the grub street diet

Wesley Morris Isn’t Taking Anything for Granted

“My grocers and farmers’-market guys are out here rolling the dice for us.”

Wesley Morris day-dreaming about canned sardines. Illustration: Margalit Cutler
Wesley Morris day-dreaming about canned sardines. Illustration: Margalit Cutler

“I love cooking. I enjoy my meals. I love cooking for other people,” Wesley Morris says. “But I also know there’s a heaviness to it, and I don’t take it lightly.” As the critic-at-large for New York Times, a staff writer for the Times Magazine, and co-host of the recently returned podcast Still Processing, Morris spends his days thinking about what he’s consuming. Now that he’s at home most of the time these days, and cooking all his meals, he has a lot of time to think about his food: the simple blessing of an orange, the complicated history of his favorite oatmeal, or the family history behind his smothered pork chops. Read his Grub Street Diet below.

Thursday, April 9
I live alone in downtown Brooklyn. My mother’s side of the family’s from Philadelphia back to the middle of the 19th century. We’re somewhere between Yankee and mid-Atlantic southern, foodways-wise. Cooking makes me happy. Cooking every day makes me wonder how my mother did that for us for all those years and how my great-grandmother did it for 15 people for decades. I’m not cooking for anybody else but myself right now.

Every meal I’ve made was done so with deep, humbling awareness that right now, people are starving and farmers are having to destroy their yields, that we are living through a depression that we’re reluctant to call a depression. But we’ve seen the miles-long lines of cars hoping for a box of provisions. We’ve read the stories. My grocers and farmers’-market guys are out here rolling the dice for us. It’s been a month and I already miss the lower halves of their faces and the unmuffled sounds of their voices.

I’m just saying that my meals are a real luxury and I bless each one — even my superstitiously disease-warding, soap-washed navel orange. I’m thankful and grateful and lucky to have them. There’s a version of this story in which I don’t.

I made a smoothie for breakfast. It never changes. But I don’t do it every day. Two tablespoons of Ithaca Milk cream-on-top yogurt, one bulb turmeric, two scoops of protein, and some frozen pineapples, blueberries, and mango. I get these little bolts of turmeric at the farmer’s market, which I still go to because the city has made them develop a good system to deliver the food.

I also ate an orange and cooked four hard-boiled eggs. People who know me will be like, “He’s talking about eating an egg?” Jenna Wortham is partially responsible for this. I grew up in a house of egg-eaters. My mother looooooved egg salad. But I’m a texture person and there are just some things I don’t like because I don’t like the way they feel in my mouth. Like avocados, and I lived in California for a while. Eggs are one of those things, because I don’t like things that can exist in two states. I only want one state, please. That’s all I can handle. But a hard boiled egg is a delightful treat. Salt, pepper. It’s such a nice thing to eat.

During the afternoon, I ate a lot of Marcona almonds with skin and salt. These are the most sinful things nature might have to offer. They cost too much per pound and have never survived more than a week in my house.

I started getting them at this one store. I will say that I’m guilty of going to the Essex Street Market, and there’s a provisions place I love a lot there called Formaggio. I started going when I lived in Boston. There’s two Formaggios — or two Formaggi — up there. I got my wine there (this one in Essex doesn’t sell wine). I got all of my charcuterie, my cheeses, my specialty olive oils and vinegars, canned sardines, my tuna.

Magically, miraculously, I fled Boston, came here, and there’s Formaggio. It was the best news that could’ve happened to me. A place like that if you’re curious will make you a better eater in a lot of ways. It has made me open to eating all kinds of foods I wouldn’t ordinarily eat. I’m not even talking about exotic foods. I’m not a preserves person. I don’t like jellies and jams. But I do now! I put them in my yogurt. I don’t put them on my toast yet.

I’ve been going to some Formaggio now for, oh my God, 18 years. I’ve learned a little bit from that store, but I’ve learned a lot from people, too, between cookbooks and friends. I also learned a lot, a lot, a lot about cooking from my grandmother, my mother, and my aunt Carol, who didn’t write anything down. They could, because they were literate people and could write anything down. But it’s mostly because black people, going all the way back, were denied being able to. So a lot of things were just oral-traditionally passed along.

When my mother died a few years ago, one of the things I got was this copy of the Good Housekeeping Cookbook. The last printing of this edition is 1949. My mother was born in 1948, so somebody gave this to her, probably her grandmother — my great-grandmother. My mom wrote a lot in this cookbook, she used it to help teach her how to become a great cook, which she really, truly was. I’ve used this for some things, but I mostly just look at it to see her handwriting. Her handwriting is just so nice. Like, “Bunny’s coffee cake.” That’s probably my aunt Bunnie. It’s really used. It looks like somebody really loved it.

For dinner, I steamed spinach and dandelion greens. I ate that with some leftover chicken with lentils and rice, with herbed yogurt — all from Samin Nosrat’s book. She knows this because I confessed to her that I skipped the dates and raisins. Big mistake. Huge.

