the grub street diet

Juan Vidal Is a Snack Guy

“I’m willing to engage in a debate about what constitutes a meal.”

“At a rest stop I buy a coffee and a can of Monster…” Illustration: Margailt Cutler
“At a rest stop I buy a coffee and a can of Monster…” Illustration: Margailt Cutler

Like everyone else, Juan Vidal is trying to make sense of the world. “There’s just so much contradicting information out there,” he says. Not that he has too much free time to think about it: The writer and author of the memoir Rap Dad (which is now out in paperback) has four kids, a family dynamic that has, of course, changed the way he eats. “If you don’t grab what you want quickly enough,” he says, “you only have yourself to blame.” This week, Vidal worked from his home in Atlanta before taking a spur-of-the-moment trip to Missouri.

Friday, June 12
Every day feels like a fresh new hell lately, so it’s important to get the coffee going as soon as possible. I have an early Zoom meeting this morning, and I chug my first cup fast — a little too fast, and burn my throat. I rarely finish my coffee while it’s still hot; I get absorbed in work or looking at pro-wrestling T-shirts on Instagram and have to make trip after trip to the microwave. Also, there’s a good chance I lead the league in spilled coffee. Once, I tripped up the stairs and dropped an espresso all over myself walking into my then-job. Didn’t bother to tell anyone, just drove home and crawled back into bed with brown stains on my dumb khakis.

I text with a musician friend who just released a new album but has no interest in promoting it with all that is going on. We exchange ideas about how he might use his platform to donate proceeds and redirect attention to something more urgent. It’s an interesting time to be a working artist or writer. I guess it always is in some way or another. We need to sit and get our work done but also want to be in the streets, marching in solidarity and contributing to the moment however we see fit.

Phone calls, polishing a TV script that’s due next week, and before long it’s lunch o’clock. I have four kids, so these days, navigating mealtime is a balancing act between what me and my wife are craving and a chorus of requests for pizza rolls. Surprise, we’re all out of that, I announce. Having multiple kids is awesome — especially since Pop Tarts or a loaf of bread typically last about nine minutes, tops. It builds character. If you don’t grab what you want quickly enough, you only have yourself to blame. Sometimes I’ll hide a bag of chocolate-covered almonds near the cleaning supplies because I know they won’t look there. It’s fascinating how kids go deaf when you tell them to get in bed or to not kick their sibling but then have supersonic hearing when you open up a bag of Takis Fuego Hot Chili Pepper & Lime Tortilla Chips from inside the bathtub. Being on lockdown with a big family hasn’t been a breeze, but I like to think this time together is strengthening bonds. Especially during a global pandemic and this historic unrest. We took the kids protesting the other day, and they’re still talking about how good it felt to be a part of something that matters so much.

Everyone agrees on empanadas, so I put in an order to La Carreta, a Latin taqueria and grocery store that serves Colombian-style appetizers and finger foods. I ask for 30 empanadas and a large container of aji picante, a dipping sauce made with scallions, red habanero pepper, cilantro, etc. I don’t know if this is controversial, but here it goes: Colombians make the best empanadas, thank you. On the way to pick up our food, I listen to Cookies, one of my favorite basketball podcasts. It’s a recent episode featuring Hanif Abdurraqib. Hanif is so smart, and I always love hearing his perspective on things. They talk about the police, the national debate concerning abolition, and the NBA. I miss the NBA so much I could cry. Hang on.

Okay, I’m back. At home, I eat standing up. It’s a terrible habit. If I recall, my mom did the same thing when my brothers and I were growing up. I call her to make sure — because I could never lie to you, dear reader — and she confirms it is true.

“Papi, sit down and eat next to me,” my daughter says. Kids have this way of helping you see things as they should be, even if it’s something that on the surface seems very simple, like trying to eat with joy when everything else feels ominous and unpredictable.

My wife reminds me I have an appointment at the eye doctor. I get there just in time. Turns out I’m blinder than I was on my last visit three years ago, but not quite so that I need bifocals yet. Bifocals can be pretty bitchin’, and I look forward to rocking some thick ones in the coming years à la Michael “Squints” Palledorous, beloved shortstop from the ’90s classic The Sandlot.

Dinner is leftover egg drop soup with shrimp and shiitake mushrooms. Out of nowhere, my wife suggests we get up early and drive from our home in Atlanta to Missouri, to spend a few days at her parents’ house in the woods. Why not? Things are quiet there, and you can hear the wind brush against the leaves of trees. I typically love it for a few days and then start to feel anxious. Nature is super-tight, but I need more noise; I need to hear tires screeching and people shouting expletives at passersby for no reason at all. It comforts me.

