Read an Excerpt
The Start of My Restaurant Fast
It began as a lark.
"I think I'm going to swear off restaurant food for a while," I told my friends at a beer garden in Brooklyn. It was the middle of August, the dog days of summer 2006.
"Yeah? How come?"
I looked down at the wooden table separating myself from my friend and roommate, Erin, and her friend Sergio. It was covered with four or five grease-blotted paper plates, two of which had half-eaten hamburgers on them, three plastic cups surrounding a plastic pitcher of light golden beer, and a white paper boat that had previously held a hot dog.
"Well, I've been wanting to start a food blog," I began.
Erin perked up in her seat. I told them that my blog would be based on home cooking, a repository of sorts for all the recipes I had brimming in my head all the time. Just the other day, I had some leftover pesto, and when I started to make a potato salad to bring to a party, I decided to use the pesto instead of mayonnaise and added some sliced radishes and bits of red pepper to the mix, along with a splash of balsamic vinegar. My blog would be about easy-to-prepare, healthy, and hopefully unique home-cooked dishes like that, I explained. And as an added, extremist measure, I would quit eating out in any of the five boroughs of the city where we lived.
"Not eating out in New York?" Sergio said after I told them what I wanted to call the blog. "That sounds… perfect. I only eat out, but I would read it." He shrugged and took another chomp of his burger.
A cloud of smoke wafted to our table just then, and I couldn't make out Erin's exact expression. It was a muggy, severely hot day, and the ceiling of patio umbrellas in the cramped backyard created a virtual hotbox of stale, smoky city air. Sergio's normally olive-complected face had turned bright sunburn pink.
I suddenly wondered why the three of us couldn't be sitting at home, in the comfort of a room with an air conditioner or a fan, or in the shade of someone's backyard, drinking much better beer, and making ourselves better burgers. Why did we have to come here, forking over our hard-earned dollars in exchange for the basest of barbecue food and being squashed in this pebble-floored patio, waiting for service, and yelling over the din of our too-close neighbors? Pure habit, I guessed. I wondered whether this habit was something we could reverse.
"Yeah, do it!" Erin pressed.
I picked up my third or fourth burned slider from my plate. It had been baking in a slice of sunlight on the table for a while, and the cracked black patty looked and smelled like a charcoal briquette. I took a swig of flat, lukewarm beer to wash down the regrettable last bits of bun.
"Yeah, I think I will," I said.
Despite that underwhelming meal at the beer garden, it was a good time to be a gourmand in New York. "You are what you eat" might be the universal food motto of all time, but in today's metropolitan food meccas, the old adage might be better put, "What you don't eat will come to define your limitations in character." In the midst of a national foodie renaissance, especially in New York, not eating anything, by principle, was simply not cool. Even friends of mine who are vegetarians are routinely pooh-poohed by the cultured and elite. And vegans? They might as well wither and die. But not eating out in New York? That was like not seeing the sea lions at the Central Park Zoo, or not not drinking the tap water in Mexico.
Even as I described the plan to Erin and Sergio that day, I felt a creeping trepidation about how my blog would be received by those who were not my friends. I braced myself for severe backlash lash; the concept would seem sacrilege to many. For shame, people would shake their heads and say. In this town, you could eat a bagel or bialy with lox for breakfast, a stuffed dosa from that amazing street cart for lunch, bistro steak frites for dinner, and for late-night eats, a steaming bowl of ramen or a mean slice of real New York pizza, all within the radius of a few blocks. The world is our oyster bar, so let's start slurping it up.
So awesome and plentiful is restaurant, takeout, and street-stand food here that New Yorkers eat it for almost every meal. I certainly did, at first. For those first two years or so living in the city, my head was very much in the game; my budget, on the other hand, was not up to speed. Any financial expert will tell you that your twenties are the best years of your life . . . to save. I wasn't a fluid spender, at least compared to some people I knew, but I simply wasn't saving up, either. I was living pretty much from paycheck to paycheck, what with paying rent, utilities, transportation, weekday lunches, a lot of takeout and casual restaurant dinners, afternoon brunches on the weekends, and the occasional splurge at a nice, new restaurant. I was fond of seeing music gigs and movies, and grabbing happy hours, too. Saving was not the first of my priorities when I began working and living in New York City, obviously. It's no wonder that people of my generation have coined terms such as quarterlife crisis (dealing with insurmountable debt, among other things) or the boomerang effect (when college graduates move back in with their parents).
