the grub street diet

Rafael Espinal Toasted Biden’s Win With Some Bourbon

“It was sweet and spicy and had the right amount of kick for the occasion.”

Rafael Espinal and his dim sum. Illustration: Margalit Cutler
Rafael Espinal and his dim sum. Illustration: Margalit Cutler

Like everyone else, the politician and union leader Rafael Espinal spent the past week anxiously consuming news about the election. Now the executive director of the Freelancers Union, Espinal was, until February, a New York City Council member and is responsible for repealing the discriminatory Cabaret Law, creating the Office of Nightlife, and introducing legislation to reduce food waste. On Saturday, when major networks called Donald Trump’s election loss, he went out to celebrate like many other New Yorkers — but the day also gave him a sense of longing, he says, for when people could gather in bars, restaurants, and clubs. I was thinking about this on Saturday night, that it would have been very possible that I would’ve been at a bar until 4 a.m., whether it’d be out dancing or having drinks,” he says. At home, he makes Neapolitan-style pizza every week but also makes a point to go out and get food from restaurants, supporting people in the industry. 

Friday, November 6
I woke up at 6:30 a.m. tired and riddled with anxiety. I was up till midnight hoping that the millionth “Key Race Alert” from Wolf Blitzer would be the one that announced Joe Biden won the race. The last four years have been terrible for humanity, and I couldn’t wait for it to be over, but I also reflected on the silver lining — and that’s the purpose it gave a lot of us to improve society through our own actions.

I started the day by drinking 16 ounces of New York City tap water to hydrate, something I do every morning and a simple way to start your body off right. Something I always think about is how lucky I am to turn on a faucet and get really good, clean water. I try not to take our water for granted, given how children in Flint, Michigan, are suffering from the effects of lead poisoning because of contaminated drinking water and the droughts that occur on the West Coast.

By 8 a.m., Biden was ahead in Pennsylvania and Georgia. I’ve been working from home the entire pandemic, so I kept the news on while I cleaned out my work email. I later had a leftover slice of pizza that I made the night before. I topped it with arugula and fresh cracked pepper and paired it with a hot cup of coffee.

Like in many working-class immigrant communities across the city and country, it’s nearly impossible to get a nutritional breakfast or fresh food in my neighborhood of Cypress Hills. During the height of quarantine, I remember the lines wrapped about the block for groceries. I always have to make a conscious effort to do a week’s worth of grocery shopping when I’m out of the neighborhood, otherwise I won’t be able to enjoy quality ingredients — from something as trivial as oat milk to important staples like vegetables and produce. Food justice for communities like mine is long overdue.

The rest of the morning, I powered through Zoom meetings. My first call was with a freelance brand designer, Roberta Cajado. Freelancers Union is approaching its 25th anniversary and entering a new chapter as an organization, so we’ve been working on giving the union’s Instagram a face-lift and turning it into a captivating space. Freelancers have been severely impacted by the pandemic, with over 50 percent of our members reporting they’re behind by at least one month’s rent, and over 70 percent reporting that they would benefit from food relief. We’re advocating to change that. It felt like Prop 22 passing in California was a fluke, given the amount of money that was put in by corporations. We’re reading a lot about it, though, and meeting with organizations here that are concerned about similar legislation being drafted in New York.

Come lunchtime, I was still full from breakfast, so I took the time to get a quick haircut from my barber, Greg Purnell. He runs the Golden Ratio Project, a DIY space in Broadway Junction. His walls are decorated in Brooklyn- and African-inspired art that he makes from plywood. He’s had to rely solely on his clients as a barber to keep the space open during the pandemic. When I walked in, I noticed an open bottle of bourbon and realized there was a quiet celebration happening. I poured myself a sip. Why not? With Biden in the lead, we were feeling hopeful. Bourbon’s also my favorite spirit. I love its golden caramel color, the hints of maple at the nose, and the slight sweetness that sits on your tongue. Talking with Greg is always a reminder that, no matter who’s the next president, our issues are going to take more than a president to resolve them.

There are still a lot of societal issues that will continue to exist. They were there pre-Trump, and they’re going to continue being there post-Trump. And while I would say that some of the silver lining of the past four years is that it has woken up a lot of people, I think it’s important to continue pushing any candidate, whether local or in the White House, to put forward real forward-thinking policy proposals to break down the systematic issues that have hurt and marginalized communities of color and lower-income families.

By dinnertime, not much had changed. Biden’s lead slightly grew. I went out to Williamsburg and met with my good friend Tarik Coles, a talented political operator and former freelancer. So we connect on many levels. We were both relieved to get off the 24-hour news cycle and agreed not to talk about presidential politics, so we pivoted to NYC’s 2021 elections instead and the Freelancers Union’s interest in becoming politically active.

