Jul 24, 2023
Author Hilary Leichter’s Grub Street Diet
Hilary Leichter’s first novel, Temporary, is a funny and devastating satire about the gig economy, and one of Vulture’s best books of 2020. Next week, she’ll publish her second: In Terrace Story, her
Hilary Leichter’s first novel, Temporary, is a funny and devastating satire about the gig economy, and one of Vulture’s best books of 2020. Next week, she’ll publish her second: In Terrace Story, her characters witness the manipulation of space — starting off, of course, with a mysterious terrace. Leichter says her narrative impulses also inform her cooking at home: “With fiction, I like a good prompt,” she says. “I kind of use my refrigerator as a prompt to get me to whatever the meal is going to be.” In this week’s Diet, she indulges in musical eggs and dreams of being on a first-name basis with Mr. Goodbar, if such a thing were even possible.
Tuesday, August 15Yesterday, I nicked my finger with a Y-peeler. I toss and turn all night. Oh, the kitchen hubris, thinking I have something to say about food, when I can’t even protect my damn pinky! It’s 5:30 a.m., and I pull a book from the stack on my nightstand. In the wee hours, I like to read a little bit of something and see if it grabs me. It’s my art breakfast. I pick Hilma Wolitzer’s collection Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket. Before I can decide if I like it, I’ve read three whole stories. I love it.
My husband, Matt, brings me a “shaken coffee.” I have always been a Bustelo, half-and-half, and double Splenda lady. But I’m going through a Morning-Beverage Identity Crisis. Right now, I’m craving instant coffee, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, water, and ice, shaken in a jar. It gets whipped and creamy and the coffee crests in little golden peaks, like the froth left in the wake of a boat.
Matt makes us some Singing Eggs, which are just eggs cooked until jammy in a Dash egg cooker. They “sing” because the Dash plays a catchy, sweet jingle when the steaming is done, and we dance to the song. The bread situation is dire, only vestiges and end bits in the freezer (“Knobbys” —Lady Caroline Collingwood). But I find some lemon sea-salt crackers to dip in the yolks. Everything-bagel seasoning to sprinkle on top. Juicy watermelon and strawberries and blueberries in a bowl.
My new novel will be published two weeks from today, and so I’m working on writing a bunch of related essays. The morning evaporates into Microsoft Word. I fetch a mini–Mr. Goodbar from the stash in the fridge and wonder, will he and I ever be on a first-name basis? I know him so well, and yet.
My friend Emma is visiting from Philly to moderate a book launch, so I meet her for a last-minute lunch at Bien Cuit in Crown Heights. We are both wearing black dresses and white sneakers, and we both order French ham sandwiches warmed up on crusty baguettes, plus one oat-milk cappuccino for me. We sit in the pretty backyard and I unload various book-publication anxieties. Emma asks me, did I know that Emma Goldman owned an ice-cream shop? I did not! The mosquitos are feasting (on me), so we move to a table out front. “We’ve got a noisy girl here!” a woman says, pointing to her crying baby by way of apology. “That’s okay,” I tell her. “We’re noisy girls, too.”
I go back inside to grab a miche for the road. “What are you in the mood for?” the person working at the counter asks. “Uh, the all of it!” I say, and they mishear “all of” as “olive.” They say the olive loaf is great, and to my surprise, I find I actually do want olive. The miscommunication has led to a deeper understanding of my desires. I get a Frankensteined loaf, half olive and half multigrain. Then I stop at Mr. Kale for some produce: shishito peppers, figs, raspberries, English cukes, plus eggs, kimchi, and a Walking Around Beverage. You know, a cute beverage for walking around. This one is a Tepache Grapefruit Lime. I’m not immune to a fancy li’l drink. I mosey back to Sunset Park, sipping my soda on the sidewalk, holding the cold can against my cheek. I went to the supermarket and did not go mad.
More writing, all afternoon, endless, into evening. Matt hanging out with some friends tonight. Hodgepodge dinner. Some leftover takeout from the day before: crispy rice and a Japanese eggplant, with its royal purple skin slathered in miso. I open a tin of smoked trout and mix it with sriracha, Kewpie mayo, and lemon, sprinkle with black sesame seeds, slice one of the English cukes, and perforate some nori. I warm up the rice, put everything on a big plate, crack a Diet Coke, and eat at the coffee table, keep writing. Fudgsicle for dessert. Iris Murdoch in bed.
Wednesday, August 16The person who sold me the multigrain bread said that after eating it, they were changed. Am I changed? Can anyone really change, or are we constantly changing at every moment? These are pre-coffee questions. The bread is really fucking good. I toast it and top it with fancy butter, and wait for my cells to rearrange.
