Author David Kamp’s Grub Street Diet

Author David Kamp’s Grub Street Diet


“When lockdown began, I liked to cook to Cornershop’s lively, raucous new album England Is a Garden.”
Illustration: Margalit Cutler

With his book The United States of Arugula, David Kamp became one of the leading voices of the so-called food revolution, which, even now, seems to surprise Kamp. “I’m someone who loves food,” he says, “but I am not on the scene.” So it makes more sense that his new book, Sunny Days, is not about food at all. Instead, it tracks what Kamp calls the “burst of progressive children’s television” in the late-’60s and early ’70s. “There have been a lot of really good books about Sesame Street,” Kamp says, “but nobody had written about it as a social movement.” Now Kamp has, but that doesn’t mean he’s trading sourdough for Play-Doh. Instead, he and his family spend their days cooking for one another, supporting their local farms, and, like all of us, trying to make the most of all the time they now have together.

Friday, May 8
5:30 a.m., up with the larks. Not sure if this is some primeval instinct, but I’ve been rising with the sun ever since the lockdown began. We — my wife, two kids, dog, and me — have been sheltering in place in our little house in northwest Connecticut since March 12. We also live in Greenwich Village, but we saw the writing on the wall early on — my mom is a microbiologist; we take epidemiology seriously in this family — and made the executive decision to skedaddle.

I start the day with just coffee: Peet’s French Roast, brewed ultrastrong, with a splash of half-and-half. Lately, and not by choice, I‘ve been using fancy half-and-half from Arethusa Farm, a nearby dairy started up by two Manolo Blahnik executives. We normally buy regular supermarket half-and-half, but in these times of supply-chain issues, the Arethusa stuff is often the only brand on our local market’s shelves. It costs more but is palpably superior to Land O’Lakes and its problematic indigenous “butter maiden,” who still adorns the cartons ’round these parts.

I’ve always reveled in the early-morning coffee ritual, and never more so than now. All the other mammals in the house are still asleep, and I can hear about five tiers of birdsong while sipping my coffee in the kitchen, which takes the edge off of the depressing reality of waking up every morning and remembering the spectacle de merde that we’re in the middle of. Our family is beyond fortunate to have our health, our work, and a refuge from the pandemic’s epicenter. But this house is small, with less living space, actually, than our NYC apartment. My wife, a publishing executive, has commandeered the living room as her office and has Zoom conferences all day. I work in our bedroom. Our daughter and son are in their early 20s, not the little pipsqueaks who used to share the house’s one other bedroom. (Our son now sleeps on a foldout couch in the house’s remaining room, a den still full of their childhood toys.)

And everyone in this family has a set of lungs. I love them all deeply but they’re so … stentorian. So I genuinely cherish this moment of quiet and aloneness in the kitchen with my coffee and birdsong. I’m a Hope Sandoval in a houseful of Ethel Mermans.

Around 10:30 a.m., my son appears at my office/bedroom door with the tip-end of a breakfast burrito he has prepared and consumed the better part of. He knows that I eat very little during the day: some fruit, maybe a yogurt. This isn’t some Jack Dorsey-style, tech-bro, life-hack fasting stunt, just a peculiar pattern I fell into a long time ago, when I recognized that — for me, anyway — lunch is a time-suck and makes me logy and unproductive. The burrito tip is amazing, though: eggs, red onion, salsa, and bacon from Nodine’s Smokehouse, which makes the country’s best bacon and whose HQ is located, fortuitously, a half-hour’s drive from here.

On most weekdays in the city, I get out for an afternoon espresso or cortado, just for the calming ritual of it. In non-plague times, I do this at the original Jack’s Stir Brew Coffee on West 10th Street, a cramped little space whose crampedness I adored but now fear will be unrevivable. One time at Jack’s, the barista yelled out, “David, your drink is ready!” and two of us stood up. The other David, I realized, was Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode. We struck up a friendly conversation, sitting two inches apart, about music, raising kids, and quotidian West Village stuff. I miss moments like this. Will any of us ever get to enjoy serendipitous coffee breaks with doomy synth-pop titans again?

