the grub street diet

Julia May Jonas Keeps a Secret Stash of Frozen Cake

“Even bad cake is good cake.”

Julia May Jonas published her debut novel, Vladimir, earlier this month. Illustration: Maanvi Kapur
Julia May Jonas published her debut novel, Vladimir, earlier this month. Illustration: Maanvi Kapur

Ostensibly, the focus of Julia May Jonas’s new novel, Vladimir, is an upstate literature professor, but it will be impossible for readers to miss the role eating and drinking play in the book, such as some “suburban martinis” and the “ambush of calories” that is a spaghetti carbonara pie. Jonas says it all comes from her own love of food, particularly anything involving mayo. “I’ve always liked creamy mixtures of things,” she jokes about her love of chicken salad. “That sounds so gross, but it feels indulgent.”

Thursday, February 17
At 6 a.m, my 11-month-old begins to cry. He’s in our room still because New York City. I run to sneak a cup of coffee from the pot as he wails. My husband is editing a book, so the coffee is on a timer for 5. I used to make my coffee with a moka pot (because we have kids, we now use pre-ground coffee in a drip pot) and set a timer the night before. We like embarrassing late-’90s-style coffee — very dark roasted. We once did a coffee subscription, and even though they sent me “dark roasts,” they were all too artisanal and well made to be dark enough. So we tend to get the darkest roast from our co-op or wherever we’re food shopping. This morning we’re drinking the Prospect Park blend from Union Market — practically Paul Auster’s Smoke it is so ’90s. I’ll drink it with whole milk, skim milk, oat milk, almond milk, whatever. (Life is an adventure!) Today, it’s regular milk. I take it back to the bed and nurse my son and try not spill on him while I read.

7 a.m. is go time: We have to start to get my daughter (8) and son (aforementioned 11-month-old) out the door. It’s like a video game: Lunch Packed — Level Unlocked! Next Challenge: Socks! We had a very bad morning yesterday, so we are determined to do it better.

My 8-year-old, she doesn’t really like food. She’s not so much picky as indifferent, which means she’s incredibly powerful because all I want her to do is eat. I slice her a corn muffin (sanctioned), cut up some apples for a fun decoration that will be ignored, and start a pot of steel-cut oats for my son, my husband, and myself.

Usually I make my daughter a hot lunch, but we have exhausted our options for the week, and I ask her if I can make her a turkey or roast-beef sandwich. She responds that she is “getting sucked into a balloon.” We eventually agree on turkey with cheese (Cabot’s Seriously Sharp, the cheese everyone tolerates), but I realize I don’t have any turkey, so, hoping she won’t notice, I cut up some leftover roast chicken we had a couple nights ago and cross my fingers.

I eat a bowl of steel-cut oats with flaky salt — I only like oatmeal if it is savory — and the apples that were left on my daughter’s plate. General chaos ensues, we do the double drop-off, and I head to my writer’s space. There, I make a fresh pot of coffee and check on the cookie status. I brought in some Florentines the other day and put them with a sign that said “Help yourself” and was dismayed to see yesterday that too many remained; it feels, I don’t know, overly parsimonious. (I also put napkins out so they could take them individually. I know we’re in a pandemic, but haven’t we agreed COVID is airborne?) This morning, I checked on the box and was relieved to see they had all been eaten, so everyone was redeemed.

Oatmeal always makes me ravenous an hour later, so I eat some cold turkey chili I brought from home with a cup of coffee (hot). I have reached some very old-man stage in which I love all flavors in concert with coffee. There’s a scene in that film Wanda in which she’s eating spaghetti with marinara sauce and drinking coffee and smoking, and it is supposed to be gross, but other than the smoking — I’m very nostalgic for smoking but I do not have any desire to do it while eating — I find it crave-inducing.

At 2 p.m. I go to the workspace kitchen and eat some more turkey chili as well as a container of Greek salad we had last night. It’s a bastardized Greek salad with lettuce, pretty light on the red onions, per my preference but it has olives and dolmas and very good feta. I love all the classic salads: Greek, Caesar, Waldorf, taco …

Dinner: My husband’s only criteria is that his food is not too hot in temperature, and thus his sole dislikes are pizza pockets, microwave burritos or any other type of “goo-bag” that might potentially burn his mouth. When it comes to food in the household, I am all alone, which can be great because it means I have control and he is always appreciative, but sometimes it feels a bit like I am lugging a rock up a hill.