I finish writing a guest blog post for a bookstore and have just enough time to join the WGA picket line at 888 Broadway. The energy is moving and inspiring and fun. There’s a Susan Sarandon–shaped person, and other celebrity-shaped people. Do I say hello and confirm their identities? No ma’am, I’m a New Yorker. Lin-Manuel Miranda has very generously donated tacos from El Toro Rojo, but I wait too long to fetch one, and the taco portal closes. I throw away my shot, so to speak.
The picketing wraps at noon, and I feel excited by everyone’s kindness. I want to bring writing into a world where art matters, and where the act of creative invention is valued just as much as the results. These are post-coffee thoughts. I walk through Union Square Greenmarket to ogle the beautiful produce jewel boxes. I buy a pint of squash blossoms that I hope won’t get flattened in my tote bag, and a Manhattanhenge-tinted nectarine, which I wipe on my pants and eat standing on the corner. I remember that I have a gift card for the Strand from my friend Marissa, so I go nosh on some books. I buy a copy of Hangman by Maya Binyam, which I’ve been excited to read, and a used copy of Benchley Beside Himself, a strange little collection of Robert Benchley’s out-of-print writings.
After collecting my Walking Around Beverage™ (black iced tea), I head to meet my agent, Monika, for a pre-publication lunch celebration at Via Carota. I’ve never been before, always wanted to go. It’s extra special because we didn’t get to do any in-person reveling for my first novel. March 2020, alas. We snag an outdoor table without a reservation, and toast to Terrace Story with sbagliatos, which recall the colors of my Union Square nectarine. I only consume summer hues! We talk about The Remains of the Day and I very nearly start to weep. We share the insalata verde, the insalata di mare, a pillow of burrata. The Meyer lemon risotto tastes like a fictional lemon, a simulacra lemon printed on a pretty apron. It’s so real that it tips over to surreal. So lemon it’s un-lemon. Would that I could lick the plate. We finish with the semifreddo, plus mint tea for M, espresso for me.
I sit on a bench to send a few emails (Benchley Beside Herself?), then head to meet my friend Denne Michele and her brand-new adopted pup, Hughes. We walk around looking for a dog friendly vibe and sit down outside at Joseph Leonard. Hughes gets a bowl of water and a Milk-Bone, but this doesn’t stop his adorable quest for table-side remnants. We order glasses of dry Riesling, radishes with buttermilk ranch, fries. I dip the fries in the ranch. We split the fried-chicken sandwich. The pickles, the sesame bun, are bomb. If I were a poet, I would write sonnets about the crispy skin on that chicken. Alas, I only know how to wield the heavy skillet of prose.
I have had too many plans with too many humans today. One funny sign from the picket line: “Forcing writers to socialize is cruel and unusual punishment.” Matt meets me at the Angelika at 7:30 p.m. to see Theater Camp and I laugh so hard that I lose my voice. A large popcorn, a fountain Diet Coke for me, a Topo Chico in a glass bottle for Matt. “Be careful,” the usher says, looking out for us. “The bottles sometimes slide through the cupholders.” I think I’ve never heard a more beautiful description of life, and the inadequacy of the solutions we create to bear it. Or maybe that’s the Riesling talking.
On the D train, we read our books. Friends text me about Tropical Storm Hilary. I am transfixed by Hangman and can’t put it down. The squash blossoms make it home, unsquished.
Thursday, August 17Today is a two-podcast day, and Matt helps me set up a microphone at our skinny metal dining table. We’ve put bookshelves up all around it, so it feels like a tiny dining-room library. I’m too nervous to eat anything real, but I chug some coffee and have a mini–Mr. Goodbar. (What if this whole time, his first name has been Mister? Just thinking out loud, here.)
Reading the Room podcast is up first, and it’s such a fun, deep conversation. I have a break before The Maris Review, so I make a salad in a giant metal bowl: chopped cukes, tomatoes, peaches, fresh mozzarella, the final mint leaves from the back of the fridge, a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic glaze, salt and pepper, tossed. Bread with the last shmear of hummus, cracked pepper deli turkey, and shredded cheddar, toasted open-faced in the oven for five minutes. Then I eat watermelon chunks with my fingers. After lovely Maris, I find some green grapes that are near the ends of their lives, and I show them mercy. I call my mom and we talk about RHONY. Then later, she texts to let me know: Tropical Storm Hilary is now a Hurricane.
Peloton, podcasts, and water with a lemon-lime Nuun tablet. Then emails. I’ve started a new short story. The short story is stalking me, and I can see it watching me while I do all the other things. This is a good sign — if I’m haunted by the story, then that means it might exist.
For dinner I tear apart some hunks of tofu, dredge them in cornstarch, salt, and pepper, then fry them until they’re golden and craggy little nuggets, toss them with a quick peanut sauce and rice noodles. Later, Matt makes popcorn on the stovetop with cayenne and butter. We get cozy on the couch and watch The Apartment on Criterion. Jack Lemmon strains spaghetti with a tennis racket. We eat Ritz vanilla sandwiches for dessert and that’s the way the evening crumbles, cookie-wise.