I made a reservation at the recently opened Cozy Royale. I’ve been wanting to check it out for a while after seeing their cocktails and burgers on Instagram. It’s beautifully decorated with a mid-century-modern vibe. I ordered a Bee’s Knees, meticulously served in a coupe, and a cheeseburger with fries.

The restaurant is owned by the guys from the Meat Hook, a butcher shop that invests in farms that practice regenerative farming and humanely raise animals, so it was definitely a good burger. I’ve been reducing my meat consumption, but when I do eat meat, I make sure it’s from small farms with sustainable practices. Corporate, industrial farms have little regard for the environment, their workers, and the animals. When I got home, Biden was still up, and a win felt imminent.

Saturday, November 7
I had coffee for breakfast topped off with oat milk. I’ve completely made the switch from dairy, and oat milk tastes way better than any of the other alternatives.

11:20 a.m.: It was officially over. Biden clinched the presidency. I was home on my couch watching everyone celebrating on TV. Even though Biden won Cypress Hills and East New York with the largest margins in Brooklyn, our streets were very quiet. I was a bit saddened because I couldn’t celebrate like the rest of Brooklyn. But it also was a very, I think, stark realization that people in my community, because of the decades of disinvestment and years of broken promises from candidates, still feel a little jaded by the political process and whether or not change in the White House will turn into change at home. Maybe everyone was tired, or maybe they were just indifferent — either way, I reached for Four Roses, a single-barrel bourbon I have for special occasions, and poured a glass. It was sweet and spicy and had the right amount of kick for the occasion.

With pizza dough that I made a few days before sitting in the refrigerator, I decided to fire up my tiny wood-fired pizza oven and make a brunch pie. I stretched out the dough and topped it with Frankies 457 olive oil, Lioni’s fresh mozzarella, guanciale, and whisked organic egg from the farmers’ market. Or, as we New Yorkers like to call it, a bacon, egg, and cheese pizza.

The end of the Trump presidency was a huge relief. Years of reacting and pushing back on draconian policies have weighed on me like many Americans. I wanted to hit the streets and celebrate, but I first took the longest and most comforting nap in years.

After, I went to Williamsburg, where I knew there’ll be more people out on the streets and at the bars, to my own personal watering hole, Zablozki’s. It’s a bar I’ve been going to since I turned 21, and it was actually the bar I was at when Obama won in ’08.

Contra for my girlfriend’s birthday. One of the most affordable tasting menus. Dessert was the highlight. There was a doughnut that was served with a side of fluffy, cloudy sorbet. I took the donut and dipped it into the sorbet, and the flavors really came together well. We celebrated Biden’s win. Four years prior, we were at the Javits Center for her birthday, only to see Hillary lose.

It was my first time at the restaurant, but you can tell that the vibe wasn’t the same as it would’ve been pre-pandemic. A lot of empty seats. A lot of separation between tables. And, because of the virus, less interaction with the waiters who are there working — and putting their own health at risk to be in there, unfortunately.

Every weekend, I make it a point to go to a restaurant at least once or twice. I want to support the industry and the workers. And I think it’s important that when anyone goes out, they tip more than the usual 20 percent. People in the service industry have been hurting really badly.

I’m making that point to spend my dollars at these places when I can. There is no relief made available or accessible for the people in the industry to rely on, to stay home. I think it’s important for anyone who’s able to eat out as much as they can not only to go out and have a good time but to support people who have to go to work and make money to put food on the table.

We went home after dinner. I was thinking that it would have been very possible that I would’ve been at a bar until 4 a.m. Whether it’d be out dancing or having drinks, soaking in the moment. But because of the fact that places are closing early, and these venues aren’t fully opened, that didn’t happen.

Sunday, November 8
Woke up hungover and had water and coffee all morning.

It was definitely a recovery day. The news kept running stories questioning when Trump will concede and if he would ever admit defeat. I don’t think he is, not at least until he’s repeatedly told that there wasn’t any fraud committed or able to cut a deal with the new administration that will keep him out of jail. His tactics are dangerous. There are people feeling just as angry and disappointed in the results, as most of NYC did four years ago, and he’s pouring gasoline into a fire that he might not be able to control.