However, he will usually watch the kids while I cook, which I love. Tonight I have decided to make a lamb-and-prune tagine because I am thinking about the lamb-and-prune tagine from Cafe Mogador, one of the New York dishes I consistently crave. My daughter and I are home before the baby and my husband come back, so I start early: saffron, preserved lemons, orange-flower water, leave it to simmer, feel victorious. But then I realize I have miscalculated — my husband is actually going out to dinner with a friend and will not be around either to watch kids or eat tagine with me. I attempt to do a balancing act of cooking and child care that fails, and I burn both the stew and the bottom of the quinoa I was going to serve it with. I improvise for my wards, then scrape the top off of each pot and eat my portion with Greek yogurt while remembering that “How long will you live” quiz that asks one how much charred food you consume. (Too much char equals lower life expectancy.)

I drink several bottles of seltzer-maker seltzer (I much prefer making seltzer at home because I really lay on the gas). The wards take a long time to go down for real, so I ask my husband to bring something home for me. He brings a six-pack of Sixpoint Resin IPA, which I like because I like intense things, but they are so high alcohol they can be trouble. I eat a piece of my daughter’s Valentine’s Day chocolate and drink one while he listens to me vent.

Friday, February 18
Coffee in bed while nursing again. At 7 a.m. the great work begins! Fix some quinoa and beans with cheddar for daughter’s lunch Thermos; cut her another corn muffin, this time with a side of raspberries to be ignored; make Dave’s bread with peanut butter and banana for my baby. Dave’s bread is perfectly fine but wow, we should all be as successful as that man. He’s everywhere. We are in a strange sandwich-bread rut ever since Vermont Bread shut down without warning last year, leaving yuppies like us confused and bereft in the organic-bread section.

As a fun and very unusual treat after drop-off, my husband and I go over to a friend’s house for coffee and eggs. Going over to someone’s house is something we didn’t do for so long in the pandemic, it feels practically illicit. She makes the eggs in an egg-maker; I like them just under medium, just a hint of ooze. I drink an immense cup of coffee — too much, really — and start to feel out of body.

When we get home, I graze on the leftover charred lamb tagine and quinoa and eat two clementines as well as a few spoonfuls of curried chicken salad from Fresh Direct. Then I try to seltzer my way out of the caffeine overload.

My husband and I head over to pick up the 8-year-old before we go to pick up our son. We get churros from the lady who comes by after school with her home-fashioned cart, four for $5. The possibility of encountering someone selling churros is one of the reasons to live in New York.

Once we’re all back home, I have an Athletic nonalcoholic beer. I have never liked day drinking, and I will not drink around my children, but sometimes I crave the taste of beer, and Athletic’s is both pretty good and arrest a certain kind of hunger. I also eat a cheese stick, which is to food what nonalcoholic beer is to beverages.

I’m meeting a friend, the director Sarah Hughes, for dinner to catch up and talk about the play cycle we were scheduled to collaborate on in 2020 but which is now happening in the spring of 2023. She’s in Kensington; I’m in Ditmas Park; we agree to meet at Werkstatt, a local place. It’s Austrian food, which is fine.

I have a martini, dry, with olives, a little dirty with whatever nice vodka they have. Sarah and I share chicken-liver mousse, a large spaetzle thing (very nubby and carby), a kielbasa, and a large arugula salad — all very indulgent. Once my martini is done, I am feeling expansive and order a glass of red wine. The wine list has three by the glass, and I order “the first one” because of my discriminating nature, then I order another one. This is fun in the moment, but I pay for it the next day. I wish I was some Julian Schnabel–type figure who could sit and feast and sample all the libations with erotic gusto, but this path is not available to me.

Saturday, February 19
Coffee with milk, lots of water, as I attempt to shake off my ragged feeling. I’m heading to New Jersey with the kids for my nephew’s birthday party and to give my husband some time to finish the edits on his book. I make pancakes for the kids, the simple Bittman recipe, one of the few I know by heart, using an offensive amount of butter to cook.

The birthday party for my nephew is mayhem, a Tae Kwon Do–style party at which Nerf guns are disseminated to 6-year-olds. There is pizza, of course. I am always amused to watch the grown-ups leap back in terror from being offered a slice. Sometimes I am that grownup but not today. I share two slices with my son. It’s New Jersey Italian–diaspora pizza, not bad. Then he and my mother and I hightail it out of there — too much stimulation. My daughter will meet us back at my brother and sister-in-law’s house.