Friday, August 18The name Mr. Goodbar started with a miscommunication. (I’m Googling at 5 a.m.) “That’s a good bar,” someone said, and Mr. Hershey misheard him. “Who the eff is ‘Mr. Goodbar’?” I picture Hershey saying. It’s just like me and my misheard olive loaf! Delicacies born of the inability to ever truly understand another person. I mourn poor Mr. Goodbar, a man with an honorific but no identity.
I scramble some eggs for breakfast, and add a little ricotta at the last moment. I make zucchini fritters with a scraggly zucchini. I could lie and tell you that they are perfect little oily delights, but why not tell the truth? They are serviceable. They are not my finest fritters. I write some student-recommendation letters. I text some friends in L.A. to check on their hurricane prep. I eat some raspberries. I text my friend Isle, whose book People Collide publishes in September. We commiserate about our sophomore novel season.
Tonight, I’m in conversation with my friend Rebekah about her book, The Museum of Human History. I spend the rest of the morning writing questions about miracles, time, and pharmaceuticals for our event, then I start preparing for some new classes I’m teaching this fall. The first one is a craft intensive on finding emotion in fiction. I’m collecting moments from stories and novels that move me to extreme despair or joy, and dropping them in a folder. I’m calling the folder The Feelings File. After falling down the rabbit hole of the heart, I take a break and run around the corner to Kai Feng Fu Dumpling House. I get ten pork and chive dumplings for $4. I want to shrink myself down and take a nap in this carton of dumplings.
The event at Books Are Magic is sold out, and Rebekah reads an amazing scene featuring a fishing boat named Kevin. Matt and I grab copies of the new Diane Williams, the new Sally Wen Mao, the new Kelly Link. Our friend Mary is there, and we haven’t seen each other in ages. She’s been at a writing residency in Alaska and brought us back a beautiful little package of Alaska Peony Tea, “handpicked under the midnight sun.” Matt and I walk to Khaosan for dinner. We sit outside and eat fresh rolls; fried rice with the flakiest, yummiest crab; crispy cashew chicken; curry dumplings. I spoon the remaining puddle of curry sauce straight into my mouth, it’s that good.
Saturday, August 19I read flash fiction from Sterling HolyWhiteMountain. I read the new article in The Atlantic about the pirated books that are powering generative AI. I have another shaken coffee.
Last week, I had a vision of the busy weeks to come, and pictured my hand grabbing a mini premade lasagna from the freezer and heating it up, and eating it with a spicy mountain of arugula. Matt and I set up a bechamel, noodle, and sauce assembly line. We make some future lasagnas. We are basically time travelers.
We go for a long walk, running errands, grabbing treats, a moveable feast of semi-productivity. The line at Moonrise Bakehouse is out the door, but we are lucky to get our hands on some focaccia, a slab of Vollkorn, and blueberry muffins. I pull the top off a muffin and the insides are so gemlike and bright I am reminded of a geode. We stop at Savoy Bakery for a pork bun, a bacon scallion bun, a sesame cookie, and Walking Around Beverages™ (hibiscus iced tea). The buns disappear instantly. At the Sunset Park Greenmarket, everyone is happy and chatty and enjoying the luxurious breeze, an autumn preview. Kids are standing in a circle around two baby Chihuahuas the size of yesterday’s dumplings. Our morning takes us all the way to Terrace Books for some poetry, and somewhere along the way, a bucket of water lands on my head from a window above. Then the thought: What if it isn’t water? “We’ll never know one way or the other,” Matt says. “We have to be okay with not knowing.”
Back at home around 3 p.m., I read my advance copy of Candelaria by Melissa Lozada-Oliva and drink Mary’s peony tea. I finally return to my squash blossoms and fill them with ricotta, fry them in batter. Matt and I bring the stuffed blossoms downstairs, where our neighbors are having an all-day open house. But, we find out they’re allergic to dairy! Alas, the bottles sometimes slide through the cupholders.
For a late dinner, Matt bikes over to Tacos El Bronco and brings home six perfect folded delights, a quart of horchata, a foil packet of limes and cukes. I eat the tacos de lengua and feel bliss. I drink a can of Unreliable Narrator IPA. (Or do I?) We split a leftover frozen slice of our friend Christine’s impeccable chocolate cake.
“We didn’t have any pizza!” Matt says later, in bed. “We didn’t have a single bagel or sushi. You didn’t even have a BLT!” He lists the things we didn’t eat and I turn off the lights and try to summon them, in dreams, the “all of it.” It’s almost midnight, but not quite. Now they are a part of the week, too.
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