The Middlesteins Author Jami Attenberg Talks Brooklyn Restaurants, Pickles, and Food in Literature
Author Jami Attenberg
Food addiction plagues Edie Middlestein, the protagonist of Jami Attenberg's third novel, The Middlesteins. While an unhealthy fascination with food should seem familiar to Fork in the Road readers (and writers), it strains Edie's suburban Jewish family to the breaking point, resulting in a novel that has found its way onto many critics' "Best of 2012" lists. Attenberg, like the fictional Middlestein family, hails from the Midwest; now she calls Brooklyn home. We were lucky enough to talk to her about how the Williamsburg restaurant scene has changed, her favorite books about food, and where to get a decent pickle in New York City.
You have lived in Williamsburg for awhile now. If you could bring one restaurant back from the dead, which one would you choose?
I have a fondness for restaurants that have a bit of a ragtag community theater "Let's put on a show!" aspect to them. Pies 'n' Thighs still exists, obviously, as a real sit-down restaurant now, and I love their food, but there was something even more fun about the original version of it in the back of that dive bar over on South 5th Street. I loved the picnic tables out back during the summer, looking up at the bridge, the rumble of the train overhead. You weren't really sure if you were breaking a rule or not because it felt so thrown together. It was very freeing.
Queen's Hideaway in Greenpoint was another classic neighborhood spot that had a real anarchic spirit to it. You never knew what you were going to get when you walked in the door, but there was a fantastic energy there. Also, now that I think about it, I want Motorino to come back! When are you coming back to Williamsburg, Motorino?
Do you keep up on new restaurant openings? What's the most impressive new restaurant you have been to recently?
My favorite new bar/restaurant combo in the neighborhood is the one-two punch of St. Mazie and St. Charles on Grand Street. St. Mazie, which is upstairs, is this gorgeous bar designed by Johnny McCormick, who is also one of the owners. They have great live music, jazz and bluegrass, and there's this sweet backyard with picnic tables. Then downstairs, in the basement, is St. Charles, which is this charming little Italian grotto. It's super private and feels like this secret getaway. The porchetta for two is the greatest thing ever.
How about old favorites? What are your regular spots?
In the wintertime there's nowhere finer in Williamsburg than Moto. Also I will eat mac and cheese at Dumont probably until spring. I'd spend more time at Momofuku Noodle Bar if they didn't always have an hour wait there. Basically right now it's so cold out that I just want to be in places that are cozy and serve delicious, comforting food and have interesting-looking people at all the other tables.
What's your drink?
I like a rye Manhattan. Rosie Schaap - who has a wonderful new book called Drinking With Men coming out - makes a great one at South in Brooklyn on Tuesday nights.
What is your favorite food scene in literature? What's the key to writing convincingly about food?
I like everything about Nora Ephron's Heartburn, which is a real love letter to food. I just re-read it again recently, and it is a classic. That book is so brilliantly constructed and yet it reads as if it were effortless. I don't know if I have too many tips for writing convincingly about food ... I just try to write about things I'd want to eat. If what I've written makes me hungry, I've probably done my job. Same sort of logic applies to writing about sex, give or take.
You have a wonderful passage in The Middlesteins about Edie eating a McRib. Do you have a weak spot for any fast food items?
When I go home to Chicago, I always visit Hot Doug's. And I always loved Portillo's when I was growing up. The Italian beef sandwich with the crinkle fries? Forget about it. I feel like I eat more junk food when I go out of town, if I'm on tour or driving cross-country or whatever, when it's harder to find a good meal. You just sort of give into it. I probably ate too many meals in airports this year, although the breakfast tacos at the Austin airport weren't half bad, and those tortas at O'Hare are no joke either.
Pickles! Where can I find quality pickles in New York?
I was surprised the other night by how good the pickles were at Spitzer's, actually. I had like, three of them. But anyway just go to 2nd Avenue Deli. Russ and Daughters. The Gefilteria. You know, just follow the Jews.