Something had to give, I resolved. But I was already living with two roommates at this time, in a cheap apartment in the outer borough of Brooklyn. How many other corners could I possibly cut? Set aside sustainable food and eating with a conscience for a moment: My eating-out lifestyle was not sustainable—with my income, that is. I was going to have to separate some of the needs from the wants. Buying food that's already prepared is a want, even if buying food itself is definitely a need, I reasoned. Since I was beginning to get bored and disillusioned with many of the restaurant meals I was eating (for example, the beer garden burgers), and because I felt a creative urge drawing me into the kitchen more and more often, I decided that the prepared food—or eating out—was the one habit I'd try to kick. But what was going to motivate me to rush through a frenetic grocery store, drag back ingredients to my apartment, and cook up enough food to feed myself, twenty-four/seven?
Doing it with panache, I eventually decided. And showcasing my recipes as well as my kitchen disasters in a food blog oxymoronically called "Not Eating Out in New York."
Granted, I am very grateful to be among the fortunate minority of the world's population to have had the pleasure of eating at a restaurant. I happen to hail from one of the richest, most developed countries in the world, the United States, whereas billions of people have never seen anything like the luxuries of restaurant dining. So I'm happy for that.
You could also say that I am a native New Yorker. I was born in Manhattan, at Cornell Medical Center on the Upper East Side. But just before I reached the tender age of two, my parents put a down payment on a house across the Hudson and whisked my older brother and me from the playgrounds and promenades of Brooklyn Heights to the clipped lawns and tree swings of Maplewood, New Jersey. Growing up in a middle-to upper-middle-class family, I was exposed to restaurants early on. My parents are very fond of food and love trying out new cuisines through both cooking and eating out. They are experts at finding the "good" Chinese restaurants of New Jersey, meaning the ones that serve truly authentic Chinese food that is good. When a "good" restaurant was discovered, there was a dramatic scramble to invite an uninitiated couple or family, or to round up the several Chinese families my family was friends with, and get to the place before the rush. (It should be noted that bringing friends was less socially than gastronomically motivated; with family-style Chinese dining, the more people you have at your table, the more dishes you can order, and the more varieties of deliciousness you can sample. According to my father, it's completely not worth it to have dim sum with two people.) I remember crawling underneath the white cloth–covered tables at endless Chinese banquet dinners with the children of my parents' friends. When a good restaurant closed without apparent reason or warning, it was bemoaned for months. My parents were willing to drive forty-five minutes each way to towns we had never heard of—or take the train to New York City—to get good dim sum. We would also walk to the local diner on the weekends every now and then for filling breakfast specials, or pick up a couple of pizzas for dinner at home. My brother and I never begged and squealed for our parents to buy us restaurant food, as I had seen my young friends do. I am a fortunate foodie for that.
As much as we enjoyed the occasional restaurant trip, my family had strong ties to the home kitchen. My parents cooked, much more often than not, and they demanded a certain ritual of communal eating every night. I remember the embarrassment I felt when I couldn't meet up with friends until after dinner. My parents insisted on eating together every night, and my brother and I would take turns washing the dishes after the meal was done. When it was dinnertime, my parents would sit at the table (usually hollering at us to come) and not start eating until both of us had joined them. Things were not so rigid in other households, I gathered through the years. Dinner at friends' homes often meant takeout pizza or boxed macaroni and cheese mix at the "kids' table" or in the playroom while the parents ate something else, somewhere else, at some other point, if they even ate at all. As late as high school I wasn't allowed to leave the house at night until I had sat down at the table with the rest of my family, or at least was made to feel very guilty about not doing so. I envied my friends, who, if they were hungry after seeing a movie in a theater, grabbed a slice of pizza next door. One high school friend of mine, Misha, lived with his father in Maplewood's modest downtown strip, and literally everything he ate came from the bagel place, the sushi place, the taco place, the Chinese place, and so on. He was particularly amused that I had to work my schedule around a family supper. Misha moved to town from New York City when we were in middle school.
