even if you aren’t. So, for reasons no one has been able to explain to me, did seagoing ducks. Plus the usual suspects, and a few breathtakingly unusual ones. Above all, with human time either frozen or stuck on repeat, the progress of the avian calendar – migration, courtship, babies, migration again – was reassuringly normal. It’s OK, the birds seemed to be saying. You’ll get through this.
Burros – along with their diminutive (at least in name) cousins, burritos – have always struck me as problematic. They’re invariably overstuffed, often grotesquely so. When they’re not dry, they’re drowning in goopy sauce and (horrors) cheese. Worst of all is the dreaded burrito fold, confronting the eater with double or triple or quadruple layers of gummy flour tortilla.
But Eric and I are in Tucson this week, and Tucson is the land of flour tortillas, where chimichangas were born and burros reign supreme. As the saying goes: when in Rome, do as the Sonorenses do.
It started with a quest to see a bird; it ended with a search for a different bird, and a takeout container of tacos on the F train.
But I’m getting ahead of the story. When I left the apartment early this morning, headed for the R train, I had visions of glory. That Sandhill Crane that’s been reported several times at the Dyker Beach Golf Course, always vanishing before others could lay eyes on it? I would find it. Maybe I’d even manage to document it with my handy iPhone camera.
Ha! You know who gets up even earlier than birders (or at least this birder)? Golfers, that’s who. By the time I had surfaced at 86th St and jogged west to the golf course, multiple foursomes were already well into their games. The idea that a freakishly large, long-legged bird would still be out there grazing in the short grass began to seem a bit farfetched.
I’ve been to the small Sunset Park bakery called La Flor de Izucar before; I’ve even blogged about it. But when I heard they were serving birria, and that their birria was good, I had to pay them a return visit. In the interest of research, I stopped by a few weeks ago and confirmed that their birria quesadillas were both excellent and enormous. “I should come here with Eric,” I thought at the time. Today, I did.
We mounted CitiBikes and then pedaled our way south, dodging delivery trucks and double-parked cars on Fifth Avenue, sucking in lungfuls of smoke-fouled air (western wildfires continue to be felt here on the east coast), and generally risking dehydration and heat exhaustion under a relentless sun. Once my mind is set on birria, I will not be denied.
50 Favorite Places #28 Shirley Chisholm is a new state park, opened in the summer of 2019 and named after the pioneering Brooklynite who represented central Brooklyn in Congress from 1969 to 1983. It’s located on the far eastern edge of the borough, just off the Belt Parkway, where East New York butts up against Howard Beach.
From 1956 to 1985, the site was a pair of working landfills. As the Starrett City housing complex rose, so did the landfill piles across the Belt Parkway from it. The landfills blocked not just waterfront access, but even waterfront views, for residents of the waterfront neighborhood. Take it as a sign of the disregard the city has historically shown its 520 miles of coastline (fun fact: NYC has more coastline than Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston combined), and its scornful attitude toward residents of modest means. (You can find an excellent history of the site here.)
By the time I started birding and running Brooklyn’s coastal edge, the area’s reclamation was well underway – the formerly stinking mounds were covered with grass – but it was closed tight. Ominous signs warned away trespassers, while increasingly tattered banners promised a park was coming.
50 Favorite Places #27 The Verrazzano Narrows Bridge – the second Z was added in 2018, about which more below – has connected Brooklyn and Staten Island since 1964. It’s a massive span. Until 1981, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world; it’s still the longest in the Americas. You can see it from much of Brooklyn and Staten Island, catching glimpses while walking or driving or riding the train. You can see it from Manhattan. You can see it across Jamaica Bay in Queens. And if you pick the right vantage point and maybe crane your neck a bit, you can see it from the Bronx, too. (I have not personally done this, but according to the nyfacts.com site, it’s possible.) Another fun fact from the same site: the bridge’s length required its designer to compensate for the earth’s curvature by making its two towers 1 5/8 inches farther apart at their tops than their bases. I’m sure an engineer will soon come along to say that’s not in fact unusual, but it sure sounds impressive to me.
This has become an annual post. In an ordinary year, it’s a nice way to remember where and with whom I saw which birds, and to try to explain why that particular bird, in those particular circumstances, warrants “bird of the month” honors.
Of course, 2020 was not an ordinary year. Most of my birding was done within a 5-mile radius of my Brooklyn home. Despite that constraint, or perhaps because of it, I birded even more obsessively than usual. By late November, I’d already seen more species in Brooklyn than I’d ever managed before.
This was also the year when scores, maybe hundreds, of Brooklynites took up birding for the first time. It was fun seeing them in Prospect Park (at first) and then (as we all started feeling safer traveling a bit farther afield) in places like Fort Tilden, Jamaica Bay and Plumb Beach. Their enthusiasm was a welcome reminder of just how purely, stupidly joyful the pursuit and observation of birds can be.
A year’s worth of idiosyncratically-chosen birds follows. A few were rarities, some of them lifers. Others were birds I see every year, but that took on new meaning in 2020.