the grub street diet

Leon Neyfakh Always Waits Too Long to Eat

“Not to be dramatic, but this is something I genuinely hate about myself.”

Leon Neyfakh is a herring guy. Illustration: Elly Rodgers
Leon Neyfakh is a herring guy. Illustration: Elly Rodgers

Journalist Leon Neyfakh takes a meticulous approach to the podcasts for which he is known — like Fiasco, which has been adapted into an Epix series that debuts September 19 — but he admits his attitude toward eating is a bit more … relaxed. “Eats like shit” is how he jokingly refers to his dietary habits. This week, while putting in the work on podcasts for Prologue Projects (the company he founded in 2018), he ate soft-boiled eggs, a huge club sandwich, pasta, burrata, steak, salmon, and a croissant-based frozen pizza that was “honestly amazing.”

Monday, August 16
I woke up at 6 a.m. feeling the kind of ambient half-hunger that I always tolerate for way too long. Not to be dramatic, but this is something I genuinely hate about myself — I always wait too long to eat, and I inevitably get into a bad mood before finally fixing the problem.

My wife Alice rescued me with yogurt. She put all kinds of stuff in there that would never occur to me, like honey, almond shavings, plum slices, and a syrupy jam made out of sour cherries. I also had some instant coffee, which I prefer to real coffee. I’m not trying to take a stand here, but unless I’m drinking espresso, I like my coffee cheap-tasting and not bitter.

​I started work around 9. My goal for the day was to give notes on two rough cuts of Fiasco. We’re on our fifth season of the show now — having just finished a six-part series on Benghazi, we’re doing the next one on the HIV crisis.

I got hungry for lunch around noon, but again waited like 90 minutes to do anything about it. Once I hit a breaking point, I needed something fast and potent, so I made myself three soft-boiled eggs using a Japanese device my friend David gave me. It looks kind of like a UFO: You stick as many as six eggs inside then cover them with a clear plastic dome and pour a bit of water into a tiny hole. The device only has one button, and once you press it, the water starts turning into hot steam; when all the water runs out, a surprisingly beautiful song plays to inform you the eggs are ready. I eat them, one by one, out of a little egg cup Alice got me for my birthday; it has feet and is wearing gym shoes, and while it’s not the most stable egg cup in the world, it’s worth it to me for the aesthetic experience.

In the end, the three eggs turned out not to be enough, but luckily Alice came home with a vat of white rice from Hanco’s, and she let me eat her leftovers. Ordinarily a vat of rice wouldn’t taste like anything, but Alice dusted it with some nutritional yeast. I wish “nutritional yeast” had a name that made it sound less like hospital food; seems like with a rebrand it could easily be an American staple.

Then I made a phone call I’d been avoiding for over a week. My 91-year-old grandmother, who has dementia, broke her hip recently, and I spent about a week in Chicago making arrangements for her to move into a nursing home that specializes in patients who only speak Russian. I had gone to see her there three times before flying back to New York, and while she seemed okay in her new surroundings, somehow that had changed by the time I called her from New York for the first time, at which point she told me, with apparent lucidity, that unless I was calling to pick her up and take her home, she had nothing to say to me. I’m quoting verbatim here because I wrote it down at the time: “You’ve betrayed me. I don’t have a grandson anymore.” The nurses assured me this was just the dementia talking, but still — it made me scared to call her again.

Finally I gathered the courage to reach out and was delighted that she seemed to have no recollection of our previous conversation. Because I’d heard from the dietician on her floor that she had been refusing to eat, I asked how the food at the nursing home was. “I’m not so worried about the food,” she said. “They can give me whatever they want.” I suggested, hopefully, that surely some of it was good, and she said, “No. Never. There’s never anything good. Like in all of America.” She didn’t beg me to take her home this time, but toward the end of the call, she said, “I want my head to stop spinning. I want my back to stop hurting. I just want to disappear, and I want to be forgotten.” When I said I loved her, she said, “I love you, too, kitten” — that’s a normal term of endearment in Russian — “but there’s nothing much here left to love.”