In any case, I was deprived neither of eating out nor of eating in by the time I decided to draw the curtain on eating out in New York for a while. In fact, I was pretty spoiled when it came to food in general, and I am eternally grateful for it. But it was an episode during college that greatly inspired my decision to begin my not-eating-out experiment. When I was a junior at Emerson College in Boston, I took a class taught by a professor of media criticism and theory who saw a situation in the media similar to my food overload in New York. He thought, what a jungle out there—people are listening to music on their headphones while they shop in stores blaring music from loudspeakers; advertisements bark at drivers from billboards while they're stuck in traffic jams between buses and trucks with advertisements on their sides; television newscasts are played in elevators and taxicabs; the radio plays from waterproof speakers in our showers. Basically, almost every activity of modern urban life is inundated with the media in almost every place imaginable.
Professor Thomas Cooper then introduced our class to his "media fast." Crediting Thoreau's wilderness retreat from society in Walden, he made us pledge to avoid any books, newspapers, films, television, recorded music, or radio for a period of two weeks. Alternatively, we could choose to fashion ourselves a "media diet" of limited media intake. During this time, we would keep a journal to record our observations. Professor Cooper himself had engaged in a lengthy "media fast" in the 1970s. With a mission to explore his topic thoroughly and publish his findings, Cooper visited several communities whose cultures discouraged or altogether restricted modern media: the Amish and other plain peoples of North America, and tribes in South America's isolated mountainous regions. He lived with these people, ate with these people, and reflected on their cultures, taking pains to understand why people living in places where media was readily available, such as the Amish, chose to withdraw from it entirely. In the end, Professor Cooper came away with a greater understanding of not only these ways of life but also, oddly enough, the media.
At this time, in college, I was an avid film fanatic. I'd rent three or four movies a week from the library or local video store and would methodically watch all the films by my favorite auteurs. The media fast was a jarring bolt of abstinence from my film obsessions, but, like the rest of the class, I was fascinated by Professor Cooper's example. At the end of the experiment, I handed in my spiral notebook of scribbled reflections, a requirement of the project (so as to avoid any possible contact with media I might have been tempted with if I were using a computer). I've forgotten most of my notes, the specific thoughts and discoveries I suppose I made during those weeks. But I never forgot the novel strategy.
Fasting has always been tied to spiritual or otherwise deeply mental engagement, whether it be a fast from food entirely or from certain types of foods. Religious practitioners have been fasting from food for thousands of years in order to reach a place of mind desirable for certain meditations, or to observe certain traditions, like Lent. It's a trade-off your body and mind undergo: You sacrifice one thing to allow new things to set in.
Sometimes, fasting comes with a financial incentive, too. When I was eight years old, my brother, who was then ten, bet me $10 that I couldn't be a vegetarian for a month. We shook on it. Thinking it would be impossible for me to give up my normal eating routine, my brother thought he had made a solid investment that would pay out in a month's time. After the first few days, however, he'd begun to realize whom he was dealing with.
I was stalwart about my new diet. He heckled and hounded, ate drumsticks with gusto before my eyes, tried to trick me into eating meat a few times, and made me forgo dessert once by proving that Jell-O involved a certain animal by-product, but by the end of the month, he was forced to give up his lawn-mowing earnings for about that same length of time.
I was too young to cook for myself then, but I took a lot of interest in whatever my mother made for me. She knew about our shenanigan and made sure there was always something I could eat at family meals, which helped my end of the bargain considerably. But it also made me begin to think about food a lot more, in ways that I hadn't thought about it previously—where it came from, what it consisted of, and how to cook it.
Around suppertime, I was usually delegated menial kitchen tasks such as setting the table or unloading the dishwasher. But I liked to stick around, watching my mother slice flank steak into thin strips for a stir-fry with vegetables and douse the splattering pan with extra soy sauce, sometimes causing droplets to jump feet in the air. Other times, the aroma of sliced mushrooms simply sautéed in butter would envelop the kitchen as she prepared a spaghetti dinner, with the fresh vegetables added to a jar of tomato sauce. I'd watch, mesmerized, as the mushrooms' juices drooled over the bottom of the pan and slowly evaporated, noting the way the mushroom slices not only shrank but also turned from white to translucent brown.
"It all cooks down to nothing," I can hear my mother say as she stirred, wryly though not without fondness. Its bulk was mostly liquid, I understood then.
