Dwight Garner Always Has a Muffuletta in the Freezer

Garner, with a sampling of his favorite foods, including a possibly controversial peanut-butter-and-pickle sandwich.Photo: Adam Mazur

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For Dwight Garner, hunger is a part of curiosity, and it’s not unlike the pursuit of great literature. “You grow up and you start finding one writer and this writer leads you to a slightly better writer, who leads you to the next writer,” says the author and New York Times book critic. “With food, it’s really similar. You taste your first blue crab, a bialy, or you taste, like, a perfect tomato, and there’s a whole other world out there and you just go out and search.” And this idea is the basis of his new book, The Upstairs Delicatessen, a memoir that’s about, as the subtitle clarifies, “eating, reading, reading about eating, and eating while reading.” Garner wrote the book, which will publish next month, because, he says, “I didn’t think there was one quite like it, and I felt like I had things to say about food that I haven’t been able to say.”
Tuesday, September 19
My coffee-mug situation, I’m embarrassed to admit, has slipped from my control. I’ve bought a branded mug in nearly every bookstore I’ve ever entered, in America and abroad. I’ve collected them, too, from nearly every magazine, newspaper, or website I’ve written for, as well as a few (the Detroit Free Press, Foreign Affairs) for which I haven’t. I have dozens, and they crowd our apartment’s kitchen shelves. My first decision every morning is which one to use. My favorite is from The Guardian. I bought it in 2011, the year Prince William and Kate Middleton married. It has a small upside-down crown on the front and the tagline: “My other mug supports the abolition of the monarchy.” My least favorite is from The New Republic. The logo began to come off after one trip through the dishwasher.

Almost every morning, I eat the same simple breakfast because I like it so much. I warm a small amount of olive oil in a nonstick pan over medium-low heat, then I crack two good eggs into the pan and cover it with a lid. After three or four minutes, I begin to peek underneath. The whites should be slightly crispy, and the yolks just beginning to cloud. Does this method have a name? I couldn’t think of one, so emailed my old Times colleague Amanda Hesser. Being Amanda Hesser, she made up a name on the spot: smoggy-side up. I let our dog, Mae, have the yolky plate when I finish. Mae reveres these eggs, too. I can tell because the face she gives me afterward is especially soulful, as if I’ve said something beautiful and true.

I have a landslide of reading to do today. When you’re a working book critic, some weeks are relatively painless. Maybe you’re reviewing a slim first novel, or a book of poems. Other weeks require heavy backfilling. This is one of those weeks. I’m reviewing a writer’s sixth novel, and I feel the need to reread, and in some cases read for the first time, nearly everything she’s previously written. I live in Hamilton Heights, in Harlem, and I do much of this work at my local coffee shop, the Chipped Cup. I like everything about the Chipped Cup: The coffee is sensitive yet macho — the Austin Butler of coffee; the music is well chosen and unobtrusive; there’s a lot of seating inside and out. Best of all, the people behind the counter are always ultracheerful and mellow, as if they’ve all popped ideal gummies 45 minutes ago.

Because I need to read for hours and hours — book critics live like grad students — I don’t get comfortable. Back home, lunch must be light. I compile what I think of as the dumb guy’s version of a “girl dinner”: a pile of good cold cuts, Westphalian ham and head cheese from Schaller & Weber on the Upper East Side, on a plate with Kosciusko mustard, little piles of coarse salt and pepper, and a big, honking pickle. I read the Times in print while I polish this mess off. Someone said to me when I started at the paper in the late 1990s, “You can either work at the Times or read the Times, but no one has time to do both,” which has turned out to be untrue. Jesse Green has a theater review today that I want to finish, so I go back for an extra pickle. Later, when I put the novel I’m reading down, I debate marking my place with a strip of bacon, as Cyril Connolly used to do, or the spine of a kipper, which was W. H. Auden’s occasional method.

For many years, I’ve had the same routine on Tuesday nights. I have dinner in a diner with my friend Will, who was my freshman-year roommate in college, then we go to a movie. It’s a highlight of my week, there to rescue me if I’ve had a bummer weekend. My wife, Cree, who has higher cinematic standards, will join us if she approves of the movie. Nine weeks out of ten, we eat at Old John’s Luncheonette, near Lincoln Center. Its food got an unnecessary upgrade a few years ago; they started putting smoked gouda in the grilled cheese and dumb stuff like that. But it’s a great room. There’s a mosaic-tile floor. The Art Deco lighting is bright and warm at the same time, as if Keith McNally designed it with the Easter Bunny. The music is American songbook. The crowd is appealingly mixed: frazzled senior citizens with their tuna melts and crinkled back issues of The New Yorker, and the chunky-eyewear crowd there for an early meal before the ballet. It always cheers me up.

