Novelist Sam Lipsyte’s Grub Street Diet


Lipsyte, who confesses he only really learned to cook during the pandemic.
Illustration: Lindsay Mound

In Sam Lipsyte’s new novel, No One Left to Come Looking for You, the food is not exactly delicious. Instead, his somewhat malnourished characters — a cast of friends, acquaintances, and enemies roaming the East Village music scene of the early ’90s — scrounge up beans in a can and argue over pierogi at the Pinsk (a play on late-night Ukrainian diners the Kiev and Odessa, the author says). In real life, the book’s launch has shaken up Lipsyte’s schedule: “This is a weird week because suddenly I have a bunch of evening events,” he says. “Usually I’m home in the evening cooking something simple for my partner, Ceridwen Morris, and my 14-year-old daughter.” (It’s a sharp turn from his own East Village days, when he played in a band called Dungbeetle: “I guess there was foodie stuff going on, but I didn’t really follow it.”)

Wednesday, December 7
I wake up and drink an Emergen-C. I had COVID last month, and it was fine besides the fact that I missed all of Thanksgiving. When I got better, I found this old box of Emergen-C packets, and I’ve been drinking one every morning because I’ve convinced myself that despite the fact that I’m all vaxxed up and I just had the virus, these babies are the only things standing between me and another breakthrough. This is what I like to call my “inner science.”

Now it’s time for coffee. I’m not weighing beans or anything, and I sometimes get them (gasp) pre-ground, but I like the ritual. Today, I make a French-press coffee and drink it black. A little later, I make a cup of Yorkshire tea. I’ll piggyback a mug of tea straight off a coffee. Don’t pen me in with your rules. Caffeine is caffeine. What did you say? Coke Zero? Got some minis next to the cat food. For special occasions only.

I spend the morning prepping for my undergrad fiction workshop. Near noon, I get hungry and eat half a banana. I usually eat some kind of lunch, but I’m kind of too nervous to eat today. The workshop is the last class of the semester and I want it to go well, and I also have my book launch at P&T Knitwear tonight. I’m going to read and then do a conversation with Marc Maron, one of my best friends. It should be fine, and after 20 years and seven books, I’m used to these sorts of things, but it’s my first real outing in a while, and I know a lot of old friends will be there, as well as possible new readers, and I don’t want it to suck. Still, I might not get to eat much later, so I make a little lunch — just a few slices of turkey breast and tomato and mustard on a piece of rye. Open-faced. Like that famous e.e. cummings poem “Let’s Start a Magazine”: “‘graced with guts and gutted with grace’ / squeeze your nuts and open your face.” Or maybe not like that.

After class, I run home to dump my teaching stuff and change out of the dark button-down I was wearing into the near-identical one I will read in. I grab four or five small unsalted pretzels from the cupboard and spoon scallion tofu spread on each for a snack. (My upbringing left me with some grazing habits.)

I go downtown and buy an iced coffee near the bookstore. It’s this weird place on the corner of Houston and Allen called El Churro where they actually seal the coffee with a ring-top lid for you, turning it into a cold-brew tallboy. Maybe that’s been a thing for a while. I’m not up on the cool trends. It hits the spot, though.

I meet up with Maron on Houston. He tells me he just had Joe’s Pizza, shows me some hot pizza pics. Maron is a serious food guy. First time I went to his apartment in Queens 25 years ago, he was cooking this intense brisket. We talk most nights, often while he’s cooking. But never while he eats. I respect that. I walk over to the bookstore and on the way he tells me that there will be a film crew there doing a documentary on him, but not to worry, just act natural. Suddenly there is a guy with a camera in my face and I start acting about as unnaturally as I ever have. That’s showbiz, I guess.

Nonetheless, the reading goes really well, and Maron, as usual, is a funny and generous interlocutor. Afterward, I see some old friends, make some new ones. Several of us go to Bonnie Vee on Stanton Street and I have a Manhattan, and then I’m suddenly really hungry. Others have ordered bar food, but all that’s left are a few French fries and some cheese-swirled black beans that must have slid off some nachos. I scarf the fries and start scooping up the beans with my fingers. I drink a second Manhattan. I’m pretty done now. We get home around 11:30. I do another tofu scallion and tomato on rye. By the way, I also have cream cheese in the fridge. It’s just that the tofu spread is more like what I want cream cheese to be. It’s been a slow-building-but-now-impossible-to-ignore revelation. I drink some milk. I almost never do that, but it just feels right. I get in bed and read the new Cormac McCarthy novel, The Passenger. Yeah, okay, he’s still pretty great. I like that he refuses to say “cat litter” in the scene where Bobby Western is filling his cat’s litter box. It’s “cut clay” that he pours from the bag. The poetry of specificity. I fall asleep.