With a wooden spoon, she offered me a few slivers to taste. The hot morsels were coated in a viscous gray liquid. Now concentrated in flavor, the savory aroma I'd been smelling burst in my mouth, accented with butter and salt. I wanted to eat them all up on the spot instead of adding them to the sauce that was warming in another pot.
During that month of eating no meat, I was reading The BFG by Roald Dahl. In one scene, while devising a plan to wreak revenge on a clan of savage giants, the book's kid-hero, Sophie, says to the Big Friendly Giant:
"I think it's rotten that those foul giants should go off every night to eat humans. Humans have never done them any harm."
The BFG responds:
"That is what the little piggy-wig is saying every day," the BFG answered. "He is saying, ‘I has never done any harm to the human bean so why should he be eating me?'"
Goodness, did that quote ever stir my eight-year-old sense of ethics. Under normal circumstances I might have skimmed past it just like with any other book about giants who ate children. But now that I had become a vegetarian for a month, it stuck with me in a way that kept me thinking.I never did become a vegetarian again after that monthlong stint. (But I will say that I strongly believe in respecting and preserving the earth, and this weighs greatly into my eating habits today.) What I took away from the experience, $10 notwithstanding, was the small discovery that changing one's diet can have profound effects on a person.
That was the last time I engaged in any extended aberration to my eating habits. What eventually turned me on to not eating out and blogging about it, aside from financial incentives, was a series of frustrations and misplaced motivation, which I imagine is not so unusual for anyone who has ever started writing a blog. I moved to New York immediately after finishing college. I had spent the last semester of my senior year not in Boston, where my school was based, but at a university in Taipei through a scholarship program. I tutored English to college students twenty hours per week, while the rest of the time I finished up the few credits I needed to graduate and, for the most part, explored the city, especially its food. By the time I landed back in the States, took off my cap and gown, and began looking for jobs in New York, I was more than a little disoriented, and perhaps disillusioned. But I knew that this was where I wanted to live. New York City was only a short train ride from my hometown, and during college I'd spent every summer living in apartment sublets there, working in book-publishing internships and as a barista at coffee shops. It felt like home already. Thanks to those internships, I quickly found a job as an editorial assistant at a publishing house. I cobbled together some furniture, found roommates on Craigslist, and bought a fresh wardrobe to begin my adult life.
For my first year on my own, I was earning a salary of $27,500 a year and living in a cramped, three-bedroom apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn. These conditions didn't offer much leeway in terms of leisure spending. They were hardly amenable to eating in restaurants all the time. Still, I was eating out—and so, it seemed, was everyone else I knew. I bought my lunch from nearby delis, soup shops, cheap sushi places, and the occasional street vendor and would scour midtown for the best-tasting bang for my buck. Pretty soon, I realized that trying to find a reasonable and satisfying meal in midtown Manhattan was like searching for fool's gold. No matter how hard I tried, it was a barren wasteland, foodwise. The type of food and the prices at local lunch spots that I'd go to—that everyone went to—on a daily basis were almost like branches of the same fast-food chain. And to fill up for the rest of the afternoon, I found it nearly impossible to spend less than $7. It wasn't just the expense that irked me, though. Picking at the bright orange salmon roe that clung to my wooden chopsticks from sushi rolls, I'd wonder how on earth it had gotten there, to that deli a few doors down, in so many stacks of identical plastic cartons. Summoning my best inner William Blake, I'd ask the morsel at the end of my fork, "Little lamb meatball, who made thee?" I was tired of mindlessly forcing down food when I had no idea where it came from or how it was made.
At night, I went out with friends for live music, art exhibits, and movies, and tried to seek out the city's best-kept-secret restaurants and bars. I began to feel more and more like all this culture I was so anxious to soak in was where my real passions lay, and that it had little to do with my workday. I was horrible at organizing my two bosses' schedules and paperwork, too, which was unfortunately the brunt of my job. I could never seem to photocopy an entire important document without missing pages. And I didn't have much in common with the four coworkers in my department who were my age, and whose names, strangely (or not strangely) enough, were either Sarah or Megan.
