the grub street diet

Author Marlon James Has No Time for Fussy Cocktails

“You’d be amazed how many people screw up a Dark ’n’ Stormy.”

Marlon James at Walter Foods in Williamsburg. Photo: Nina Westervelt
Marlon James at Walter Foods in Williamsburg. Photo: Nina Westervelt

If you run in certain literary circles, you may have heard stories of Marlon James — who, after winning the Man Booker for A Brief History of Seven Killings, published the fantastic Black Leopard, Red Wolf last month — cooking curry goat for 20 people. And James, whose writing luxuriates in our physical and sensory experiences, has what you might call strong feelings about pleasure. “I remember getting into a fight with somebody,” he recalls. “They’d say stuff like, ‘I don’t think you’re sufficiently spiritual.’ And I‘m like, ‘That’s because you suck at being carnal.’” This week, James is back in New York (he splits his time between here and Minnesota’s Macalester College) after his book tour, and while he didn’t have time to cook goat, he did indulge his whitefish-salad obsession, eat a “consolation mango,” and track down some lamb Bolognese. Read all about it in this week’s Grub Street Diet.

Friday, March 15
For breakfast, I had a protein shake with two scoops of GNC Mega Protein, eight medium-sized strawberries, half-cup whole oats, half-cup blueberries, and a cup of almond milk. I also ate one of those Power Crunch protein bars.

I regularly drink that; it’s a post-workout thing. I would come across a physical trainer sometimes in Minneapolis and his relationship with food always amazed me. He really was, like, “Whatever gives me such-and-such nutrients, such-and-such proteins, and blah blah blah.” He would describe things to me to eat healthy, like you know, “I just grab a chicken breast and throw it on the stove.” I was like, “Dude that is the most disgusting thing I have ever heard in my life.” No attention to flavor — it’s like salt is not a seasoning.

I grew up cooking seriously from when I was pretty young; I was cooking lobster when I was 9 years old. My mom was mostly the “cook for survival” sort of person: She taught me how to cook stew chicken ‘cause Jamaicans eat that for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My dad cooked for celebration, for community — so it was a mix between practicality and indulgence.

For lunch, I went to that Dig Inn chain and had corned beef with sautéed broccoli, roasted mushrooms, and brown rice. It was really good. When I think of corned beef, I think of really mashed-up corned beef with cabbage, which I grew up with and which I actually can’t stand.

I also ate a mango. The fruit here is awful. I go back to Jamaica and I bite into a banana and I’m like, “Holy shit, I forgot that this is what bananas taste like.”

That mango was kind of a consolation prize. I was used to, like, 15 different kinds of mangos. Yeah, I tell people we have East Indian (the one I almost only see in Whole Foods), we have Julie, we have Bombay, one we called No. 11 because it was on the boat and the crate was “no. 11” so Captain Black just named it no. 11.

Dinner was at Leuca. I went there before, around a month ago. I like the restaurant a lot. I had the olives stuffed with almonds, and penne rigate with lamb Bolognese, ricotta, and mint. I think I eat pasta here more than anywhere else, and I get into fights with New Yorkers about their pizza. But they never win. I’m from the Midwest: deep dish forever!

I also drank a Dark ’N’ Stormy cocktail. With cocktails, I prefer if somebody can do a good Dark ’N’ Stormy. One of things I find is everybody spends so much time on fussy cocktails that they screw up the simple ones. And, you’d be amazed how many people screw up a Dark ’N’ Stormy.

Saturday, March 16
Breakfast was at Gertie. It’s literally one block away from my house and it was probably my third time there. The first time I went they weren’t even fully open. I’m a big breakfast guy. I don’t understand this “breakfast as an afterthought” mentality that you Americans have.

I had a sandwich with whitefish salad and melted cheddar on sesame sourdough. I’m really kind of hooked on whitefish salad. It’s really the only thing I eat on a bagel. I’ll eat lox if I’m in a hotel, but then usually the bagels are horrible. Canada has the worst bagels I’ve come across. I made a big deal about their horrible bagels and people in Montreal were like, “We’re going to prove to you we can do a bagel — we’re known for them.” But the last time I had a bagel in Canada, it didn’t even have a hole in the middle.

