For Adam Gopnik, Breakfast Is the Most Fraught Meal of the Day

By
Gopnik, at Rôtisserie Georgette. Photo: Melissa Hom

Though Adam Gopnik covers a wide range of topics as a staff writer for The New Yorker, an appreciation of food is essential to his work. This week, he debuted his latest book, At the Strangers’ GateArrivals in New York, about his life in the city in the 1980s — a time when he struggled to cook elaborate French meals in his small apartment. He also recently created a musical about a fictional family-run restaurant, and one of his prior books, The Table Comes First, explores the modern-day cultural obsession with food. Gopnik thinks of himself as a chaotic cook, and this week, he managed to get it together to make Icelandic salmon with Christopher Kimball’s minty sauce, stew strawberries and peaches in leftover Pinot Noir, and boil beans in the “old-fashioned Richard Olney emotive technique.” Read all about it in this week’s Grub Street Diet.

Thursday, August 31
Up early — early for me, 7 in the morning. Breakfast manages to be the most fraught meal of the fraught cooking day. I am, I think, a pretty good cook, but a chaotic one, and usually find the culinary day ending with the score, Me: 100, Chaos: 99.

Coffee is easy. My wife, Martha, of Icelandic extraction, insists on the most powerful Ethiopian blend she can find and then pours perhaps half a cup of boiling water over it. It is strong coffee: A spoon placed in the cup sticks straight up. When mankind goes to Mars, Martha’s coffee will fuel the rocket. (Visiting Iceland, a year or so ago, we discovered that everyone in Iceland likes their coffee that way, and like her, they like it like that all day long. I’m convinced there’s a recessive gene knocking around in the Icelanders’ tiny gene pool, limiting their blood circulation and making them self-medicate with caffeine over the centuries.)

The coffee, being practically three-dimensional, is a meal — but what goes with it is always fraught. I am, as I say, a good but chaotic cook, and I am torn between the pleasure of having a cooked breakfast and the chaos usually ensuing when I attempt one at 7 a.m. — which of course is essential to breakfast — i.e., making it in the morning. In Wellfleet, from where we have just returned, and where we have rented the same house for the same three weeks in August for 30 years, the local bakery, reachable by bike, has terrific dense, iced cinnamon buns — though the woman who owns the local bakery seems to delight in disappointing her casual summer customers, practically reveling in the not-infrequent days when the oven shuts down from overuse. (This is a general truth of life, first duly noted by the sociologist Howie Becker: Nurses resent patients, bakers resent buyers, and shepherds doubtless hate sheep, though no more than sheep hate shepherds.) Wellfleet also contains, bizarre as it seems, the best French bakery in America, the PB Boulangerie, where specimens of Cape Man and Cape Woman — drabber and more earnest-looking than their New York equivalents, in beige and gray rather than white, with Bernie stickers on their Volvos — line up for half an hour for a croissant.

Home in New York, though, the idea of waiting in line, so natural on holiday, seems obscene. And so, I end up having a yogurt. A very particular yogurt. I am almost reluctant to announce this, for fear of seeing the thing quickly ruined … but I am obsessed, as my 17-year-old daughter Olivia would say, with White Moustache yogurt, a Brooklyn-based, small-batch artisanal brand — I am almost ashamed to write those words, so entirely characteristic of the moment are they; like “alternate take remastered from the original recording” on vintage jazz reissues — but my God! It is a beautiful yogurt, with the sour-cherry kind being the best. (I sometimes start out new people with their “Kiss” variety, not sure if they’re ready for the sour cherry, or second base, as we think of it.)

Well, I’ve doubtless just ruined it, if it isn’t ruined already. In my new book, about New York in the ’80s, I write — no one under 40 will believe this — that Häagen-Dazs ice cream once supplied the same kind of excitement, was seen as artisanal and experienced as exotic. It supplied a sense of place, too — with a nonsensical Nordic name and a map showing the town in Denmark where it wasn’t actually made on the lid. Then, H.D. was bought by Pillsbury in 1983, and though doubtless ingredient by ingredient the same, has never been the same since. Capital does its work efficiently.

The best breakfast I have ever read about is the breakfast James Bond enjoys at home in his flat in Chelsea in From Russia With Love — a three-minute “brown egg from the country,” thick whole-wheat toast, Tiptree marmalade, Chemex coffee. I have tried to reproduce it, but it is painstaking, and needs a non-chaotic housekeeper. (Bond’s, who did not make the transit to the movies, was called Mae.) James Bond’s breakfasts impressed me far more as an impressionable 10-year-old than his boudoir exploits, which were, so to speak, over, or is that under, my head. (I remember thinking, reading them, that homosexual must mean “at home with sex.”) Taste, as I wrote at tedious length in my book on eating, The Table Comes First, is always a compound emotion, made up of what we read, what we want, and what we taste — moral taste and mouth taste dancing along in life, as James Bond travels.