We usually go to the nearby AMC Lincoln Square 13, on Broadway and 68th Street. If you’re an AMC Stubs member, tickets on Tuesdays are five dollars. This makes up for having to sit through the — forgive me for what I am about to say, because I know how beloved it is — soul-chloroform that is Nicole Kidman’s AMC commercial. Tonight, we’ve already seen everything (Dumb Money, Golda, Bottoms, Barbie, Oppenheimer) we even halfway want to see, so we head downtown. Dinner is at the Malibu Diner on West 23rd. I have a turkey club because in diners I always have the turkey club. If I had to eat the same meal for lunch and dinner for the rest of my life, it would probably be a turkey club. Then we see Radical Wolfe, the Tom Wolfe documentary, at the IFC. It’s murky and second-rate, though it’s a treat to catch a glimpse of the studly young James Wolcott, the best living all-around cultural critic, as a talking head. Wolfe was always great to read on uncomfortable social situations, including those around dinner tables. In The Bonfire of the Vanities, he described what it’s like to be an isolato at a big dinner party. I’ve been there, and I still find this snippet painful to read:

He was facing social death once more. He was a man sitting utterly solo at a dinner table. The hive buzzed all around him. Everyone else was in a state of social bliss. Only he was stranded. Only he was a wallflower with no conversational mate, a social light of no wattage whatsoever … My life is coming apart! … The shame!

Wednesday, September 20
I met Cree some 30 years ago in Burlington, Vermont. That’s where, in the early ’90s, I was a writer and then the arts editor for an alternative weekly. We still go up to visit friends. When we do, we always bring home a hefty mixed bag of bagels from Myer’s. These are Montreal-style: wood-fired, hand-rolled, extra-chewy, and strictly bliss. (My favorites in NYC are from Absolute Bagels on the UWS.) The hole in a Myer’s bagel is large, so you feel like you’re eating one of Saturn’s rings. I prefer basic bagels (plain, poppy, sesame, everything) to more occult varieties, but this morning I grab one called “Montreal spice.” It’s a hairy-looking bagel, an Ed Koren of a bagel, flecked with parsley, oregano, and basil, as well as a proprietary spice rub. I’ve remembered to preslice it before wrapping it in foil and putting it in the freezer, so I can pop both halves right into the toaster. It’s hot. I slather it with butter, crunch some Maldon salt on top, and begin to eat it on the way to my office.

Our apartment isn’t particularly large, but it is long. My home office is more than 30 vigorous Johnnie Walker strides down the hallway from the kitchen. I know this distance practically to the centimeter because the kitchen is where the buzzer to our building’s front door resides. Because I get books delivered all day — from UPS, bzzzz, FedEx, USPS, bzzzz, messengers, bzzzz — I’m constantly racing down the hallway, my train of thought lost, cursing, sliding the last three feet in my socks like a tubby, ill-kempt Tom Cruise in Risky Business IV. There are worse problems to have. Unless it’s my turn to walk the dog, this is the only exercise I get.

I have an early and ambitious dinner planned tonight, so I skip lunch. Around two I eat a honeycrisp apple, slicing off sections with a serrated paring knife, while reading the newspapers. I feel like a dainty little man when I eat an apple, because unlike my wife, I don’t crunch down the whole goddamned thing, core and all. She’s a monster.

And so to dinner, as Samuel Pepys would say.

I’m lucky to have been admitted, eight years ago, into the Organ Meat Society. We’re 15 or so offal fanatics who meet once a month or so to eat nose to tail, items like tripe, kidneys, sweetbreads, grilled intestines, blood sausage, and heart. The OMS has been around since the late ’90s. If it were a basketball team, the writer and editor Daniel Okrent would be the general manager; the food critic Robert Sietsema would be both the coach and starting point guard (he always orders for the table); and the journalists Bobby and Bipasha Ghosh would be the slam-dunk contest entrants because they are so cheerfully down for anything.