This evening, we’ve been dragooned into one of those Zoom cocktail hours. I make an old-fashioned, my wife has a gin-and-tonic with lemon (her drink year-round), and we slice up a coarse country salami from Jacüterie, an excellent charcuterie company started up by a young farmer just over the border in New York State.

I’ve been resistant to these “virtual” cocktail hours because they seem corny and I dislike forced jollity. But I discover that, in this case, I enjoy the exercise — I miss my friends dearly and am cheered by a little moment of boozy communion and animal fat (from the salami, not my friends). Part of my resistance to these video hangouts, I’ve come to realize, is that I find Zoom’s “gallery view” to be aesthetically unappealing. Couldn’t they commission Maira Kalman to draw some funky borders around the little screens or program a “Sven Nykvist mode” so we can all opt to look bleakly glamorous like we’re in Bergman’s Persona?

On to dinner. Tonight I’ve prepared rabo encendido, Cuban-style oxtail stew. We are not exactly flush right now, so one prevailing theme of lockdown has been cheap cuts o’ meat. The other day, my son improvised a damned good tikka masala out of some chicken thighs, yogurt, and whatever was in our spice cabinet. This evening, it’s oxtails.

Rabo encendido is a haimish but labor-intensive dish, involving a long period of marination, lots of chopping peppers, onions, and potatoes and then letting everything simmer for hours in a Dutch oven. It’s really more of a Saturday or Sunday dish. But I’ve given over my Friday to it. I’ve generally been pretty productive workwise during this lockdown, but every few days, the lead dentist’s apron of despair descends, and I know that I won’t get any writing done. Today was one of those days. Also, we’re in this endless loop of Nordic-noir weather. It’s going to be 29 degrees tonight here. In May! Bourbon weather, stew weather.

My rabo encendido backstory: For the last several years, I’ve been collaborating with John Leguizamo, the director Tony Taccone, and the composer Benjamin Velez on a new musical comedy, Kiss My Aztec! When we were doing workshops near Times Square, we got into the habit of going to Margon on West 46th Street, a fantastic cheap-eats Cuban diner: a narrow, friendly, point-and-pay place. You point at what you want behind the plexiglass, you pay, and they bring you a heaping plate on a cafeteria tray, usually with sides of rice and plátanos maduros fritos. Midtown the way it used to be. They also have made-to-order pressed Cuban sandwiches that the sandwich man prepares on a griddle at the front of the shop. That’s what I always ordered until, on one of our visits, the owner recognized John and brought him this huge foil serving tray of rabo encendido, on the house.

It was a magnanimous gesture, but it reminded me of the time that Les Paul gave Paul McCartney a custom-made left-handed guitar. Of all the people who don’t need a free guitar, Macca is at the top of the list. And Johnny Legs? On the basis of his royalties from voicing the sloth in the Ice Age movies alone, he could bathe in a tub full of rabo encendido for the remainder of his days. (Oh God, if he reads this, the pervert will actually do it.) Still, I get it — the Les Paul guitar and the oxtail stew were offerings, expressions of gratitude from fans to great artists. Plus, John let me eat about half of his oxtails. Now they’re my favorite thing to get at Margon.

Tonight, I serve my own version of rabo encendido — fairly traditionalist, with none of that pie-spice frippery — over yellow rice. It turns out aces, the meat slipping right off the bone, the sauce velvety. For our daughter, who is a pescatarian, I toss some tofu cubes in cornstarch, adobo seasoning, and olive oil, roast them on a sheet, and then simmer them in a vegetarian version of the same sauce. A couple of days ago, this same daughter baked a batch of Julia Moskin’s Giant Crinkled Chocolate Chip Cookies. One remained. I claim it, accelerating the process by which I myself am becoming giant and crinkled.

