The Brooklyn Brainery

Preview the course catalog of Kings County's newest offbeat school. Screw calculus and basket-weaving-here, you can distill perfumes and learn about the art of making fake meat.

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Illustration: Paul Mccreery

After earning her B.A. in 2006, Jennifer Messier, 25, was feeling intellectually anemic. “When you get out of college—if you’re not going to grad school—it’s a lot harder to force yourself to learn new things,” says Messier, who works in the Development Office at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Fortunately, she found a fellow postgrad education junkie in her boyfriend’s roommate, freelance Web developer Jonathan Soma, 26. Together, the two tried welding classes at 3rd Ward, surfing lessons in the Rockaways, and a bevy of boozy book clubs, but every time, they emerged short on cash and wishing they’d experienced more. The pivotal moment came when Soma was denied entry into a graduate-level perfume class at the Fashion Institute of Technology that would have cost him about $1,500. “I started looking things up online, and I thought, Hey, I could probably teach myself a lot of this,?” he says. “Then I thought, Hey, I have terrible follow-through, so maybe I should do it in a group.” That’s how Soma and Messier’s Brooklyn Brainery was born. The duo both refer to the concept as a “book club on steroids,” in which a small group of people tackle the learning process collaboratively, sharing information in a four-week series for just $25. Messier and Soma provide course materials and some loose structure, but classes at the Brainery are designed for your enjoyment—you’re not going to be lectured. “We won’t be up there droning on in monotone,” Soma says, adding, “A lot of people who do community-based, low-cost learning are living in a commune or have some antiestablishment ideology. We just wanted to take some classes, learn some stuff and not lose 300 bucks doing it.” Check out our breakdown of the Brooklyn Brainery’s inaugural semester, which runs from Monday 18 through February 10.

The class:

Meat! (MEAT266)


The schedule: Mondays 7--8:30pm (January 18, 25; February 1, 8)
Suggested reading: The River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall; Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn; “Meat,” Wikipedia
Last month, Soma stood in the meat aisle of his grocery store, scanned the racks of steaks and realized he didn’t know the difference between strip and sirloin. A foray into the archives of Cooks Illustrated sparked his interest in the complexity of cuts, animal-rearing ethics and their effects on flavor. “There was so much information. I was like, Man, I haven’t even gotten to the part where I learn how to cook it!” he says. Soma hopes the class will shine light on these distinctions, while discussing at-home experiments with cooking techniques and qualities of beef. He’s also looking forward to talking about the art of creating fake meat like tofu buffalo wings, as well as dried meat and jerky. Nomadic tribes once made the latter by strapping strips of animal flesh to their saddles before long, cold-weather rides, but more modern techniques involve a fan and a lightbulb. Though the class is carnivore-focused, Soma and Messier emphasize that vegetarians will have just as much to learn. According to the class syllabus, “This is all about theory. We aren’t going to sit around in class watching a man push ground meat into sausage casings.”

The class:

Optical Collusion (OPT000)


The schedule: Mondays 8:30--10pm (January 18, 25; February 1, 8)
Suggested reading: How to Make a Telescope by Jean Texereau, A Natural History of Seeing by Simon Ings, Parallax by Alan W. Hirshfeld
Optical Collusion is for the curious—those who’ve always wanted to disassemble a DVD burner to make a fire-starting laser toy, or as Soma puts it, create “lamps slash light sculptures, which I guess is what you call a lamp that doesn’t work that well as a lamp...” He explains, “It’s not going to be an electronics class; it’s going to be more about making fun things with stuff we interact with on a daily basis.” The coup de grce, however, comes courtesy of Ben Cohen, the director of the Gowanus Studio Space, who mentioned to Soma that he’d always wanted to make his own telescope and grind down the mirror himself. “We thought, Why don’t we just have a class where we do that?”

The class:

Looking at Things (LK213)


The schedule: Wednesdays 7--8:30pm (January 20, 27; February 3, 10)
Suggested reading: Ways of Seeing by John Berger, Learning from Las Vegas by Robert Venturi, A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia and Lee McAlester, The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe
If the beauty of, well, everything leaves you at a loss for words, this class will help you find a means of expression. Messier, who majored in art history at Williams College, has cultivated a burly vocabulary to describe shape, line, texture and color. “You won’t have to sound like an idiot the next time you try to describe a painting that you like,” Soma says. Messier plans to bring in PowerPoint presentations and printouts of new buildings (including the Museum of Modern Art), Gregory Crewdson photographs, Edward Hopper paintings and Kara Walker silhouettes. She also encourages students to share their emotional reactions and analyses of each piece. “The basic idea is to encourage people to trust their eyes and talk about the things they see,” Messier says.

The class:

Scents & Sensibility (SCT133)


The schedule: Wednesdays 8:30--10pm (January 20, 27; February 3, 10)
Suggested reading: The Secret of Scent by Luca Turin, Perfume by Patrick Suskind, Maki Ueda’s scent-lab.blogspot.com
“On top of the fact that you can distill scents from anything,” says Soma, “you get to use really wicked equipment, glass beakers, burners and squiggly tubes.” The class will experiment with different techniques, like enfleurage, a method of solvent extraction in which pieces of fat are used to absorb fragrance. You’ll foray into the world of molecular gastronomy, exploring the ways complementary compounds make for oddball food pairings, like mackerel and Venezuelan chocolate. Scents & Sensibility will also delve into the history of perfume and explore whether certain fragrances do, in fact, result in the steamy, bodice-ripping scenarios shown in Axe commercials.

TOO COOL FOR SCHOOL! The Brooklyn Brainery: Gowanus Studio Space, 166 7th St between Second and Third Aves, Gowanus, Brooklyn (register and view a course catalog at brooklynbrainery.com, no advance registration necessary). Mon 18--Feb 10; various times, $25 per class.

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