the grub street diet

Jia Tolentino Chases Spicy Rigatoni With Karaoke and Too Much Fireball

“It was objectively upsetting.”

Jia Tolentino and her rigatoni at Carbone. Photo: Scott Heins
Jia Tolentino and her rigatoni at Carbone. Photo: Scott Heins

When you want to understand what’s going on in this weird moment in our (possibly simulated) universe, it helps to turn to Jia Tolentino. She brings clear eyes to what’s happening today for The New Yorker and now in her first book, Trick Mirror, an essay collection that has our friends at Vulture saying she “could be the Joan Didion of our time.” The author’s appetite for consuming the world is seemingly inexhaustible, and when pressed to describe her relationship with food, she uses two words: “pure enthusiasm.” This wasn’t a normal week, Tolentino concedes, but it has been a celebratory one with good-bye spicy rigatoni and Budweisers for a friend leaving town, an early-morning bake, and an attempted hangover cure of ramen and Nicolas Cage. Read all about it in this week’s Grub Street Diet.

Wednesday, July 24
I’d set my alarm for 6:30 a.m. but woke up at eight and immediately made a cake, which is the kind of secret compulsive behavior I start exhibiting whenever I’ve got too much going on. This one was a Bon Appétit recipe I made a lot last summer: It’s buttery and lemony and has two pounds of fruit in it — I did peaches, nectarines, blueberries, and cherries.

For the first half of my 20s, I cooked extravagantly all the time, because first I was in the Peace Corps and had to learn how to make everything I wanted from scratch, and after that I lived in places where people didn’t work as much, and then in 2014 I moved to New York. These days, I only make things where I have to look at recipes (crab rangoon, things of that nature) on Sunday nights or weekday mornings when I am trying to pretend that I’ve got everything under control.

I use the same cookbooks over and over. I have Julia Turshen’s cookbook, the Smitten Kitchen cookbook, the Alice Waters cookbook, and that’s basically it. I’m not that elaborate with my ingredients. My boyfriend Andrew and I are both extremely enthusiastic about food and like to cook and eat a lot. Unfortunately, whenever my metabolism slows down, I’m really fucked.

While making the cake, I took some vitamins with some orange juice (I am ashamed to say that I generate a huge amount of plastic waste by subscribing to Care/of) along with a packet of lypo-spheric vitamin C — an actor friend of mine tipped me off about it as something she takes while shooting and when she most fears getting sick. I drank some stove-top Lavazza coffee with half-and-half and sat down at my desk to work. For a while, I’ve been reporting and writing a feature at the same time that I’m doing book promo, and I’m in this brief window of being home between lots of travel, which is part of the reason I’ve been cooking: I don’t care about routines and I like uncertainty, but that means that I frequently end up pounding empanadas in a rental car while praying I make the red-eye, and after a while I need to force a reset. I finished my coffee with some cake, which came out great.

For lunch, I had cold leftovers from dinner the previous night: a sort of Niçoise-ish salad with roasted potatoes, blistered green beans, soft-boiled eggs, Parmesan, prosciutto, and a dressing with balsamic vinegar and grainy mustard. I like a heavy salad — otherwise you get hungry again 90 minutes later.

My texts were blowing up about dinner that evening: I’d made plans to go to Carbone with three of my friends, one of whom, Emma, was about to move to L.A. The four of us have been going out to a weeknight dinner about twice a month for a long time, and if it’s not soup dumplings it’s usually Italian, so we decided to go big to celebrate Emma’s impending death.

My friend Luce texted, “I’m gonna [redacted obscene phrase about the spicy rigatoni].” At literally 9:30 a.m., Emma texted, “Everyone please remember to eat an early lunch so we can [redacted phrase about the rigatoni again].” Well, I almost always eat an early lunch, around 11, because it gives me another lunch opportunity at two, but on this day I skipped my 2 p.m. lunch in preparation for fucking that rigatoni in the ass.

We could only get a super-early Carbone reservation. When my friends got there, we got a bottle of wine and also a chopped salad, mozzarella with roasted peppers, another rigatoni, an incredible chicken thing (it was the one that was marinated in balsamic?), some sort of tubular pasta with lamb sausage, and broccoli rabe. Then we got another bottle of wine, carrot cake, tiramisu, and a round of Montenegros. And then I sincerely regret to say that we went to Sing Sing — the four of us — and fully did karaoke for six hours, until 2 a.m. Six hours of karaoke on a weeknight: It was objectively upsetting, and so was consuming large quantities of Fireball at the age of 30. And yet, there we were.

