On Book Tour, Meals are All About The Company

Novelist Jami Attenberg recounts the highlights from her latest trip

book tour food
Alex Testere

Dining on book tour is rarely easy or fun. I'm often squeezing in meals between readings and interviews, or relying on others to make decisions on my behalf. Airport sandwiches are always devastating. Sometimes I just pick a restaurant close to my hotel because of sheer exhaustion, but choosing proximity and ease over taste and aesthetics is almost never a good idea. And sometimes I plan something special in advance, from afar; if it crashes and burns, my mortality sings a sad, sad song to me. I hate leaving a dining experience and thinking: Well, that was functional. Why bother eating? Why bother living, really?

But as I've learned through five books in the last nine years, book tours are business trips, not vacations. The most I can hope for is sharing a meal with someone special—an old friend I haven't seen in a while who I trust to take me somewhere good, or a new friend, often someone I know through the literary world or the internet—and that their tastes match my own. I remember meeting Canadian writer and editor Emily Keeler for the first time at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto, and how she immediately offered to take me to the best fried chicken place in town the following night. I was doubtful, never having thought to myself: "When you get to Toronto, you must find yourself some fried chicken tout de suite." But the company was great and the fried chicken at Bar Isabel was indeed delicious.

So this summer, as I set out on tour to promote my latest novel, Saint Mazie, I decided to let friends and strangers—both online and in real life—decide my meals once again. There were some hits and some misses. (I shall spare you the misses, but you know who you are, flaccid restaurants of the American suburb.) But the company I shared my meals with was always great. These are the most memorable dishes from my eleven days on the road.

Northbrook, IL: The Reuben at Max and Benny's

I gave my first reading of the tour at an author's series at Max and Benny's, a classic Jewish deli in Northbrook, IL, that hosts a monthly book event. They had promised to feed both me and my parents, with whom I was staying in my childhood home. How could I say no? The curator of the series, Richard Reeder, told me that the best thing on the menu was the Reuben. He also suggested I get the chocolate egg cream, which I declined, and I am full of regret about that choice even as I type these words. Who am I to decline an egg cream? Such hubris.

But that Reuben! It’s worth a drive to the suburbs, Chicagoans. The corned beef is delicious, juicy, fresh, hot, the rye bread both buttery and crisp, matching beautifully with the slaw and Russian dressing, both of which were tangy, but not overwhelming. As we left, we were graciously handed a sturdy box of mixed rugelach, and my family grazed on it for a few days, until finally it was agreed upon that my mother should just take the rest of it to work to share with her coworkers so as to avoid further temptation.

Chicago, IL: The duck breast at Sepia

First, three sepia-related things in my life:

  1. I recently spent time on the roof of my Brooklyn apartment building with a new friend drinking bourbon and staring at the Manhattan skyline, and he later described the whole night as being sepia-colored.

  2. A few days ago I pulled a tarot card for a friend who is trying to have a baby and when I thought about her deeply beforehand, I saw her whole life in sepia. I took this to be a good thing.

  3. From an email I sent to another new friend: "Nothing in my past is in sepia tones for me. I had a miserable childhood, my twenties I was in a rut, my thirties I was recovering from my twenties...I spent all this time finding my voice, still ceaselessly working at it now. But I am capable of living in the moment, having present tense joy, just now it's happening, I recognize these possibilities."

In Chicago, I dined at a restaurant called Sepia, which was recommended to me on twitter by fashion bloggers/novelists The Fug Girls. I was in a rush that night, I had planned the whole thing poorly, underestimated the time that was needed for the meal and how long it would take me to get to my radio interview afterward, all of it, and I hurriedly ate. But the duck breast was very, very good. It was served with rhubarb, celery, mustard greens, radishes, and red wine jus, and it was tender, and plated beautifully, a colorful, compact, clean plate. And I enjoyed talking to my friend, Lindsay Hunter, a novelist and a short story writer who I have only met a few times before. She brought me a gift, a tiny crown that I could clip to my head and feel like a queen whenever I liked.

San Francisco, CA: Two chicken dishes in San Francisco

My first night in San Francisco, I headed to Souvla, a Greek restaurant, an employee of which had invited me to dinner over Twitter. I ate their spit-fired chicken salad, served with fennel, navel orange, pickled red onion, pea shoots, and mizithra cheese, topped with their memorable, zingy Greek yogurt ranch ("Granch") dressing. It was a perfect post-plane-ride meal, fresh, juicy, wholesome, energizing, light, tasty. Also we tried the frozen Greek soft serve yogurt, one cup with Greek olive oil and sea salt, another with baklava crumbles and syrup, both of which were refreshing and light but still sparkled on the tongue, a sublime salty-sweet combo. I dined there with my old friend Joshua Mohr, another novelist, and we talked about being at a crossroads in our lives, deciding what's next in our futures, and also people who take too many drugs.

The next night I went to Zuni Café with an internet friend I was meeting for the first time, a writer named Leah Reich, who was tall, striking, and fit, with long, pretty hair. There is a particular delight in dining with a friend who is bright and charming but also easy on the eyes. While we waited patiently at the bar for an hour, a waitress accidentally spilled an entire glass of wine on me. But how was the food? Well, the roasted chicken with bread salad was delicious. Listen, no one is lying about it. It's great. It's been on the menu forever for a reason. But if I had to pick which chicken dish in San Francisco I enjoyed more, I guess I'd have to pick the one I ate when I didn't smell like a glass of wine.

Los Angeles, CA: Frozen Drinks and Slippery Shrimp in Los Angeles

A few weeks before I left on tour, I decided to extend my stay in Los Angeles an extra day, as a little reward for all the work I'd been doing. (One day in Los Angeles is not a vacation. What is it? It's a day off, I suppose.) I knew I wanted to eat something healthy. California, with all your gorgeous produce and healthy people with shiny hair and clear complexions, teach me your ways. A dear friend, Caitlyn Wooton, is an expert healthy eater. She made us a reservation at vegan restaurant Crossroads. I felt virtuous already.

But then, the day after my final event at the Ace Hotel, I ended up just spending it in my hotel’s rooftop pool, drinking frozen drinks and having a mini-collapse. Luckily, people came to visit me. My old friend Sarah showed up with her young daughter Sally, who loves the Beatles and decided my name was Yoko Ono and called me Yoko for a few pleasant hours, and then Caitlyn arrived and we flatlined in the sunshine, and then novelist Rachel Kushner came, so sharp and cool and right-headed, and she bought me another drink and we bobbed around in the pool, and I was grinning, those frozen drinks were a kind of meal in themselves, can you count them as a meal?

By then it was dinner, and when it came down to it, Caitlyn and I didn't feel like eating healthy. She said, "You know what we should really eat? Slippery shrimp." So instead we went to Yang Chow in Chinatown and ate an entire plate of it, sticky-sweet-spicy-fried shrimp, all of it, gone. An unplanned, spontaneous meal, a last-minute decision, an indulgence, a delight. It wasn't tour anymore, but it wasn't regular life either. It was something in between. And that's when you eat the slippery shrimp.

Jami Attenberg is the author of five books of fiction, including The Middlesteins. Her latest is Saint Mazie.