For dinner, Alice and I sat at the bar at River Deli, an Italian bistro (not a deli) about a block from Brooklyn Bridge Park. We shared burrata — my favorite food, particularly when they don’t drown it in “balsamic glaze” — and then shared two pasta dishes, one with mushrooms, the other with tuna. I also had a martini. I love River Deli because every dish looks small but is actually quite dense and filling, and while I’m no expert on Italian food, or any food, the flavors there always strike me as precise and unusual.

For dessert, we had chocolate mousse in a mug, which tasted like my favorite dessert from growing up in Soviet Russia: sweetened condensed milk mixed with cocoa powder.

Tuesday, August 17
Before I ate anything I lay in bed and uploaded the new episode of 365 Stories I Want to Tell You Before We Both Die, a daily micro-podcast hosted by filmmaker Caveh Zahedi, produced by moi. It’s a pandemic project, basically a memoir that’s been broken up into tiny pieces, usually between two-to-four-minutes long, and released in nonchronological order every day of 2021. After I got that out of the way, I drank a chocolate Soylent while reading the new novel by Rivka Galchen. I know Rivka a little and reading her book feels like hanging out with her, even though it’s set in the 1600s. (Alice has said that my favorite genre of literature seems to be “novels written by my female acquaintances.”)

For lunch I met up with Avery Trufelman, who is fresh off a run as the host of The Cut podcast. We sat outside at Happy Days in Brooklyn Heights, a pleasantly rundown diner with a halfhearted ’50s theme (glittery blue vinyl seats, photos of Frank Sinatra on the wall, etc). I ordered a “Lindy Club,” mostly because the word “lindy” has been rattling around in my brain ever since my friend Juiceboxxx told me about it. Apparently “lindy” is new internet slang that refers to anything that’s … eternal, or somehow endemic to human society, like taking a walk, or gambling. One recent example would be the taking of Kabul by the Taliban; I’m not trying to make light of it, but assuming power in a ritualistic manner is definitely lindy.

The Lindy Club was fine but mainly it was huge.

For dinner Alice and I met up with our friend Liz, who makes puzzles and crosswords at The New Yorker, and Nick, who is an archivist for Yoko Ono. Nick recently made the boss move of getting an apartment in Tudor City — a magical little district on the outskirts of midtown, right next to the U.N. building. We went to a steakhouse that’s literally on the first floor of his building. I noticed they had a very generous and, to me, unusual happy hour schedule: In addition to 3 to 6:30 p.m., they offered HH from 9 to 11 p.m. — AND “ladies” can get HH prices all day and all night if they sit at the bar.

I ordered a martini; Alice got prosecco. Together we decided to share a 12-ounce filet mignon and a 22-ounce sirloin, both rare.

In addition to working for Yoko Ono, Nick is an amateur nose, a.k.a. fraghead, a.k.a. perfume-maker. He told us over dinner that his latest scent is called Players Musk — he described it as a combination of fresh-cut grass in the suburbs, laundry, and a little BO. The overall vibe is “youthful.” Nick is a genius and I’m trying to convince him to make a podcast for my company about the fraghead community.

We asked Liz about the new game she’s writing for The New Yorker — it’s called Name Drop, and the idea is to guess the celebrity based on a series of six clues, which are deployed in order from most challenging to least. The fewer clues you need, the better you do. Nick told a story about freaking out on acid at the airport once and then seeing Roxane Gay at his gate.

After dinner we ducked into a tiny convenience store inside of Tudor City where they had a dazzling collection of rare snacks. I picked up a chocolate-covered Payday bar, which I’d never seen before — it was softer than a regular Payday, and didn’t require as much exertion to chew. A-plus snack innovation.

Wednesday, August 18
I didn’t eat anything till lunch, at which point I ordered delivery from Aji Sushi, a restaurant that punches way above its weight. It’s priced more or less like cheap delivery sushi, but, as I discovered one night after randomly ordering it on Seamless, the quality is out of this freakin’ world. In addition to a five-piece sushi appetizer, I ordered a few pieces of my two favorite sushis: white tuna and unagi. White tuna I love for its subtle salty taste, combined with the slipperiness of the fish; unagi I love because the texture and the sauce are both so unexpected, while the temperature — warm — is always such a nice change of pace when you’re eating a bunch of cold fish. I also got myself two hand rolls: one salmon, one yellowtail. Something about the ratio of rice to fish to seaweed in a hand roll reminds me of the densely packed fish snacks you can buy in any Tokyo convenience store.

