The statue of Balzac that looms in the front hallway of the museum is an old friend. He is larger than life, a study of thick ridges and cavities. Leaning slightly back, his craggy dark head faces upwards, looking beyond the museumgoers that pass below. Swathed in a robe of cast bronze, his dynamic presence lacks detail but makes up for it with a raw sense of movement. Haughty and thoughtful, he oozes what I have always considered a sensual intellectualism. If it’s possible to have a friend-crush on a hunk of inanimate material, well, then I do.
There is a lot of art – art that I have loved my whole life, art that I concentrated on while studying it in college – that is just so familiar, so often viewed, and so engrained into my visual memory that even their basic color palettes are comforting. Some of it resides in MoMA, much of it does not. Monet’s windblown haystacks… a seductively lounging Tahitian woman of Gauguin’s… a few frank portraits that Cezanne did of his wife… the pointed, mechanical brush-dots of Seurat… a certain Filippino Lippi painting in front of which I spent hours while living in Florence. Auguste Rodin’s Monument to Balzac.
At the museum Jon and I circled around the bronze Balzac for a few minutes; I wanted to say hello. We walked up through the special exhibitions and briefly visited some Warhol, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg. It was a short visit, but intimate all the same – like catching up with an old friend over a good cup of coffee.
Afterwards, when hunger and exhaustion pushed us far from any sort of abstract expression, Jon and I emerged from the F train a good ways downtown. It was pouring; I had no umbrella. With my scarf wrapped (a bit grumpily, I’ll admit) around my head, we quickly walked up 2nd Avenue until we arrived at our destination. We landed ourselves at Veselka, Manhattan’s bastion of Ukranian food, and a restaurant that we had been talking about going for a long time. Veselka, after all, is known for its borscht. And for two people who have been known to roast multiple batches of beets on days of searing 90 degree heat in an apartment with no air conditioning, good borscht is something in which to invest some quality time.
We sat at a rickety little table by the window and soon had large bottles of the local (and by local I mean Ukranian) Obolon beer in our hands. When the steaming bowl of vibrant purple soup was plunked down in front of me I shed the last vestiges of my frizzy-haired bad mood. It was thick, rich, and hot – filled with that sweet, earthy beet flavor. A familiar, favorite taste, done right.
In addition, there were the seasonal pumpkin and farmer’s cheese pierogis, Jon’s of hearty ‘Bigos’ stew – consisting mainly of meat (a mixture of kielbasa and pork) with some sauerkraut and onions thrown in the mix (“a substantial meal, fit for a hunter,” the menu said) – and an oozingly sweet apple crumble. The pierogis were a bit bland and the stew a bit too hunter-esque for my taste. But the dessert hit the post-borscht spot just right. In general, everything from the food to the service was homey, low-key and warming.
It was a comforting, familiar evening of art – both fine and culinary. And sitting at the table in the brightly lit corner of Veselka, listening to the rain come sloughing down outside, it seemed fitting when a large, older man stepped into the restaurant, a thick book tucked under his right arm. Swathed in a flowing red robe, his long gray mustache and beard cascaded down the front of his chiseled face. He peered around the room –a haughty yet noble gaze – and I could see a light of recognition when his eyes landed on Jon and me. He moved slowly towards our table, ignoring the raised eyebrows of pink-haired hipsters as they conspicuously judged his outfit. Sitting heavily down at the empty seat to my right the man sighed gruffly, brushing the rain drops off of his shoulder. He glanced haphazardly at the menu and then turned around to catch the eye of our waitress as she walked past. Flipping open her notepad, pen poised, she asked, “What can I get ya?”
And in a stilted, thick French accent, my friend Balzac said, “I’ll have the borscht, please.”