I graze on some fruit left in their fruit bowl, make coffee, and eagerly await their return so I can have leftover cake. Cake is one of the best foods, perhaps my favorite food of all time. I’ll eat it any time, any day. Even bad cake is good cake.

We head back to my parents, and I am ravenous, so I rummage through their fridge and find some grilled lamb chops from the night before. My parents’ cooking is so incredibly meat-centric that even when I was a vegetarian I had a rule that I could eat meat when I visited them. Just as I pull out a lamb chop, my father calls from the living room to tell me there are some exceptional lamb chops in the fridge. He is not wrong: The lamb chop is exceptional. My parents are very good at meat. My folks have a soda fridge, and while I don’t drink it in normal life, I can’t resist it when I’m at my childhood home, so I have a Coke Zero and enjoy it profoundly.

Dinner is grilled filet mignon bought expressly to celebrate me. How can I refuse? We eat it with asparagus, a garden salad, and air-fried sweet-potato fries. My parents are very into their air fryer these days. The steak is perfect, the salad is fresh, the fries are fine. I drink a glass of my mom’s wine. She used to drink Yellow Tail all of the time — we called it Jersey Juice — but she has gotten much better in the past few years. This is a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, and it’s very drinkable, as the wine people like to say.

Sunday, February 20
Morning: The coffee is nothing to speak of at my parents’ house, but there is lots of it. I eat a croissant with fruit salad and bacon. Something about toast and bacon without eggs always feels elegant to me — continental plus! My mother likes to joke that at her funeral they’ll say, “She made such lovely fruit salad,” but it is true that it is very good: different kinds of citrus with the pith taken off, raspberries, blueberries, mango.

For lunch, my sister-in-law comes over with my nephew and niece and daughter, who slept over at theirs the night before. They all want grandpa to make burgers, and though now it’s feeling almost comical, I buckle in for more meat. The burgers are my parents’ pièce de résistance. I have never had better burgers than the ones they make, and that is truth. My father gets a lot of the credit for the grilling, but I personally think his effort is equal to my mother, who does the pack. Loose but not too loose, artful, well seasoned, consistent.

They’re served with more salad, broccoli for the kids, sliced pickles, onions, and tomatoes. Universally admired and beloved by all. After lunch, my mother brings out a giant tray of Valentine’s chocolates from a local chocolate shop, and thus begins my relationship with the chocolates — I have one with coconut, a cherry cordial, and a kind of millionaire-style small bar.

No one is hungry after our immense lunch, so after the baby is down, we have a games night with my parents and my daughter. My father makes popcorn on the stove top, and if I could teach the world one thing, it would be to use white corn for popcorn. It is the superior kernel.

Monday, February 21
Still in Jersey. Not-so-great coffee. When the time comes, a soft-boiled egg on pumpernickel toast and a new fruit salad. (This has kiwi and pomelos!) I’m trying to get everyone packed up and out the door. I don’t know how it is possible to fling our belongings around the house with such abandon in a 24-hour span, but leaving is always a bigger deal than it feels it should be. I continue my dynamic with the chocolates.

It’s winter break from school. The cousins come over and boxed macaroni and cheese is made. I’m able to resist until the very last moment, when I cave and eat what my daughter left in her bowl. A fail. That stuff is not good. I don’t know why it beckons to parents like the sirens singing to the Argonauts.

Once we get back to Brooklyn, I’m feeling pretty overfed, so in the afternoon I eat peppers and carrots and some handfuls of some kind of nice lettuce from Gotham Greens. I wish there was a more plentiful supply of interesting lettuce varieties in my life.

My husband has finished his edits while we’ve been gone, so he takes the kids out for a playdate and I take a bath and drink my aggressively bubbled seltzer and then a cup of dirt-dark coffee.

I always crave some different tastes after I come home from my folks’, and so I order from East Wind Snack Shop, which has the most delicious dumplings and might be the best restaurant in our area that will deliver to us. I order beef dumplings, pork dumplings, vegetable dumplings, sweet chili ribs, Happy Buddha vegetables, and vegetable noodles.

Later that night, I fish a small piece of frozen chocolate cake from the freezer, a dark-chocolate cake with cream-cheese frosting I made a week or two ago. I love frozen cake. This is from my secret stash; the pleasure of eating it is doubled because nobody knows about it except me.

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