April 2014

Teri Vlassopoulos


Sad Desk Lunch

There's a blog I sometimes look at called Sad Desk Lunch. It's composed of pictures of the food people eat at their desks -- limp leftover stir-fry in Tupperware, Styrofoam containers of pale soup, Baggies of baby carrots. I look at it because it makes me feel okay about my similarly sad desk lunches. When you're working a nine-to-five job, there's a lot of pressure on that little hour. Do you go out? Do you catch up on work? Do you squeeze in a trip to the gym? I often think of Frank O'Hara writing a book of poetry on his breaks. "It's my lunch hour, so I go / for a walk among the hum-colored / cabs." But, for the most part, the time gets squandered. You don't write, you don't work out. You microwave leftovers or buy something from the cafeteria and then click aimlessly around the Internet. It can indeed get a bit dreary.

My lunch landscape has recently been cheered by Peter Miller's Lunch at the Shop: the Art and Practice of the Midday Meal.

The book, he writes, is a "manifest to lunch, a script to making a meal for yourself and a few others." It reminds me of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. I have the pretty version, the compact red hardcover with thick, glossy pages, perfect typography and brightly colored illustrations by Maira Kalman. Lunch at the Shop shares a similar aesthetic, right down to the red cover, but they have other things in common, too. Where The Elements of Style provides building blocks for good writing, Lunch at the Shop gives a framework for the less daunting subject of lunch.

Miller reminds us that lunch isn't so much about cooking as it is "choreography and improvisation." My tendencies for lunch lean toward Frank O'Hara's ("a cheeseburger at JULIET'S CORNER," a "chocolate malted"), but Miller encourages otherwise. Think in terms of layering, stacking. You start off with simple, lovely things -- Bibb lettuce, du Puy lentils, yogurt, a lemon, leftover chicken you roasted over the weekend. You can make a nice lunch from this; it doesn't have to be hard.

The book is a little poetic, a little aspirational. The recipes are basic and more like reminders than new ideas -- a good method for roasting chicken breasts, for making lentils in three different ways, potential tartine spreads. There's a loose two-week meal plan for strategizing your lunches, which is useful for people who have lost their way. It's a simple, calming book and after reading it in one lunch-hour length sitting, I resolved to try harder.

The shop in the title of Miller's book is the architecture and design bookstore in Seattle he's owned for an impressive twenty-five years. I was in Seattle this past summer, just barely forty-eight hours, but had I known about Peter Miller's shop, I would've surely stopped in. I did, however, make it for dinner at the restaurant at the heart of Molly Wizenberg's second book, eponymously titled Delancey. The calming properties that infuse Lunch at the Shop is something I associate with Wizenberg's writing and approach to food, which readers have become familiar with over the years through her blog, Orangette, and her first book, A Homemade Life. Is it a Seattle thing?

Delancey walks the reader through the steps Wizenberg and her husband, Brandon Pettit, followed when starting the pizzeria, from Pettit's initial starry-eyed idea to the sweaty, physically and emotionally difficult work of actually making it exist in the world. The restaurant flip flops between "his" and "ours" depending on the stage and Wizenberg's level of ambivalence in the project, who was busy writing, editing, and launching her first book at the time. However, it's safe to say that Delancey is truly theirs.

That starting and working at a restaurant is hard is not a groundbreaking reveal -- everything from Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London to Food Network reality shows have taught us this. But because Wizenberg's voice is so accessible and down-to-earth, because the restaurant is laid back -- the décor isn't fussy, the menu is simple and one of their signature desserts is a chocolate chip cookie only slightly gussied up with gray salt -- one assumes that a life like this can be built easily. It can be frustrating to an outsider -- how can it be so effortless? Delancey is a reminder that it's anything but.

Wizenberg's strength has always been in strong, simple recipes. The lemon yogurt cake she blogged about and then included in her first book is a stalwart in my own repertoire, and every time I make it, it's exactly what I need. So, I was excited for Delancey and hoped to find even just one new recipe to make over and over again.

The biggest disappointment about Delancey is how there are so few recipes from the restaurant. After reading about the sheer scope of Pettit's research before even seriously pursuing the business venture, I would have appreciated pizza-making tips. While there's a recipe for homemade ricotta and some desserts served at the restaurant, like chilled peaches in wine, the others are mainly the kind of everyday fare one eats while occupied with other things. Of course the point of the book is to describe what went into making Delancey -- it's still just the beginning of its story. Unlike Lunch at the Shop, Wizenberg doesn't yet have the advantage of twenty-five years of hindsight on her side, and so I wouldn't be surprised if more recipes from Delancey emerge later (along with cocktails from the bar they later opened next door, Essex). So for now, there's meatloaf (with a secret ingredient of fish sauce), fried rice with pork and kale, and Vietnamese rice noodle salad. I'm not sure if I'll make these as often as the lemon yogurt cake, but they're solid, and many of them are even better the next day as lunch, stuffed between two slices of bread or reheated.

Maybe, I realized, it is a Seattle thing.

Teri Vlassopoulos lives in Toronto. She writes about food at waystocookanegg.tumblr.com and writing and life at bibliographic.net.