Saturday, June 13
One of my favorite things to do is cook breakfast for my family on Saturday mornings. I put on the lofi hip hop radio — beats to relax/study to playlist and get to chopping and seasoning, frying and flipping. Saturday is the only day of the week when breakfast even crosses my mind.

In general, I’ve been cooking a lot more since quarantine started but have yet to branch out much. I stick to easy pastas like Alfredo and Bolognese and dishes like pork chops with rice, pink beans, and tostones. I’m an adventurous eater but not a particularly daring or experimental home chef. I lack discipline in the kitchen and am much too lazy to follow recipes in detail or bother with too much measuring. Breakfast is a different story. I’m perpetually in awe of the many ways you can dress an egg. Rocky was on TV the other day, and so my son dares me to crack some eggs into a glass and knock it back like I’m training for the fight of my life. I respectfully decline.

We load the car with bags, an assortment of fruit, and entertainment, a 12-hour drive ahead of us. As we’re getting ready to hit the road, I check Twitter and read that last night, 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks was killed by the police here in Atlanta. My heart sinks. It feels strange to be leaving when part of me now wants to stay back in the city.

At a rest stop, I buy a coffee and a can of Monster; I pour some of the energy drink into my scalding-hot styrofoam cup and throw away the rest because that stuff is bad for you, man.

Lunch is some perfectly delicious drive-thru garbage: burgers and loaded chilli cheese fries from a joint somewhere in Kentucky. When we get to Missouri, we put the kids straight to bed. My brother-in-law breaks out his homemade moonshine, and we drink a lot and talk about the world and raising children in a country that I can only describe as a failed experiment.

I stay up too late on my phone watching season two of Ramy, which is altogether beautiful in its searching. Mahershala Ali guest-stars, and Mahershala Ali is perfect. He’s also impossibly handsome. I would give my life for Mahershala Ali.

Sunday, June 14
I am happy to report that I do not wake up with a hangover. Something about my brother-in-law’s concoction having less methyl alcohols and fusel oils and whatnot — he tries to explain the process, but I’m too dumb to understand what any of the science means.

For lunch, I munch on handfuls of whatever’s available. What I really want is some Hot & Sweet Jalapeños from Trader Joe’s. They will destroy your mouth, which is a thing you might be into if you like a little pain to go with your food intake. They’re good on burgers and pizza or by themselves. I’m a snacks person. Some of the best snacks in the world can be found at my favorite grocery store, the Buford Highway Farmers Market in Atlanta. It’s basically a global tour of delicious treats from South Korea, the Philippines, Mexico, China, Holland, and more. Some of my go-tos are Zambos, which are ceviche-flavored plantain chips from Honduras, and Wang Korebap, Korean beef-and-chicken seaweed crackers whose packing features a fish wearing a pirate hat and a disarming smile. I have a soft spot for animals, aquatic or otherwise, wearing clothes and/or talking.

All that is to say I’m willing to engage in a debate about what constitutes a meal. As far as I’m concerned, sausage-flavored bread snacks from the Ukraine will always beat a bowl of lettuce with some punk-ass cherry tomatoes sprinkled on top.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about some of the language we use to describe things, especially in the areas of food and drink. For example, when I hear empty words like “artisanal” or “exotic” to describe anything you ingest into your body, I immediately get suspicious. If a line of Cheetos can be advertised as “natural” and Domino’s can hawk “artisan” pizza, then we should consider that planet Earth is nothing but a ball of locally sourced cheddar rolling swiftly down a hill. I’d rather drink one of my son’s Capri Suns, if you want to know the truth. Sksksksk.

Monday, June 15
Some personal news:

ToDaY i FiNaLlY hAd ThE cHiCkEn SaNdWiCh FrOm PoPeYeS fOr ThE fIrSt TiMe.

That’s it. That’s the post.

Tuesday, June 16
I had the Chicken Sandwich from Popeye’s again. I didn’t think it could be better than it was yesterday, and boy was I wrong. The way I see it, I’m at least a year late to the Popeye’s party, so it’s necessary to make up for lost time. Might buy a franchise, might not.

I have a couple of video calls this afternoon for some projects I’m excited about. Fingers crossed, etc. At one point, someone asked what I thought about whatever brilliant thing they just said, and I panicked because I was scrolling on my phone, half listening. I’m easily distracted. If we’re ever on a virtual call together, please assume I’m also looking at memes, thinking about something sick Goku said in an episode of Dragon Ball, or daydreaming about the perfect slice (it’s Best Pizza, in Williamsburg).

Dinner is beef tacos using cilantro from my sister-in-law’s garden. I love cilantro. If there was a church of cilantro, I would go to that church. This is now an ad for cilantro. Anyway, every meal is a blessing these days, and many of us would be foolish not to recognize that fact. I can’t wait to take simple things like cilantro for granted again.

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