I went to a gallery opening across the street from Bottino, so I grabbed a prickly pear margarita there beforehand. Other than Dark ’N’ Stormys, I usually order really, really fruity, tart, sour-sweet cocktails. I’ll tell people, if they’re meeting me, “Look for whatever table has the pink cocktail.”

After the opening, I went back to Bottino and got the sautéed shrimp and Italian lentils with garlic and hot pepper. I drank red wine with that.

I eat a lot of seafood in places where you can see an actual sea. Like Maine or Nantucket. I remember the first time I was in Minneapolis and there was walleye and trout and I said, in my most sarcastic tone, “You’re offering me river fish?” But New York has great seafood.

Sunday, March 17
Usually on Sundays, since late last year, I line up for Kossar’s bagels but I couldn’t get there this week. Instead I went to Little Choc Apothecary. I go there pretty regularly. I had crêpes with peanut butter, banana, almonds, and pecans, and black tea. It never struck me that vegan crêpes would be amazing, but they’re really incredible. And their teas are some of the best.

I’m from a former British colony, and it’s very big with me, having a good cup of tea. I can’t handle coffee — it makes me jittery and paranoid. Coffee is not really a Jamaican thing. We usually just make it for rich people. People are like, “Yeah, caffeine gives me a buzz,” and I’m like, “Dude I thought I had mental-health problems until I stopped drinking coffee.”

I also ate a Power Crunch bar.

Lunch was at the Sweetgreen in Williamsburg. I get something more than just a salad I’m not going to enjoy. I had the warm miso bowl with a blackened chicken thigh, miso-glazed root vegetables, shredded cabbage, toasted almonds, organic wild rice, shredded kale, and ginger vinaigrette. Also drank a Spindrift sparkling water. I like this sort food, what I’d call medium-food. It’s not fast food; it’s not slow food. So it’s medium-speed food. Like Sweetgreen or Dig Inn. That whole thing Chipotle started I guess.

I went to Sweet Chick in Williamsburg for dinner. I had three pieces of fried chicken, a corn muffin, biscuit, and coleslaw. There are things that I just don’t think the north does very well, and the South does better. Fried chicken is one. Pretty much any soul food. That was pretty good chicken, but I’m still looking for really, really great fried chicken.

Monday, March 18
Started my day with a Power Crunch bar.

Went to Honeybrains in Manhattan, where I had a chicken tikka bowl with rice, chana daal, peanuts, mint, cilantro, tomatoes, broccoli, and red onions.

I can’t live in a place that doesn’t have great Indian food; if I had to be vegetarian for an entire year and only eat Indian vegetarian food, I’d be like, “Oh, absolutely.” But the only place in New York you can find great Indian food now is Queens.

It’s the spices, the masalas — I just figured out how to make a masala last year. With a good masala, you have to cook all the ingredients separately and then blend them, as opposed to cooking them together. Even though it’s one great thing, you can pick out the distinctive flavors of each ingredient. A lot of Indian food I’ve had is southern Indian food, but also what the Trinidadian-Indians do to Indian food. I also really like Trini-Indian food. I could eat roti for days, in Trinidad they call it “buss up shuts.” It’s literally a roti coming apart, stuffed with daal, that and curry goat may be my absolute favorite thing.

That night, I had an event for my new book in Williamsburg. I went to the bar at St. Anselm to have a few drinks before. I usually have Delirium Tremens, but I had another a Belgian beer and then a couple spritzes (I think with Contratto) and a glass of Riesling.

Then I went to the event. It was for a series that Egg and Food Book Fair do called Tables of Contents, this time in collaboration with my publisher Riverhead Books. We had mixed nuts and dates, and a ten-course dinner with beef soup, bread with butter and fat, berries and milk, coconut milk–infused fish soup with blood, mix greens, goat tartare with beet purée, crocodile sausage with ugali porridge, charred antelope, curry goat on a bed of white rice with potatoes, and millet porridge with ice cream and honey.

It was great; it was interesting. It never occurred to me there’s so much food in this book. A lot of the stuff that night I tasted for the first time — I’m in New Orleans all the time and I’ve never tasted crocodile — even though I knew all the ingredients. Like, I cook with a lot of coconut milk and coconut, usually with the goat. But even the curry goat was surprising because we never cook the leg whole. It never occurred to me, and then it was so tender and coming off the bone and now I’m thinking, “Man that’s how I’m going to cook goat from now on.”

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