The first bite I took to make sure everything was okay, I knew immediately why those two ingredients are in the recipe. It’s probably centuries old that people have been cooking this way, and I’m like, “Shame on me for trying to tell the Iranian people how to make their meals.” I had to explain to Samin I didn’t have any dates and wasn’t going to go out and buy raisins and I don’t like them in my food.

I did not tell her what I’m about to tell you. Which is that I thought, “Oh, well carrots are a perfectly good substitute.” For dates and raisins! It was not a good idea. I mean, it was perfectly good. I ate all of it. But the dates and raisins are there for a reason. It would’ve been really good to have them.

Friday, April 10
I eat a bowl of oatmeal almost everyday. There are some foods that are just too good to resist. I’ve tried everything and lots of methods; I find a cold overnight soak and then a whisking during cooking produces the creamiest result. Somebody told me there’s an oatmeal-making competition in Ireland, I think.

Anyway, I bought a giant bag of oats from Maine Grains; even after you rinse them, there’s a bitterness that no amount of butter or sugar can tamp. Bob’s Red Mill makes the best rolled oats, and Anson Mills the very best stone-cut oats (“fresh native stone ground,” “organic new crop heirloom,” “18th Century Style Toasted”) which means my ancestors on my father’s side of the family probably had more than one hand in developing some part of that formula. I try not to overthink this, but I don’t know whether that’s possible.

Partially that’s how my brain has always worked, but also because for as far away from enslavement as I am, I just told you about this cookbook I got after my mom passed. The woman whose cookbook it was originally, my great-grandmother, was the child of slaves. It’s in my house. It’s a cookbook. I have to think about where this stuff comes from.

I mean, listen, I use Anson Mills products for all kinds of things. My flour is from Anson Mills. But I’m also not ignorant to the reality. We don’t think about it this way, but those enslaved people were agriculturalists in Africa, you know? They were agrarian people, they didn’t just show up here and get handed a bunch of seeds and a hoe and make magic. They understood the earth and the science of how to grow things, and that’s what made them valuable to people who didn’t pay them for their services and labor.

It’s inconceivable to me that that rice and those grains that this company is selling doesn’t have some relationship to that labor. And they’re not saying it doesn’t. But, they don’t necessarily need to. It’s kind of understood. They tell you it’s from the 18th century, and we know who wasn’t doing the farm work in the 18th century. I kind of love the fact that they put it on the packaging. That can only mean one thing. This is a southern company.

I also ate an orange and one of the hard-boiled eggs from Thursday.

Lunch was tuna salad, minced onions, and orecchiette. I’m a tuna fish eater. Snacked on Snyder’s of Hanover pretzels, the only mass-produced pretzel. The other ones aren’t good, and I’ve ate them all. I don’t know how to put it. Rogold, that’s a no. Pretty much most other pretzels are full of too much air, more buttery than they need to be. With Snyder’s, the salt-to-wheat ratio is really great. There’s not a lot of crazy stuff in there. On the bag it reads, “The malt adds a trivial amount of fat.” Thank you, Snyder’s of Hanover.

My dinner was a very mixed-green salad (mâche, butter lettuce, baby arugula, some greens with beet-red stems) with the Via Carota dressing. The salad is in that list of 101 great dishes that New York published. I was so pissed it was there, but it would’ve been a crime not to include it. I’m very proprietary about my shit. I believe in scarcity and don’t want things I love to go scarce.

It is the best salad I’ve ever had at any restaurant ever. In the U.S., France, Italy. I haven’t been to every restaurant in those places, but I’ve eaten at lots of places in the U.S. and lots in France and Italy and I have never had a salad as good as the Via Carota salad. There’s something about the triple washing of the greens, which I do now. It enlivens the leaves, and the dressing, phew. That is a great dressing. I just put it on anything. If I make a chicken breast, I put it on that.

I also ate some of this tiny, delicious ham that I got from Essex Market. It’s the size of a softball and is great with Kosciusko baseball mustard. First of all, it’s just one of the great mustards. But it’s only one of the great mustards in public. I call it “baseball mustard” cause that’s really what it tastes like: the first, fifth, and top-of-eighth innings. I MISS YOU, BASEBALL.

Saturday, April 11.
Ye Olde Smoothie. One orange.

I made baked beans with Rancho Gordo yellow eyes, a one-pound pork belly slab, Coleman’s mustard, maple syrup, and a big onion minced to oblivion. That recipe is one I got from that Ruth Reichl edited Gourmet Cookbook.

We would only ever use cannellini beans, but I had the yellow eyes. They didn’t get quite as mushy as I wanted them to. I wanted a refried-bean consistency. They sort of kept their shape, which was fine, it was still delicious.

I made a pizza for dinner. I’m going to make my own dough, but this time I bought it from a suspiciously empty Union Market in Carroll Gardens. These days the line goes down the block; although you have the Trader Joe’s lines, they’re practically a Möbius strip.