My wife washes up while I walk the dog. On the way back, two driveways down from our house, I come face to face with a wild bear for the first time in my life. Fortunately, our stare-down is brief, with the bear beating a hasty retreat into my neighbors’ yard. Furry bastard wasn’t even wearing a mask!

Saturday, May 9
Up at 5:50 a.m. today — I slept in! The usual Peet’s French Roast with Manolo Blahnik trim. A dusting of snow outside. Raccoon tracks. The proximity and ubiquity of critters is making me happy rather than annoyed.

At 11 a.m., I become the first person in America since this whole thing started to eat a banana at its exact pinnacle of ripeness. Feeling smug.

Just some light grazing in the afternoon. A few days ago, we picked up some provisions from an organic farm over the border in Massachusetts called Moon in the Pond Farm: ramps, salad greens, a hunk of local cheese called Berleberg, and watermelon radishes.

Watermelon radishes are an easy way to impress friends while making little effort. You simply cut them open and they look like a psychedelic eclipse effect from the Pink Floyd laser show. With just a little more effort, you can further impress your friends by making quick pickles with the radishes. Just slice them thin and squish the slices into a jar of brine. (Mine is white vinegar, simple syrup, salt, garlic, whole peppercorns, and mustard seed.) After a few days in the fridge, some of the watermelon-red color from the radishes leeches into the brine and it looks like you’re really good at “putting up” provisions for your “larder,” like a Protestant.

I make a simple snack plate of my watermelon radish pickles and some chunks of the Berleberg with a few crackers. Lovely.

For dinner, we have takeout pizza from the Lantern Inn in Wassaic, New York. The Lantern is an old farmer’s tavern that has been youthified and hipsterized in an unoppressive way. Minh Le, the restaurant’s friendly manager, has adapted to these times by taking online orders and then placing the pizzas for pickup on a table just outside the front door, all contact-free. In fact, this is also how Moon in the Pond Farm and a lot of other local purveyors are staying in business. The Lantern does wood-fired pizzas with blistery, chewy crusts — like the original Roberta’s in Bushwick, minus the din and the ageism.

I get a fiery pizza called Eye of the Tiger, with pepperoni and pickled serranos. My daughter gets a vegetarian white pizza, the Green Lantern, with kale, pecorino, mozz, garlic, lemon, and olive oil.

We collectively finish off a bottle of Ciauria Etna Rosso ’18 from Pietro Caciorgna in Sicily. I’m doing my level best to support my NYC merchant friends within my means, so I ordered a mixed case of affordable reds from Matt Franco, the dashingly handsome owner of MCF Rare Wine on West 13th Street. The Ciauria is a bargain at $20 a bottle.

Sunday, May 10
I wake up at 5:45. I regard the person in the mirror. My hair is starting to look like Elizabeth Banks’s as Jill Ruckelshaus in Mrs. America, had Jill Ruckelshaus had a receding hairline. More Manolo Peet’s coffee. An especially good pot.

At 11 a.m., my wife makes me an extraordinary bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich — on a regular Martin’s roll, with Nodine’s bacon and fresh, brightly yolked eggs from Whippoorwill Farm, located just a mile from us. Whippoorwill’s proprietors, Robin and Allen Cockerline, specialize in beef (they sold me the oxtails for the rabo encendido), but they also have a limited supply of eggs every day from their layin’ hens. The Cockerlines, too, are doing the phone-ahead, no-contact pickup thing.

From 1985 to 2007, I ate a buttered bagel pretty much every morning. Then, while promoting my first book, The United States of Arugula, I appeared on Stephen Colbert’s old Comedy Central show, and I didn’t like how much I had come to look like Brian Wilson in his indoor-sandbox era. I still love bagels more than life itself, but nowadays, breakfast is a weekend treat.

