The New York Diet

Jonathan Lethem Fuels His Writing With ‘White Trash’ Sandwiches

Jonathan Lethem power lunches at Hanco's.
Jonathan Lethem power lunches at Hanco’s.haha Photo: Melissa Hom

Boerum Hill resident and author of Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude Jonathan Lethem is at work on a still untitled novel that’s set on the Upper East Side and features a character that’s always seen eating either an H&H; bagel or a burger deluxe from Jackson Hole. The author also happens to be a bagel lover and tends to wolf them down with egg and cheese during writing breaks, something he describes as an “abject New York style of white-trash eating.” Of course, he’d never indulge in that for breakfast. “My tendency,” he says, “is to go from purity to decadence, like I’m reliving the fall of a great empire.” Here he recounts the rise and fall of his diet this week.

Saturday, December 9
In the morning I had this German pumpernickel bread with muesli baked into it, fresh papaya, yogurt with cereal in it, and coffee. I was very impressed with myself. I sound extremely healthful, like I’m some kind of Zen purist. By dinner I’m in the Caligula phase.

I had a minimalist lunch: a whole-wheat baguette. I crushed avocado onto it and had grapefruit juice.

We had dinner at a friend’s. They blew us away with a roast sirloin, beet mashed potatoes, really good creamed spinach, and a smashed chicken-liver appetizer. It made me realize how few dishes I serve when we have people over.

Sunday, December 10
I ate the other half of the papaya and had an oat-square breakfast cereal. I had an orange and some coffee — again, pretty noble. Lunch was macaroni and cheese from a box with little bits of salami — gearing towards the white trash. The salami was my wife’s improvisation. It upscaled the macaroni and cheese without seeming to be some pretentious-fusion denial about what we were really eating.

We had a pregnant friend over for dinner, so we were at her whim. She wanted us to order plain pizza from a Court Street pizzeria so we obeyed.

Monday, December 11
Again it’s as though history is reliving itself: yogurt pumpernickel with muesli and coffee. Then an everything bagel with two eggs and cheese from a deli. Once I get into the weekdays, I become the working stiff for lunch — I’m looking for the quickie fuel to keep me at my desk. All my standards of healthfulness and culinary prestige evaporate.

I ended up Monday night at Hill Country, at the party of a rival magazine that has a name that incorporates the name of yours. They quite delightfully served us a massive spread of barbecue: really good beef ribs and barbecue chicken. And I got to eat mac ‘n’ cheese again in a different context and pecan pie for dessert. It was a triumphant upscale white-trash bacchanal, all accompanied by a couple of extremely stiff margaritas. As a new father I’ve gone the whole year as an accidental teetotaler, so those drinks knocked my legs out from under me.

Tuesday, December 12
Back on the wagon. Breakfast was just yogurt and coffee. I met a friend in midtown for a sushi lunch at West in the Fifties. Then my boast-worthy accomplishment for the week: I put on a big Italian dinner Tuesday night for a couple of friends. The way I make myself look good, I go to this amazing butcher on Smith Street called Los Paisanos. It’s a 50-year-old Italian meat market that predates the Smith Street culinary revolution but now fits in nicely. I got some imported octopus salad from Italy and fire-roasted artichoke hearts and a nice baked mozzarella. You’re halfway home if you just open a bottle of wine and put that stuff out. I cooked their wild-boar sausages for the first time — do that and you look like you’re some sort of genius.

Wednesday, December 13
I’m a penitent for my sins — I ate the oat-squares cereal and coffee.

For lunch I went for a Vietnamese sandwich called Hanco’s on Bergen near Smith. It’s directly across from the storefront where I put the car service in Motherless Brooklyn; it’s a corner that’s done well by me. [The Vietnamese sandwich] is a five-minute, $4 lunch in the middle of a working day, and that’s as vital to keeping working artists in the city as are affordable rents.

Back to the Caligula, downfall of Roman Empire. I went to dinner with a couple friends at Trout. I don’t get very far away from home. I went all the way to sin. First we shared a plate of chili-cheese fries, then I had a catfish po’boy with hush puppies. No regrets. Though my breakfasts indicate I have one foot set in middle age, I still eat dinner like a 20-year-old.

Thursday December 14
I make a mean French toast, the secret being lots of vanilla extract and ground cinnamon.

The weather made me not want to do the eight-block walk to my office. I was sitting at a coffee shop. I didn’t even close my computer. I was sitting at my café and I just ordered a chicken wrap from the counter of the coffee shop — eminently functional, forgettable. Again, a working man’s lunch.

Jonathan Lethem Fuels His Writing With ‘White Trash’ Sandwiches