I oiled the skillet before I put it in, cut three modest slices of mozzarella, put a little bit of il Datterino tomato sauce, and that was it. I’m a very plain pizza person. I love a simple margherita pizza. What a delightful thing. I also love a leftover pizza because I learned from a relationship I was in, with a wonderful human being who was also a wonderful cook, is that you reheat it in a cast iron skillet. You essentially fry it, and it crisps up and is so good. He was a great cook. He was the MacGyver of cooking. You could have him open a set of cabinets, and there could be two rusty screws, a Cabbage Patch doll, and a jar of light bulbs or something and he would make you the most delicious meal you had in your whole life.

Sunday, April 12
Steamed beet and dandelion greens. One orange.

Another pizza, but this one was better, cooked in an oiled cast-iron skillet. Yeasted dough is more forgiving than cake or pie doughs; I know Sam Sifton is a big fan skillet pizzas, and until I’m living with somebody, I’ll never use a baking stone because Sam is totally correct.

My dinner was a Hudson Valley charcuterie pork chop, thawed, smothered in an onion, carrot, basil gravy. It’s a family recipe.

It’s been kind of fun telling people about what I’ve been cooking. I’ll text friends and my sister, which is how I wound up making the pork chop. It was her family’s Easter dinner, and I was like, “Oh, I wanted to have Easter dinner with you guys, I’m also going to cook this.” She is cooking for four people, and it’s been fun in my kitchen to make reduced versions of what she’s making for my niece and nephew and brother-in-law.

The pork chop is really quite a delightful thing. You start by searing, just don’t over-sear it. You don’t want to overcook it because it’s a pork chop and they don’t like being overcooked. This particular one I made was not as great as it could’ve been because I didn’t have any more chicken stock. (I’ve been making my own, and used the last of it a week ago.) So I just used water.

After you sear the pork chop and set it aside, you wipe the pan down a little bit. (I didn’t because I didn’t have stock and wanted to keep some flavor.) I threw in a knob of butter, then onions and some carrots that I let wilt and soften, respectively. Some salt, some pepper, then some basil ’cause I have a lot of it. If there are fresh herbs at the farmer’s market, I’ll just get all of them I can. Except for dill, which I don’t like.

Then you make too much roux. I probably used two cups of water and a quarter of a cup of flour. Whisked that, poured it in the pan. Added another little knob of butter, whisked it in the pan until it came to fruition, threw the pork chop in, put a lid on it, and off it went into the oven. I put it in at 450, but my sister corrected me. It should’ve been at 350.

Even if you’ve got a bad pork chop — because we didn’t have good pork chops when I was a kid — it’s just so tender and flavorful. (It’ll also forgive something like a frozen pork chop.) The gravy is great for rice or pasta, but rice is the most ideal. So I made some Anson Mills Gold Coast rice that I both oversalted and got the water ratio wrong, and also an arugula salad.

The thing about the pork chop is that my grandmother was all over smothered anything, and she died a month ago. Smothered chicken, pork chops, turkey legs. I have a turkey leg thawing right now, and I’m going to give it the smothered treatment. My grandmother was the queen of smothered foods. That was one of her big moves.

Monday, April 13
I guess I’m back on smoothies.

I had the baked beans with a side of that ham, and the beans again for dinner and more arugula salad with more Via Carota dressing. This time I got the sherry-oil ratio more right and the addition of some warm water to handle the mustards and loosen up the herbs, if you’re using them, is pretty ingenious. I’m sure lots of people who cook on a regular basis try to perfect this thing that just seems simple. Salads and salad dressing and oatmeal, those are the three things I’m in a constant quest to perfect.

This was definitely a day I would’ve gone to a restaurant. I always knew, how do I put this, which nights I was not going to cook. I’d go to the paper every day, and if it was a night I wasn’t leaving until 7, 8, or 9, I wasn’t going to cook. Sometimes even when you leave at 5, though, you’re like, “I don’t have it.” Monday was one of those days. It was like, “Wesley, you don’t have it.” I’m just lucky that I even have the luxury of even missing a restaurant at this point, despite the fact that restaurant friends of mine are out of work.

Like, I have all these ingredients to make bread, I was like, “Let’s just try it and see how it goes.” I baked my first loaf of bread from what I now realize is a not-that-great recipe I found on Le Creuset’s site. It was a mix of specificity and spitballing. How long are you supposed to “roll on the work surface between your palms” before putting it in the Dutch oven? I went for 20 minutes. I kneaded the life out of it. The thing never rose. I needed a jackhammer to fetch a slice, and there’s no meat, cheese, or condiment that would want to wind up between these hunks of wheat. BUT the slices toast quite nicely.

So, yes, I’ve become one of these bread people. My friend Charlie has sort of demystified bread baking for me, so I’m really determined to try to crack this thing. It’s been a disaster so far. But I’m going to figure it out. I’m going to nail it.

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