Usually, we haunt places in the outer-boroughs, especially Flushing. These meals are inexpensive and often devoured under fluorescent lights. Every 18 months or so, though, we really go for it. One April night in 2018, Hugue Dufour, the chef at M. Wells in Queens, who owns and operates that meticulous and soulful restaurant with his wife, Sarah Obraitis, devised and cooked a special meal for us on a night that M. Wells would have otherwise been closed. Nine courses came in three successive “waves,” as their menu put it, with wines to match. Reader, it was the meal of my life. The courses included a lamb’s-head tagine, pig’s-feet croquettes with “cheddar scum,” kibbeh with lamb’s heart, dinuguan (Filipino pork blood stew), lamb testicles with sweetbreads, lamb and beef tripes, smoked eel loaves, and “chicken in bladder.” At certain points in the evening, I felt like draping a white napkin over my head, as if I were eating a brace of ortolans. Here is a semi-pro tip: Come November, order in advance one or two of M. Wells’ savory seasonal Quebec meat pies. These are called tourtieres, and they arrive frozen, with homemade cranberry ketchup to serve on the side. Warmed in the oven, after the crust has been brushed with butter, just one makes a heartbreakingly good meal for a group. M. Wells even delivers them.

Tonight, nine of us meet at Gopchang Story BBQ, on the second floor of a building on Fifth Avenue between 31st and 32nd Streets in Koreatown. Grilled intestines! Gopchang specializes in these. They’re cooked at your table with vegetables until they’re a bit crunchy, and there’s an array of salty, sweet, and spicy bespoke condiments. We have some of almost everything, including the ropey beef tartare, which you mix with an egg yolk yourself at the table, and the beef tongue, grilled circular slices of which come in a tall pile, as if they were beer coasters. We wash everything down with pitchers of Sapporo and shared bottles of Jinro, that chilled neutral spirit, perfect for making foolish toasts. The crowd at Gopchang Story is mostly groups of young Korean women who clearly know how to blissfully tuck in. The sight makes K-pop sound more resonant to me.

Cree is a member of the OMS, too, but she had to be elsewhere tonight. She is leaving soon, probably by the time this piece is published, for five months at the South Pole, where she will be a chef and baker at the Amundsen-Scott Station. It’s long been a dream of hers. She’s read and reread polar literature since she was a kid. The meal at Gopchang Story BBQ put her in mind, she told me, of the scene in Robert Falcon Scott’s journals when his expedition’s cooks rivaled one another while preparing fried seal liver. You’d be amazed at what can be done, Scott wrote, with “a little flour, a handful of raisins, a spoonful of curry powder, or the addition of a little boiled pea meal.” Scott added, “We never tire of our dish and exclamations of satisfaction can be heard every night.”

Thursday, September 21
Thursday is deadline day for me. I wake early, around 5 a.m., and by ten I’ve filed to my calm, wise, and elegant editor, Dave Kim. By now, I’ve been through three cups of coffee and two cans of Diet Dr. Pepper. I rarely put sugar in my coffee, but this morning I do. Writing is hard because thinking is hard, and when you’re writing, a bit of sweetness can seem to inject you with that single extra IQ point you sense you need. Then I eat three eggs, this time alongside a tangle of pink pickled onions. My recipe for these is from Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor’s indelible 1970 book Vibration Cooking. She calls them “Third-World Onions.” She uses three types of thinly sliced onions. You soak them in boiling water, then dress them with Louisiana hot sauce, vinegar, and peanut oil. These take about 15 minutes to make, and they last ten days in the refrigerator. Every kitchen should have a copy of Vibration Cooking. Grosvenor’s prose is as shrewd as her recipes. Her dedication includes “special thanks to Richie Havens, Wilson Pickett, Johnny Ace, La Lupe, John Coltrane, and Miss Billie Holiday for singing and playing every day as I sat in my corner in the kitchen trying to get my thing together.” After I finish eating, I collapse into a three-hour nap.

Lunch is a peanut-butter-and-pickle sandwich. I became infamous for these back in 2012 when I wrote about them in the Times. People were really grossed out on Twitter. Newspapers all over the world winced in my general direction. I’d been framed. When the food section printed my article, its editors needled me by running it with a gruesome photograph of the sandwich (squishy white bread, wan pickle slices) that seemed to have been plucked from a sun-damaged copy of White Trash Cooking. No disrespect to that inimitable book, but I was trying to class this combo up. I eat these sandwiches open-faced, on good, grainy, toasted bread, with the best peanut butter and pickles I have in the house. Don’t believe me about how good they are. A few years later, in Slate, Christina Cauterucci wrote that I, personally, am “a member of the rarified club of journalists whose writing has actually moved hearts and minds on a topic of great importance. In one 2012 article, he changed my life, intimately and permanently, with an ode to an object I’d never previously considered with the solemnity it deserves: the peanut butter and pickle sandwich.”