I’m cooking dinner tonight. We don’t generally observe what we call the Hallmark holidays — Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day. I used to turn up my nose at them completely, until I realized that my many friends in the restaurant business, as well as my friend Beth Salvini at Greenwich Letterpress, depend heavily on these holidays for revenue. So, in their honor, I have reoriented my nose. Ergo, this is a Mother’s Day chicken dinner. Also, Aimée, my wife, is carrying the heaviest load professionally at the moment, pulling double shifts to close a book, and she deserves every moment of relaxation she can get.

The chicken, too, was picked up at Whippoorwill Farm, though Allen Cockerline says he received this allocation of birds — “fresh-killed,” as my parents’ kosher butcher used to say — from La Belle Farm in Ferndale, New York. La Belle! I envision a farmyard in which elaborately plumed chickens strut about clucking “Gitchie-gitchie, ya-ya, da-da.”

When lockdown began, I liked to cook to Cornershop’s lively, raucous new album England Is a Garden, which was a great way of making life seem like a party — yeah, social distancing will be fun! Then, when ennui set in, I started playing Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, an album I‘ve already listened to about 100,000 times but am lately finding a comfort. My daughter heard me singing along to “Golden Lady” and pronounced this circumstance “cute.” But not cute in the cute sense of cute. “Cute” meaning “adorable behavior by an old person.”

Today I cook to Been Around, a new album by A Girl Called Eddy, the stage name of a singer-songwriter named Erin Moran. I cannot stress how good this LP is: a fusion of Carole King, Jackie DeShannon, and Burt Bacharach, with Moran’s own unique melancholic thing thrown in. I’ve been loving this album so much that I reached out to Moran on social media. And she responded! It turns out that we share a devotion to Joe Raposo, the great Sesame Street composer. And now Erin — I have progressed to calling her Erin — and I are discussing collaborating on something. An upside to these down days: In our collective unmoored state, people want to make connections.

I do a poor man’s version of Judy Rodgers’s famous Zuni Café roast chicken with bread salad: I pat the bird super-dry with paper towels and pre-salt it way in advance like Judy did. Then I roast it at high heat in a Dutch oven inside the regular oven and serve it over homemade croutons and a bed of arugula, which wilts nicely under the chicken’s drippings. I got to know Judy, who died in 2013, when I was researching The United States of Arugula, maybe in 2003? She was the first interviewee to instantly get the concept of the book. “You mean the intersection of food and popular culture, right?” she said. “Like when Paul Bocuse was on the cover of Newsweek in 1975.” Then she disappeared into her office and came back. She had saved that issue, and she gave it to me.

Dessert is a blueberry pie that we bought frozen and unbaked from Freund’s, another farm stand that is doing the contact-free-purchase thing. By now you’ve sussed out that we go to so many farm stands because doing so supports a small local business, ensures quality, ensures safe shopping, and, above all, gives us someplace to go.

I baked the pie in the afternoon, so we could put it in the fridge and serve it slightly chilled after dinner. Blueberry pie is my favorite dessert, and Freund’s makes my favorite blueberry pie. Each mouthful is sensually gelatinous, a pas de deux between a tastebud groom and his yielding berry bride, the pellucid flavor of a lusty, grass-stained summer. Sorry, Ruth Reichl commandeered my keyboard for that last sentence.

Monday, May 11
A cuppa Manolo Peet’s at 5:45 a.m., as per the new usual. I eat little until supper, which is, tonight, kheema pav.

Also known as a Bombay Sloppy Joe, kheema pav is spiced, minced lamb served on a buttered bun — classic Mumbai street meat. My son is the cook. He is — or, rather, is meant to be — a hospitality major in college, and he spent the summer of 2018 as an intern at the glorious Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai. He wore a smart uniform and worked, quite literally, as a lobby boy.

My son is a sports-loving, ballcap-wearing kid who is neither arty nor self-conscious yet somehow ticks every Wes Anderson box. He loves India. Half of his friends are from other countries. He spent the summer of ’19 working as the ice cream cart boy in front of the Odeon, wearing a Breton striped boating shirt as mandated by his employer. But right now, like all the bussers and kitchen workers he befriended at the Odeon, he’s wondering if there will be any hospitality jobs in the city this summer.