Our small dog Butterscotch always gets to lick the remainders of the glass yogurt jar and manages to employ an eerie, self-righteous whine before doing it, announcing that it is hers, by right and tradition, when she demands it — canine vocalese being astounding in its variety. She has very distinct sounds to distinguish — “Please! Oh, please can I have that?” from “That’s right here in my contract!” She picks up the cup, runs a safe distance away, and licks it completely, beautifully, impeccably, rapturously clean. I flip open the computer, and the working day begins, hoping only to discover a sentence along the way as clean and well-licked.

Having spent a month cooking nothing but fish for dinner, I decide to reach out all the way to … chicken. And make a sort of spicy Burmese stir-fry for dinner, with my three favorite spices: whole cumin seed, cracked cardamom pods, and fresh ginger. The girls like it, though Olivia watches me skeptically as I cook. “Dad’s a sort of spa-cuisine cook gone rogue,” she points out. “He starts off healthy and then stirs in some little last-minute ingredient, like duck fat or slab bacon.” Too true.

Friday, September 1
Dinner around here begins shortly after breakfast ends. I drive my kids crazy — at the moment, only the younger one is at home; the older one is spending the summer as a bartender in Baltimore, growing wise in the ways of rye and the varieties of ice — by asking them at 7 a.m. what they might want for dinner, chicken or shrimp or what? Fortunately, Olivia has cut short these exasperating dialogues by postponing the decision to the afternoon, when we can stroll over to the Whole Foods on Third Avenue each day together. It’s an occasion for our best talks, one of the strangest truths of life being that intimacy arises when your shared gaze is somewhere else. (My wife says that she did her most intimate talking with her mother in the car, back and forth to school, eyes fixed ahead.) I prefer the Fairway farther over on 86th Street, since we would once go there to taste olive oils, when they used to encourage you to do that, and olive oil’s calories held no terror to her.

Like everyone, I am always torn between the demands of being green and the perils of spending green, and so have the usual mixed emotions about Whole Foods — knowing that it is a largely ersatz and dubious enterprise, eating up small purveyors while purveying small untruths about its foods’ dubious “wholeness.” But it is the only place in our nabe to carry White Moustache yogurt. I am also sold on the evils of farmed salmon, but wild, green salmon is wildly expensive, and though as pure a creature of Alice Waters as walks the earth, I have been wounded at moments by the checkout. But here, Whole Foods has farmed salmon that is $9 a pound and advertised as “responsibly raised.” I am dubious, but then look again and see that it is … Icelandic! And I know that my Icelandic friends are as incapable of telling lies as my own relatives are of … well, my grandfather, who ran a supermarket, used to tell me, “Adam, ‘Dover sole’ covers a multitude of sins.”

So, I make virtuous, sustainable Icelandic salmon with a new bright sauce from the Milk Street cookbook — mint, jalapeños, ginger, and lime loosened with honey and olive oil. And it’s terrific, served alongside a padella of fava beans and (frozen; they’re fine) green peas with tarragon and lemon oil, and then some rice with cardamom and turmeric, a house favorite. It’s delicious. Like every chaotic home cook, I hit like a decent second baseman, about two-and-a-half tries in ten, five so-sos to one really good one. But this was fine, and I got to try out my talking partner Chris Kimball’s new cookbook — we do a sort of free-form podcast twice a month on Milk Street, carried over from his older America’s Test Kitchen, just talking about the philosophy of eating. I wasn’t sure if his late-life conversion to the spicy reaches of high-octane exoticism, after all that Vermont rectitude of his ATK period, wasn’t, well, a conversion of convenience. But the new stuff is, thankfully, really good.

Saturday, September 2
Off to the Greenmarket in Union Square, a place I feel deeply about. Over the last five years or so, I wrote, with the wonderful composer David Shire, a musical that used the Greenmarket as a kind of piazza, called first Table and then The Most Beautiful Room in New York, and we had a lovely monthlong first run of it at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven.

It was about an imaginary restaurant off Union Square, modeled on Peter Hoffman’s Savoy — which did so revolve, though sited in Soho — and the original Chanterelle, with Dad as back of the house, Mom the front. The one certain virtue of the musical, of which I was particularly proud, was that it was all about the work of chefs — completely unlike the spectacle of cooking that goes on, wildly misleadingly, for television. All the real cooks I know never do anything vaguely spectacular, their skill being sublimated into tasks: chopping onions, clearing places, making menus, foraging at 5 a.m. at the Greenmarket — as against the fold-and-flambé clichés crowding them out. (The dumber kinds of reviewers were puzzled by this, expecting food fireworks; if even in provincial papers, baseball was covered the way the arts are — by “critics” too ignorant to tell a curve ball from a slider — the readers wouldn’t tolerate it for a minute. But in the arts, for some reason, everyone yawns when a reviewer gets everything wrong.)