Cocktail hour at our place is at seven. The music comes on. I mix a small shaker of martinis. Cree pours a glass of wine. Mae begins to circle and bark and wag her tail because she knows it’s time for her evening marrow bone. We gather some crackers and cheese and nuts. Then, every night, for an hour or so, we play a card game called Spite and Malice. We’re hopelessly addicted to it. We both find it calming. I’ve never cared about card games, and I’d never heard of Spite and Malice until I reviewed a collection of Jenny Diski’s exemplary essays a few years ago. Diski’s editor at the London Review of Books, Mary-Kay Wilmers, wrote in her introduction to that book that she and Diski played the game and “fell out” over it: “She thought I was a bad loser, I thought she was a bad winner.” One night, we tried it out. We’ve played for two or three years now, hundreds and hundreds of games. Cree pulled far ahead in 2022. I wish I could attribute this to the fact that she is drinking dry red wine while I am drinking dry martinis, but I think my attention-related deficiencies go deeper than that.

Dinner is at 8 or 8:30. We eat in front of the television — why pretend otherwise? — now that our kids have apartments of their own. The movie tonight is The Thing, the scary/cheesy 1982 Kurt Russell movie set in Antarctica. Cree wants to watch it because it’s popular, she’s learned, at Amundsen-Scott Station. (Crucial line: “So how’s this motherfucker wake up after thousands of years in the ice?”) While the opening credits roll, we dig into muffuletta sandwiches, ordered online from Cochon Butcher, the funky and impeccable New Orleans restaurant. I’ve loved nearly every muffuletta I’ve ever had, but these are special. Cochon Butcher makes its own cured meats (the capicola, mortadella, and salami) and its own pickled relish, called giardiniera. The provolone is first-rate. These sandwiches arrive frozen; we always have one or two in the back of the freezer. We let them thaw in the refrigerator, then warm them gently in the oven. The buns, round sesame rolls five inches in diameter, dry out if you’re not careful. These became our Favorite Sandwiches in the World when we lived in New Orleans for six months in 2021. We miss them. The frozen version can’t compete with the sandwich you get in the restaurant. It’s like nibbling the corner of a photograph of your college girlfriend while she’s away for the summer. But we can’t give them up. While we eat, a shared bag of Lay’s potato chips rests between us on the couch.

Friday, September 22
Breakfast this morning is eggs, as usual. I fry up a small slice of country ham to tuck alongside. I order prepackaged slices by mail because country ham is hard to find up north, and having a whole country ham on your hands is a ham freakout. You start shaving slices into your ice cream. Between the salt and the vacuum-sealed packaging, the slices will keep in your cold-cut drawer until well after the zombie apocalypse, when a Cormac McCarthy character will discover them and rejoice.

Too much food talk, I’m aware, can make a person feel awfully smug and bourgeois. I like Kenneth Tynan’s answer, when he was asked how he could call himself a socialist and still eat well. “Good food should be available to everyone,” he replied. “Socialism which denies the pleasures of the gullet is socialism disfigured by the English puritan tradition.”

We’re celebrating Cree’s birthday this week. In our house, birthdays aren’t one day. We spread them out over the better part of a week, as if they were Passover. Tonight, we’re having a dinner party for six, and we are already, over breakfast, arguing as calmly as possible about the menu. We own 400 or so cookbooks, and I have a bunch of them flattened open all over the living room. I’m always after Cree to cook some arcane and ambitious recipe I’ve discovered. She’s an intuitive cook who, even though one of her cookbooks, Fish, was a finalist for a James Beard Award, tends to shun recipes altogether.

