Sunday, February 04, 2007
There was a biting wind on Saturday morning as we walked up Fifth Avenue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. My face was numb, eyes watering despite the wool hat and thick burgundy scarf wrapped around my neck. My mom and her boyfriend Charley were visiting for the weekend and when we decided to meander our way up to the Neue Galerie on foot, we had not bargained on the wind-tunnel created by the tree-lined expanse of Central Park to our left. I was in the process of fighting off a head-cold and spent a good deal of the walk distracted by the tickling of impending sneezes, failing at all attempts to wiggle the hunk of ice previously known as my nose.
When we stepped into the Neue Galerie—a distinguished building on the corner of 86th and 5th—the toasty warmth immediately fogged up my glasses and I was blind on top of numb, wondering why I had ever wished for winter to come more quickly. But when my vision cleared and feeling beginning to re-enter my appendages, I found myself in a delightful little museum—soft light and wrought iron railings on the stone staircase.
The Neue Galerie garnered attention recently when Ronald S. Lauder (ardent collector and son of cosmetics mogul Estee Lauder) paid a record sum ($135 million) to buy Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I for the museum (his museum; he bought it in 1994). I had never been there before but have always loved Klimt’s work, and so in planning my mom and Charley’s visit, it was first on my (long, ambitious) list of places to go, amidst the (long, ambitious) list of art to see.
Klimt, a Viennese artist from the early 1900’s, is known for his many paintings and portraits of women – graceful, exotic women painted with both an elegant whimsy and romance – with elements of myth and classics, often eroticism. And Adele Bloch-Bauer is beautiful. I stood in front of the portrait, located in a small room with dark wood walls while people with audio guides clasped to their ears moved quietly around me. Her face is smooth and expressive; her hair is dark, eyes piercing. She is swathed in a long patterned gown, melting down the canvas studded in sparkling gold and colorful shapes.
Standing there I suddenly remembered a postcard I used to have taped to the wall near the desk in my childhood bedroom. It was another Klimt image, one that I had not thought about in a long time. In Lady with Hat and Feather Boa a woman with flamboyant curly hair and pale skin gazes demurely out from under a black fur hat, a dark scarf wrapped around her neck. She looked to me like she was going somewhere; the tilt of her eyes implied she was perhaps hiding something. I liked that, I remember, because I often wanted to be going somewhere myself, wishing I had something to hide behind my own eyes. And so I taped her up on the wall; I liked to think that she was watching me.
Lost in my thoughts, I jumped when my mom tapped me on the shoulder.
“Should we find a place for lunch next?” she asked with a playful little smile. “You’re in charge, Ms. Tour Guide.”
“Sure,” I said. Wracking my brain for nearby restaurants, not very familiar with the restaurants in the ‘Museum Mile’ where we were; I was annoyed (and surprised) with myself that I had not already planned where we were going to eat.
But then it came to me: the sound of clinking china as we had entered the museum, a warm food-smell (yes, I can smell cooking food from a distance!), and something that had piqued my curiosity when I read a little while ago suddenly emerged from a forgotten recess in my brain. There is a place to eat right in the Neue Galerie – Café Sabarsky, a Viennese café right standing under our feet.
We sat at a small, marble-topped table in the corner of the bright dining room. A piano stood off to the side, smartly-dressed waiters with white aprons tied around their wastes carried shiny trays holding steaming cups of coffee, a tall glass cabinet behind me held dark cakes and light strudels.
“They have sausage!” said Charley with an almost boyish delight, looking at the menu in front of him. “This is so exciting. I love German-Austrian food like this; it’s the best!” He immediately launched into an impassioned attempt to persuade my mom to order a sausage dish as well… “so I can taste more than one!” he pleaded. She was not to be convinced, however.
My mom’s family is from Denmark and she grew up loving foods and certain familiar tastes that are relatively foreign to me now. But for her, they immediately bring back memories of her father (whom I never met, but have heard much about his passion for the kitchen – a love of food is genetic, perhaps?). Pickled herring is one. It had been a while, but always a favorite flavor. After all, she told me in a confiding tone, when she lived in New York City in her late-twenties, she subsisted on only three food groups: pickled herring, cherry vanilla yogurt, and ring-dings. This confession left me shocked into momentary silence (not all food preferences are genetic, I hope?).
But my mom let Charley enjoy his pale-white Bavarian sausage with potato salad on his own, while she ordered an open faced Matjes Herring sandwich with egg, apple, and topped with thin slices of red onion.
“This is my father,” she said, multiple times, smiling as she ate. “It reminds me so much of him…”
“This reminds me of my father, too,” said Charley, gesturing at the unadorned sausages on his plate. My mom started giggling, raising her eyebrows. She's a psychoanalyst; Charley rolled his eyes. “Oh and what would your colleagues have to say about that?” he asked, laughing. I put my hands over my eyes and groaned, lamenting the sense of humor brought out with a bottle of lunch-time red wine and the insuing conversation about certain elements of Viennese cuisine.
I concentrated on my food: a squash soup – thick and vibrantly orange, topped with the crunch of green toasted pumpkin seeds – and a beautiful salad with greens, cornichons and radishes, dressed with a pumpkinseed oil vinaigrette. Charley’s chestnut soup “Viennese Melange” with Armagnac prunes was rich and sweetly nutty.
For dessert we had a Sachertorte and three forks. The sweet, dark chocolate cake with apricot confiture is a classic Viennese dessert and came with a puffy cloud of whipped cream.
We left full, warm, and a little bit tipsy. It was the perfect state to be in on a beautiful weekend afternoon in New York. Art and food each have the ability to bring back such strong sensory memories; I love experiences when they combine. And after ours, we were ready to face the cold and continue on our artistic expedition.