I began dating a graphic designer who worked two floors below me. I lost pretty much any other interest in my job, and it showed. I'd take long breaks, arrive late every morning, and dream about how I could best take advantage of my paid vacation days. I took a weeklong trip to Thailand that winter, and when it was over, I came back to the same desk and the same cluelessness about what I was doing there.
In 2005, just after I had been at the publishing house for one year, I was called into my boss's office and told that I wasn't "a good fit." I was given two weeks' severance pay and asked to pack up my desk that day. Once I gathered all my stuff and said my awkward good-byes, I walked out of the office building for the last time—stunned, speechless, and dizzy. My stomach felt foul. I looked at my watch; it was one in the afternoon. I hadn't yet had the chance to eat.
Over the next couple of months, I worked odd jobs or spent my time looking for less-odd ones. I eventually found full-time employment as an executive assistant at a head-hunting firm, a field I had little experience and less interest in, creating PowerPoint presentations and trafficking phone calls. In my free time, I poured my energy into an independent film festival. But after a successful and exhausting season, the volunteer-run organization decided to call it quits. I found myself back at my desk, twiddling my thumbs.
I tried to pitch stories to food magazines, and I wrote for small publications on the side. I loved cooking and began doing so fervently at home, more often than going out to eat. Oh, and I managed to keep the graphic-designer boyfriend, Ben. Which brings me back to the summer of 2006 and that balmy day in the beer garden, with Erin and Sergio.
So began my two years of not eating out. While the explanation I gave my friends the day I decided to move forward with the idea had been my enthusiasm for cooking, and desire to spend less, I was harboring a deep distaste for the restaurant routine that so dominated our diet. Most people, when confronted with the term "eating out," conjure vibrant images of three beautifully plated courses brought in succession to a two-person table, in a pleasant atmosphere. To be clear, I didn't want to start writing a blog for the sole reason of criticizing this type of experience. Most Americans do not eat like this very often. Today, 77 percent of all restaurant meals are purchased from fast-food restaurants. Much of the time they are taken from there and eaten on the road, at home, in the office, or at another public place. Enjoying a leisurely meal inside a restaurant is generally reserved for the more fortunate. But however it's done, "eating out" has become a habit almost as natural as breathing. It's a sandwich wrapped in cellophane. A cardboard box with a pizza, hamburger, or pieces of fried chicken inside. I wanted to start a blog about no longer relying on profit-seeking enterprises (backboned, of course, by low-wage kitchen staff) to feed me every meal. In short, I wanted to figure out how to undo the trend that has engulfed our eating habits.
To be sure that I'd stick with the project, I came up with a mental framework of rules. Essentially, I would not eat out in any of the five boroughs that made up New York City. Technically anywhere outside of the city proper, it was okay to eat out. So if I was going to be out of town for a week, then I would of course eat out there. I wasn't traveling too often around this time, so in general, the occasional restaurant meal would mean that I was celebrating special occasions in New Jersey with my family, and everyone wanted to go out for a nice meal.
I would, however, pay respect to occasional mandatory meals associated with my work environment. I had no reason to conduct business lunches, but my employer occasionally ordered the catered staff lunch or threw holiday parties. If I was asked to join a group headed to a restaurant for a coworker's birthday, I'd tag along only to those celebrations that were for higher-ups—such as bosses. I wanted to keep my job; I wasn't trying to play games with my livelihood here. Likewise, if I were truly in danger of going very hungry—if I was stuck at the bus terminal and there was absolutely no other option—then I would eat restaurant food. Fortunately, this was never the case, since there are at least as many convenience stores as there are restaurants in New York City, many of them open all night.
Next, I determined that this wasn't a project about trying to make everything that I ate using the basest of raw ingredients. I wasn't setting forth to cure my own salami, or churn goat's milk into chevre, as much as I'd like to. I basically took not eating out to mean not eating anything purchased from a restaurant, whether it be a sit-down establishment or a takeout window. There are many businesses that blur the line between restaurant and grocery store. Many high-end groceries, such as Whole Foods, have extensive prepared-food sections, and you can order a deli sandwich at any bodega. These types of meals would be off-limits, too, I decided. Food from bakeries and bagel shops could also be borderline cases, as they were generally ready to eat. I'd use my best judgment here—if I could simply go home, slice the bagel that I'd purchased, and top it with whatever I wanted, then I would.