My older brother and sister came over to hang out for a bit. It’s not often we all spend time at my place. I still live in the same house we all grew up in, so we reminisced about our teenage years and growing up with our immigrant parents. After our mom passed eight years ago, it’s been very rare for us to share a Dominican meal together, so I was happy when my brother suggested we order food from our aunt’s restaurant, Tavares Restaurant, in Cypress Hills. We got rice, beans, yellow plantains, and carne guisada (stewed beef) with Presidente beers. I like to pour the seasoned beans over a bowl of white rice and top it off with the rich, sweet gravy of the beef stew. If you’re able to get the perfect spoonful of the rice, sauce, and yellow plantains, you’ll taste Dominican perfection. For me, it’s nostalgia in a bite.

We grew up in a low-income, working-class immigrant household. The only wealth we had was my parents’ love and a house they were able to buy in the ’80s in one of the most disinvested communities in New York City. My father was frugal, and my mom didn’t have much to spend, so I was never the kid with the newest sneakers or video games or got to spend a lot of time doing activities outside of the city. My weekends were spent either helping my parents with their side gigs — my dad was an event photographer and my mother, a baker — to earn extra income to pay the bills or sitting in my grandparents’ rent-stabilized apartment in Washington Heights.

At the time, I hated it, but looking back it was a valuable experience. I can say that we never went hungry, and food was thankfully plentiful. We ate rice and beans at least four days a week, which is now a reminder of a time when life was simpler — no internet, no 24-hour news cycles, psycho presidents, or a sense of impending doom.

Monday, November 9
I simply had coffee and water for breakfast. I ate a lot of meat and had too many drinks on Sunday, so I kept breakfast clean and light to give my body a rest.

I had enough leftovers from the Dominican food we ordered the night before, so we used it to whip up lunch and dinner.

After lunch, I pulled my sourdough starter out of my refrigerator to make pizza and fed it. I always was confused about the concept of “feeding your starter.” Never understood what that meant until I learned that it’s simply just adding more water and flour to it to give the bacteria more sugars and proteins to eat. After feeding it, I left it on my kitchen counter for it to rise.

I’ve been a big pizza fanatic for a long time. I remember the first time I saw my mom make pizza. I was really taken aback by the fact that someone could make a pizza pie at home. I remember just feeling like it was magic as a child. And then, also, I guess, the love behind it, for my mom to take the time and make a dish for the kids that she knew we would enjoy. So it was something that always stuck with me. As I got older, I found myself eating pizza at least three or four times a week, and I knew it was something I was very passionate about. I thought to myself, Why not learn how to do it from scratch at home? So I spent the past four years making pizza at home. The pandemic really gave me the time to hone in on that, and I put a lot of time and effort in perfecting my technique and my recipe. I’ve gotten to a point where I feel comfortable enough that if someday I decided to open up a pizza shop, I’ll know it’ll do well.

For dinner, my girlfriend used the leftover rice and pork to make a pork fried rice, glazed with sesame oil and soy sauce and topped off with scallions. It was pretty tasty and a good use of the leftovers.

I don’t like to waste food. I’m really passionate about reducing waste. It’s a habit I recently realized I picked up from my father when I once saw him scrape every last drop of food in the kitchen into a reusable bowl for him to have for lunch the next day.

Before bed, I took an hour to make the pizza dough. The starter was active and bubbling. It was ready to be used. I made four doughs for the week.

I read in the news that Trump told his close advisers that he was considering running again in 2024.

Tuesday, November 10
Breakfast was coffee and almond butter and jelly on an English muffin. I usually have Thomas’.

For lunch, I made a shake with berry, banana, almond butter, and oat milk. I’ll have this a few times a week for either breakfast or lunch.

The last week was not really how I usually eat. It was a celebration, while also being glued to my TV, while also trying to make free time to take my girlfriend out to dinner and meet with other political friends who were dying to get out of the house. This is what I usually eat throughout the week so I can have the leeway to eat as much as I do.

Dinner was sourdough pizza made in my backyard wood-fired pizza oven. I got that as a gift from my older brother about two and a half years ago. It’s very small because it was built for consumers with small yards.

I made a margherita and a green pie. I pour some of the olive oil over the dough, drop a few pieces of mozzarella and then I bake it. And after I bake it, I top it off with any sort of greens that I might have in the refrigerator. It could be arugula; it could be spinach. And I drizzle it with some olive oil, some lemon juice, and some sea salt at the end.

Back on the news, more Republicans get behind Trump, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claiming there was voter fraud and there will be a smooth transition into a second Trump administration. That was a weird moment, yeah. I mean, they’re not going to go down without a fight. And it’s pretty obvious that they are posturing to win the Georgia election in January — or those themselves who are getting behind Trump, as a path to climbing the political ladder, when it becomes time for them to run for a higher office or for reelection.

More Grub Street Diets

See All
Rafael Espinal’s Grub Street Diet