Thursday, December 8
This morning I have another Emergen-C and drink coffee. I work until noon and break for lunch. I’ve got a half-loaf of She-Wolf sesame wheat I’ve defrosted. I sometimes buy a few loaves at the farmers’ market. I live up near Columbia, where I teach, and there’s a market on Thursdays.  I try to hit it early for the bread (a luxury, to be sure, but I attempt to be judicious about it, and it’s really freaking good). I slice off a piece now for — wait for it — avocado toast. It makes me feel young to eat it.

Around two I do a Zoom interview with Brad Listi from the Otherppl podcast. Brad and I have talked a few times over the years. The last time, we did an interview at his house in L.A. while I was on tour. Besides what I took to be an especially open-minded and energetic attitude on his part, I didn’t really notice anything different about him, but afterward he confessed that he was tripping on acid. This time, as usual, we have a really interesting talk, even if nobody is hallucinating, and then I rummage around in the fridge and find red bell pepper. I love cold, crisp bell peppers, or at least the red and yellow ones. I don’t really like the green ones. Are there people who prefer the green ones? I get out this cleaver. It’s not really the proper tool for the job, but I’m in a cleaver mood. I chop up some chunky slices.

Tonight Ceridwen and I are going to see Marc Maron tape his HBO special at Town Hall. There are two shows, and we’re going to the later one. Before we leave I order from the Handpulled Noodle in Harlem. It’s one of my favorite spots for delivery. Ceridwen wants the vegetable soup, and I get a pork-dumpling soup and I also get some shrimp dumplings. Our daughter joins us for a quick meal. I also order a dapan niu with extra scallions and extra cilantro. It’s a northern Chinese dish with stewed beef and ribbon noodles and vegetables. I’m pretty devoted to it. I eat a couple of bites and put it in the fridge for tomorrow.

Maron kills, and afterward, we go visit him in his dressing room with some other well-wishers. He has all of this food from Russ & Daughters in his mini-fridge and he starts trying to give it away. “I hate wasting food!” Maybe everybody else is too cool to load up on four kinds of herring, baked salmon spread, sable and lox, and a box of rugelach, but I’m not. We didn’t have much Jewish food (or Jewish anything for that matter) growing up, unless we went to my grandparents’ house, and even there the chopped liver was from the local supermarket, but I find the older I get, the more I hanker for the quality Ashkenazi vittles.

I try to share the sable with Brendan McDonald, Maron’s WTF producer, but he says his subway ride is too long to be hauling around fish, so I convince him to take the rugelach. It’s past midnight when we get home. I’m not really hungry, but I want to check out the herring. Some of the cut-up filets swim in cream sauce, others in vinegar or mustard or a spicy cardamom mixture. I take off the lids and visit with them for a time, taking a few small bites. One of my cats jumps up on the counter, drawn by the heavenly smell. None for him, though. “Cut clay,” I say to him and put all the fish back in the fridge. I do not dream of the sea.

Friday, December 9
Oh my God. There are no more Emergen-C packets left! Will I survive? Going to have to roll the dice. I drink some black coffee. Today I will read work by my graduate students to prepare for our three-hour workshop this coming Monday. The writers are all strong, and today’s batch is also very funny. I sink into their wild worlds. I have a two o’clock phone call and I want to eat before that so I pull out the Russ & Daughters bag. What a score, man. I still have some of that She-Wolf bread. I toast a slice and put a little salmon spread on it and eat a few bites of the herring in mustard sauce. But I also need to get some greens in me. There is a bag of microwavable string beans in the fridge. I fork some holes in the bag and bathe it in beautiful microwaves.

Later in the afternoon, I attend the end-of-semester faculty meeting for the writing program. There is always a little reception after the faculty meeting. I gossip with some younger writers I admire about a writer older than me. While I do, I eat one of these mini tuna sandwiches they have on a buffet table. I wouldn’t call it a finger tuna sandwich. It’s on a tiny brioche bun. It’s more like tiny fist tuna. After a while, I go home and steam a ton of broccoli and make some ravioli for my daughter, who is on her way home from her JV basketball game. Then for me, I throw a bunch of the broccoli into a wok and stir-fry it with a little oil and add the Handpulled Noodle noodles from the night before, and I flick in some soy sauce and some gobbets of Laoganma chili crisp.