For dessert I ate two handfuls of dried wild strawberries that I bought in Brighton Beach, and one handful of rainbow sprinkles of unknown origin. A couple hours later I opened a Beck’s and found a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos popcorn I bought as a party snack last time we had friends over.

One defining fact about my life is that Alice and I live within a few blocks of six close friends — three couples, I should say — and we hang out with them several times a week. On this day, we took a six-pack of Heineken to Dave and Sophie’s apartment. Dave graciously prepared for us an appetizer of croissant-style DiGiorno’s microwave pizza. The pizza was honestly amazing.

For actual dinner we ordered from Hadramout, an under-discussed Yemeni restaurant across from Sahadi’s. The food here is unlike any food I’ve ever eaten. I got my normal order of lamb ghallaba on a bed of hummus. If you don’t know what this is, I want you to get it without reading anything about it, the way you would go to a movie without reading any reviews because you just know it’s going to be good and you want to come in as a blank slate.

After we finished dinner, we watched the first 15 minutes of the new Netflix movie Beckett. I couldn’t tell if it was John David Washington’s acting, or the script, or the fact that David and Sophie’s TV had motion smoothing on, but it seemed to have been written by people who had never seen a movie before. The plot summary on the Beckett Wikipedia page is worth reading.

Thursday, August 19
I woke up a little before 7 a.m. to a voicemail from my grandmother’s nursing home. It had been left just a few minutes earlier. A woman with a pretty thick accent said, “Hey Leon, your grandmother just passed now. She’s dead. Please call back so we can talk together.”

Apparently around 5 a.m., my grandma’s breathing had become erratic and her blood pressure had fallen, and by the time the ambulance arrived she was dead.

I was stunned, but it didn’t take long for me to experience profound relief about getting to talk to her on Monday, and gratitude for the fact that the previous conversation we’d had, when she told me I had betrayed her, hadn’t been our last.

I thought about the fact that, every time anyone had talked to her during the last few months, she had expressed hope that she would die — that she had asked to be moved to hospice, even though there was nothing wrong with her, because in her mind that would accelerate things. So what right did we have to be sad that she was gone? I was anyway.

After I arranged for a funeral home to pick up my grandma’s body from the nursing home … I drank a Soylent and edited an episode of 5-4, a podcast I help produce about how much the Supreme Court sucks. It was a barnburner in which they argued Neal Katyal should pay a reputational cost for representing the Nestle Corporation before the Supreme Court. For lunch, I scarfed down all the leftover lamb ghallaba.

My grandma stopped cooking food for me about two years before she died. Before that, she was constantly sending me back to New York with precariously wrapped meat pies, herring, etc., and when I was growing up she was responsible — along with my mom — for most of my diet. As you can probably tell by this point, I’m not the most refined person when it comes to food, but I am open-minded, and my grandma’s cooking — fried zucchini, radishes with butter, meatballs, borscht, mushroom soup, pelmeni, cow brains — is almost certainly to thank.

Oddly enough my grandma’s two favorite dishes to make for me when I was a kid were both named after birds. One was “pigeons” — they’re kind of like dumplings, filled with beef, except the beef is wrapped in cabbage leaves. I don’t know why Russians call them pigeons but that’s the way it is. The other thing my grandma made for me were swans. They weren’t called swans; they were swans. She’d build them out of four pieces of fried dough, with a base, two wings, and a little neck and head. She would put sweet cream in the base. She’d make like a dozen of them, along with a sheet of Jell-O that would serve as their lake.