So, I feel doubly attached to Union Square — as a place visited and a place reimagined. Over the last few weeks, though, Olivia has sworn that she will never go back with me if I don’t organize my shopping basket better — the other Saturday we went and I had so many plastic bags slipping around and about that it was, in her view, worse than ridiculous. So I went online and found various Greenmarket shopping bags with collapsible yet firm bottoms — a British comic could find a joke in that — and ordered two. Only to be so distracted by the political news that I completely forgot to take them on the subway! (One more thing to blame on Trump.) I let out a low moan on the 6 train, and then ducked into the Whole Foods off Union Square, and after waiting in the strange color-coded line, arrived empty-handed at the register and only then bought a shopping bag with nothing to put in it — a transaction that the cashier rightly regarded as dubious, not to say a little crazy. Then I took it out to the Greenmarket.

Peter Hoffman, the usual bright-green Virgil to my pale-green Dante, knows the place intimately, shishito-pepper stem by lemon-basil leaf, and often leads me around. This time, I had to manage for myself, and I did okay — I got, for instance, beautiful Tristar strawberries at Fantasy Farms. The Tristar strawberries are the only American ones that can hold their head up honorably. I swore when we left France that I would never be one of those people who longs publicly for French produce, but the truth is that only two things are inarguably superior in the French market: strawberries and lamb. (Other things may be superior — but you could argue about chicken or cherries or bread. I’d take the She Wolf Bakery miche at the market over any Parisian bread, actually.)

Then good-looking yellow peaches — bumblebees are buzzing around them, a good advertisement, if not, as people say in Toronto, “hygienic” — and finally some green shishito peppers and green and yellow string beans. The truth is that D’Artagnan chickens are just about as good as any, so I can make those at home. When I get home, I’m sure that my girls will demand a classic salsa verde, but they want the new sauce! (Then they critique it; not enough honey, too much lime.) With the blistered shishito, black and green, and the quick-boiled green beans — I am a fan of the old-fashioned Richard Olney emotive technique, desperately boiling beans in frantically boiling water for a short time — and a good baguette, it’s a satisfying late-summer supper.

With the strawberries and peaches in some leftover Pinot Noir, chilled, really by accident, in the refrigerator, for dessert, it’s even better. For a moment, the world seems far away, and the table is the one safe place we have. Once upon a time, as I write in Strangers’ Gate, our kitchen in our first basement apartment was five feet from the table. Everything in that apartment was five feet from everything. Now, at least, the chaotic kitchen is divided by a wall from the comforts of the table. It’s a small consolation.

Sunday, September 3
A day off from the kitchen as we go to my little brother Blake’s house in Hell’s Kitchen for dinner. Blake, hard at work on the definitive biography of Andy Warhol, is, with his wife, the artist Lucy Hogg, as daring in his food choices as I am mostly conservative in mine. Where I mostly plump for plump West Coast “New World” style Pinot Noirs — the kinds of fruity, easy, supple wines that the real winos sneer at as cola plus booze — Blake loves wines plucked from the strange nether reaches of the wine world: orange and brown tannic Tannats and strange vinegar-and-raisin tasting wines from parts of the south of France so remote that not even British writers go there, and Transylvanian essais in Feteasca Regala. (“Ah,” he’ll exude. “Now that’s the terroir of Transylvania!” Well, not really. But he might.)

And to make it worse, he isn’t even primarily a wine guy, being above all a fan of artisanal ales, which he keeps track of on a sheet of paper, hundreds tried and rated. (Ours is a sadly pedantic family of hedonists, the rating never far from the rapture.) Tonight, he makes hake — hake! When was the last time this salmon family had hake! — with a delicious cilantro topping and beautiful black lentils on the side. Simple and delicious. The wine is, miraculously, as good as it is obscure: a Ruché — that’s the varietal, not the region — from Piedmont. The region apparently is about 100 feet long and wide — the smallest in all Italy. It’s weird, but it’s good.

Monday, September 4
We’ll go out to eat tonight, as we tend to do on Mondays, especially with the book coming out tomorrow and a strenuous week ahead. Like every New Yorker, we search for the sweet spot in dining — places that are cheap and cheerful and make at least one good thing well. I further exasperate the children with my theory — exasperating the children seems to be my spécialité de maison — that basically all restaurants cost about the same. But … they do. Or rather, they come in three levels: the places that cost $60 for three; the ones that cost $100; and the ones that cost more. What makes them expensive, invariably, are the wine you order by the glass and the coffee you have after, but dinner with water and no wine is dinner for prisoners, and dinner without coffee is, for Martha, an inedible feast.

So, we go out with our friends Gordon and Amanda to Gennaro, a lovely cash-only place on the Upper West Side, and one of the last in the city to exist in the older style that we were memorializing in that musical. I have osso buco, the first meat I’ve eaten in a month. It’s wonderful. No wonder carnivorism caught on.

Adam Gopnik’s Grub Street Diet