I grew up in a house where people loved to eat but nobody really knew how to cook, or wanted to, and nothing got passed down except for those aforementioned weird grazing habits. Ever spoon Skippy peanut butter onto a leaf of Boston lettuce, roll it into a cigar, and munch? It’s good! Ever spoon Skippy peanut butter onto a piece of bread and then put a slice of muenster cheese on top? It’s not good! I’m one of those jerks who really only started cooking during the pandemic. Before that, I was the clean-up guy, but cooking never really continued for me until the lockdowns. Ceridwen is a doula, and she was working hard nights in the hospitals, and the kids were hungry teens — it was time for me to get a handle on the kitchen.

Tonight, Ceridwen is at a party, and so I just relax and talk with my daughter. Then she goes to her room to commence her Friday night festival of screens, which from what I gather involves watching TV shows, monitoring TikTok, texting with friends, and playing various games, all at the same time. Who needs acid? She reads a lot of books, works hard on school assignments and other activities all week, so I refrain from judgmental remarks. I do my own screen time instead. I crack a Dogfish IPA and watch that spy show about Gary Oldman’s inability to shower. I’m kind of hooked.

Saturday, December 10
Today is day two of going off Emergen-C cold turkey and I think I’m doing okay. Things are starting to clear up a little. I’m getting perspective.

I drink some coffee and I watch a World Cup game — Portugal and Morocco — with my daughter. It’s so hard to feel bad for Ronaldo, but that very fact makes me feel bad for Ronaldo. After the game, I eat a little oatmeal and drink more coffee. Today, my daughter is having a birthday celebration with her friends: She’s booked an escape room called “the Submarine.” After they escape from the submarine, if they escape, I guess, they will go ice-skating. I make sure they are squared away (that’s Navy talk, right?) and wave good-bye as they enter the “sub.” Back on the street, I stand outside a bar with a big crowd and watch the end of the England-France game. It’s cold, and I jump in the subway and head back uptown. I’m going to my pal Alex’s 50th birthday party tonight in Red Hook. I’m not sure what the food situation will be there, so I get a slice of pizza at Koronet near my house. They have these insanely huge, gooey slices, and I sit at the counter with one and eat a good deal of it with gusto.

The party is a lot of fun, full of some of my oldest friends, among them writers, editors, painters, journalists, teachers, social workers, and lawyers. Over the course of four hours, I drink seltzer, bourbon, and beer, both alcoholic and nonalcoholic. I eat bread, crackers, cheese, nuts, chocolate-covered nuts, and a very delicious beignet. I am beyond sated.

Saturday, December 11
I wake up very late, around ten, and I don’t even think of Emergen-C. That’s a good sign. I make some coffee. Around 11, I open up a cantaloupe. I almost never time it correctly, but this morning, I’m right on the money. It’s the best cantaloupe ever. But that might also be my minor hangover talking. Today is a quiet day. I poach a few eggs.

Around seven, after walking around the neighborhood, buying some printing paper and a new pen, I cook dinner for the three of us. Some Sundays we have dinner with our son, who’s at art school in the city, either uptown or downtown near his dorm, but he seems to be in a rush to finish up some projects for the semester. He’ll come here eventually, and when he does, it will be exciting to watch him take a giant bowl, for example, and fill it with every kind of leftover in the fridge — penne with red sauce, saag paneer, lo mein, guacamole — sprinkle it all with paprika and shredded cheese, and heat it up in the microwave. He is the future of fusion. But tonight, it’s just the three of us. I cook salmon in olive oil and serve it with rice, asparagus, and roasted Brussels sprouts. It’s simple and plain, just what I’m craving after a whirlwind of public readings, grain spirits, vitamin supplements, comedy shows, smoked and pickled fish, pedagogical joy, chopped noodles, and the hard lessons of showbiz.

After dinner, my daughter and I sit with mugs of peppermint tea and I help her study for her upcoming high-school art-history quiz, offering my unique insight: “See how those guys have those really stupid haircuts? That means the painting is from medieval Europe.” I will sleep well tonight.

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