Thursday, July 25
I became conscious at 8 a.m. and started howling, “Club me!” at my boyfriend as he was leaving for work. But he refused, so I got up and got ready to tape a book interview on NPR. I had set up my stove-top coffee-maker the night before, apparently, and I made some coffee but could not really drink it. I drank water on the train and meditated on my shameful lifestyle. When I got back to Fort Greene, I dragged myself to a takeout Korean spot called Tiger Box and got some bibimbap, which I ate, haggardly answering emails, instead of eating any of the perfectly good food in my fridge.

I went to One World Trade to meet with my editor and had an iced green tea, and then I went to one of my favorite places in the city, Takahachi Bakery, which is where I go 95 percent of the time immediately after leaving the office. I always get either a miso-almond cookie (best cookie I’ve ever tasted; when Takahachi has them, I buy four and give some to anyone I’m seeing that night), a slice of coconut brioche, or a ham-and-cheese croissant. On this day, they had none of these things because it was the end of the day, so I got a carrot juice and choked down my vitamins, which was basically a “thoughts-and-prayers” type of thing at this point.

In the early evening, I met my beloved agent, Amy, at Fairfax, and my boyfriend Andrew, too, whom she was meeting for the first time. Amy’s been my agent since the first semester of grad school, when I was working on a novel I eventually shelved. I love her, and she was taking us out to dinner to celebrate my impending book release. We had white-bean hummus with grilled corn, shrimp with fennel, tomatoes and watermelon with stracciatella, an artichoke with oreganata butter and bread crumbs, toast with ricotta and Virginia ham, and steak tartare. The bartender made Amy a couple of very thoughtful mocktails, and I spent four hours nursing a single glass of Nebbiolo, while Andrew had two of this bourbon cocktail that was partially sweetened with Cinnamon Toast Crunch. He would not normally like breakfast cereal in his cocktails, but we were curious.

Friday, July 26
I got up at 7 a.m., made coffee with half-and-half, and had what I most often have for breakfast: a soft-boiled egg, avocado toast with a lemon squeeze and lots of black pepper and paprika (this bread my boyfriend had picked up from our friend Dayna’s house on Thursday — she makes this unbelievable sourdough), and a piece of chicken-apple sausage. More vitamins with OJ. I worked for a while in my pajamas, which is what I do most mornings: A lot of people don’t like that working from home makes you slobby, but I love it. I think I write best when I don’t talk to anyone and also look like shit.

At noon, I went to Cobble Hill to go to a barre class. I have conflicting feelings about barre, but I do not have conflicting feelings about Bien Cuit, which I stopped by afterward for an iced matcha latte to give me some fortitude against the heady brew of self-loathing and self-aggrandizement that comes from talking about yourself for too long. I also got a cinnamon sugar “roule” to save for later. When I got home, I had a bowl of some leftover orzo I’d made early in the week with charred broccoli, toasted pine nuts, feta, and lemon (this is one of the things I make most often), and in brief bites between interviews I tore up that roule.

I went to Walter’s in Fort Greene to meet my friend Haley for a drink. We had some rosé, and because I must eat every three hours or shut down emotionally, I ordered a shrimp cocktail and deviled eggs. Then I went to meet some friends at Madame Vo in the East Village, and I ordered a sake drink with lychee that was so sweet I couldn’t drink it. We all split a pork-roll vermicelli wrap, wings, garlic noodles, stir-fried eggplant, and this incredible rib eye on a sizzle platter with an egg, and then we went to Webster Hall, where friends of ours were DJing. I got a Modelo, ate a large weed espresso bean, and danced through all of my emotions. When we left Webster, there was a spontaneous dance party to “Mr. Brightside” outside the adjacent bar, and we joined it — my friend Frannie kept pulling me out of the street, screeching, “Don’t dance in traffic!” We walked to Joyface, a newish bar that has quickly become our standby. It was packed and bumping to disco and Motown. I took a tequila shot and got a tiny, cute beer and danced some more.