Also, this wasn't about trying to convert the people around me into not eating out. So if my friends were all starving and wanted to stop at a restaurant while I was hanging out with them, then I'd either have to go along and just order coffee, or else not go. Drinking—anything—from a restaurant, café, or bar would be perfectly fine. After all, I wasn't going to start making my own gin in the tub.
I couldn't decide on an exact length of time that I would limit myself to eating in; one year sounded too much like a stint, or an impractical joke of some sort. I was eager to start blogging about it, and I didn't want to put a cap on the blog's duration. So I left that question unanswered.
After I set these guidelines and thought about how I would write my blog, I realized that something was missing. I knew that there are plenty of people who don't eat out, even in New York. So, like Professor Cooper did with his media fast, I decided I should seek out other examples of not eating out within city limits. I would find as many avenues and lifestyles that qualified as not eating out in New York as possible. I also wanted to meet more home-cooking aficionados and put our minds and resources together on a number of fun projects and community events. After all, mealtimes are not just about filling one's belly until it's no longer hungry; mealtimes are a social activity, too.
Did I ever "cheat" during the course of these two years, and eat out in a New York City restaurant? There are a few memorable experiences when I did, which come up in later chapters. As for allowed dining-out occasions, such as work parties, I can count the number I attended on both hands. Many people have asked me whether I cheated with occasional takeout meals while at home, alone, when nobody was looking. I can say in good conscience that I didn't, because the strangest thing that happened—far stranger than any of the weird groups and events I would encounter while not eating out, and far weirder than the schemes and dates that I would fashion in order to fit my restaurant-free lifestyle—is the fact that I grew so comfortable with eating in that I simply didn't want to cheat. If I was craving something amazing or unusual, I would set out to make something amazing or unusual. The thought of buying something premade at any of the mediocre delis near my office, or dialing up for takeout from any of the restaurants that had slid their menus underneath my apartment door, rarely entered my mind. It was unappealing if it did. It was unusual.
I should point out that I may have been better prepared than the average New Yorker of my age when I began this journey, because I had become by then so enthralled with cooking. I loved food, of course, but there was something doubly satisfying about enjoying a really good meal that I made myself. In the months and weeks leading up to the start of the blog, I cooked dinner two or three nights a week, as my passion for learning about new dishes and techniques increased. I had never taken cooking classes. I had only one cookbook at home, and I didn't subscribe to any food magazines. I preferred to make up dishes as I went along, adding this and that, whatever was left over in the fridge, whatever was on hand.
The frequency of my dabblings in the kitchen left me well prepared for cooking and eating in nonstop. I understood how to use up leftovers and shop for groceries wisely. I also learned that a dish does not have to come out perfectly to be edible, either.
Throughout the entire time I was not eating out and blogging about it, there were of course innumerable homemade meals that I made and never bothered to share with readers. I tried to leave the simple, dull, everyday recipes out of the blog and this book, so as not to bore readers. But just as I experienced, I guarantee that if you just get into the habit of cooking at home more often, you will figure out ways to make the process more efficient, and the things you cook more satisfactory. Practice can't be learned from books. Plus, with practice, you will figure out how to cook in a way that suits your taste and lifestyle, and not mine—I'm not sure everyone wants to eat fried rice with scrambled eggs any given night of the week.
Six years after taking Professor Cooper's course and two years of not eating out later, I think I finally get what his media fast was aiming at. He was trying to get us to make more mindful choices when it came to media, art, maybe even ourselves. He was also asking us to consider, what are we losing, as a culture, in exchange for the conveniences of modern life? What might we have already lost? In return, what can we gain from doing away with it for a while?
I was at a dinner party one night, and my neighbor in the next seat told me about how, during a phone conversation with his mother, he'd expressed a little frustration with paying for restaurant food. She followed up by mailing him a stack of recipes written by his Dominican grandmother. Not only were they greatly helpful in allowing him to re-create some of the dishes he'd always loved, but he said it was almost like receiving a diary from his grandmother.
Had my friend never taken up cooking, he might not have gotten to know his grandmother as well as he did through her cooking advice and recipes. And had I never done so myself, then I would have never discovered a whole lot of unique things about myself, and the people around me, through food. And that's been by far the best part about the journey.