I hate trolling the internet for (second-rate, advertisement-laden) recipes, so when I’m not opening the Times Cooking app, I use Eat Your Books, the online search engine. You tell it which cookbooks you own and then, when you want to cook with, say, razor clams, you type “razor clams” into the search bar. Eat Your Books will tell you where to find the razor-clam recipes in the books you already own. For a long time, our fallback dinner-party recipe has been a lamb stew from the book How to Cook Meat by Chris Schlesinger, whose Cambridge restaurant I miss, and John Willoughby. The recipe’s full title is “Lamb, Leek, and White Bean Stew with Oregano, Walnuts, and Hard Cheese.” It’s on page 305. This will make your house smell so good that you will keep walking outside so that you can walk back in again. We’ve never regretted serving it.

Tonight, the first course is our favorite thing: fresh mozzarella layered with slices of the season’s last good tomatoes. We fleck the platter with olive oil, salt, and basil. When we’re alone, we fall on this like vampires onto an ingenue’s neck. I’m astonished, constantly, at how many people are out there — some of them serious eaters — who think they’ve had fresh mozzarella when they haven’t. This stuff must be bought, fellow earthlings, while it is still warm (we usually get ours at the Fairway on West 74th Street), and it can never have been chilled. You need to buy two orange-size balls: one to eat in big hunks while standing over the sink, while they drip all over you as if they were ripe peaches; the second to slice and serve with your tomatoes. You know this, right? If not, you can thank me later.

Dinner ends up being pasta with mortadella and fava beans and pistachios, Cree’s inspired invention, along with a salad and sourdough bread she cooked earlier. We finish with slices of poppy-seed lemon cake, and Cree blows out her candles. Cocktail hour went on a long time tonight, too long, and I stumble uncertainly to bed.

Saturday, September 23
Not surprisingly, I wake with a hangover. On the scale of one to ten, it’s a 3.6. From the Bus Stop Diner at Broadway and 135th, an old favorite, I have delivered the “Tres Golpes” breakfast — two eggs, fried cheese, fried salami, mangu (Dominican mashed plantains), and buttery toast. The fried cheese is the magic. This I eat sitting up in bed, with two cold bottles of pale-green Gatorade, while I scroll through my phone.

Once I’m up, I debate making a Kierkegaard. Soren Kierkegaard’s coffee-making method was to fill a cup with sugar until the mound rose above the rim. Then he’d pour strong black coffee on top, slowly dissolving the pyramid. Then he’d drink the devil-ready result. I made it once; it made me feel like a werewolf. Instead, I pour some coffee from a thermos Cree has filled hours earlier.

The big event today, on day two of Cree’s birthday, is midafternoon dim sum with friends and our two kids, who both live in Brooklyn, and my daughter’s boyfriend. It’s cold and windy and the rain is coming down in sheets. All of this makes Dim Sum Palace, on Division Street, feel cozy. We became devotees of Dim Sum Palace after coming here, a few years ago, for an Organ Meat Society dinner. We order a landslide of dumplings, and bowls of congee, and a lot of greens, and a whole Peking duck, and a spicy noodle dish whose name I can’t recall. There are two vegetarians at the table, so we go easy on the tripe and the chicken feet.

We work off some of this feast by walking north to Ainslie, where they have table shuffleboard in back. It’s usually available. My kids grew up playing table shuffleboard on rainy days at a restaurant-slash-bar in the Adirondacks where Cree’s relatives had a summer place we’d visit. After this, we’re off to Roxy Cinema to see The Graduate in 35-mm. It turns out that the movie is part of a series curated by Keith McNally. If we bring our ticket stubs to Balthazar, we can have a free bottle of wine.

We stand outside the Roxy, under our umbrellas, and we consider this. We love Balthazar and we’ve had many birthday and special-occasion meals there. But by now it seems late, we’re still full from the dim sum, and a Balthazar meal for the five of us (me, Cree, my kids, and the boyfriend), even with that free bottle of wine, could easily run to $700. The New Normal in New York dining, in terms of that tasing moment when the check arrives, can still astonish us. We decide we’d rather buy airline tickets or new chairs for our dining-room table. This kind of fiscal sanity is rare with us.

We take the subway back to Hamilton Heights. We’ve both brought books to read. Back home, Mae greets us as if we have returned from six years in a prisoner-of-war camp. I open the refrigerator and, lo, there’s a half of a beautiful Cochon Butcher muffuletta in there waiting for me. It’s backlit, like Botticelli’s Venus on her giant scallop shell, and it is almost vibrating.

Cree always lets me have the leftovers, which is reason No. 179 why I love her.

This post has been updated: The tourtieres from M. Wells come with cranberry ketchup, not relish.