Saturday, July 27
I should clarify that I don’t always go out this much — I blame it on Emma, who is basically my life partner (no offense to my actual life partner) leaving New York, which is coinciding with my book about to come out, and giving me a lot of feelings about this certain period of our lives coming to an end. I woke up late and could instantly feel that the rage energy of last night would shampoo itself into the rage energy of tonight, when Andrew and I would be throwing a good-bye house party for Emma. He headed off to Central Park to play baseball in this incredibly intense league. He usually has a doubleheader every weekend and comes back with enormous baseball-shaped bruises all over his body.

I never go watch him play, despite all the cute Dominican 22-year-olds he plays with, but this weekend he asked me to, and he never asks me to do anything, so I did. After I sent some emails, I put my dog in the car, drove to Brooklyn Kolache Factory, got a ham-and-cheddar kolache and a sausage-jalapeño-and-cheddar kolache (both for me), an orange juice with some mysterious spicy tincture in it, and an iced coffee. Kolaches are extremely important to me — real kolache heads, i.e., Texans, know exactly what I mean. In Texas, you can get them every two minutes on the highway, and they are like 75 cents and so good.

I then drove to 96th Street, getting hot sauce and crumbs all over me. I hung out with Andrew’s family, cuddling his extremely cute niece and nephew, for a regrettably short time in the park.

When I got back to Brooklyn, I picked up beers and wine to deposit at my upstairs and downstairs neighbors’ doorsteps, along with a note apologizing for the noise to come and a promise that we’d get everyone out of the backyard by a decent hour. I cleaned for a while and had one of those bottled iced green teas that are unsweetened and taste like rice and grass (love them). I did not feel like eating dinner before people started coming over, but I figured that I needed to and ordered a salmon-avocado roll and an eel-tempura roll.

Parties at my house are always a mess. Emma brought over a bottle of Veuve early. I opened a nice bottle of Barolo for myself because I drink red wine all throughout the summer. Everything else that followed was unspeakable: I’ll estimate my consumption at 45 to 96 Budweisers and call it a day.

Sunday, July 28
I woke up late and ordered Chuko for the hangover. My boyfriend got the sesame-garlic ramen with pork, and I got the soy ramen with poached chicken, and we both got the marinated egg (love that egg) and the chili-garlic oil. We ate our ramen while watching The Rock. I’m a Nicolas Cage fan. Have you ever seen that Tumblr that’s just Pokémon with Nicolas Cage’s face on it?

Around 3:30 p.m. I forced myself to start working, and then I went to a hot-yoga class, and then I ate a nectarine and drank another iced green tea while taking my dog to the park. I heated up the rest of my ramen afterward, and then worked till late. Around midnight I took some vitamins and had another lypo-spheric Vitamin C and a hunk of sourdough bread with some bodega Cheddar — always the white Cabot sharp.

Monday, July 29
Got up at 7 a.m., made coffee and the usual breakfast: avocado toast, chicken sausage, a soft-boiled egg, which I ate while prepping for an interview. After I interviewed the person over a long WhatsApp call, I put my dog into the car and drove upstate, switching my interview mode to do more book promo on the drive. Andrew and I bought a house in Saugerties last summer and spent a year fixing it up, and now it’s extremely peaceful — I wrote most of my book upstate, on weekends, in rented Airbnb guesthouses, and it is a source of incredible relief now to be able to get out of the city and work or hang out or do nothing whenever I want. Around noon, I was still driving but suddenly very hungry and stopped by a Panera in Paramus, New Jersey, where I got a half-sandwich: turkey, apple, and Cheddar, which was on cinnamon-raisin bread for some reason. It did the trick. I fucking love Panera, honestly — road trips, work travel, it’s nice to be able to trust that you’re never too far from a sandwich and a salad and a giant iced tea.

When I got to the house, I made another sandwich. I strongly feel that one of the best things about working from home (besides not having to look presentable) is being able to make really elaborate grilled sandwiches. This time it was sourdough, good Spanish tuna in olive oil, roasted tomatoes, and sharp Cheddar. I did some more interviews and got thoroughly sick of myself and went to the grocery store, and for dinner I made a huge grain salad: farro, feta, toasted walnuts, sauteed kale, and shredded rotisserie chicken.

I feel that right now I am bouncing between extremes of responsibility and irresponsibility, neither of which can last forever, but transience is what makes transient things feel good.

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