As if the day couldn’t get any weirder, I spent the afternoon wrestling with an ethical dilemma: As the recipient of a Johnson & Johnson vaccine, should I get an mRNA booster before going to Greece in a few weeks? Multiple people urged me to do so, saying that the upcoming vacation means that even an asymptomatic case could result in me getting stuck abroad. The problem was that in order to get the vaccine, I’d have to lie to a pharmacist and say I hadn’t been vaccinated yet. And I really didn’t want to lie. Alice didn’t understand why I had any qualms about it. And I couldn’t really defend it, it’s not like there’s been a shortage of vaccines in New York. Plus, the CDC guidelines are going to be calling for people to get extra shots in like a month. And yet I still didn’t want to lie. Among other things, I didn’t want the pharmacists, or anyone within earshot, to think I was only just getting vaccinated. What kind of person would they take me for?

Finally I caved, and after getting the illicit injection at a Rite Aid, I bought a bottle of Snapple strawberry-pineapple lemonade — an elaborate concoction that called out to me from the shelf. Usually these kinds of drinks are disappointing but this one really hit the spot, a gentle sour instead of an adversarial one.

I did some work and wondered when the side effects from my Moderna shot were going to kick in. I had dinner plans with John Koblin, my old friend from the New York Observer, and since I really wanted to see him and was feeling fine, I didn’t even think about canceling.

Koblin and I always go to the same Indian place in Brooklyn Heights and when I got there we realized it had turned BYOB, so I ran across the street to Green Apple Mart — a majestic deli — and bought a six-pack of Heinekens. We both ordered tikka masala — Koblin got chicken and I got fish, a new thing for me. I’ll confess that the salmon that arrived was not what I was picturing — I thought it’d be a stew for some reason — but it was delicious.

I wanted to tell Koblin about my grandma but I also wanted to make it entertaining instead of melancholy, so I told him a whole drawn-out story about the hip injury, and the surgery, and the process of moving her into the nursing home, and then my two phone calls with her — the whole time not revealing that she had died just 12 hours earlier. And then I revealed it like a punch line and he couldn’t believe it. Honestly I think he loved it! And he was very compassionate. I’m usually bad at talking about death, but this felt natural and right.

Friday, August 20
I was expecting to wake up wrecked by my Moderna shot, but I was totally fine. Alice, who got her extra shot about an hour before I got mine, was completely out of commission, and it was understood that I would be on my own journey for the day.

While walking Mickey, I picked up a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich at the deli closest to our apartment and ate half of it. I didn’t eat the other half of the sandwich till 2:30. I wasn’t sure if I should try to warm it up to make the cheese melt again, but after one bite I decided it was good enough cold.

My plan for the evening was to meet up with my friend Meg, a producer who works with me on the podcast Celebrity Book Club with Steven and Lily. Meg lives upstate but was coming to the city for the weekend. Because I was out of ideas and didn’t want to be responsible for setting the parameters of Meg’s night, I asked her to just make a plan and promised to meet her wherever. She told me to come to Bacaro in Chinatown, and that she’d be with her friend Chase, a documentary filmmaker.

It was around 5 p.m. that I realized the vaccine was finally hitting. My arm really hurt, and the pain seemed to be spreading into the rest of my body, like some kind of poisonous gas. (I know that’s not what it was though, I promise!) I felt sluggish and my head hurt and my eyeballs were moving around in a halting and unnatural way. Alice was still asleep but stirring, and when I told her my situation she said I should definitely just stay home. But I didn’t want to cancel on Meg, or end this diary in a pathetic anticlimax, so I decided to rally.

Meg and Chase were drinking martinis when I arrived, so I ordered one too, even though in my head I had been planning to go home after two beers. One martini turned into two, and two turned into three, which I couldn’t believe. Then we ordered dinner — I got ricotta cavatelli with duck ragu — and somehow I ended up with a fourth martini.

Four martinis is fucking insane, and before long it was after midnight, and somehow I was still seeing straight and saying “yes” when Chase asked if I wanted a Fernet Branca before we left. After walking over to another bar nearby Meg ran into a friend of hers from Ohio who works at Online Ceramics, a thing I recognized from Instagram, and at 2 a.m. a group of us — including a shoe designer named Maggie — found ourselves in the lobby of the Bowery Hotel, splitting some kind of gelato. For reasons I could not explain to myself in the moment, I told Maggie, a stranger, about my grandma. She sounded genuinely sad to hear the news, which I appreciated.

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Leon Neyfakh’s Grub Street Diet