Left to his own devices, my son would eat nothing but bodega and street food. A few weeks ago, when it was his turn to cook, he served us Hajji’s-worthy chopped-cheese sandwiches for dinner (and a Beyond Meat version for his sister). In Mumbai, he became obsessed with kheema pav, and quarantine restlessness has inspired him to re-create it here. He is prescriptive about how we should eat our sandwiches: with a layer of diced onion and frequent squeezes of juice from thick lemon wedges. He knows what he is doing — the sandwiches are awesome.

Tuesday, May 12
It’s publication day for my new book, Sunny Days. Months ago, I’d envisioned us celebrating as a family at Il Posto Accanto, a madcap little East Village joint run by my favorite NYC odd couple: Beatrice Tosti, the chef, who is from Rome, and her husband, Julio Peña, who is Dominican-American and grew up Washington Heights. Julio and Bea are hilarious, TV-ready extroverts — as my son says, a “quality follow” on Instagram. We were looking forward to placing ourselves in their hands tonight.

But we’re not in the city, and Il Posto Accanto is not open for business. I check in by phone with Julio, who runs the front of the house. He tells me that they closed their doors not for lack of takeout business but because his employees reached a point where they no longer felt safe taking the subway to work. He and Beatrice are trying to work out how to reopen in the warmer weeks to come. They have been surviving — barely — on the goodwill of customers who are buying gift certificates to be redeemed at a later date. There has been talk of the city closing off certain blocks to traffic as a way of getting neighborhood joints back on their feet, by making socially distanced alfresco dining possible this summer. I suggest this notion to Julio. Hours later, he texts me to say that he raised the idea with his local councilwoman, Carlina Rivera, who is keen on it. Fingers crossed.

And a while after that, Julio texts me a special menu that Bea has drawn up for us, of what her specials would have been tonight. Among them are “spicy fettuccine fatte in casa with crispy guanciale, ramps, purple artichokes, and fava beans,” and “involtini alla messinese,” helpfully translated as “pan-seared pork loin rollatini stuffed with breadcrumbs, drunken raisins, Italian pine nuts, parsley, and pecorino,” served in Marsala sauce. Sigh. You’re not going to get a text like this from Mr. Sweetgreen. Hop to it, New York! Save small places like this.

Since we’re in Connecticut, we celebrate instead with takeout food from our other favorite mad-as-a-hatter restaurateur, Rob Peters. Rob is the chef-owner of a venerable place in Lakeville called the Woodland that, in normal times, is packed to the gills and serves about 30 apps, 30 entrées, and a full sushi menu — all of it miraculously good. He is also uninhibited about calling out rude customers, white supremacists, and toilet-paper hoarders on his Facebook feed. Right now, Rob is down to a skeleton staff and an abbreviated takeout-only menu. But he is distributing a free roll of toilet paper with each order. Our dinner reflects his menu’s eclecticism: pistachio-crusted salmon for daughter, sushi for son, charred filet of beef for wife, smoked pork chop on polenta for me.

My daughter has baked a pineapple-carrot cake with coconut-cream frosting in the image of the cover of Sunny Days, with shredded coconut playing the part of Big Bird’s feathers. It tastes, aptly, like a daffy, kooky confection that people would have eaten on TV trays while watching Laugh-In in 1969, the year that Sesame Street launched. I call dibs on one of Big Bird’s blueberry eyes.

We are making the best of our time up here, especially culinarily. But I won’t be one of those people who uses this pandemic as an occasion to give up on city life. I love the duality of urban-rural living. E. B. White, who wrote the best-ever paean to the city, Here Is New York, famously spent his summers on a farm in coastal Maine. The greatest good fortune of our life as a family has been to live a budget version of E. B.’s lifestyle. I really don’t know how much longer we can sustain it, given our fraught status as workers in dead-tree media. But we will, for as long as we can.


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