In writer Durga Chew-Bose’s essays, ingredients are plump with meaning. An avocado and a banana are symbiotic and a pear is a suffocating stray. Spicy soup defines father and daughter, cardamom the nuances of belonging. Reading Durga, whose work on race, gender, film, family, and friendship appears on The Guardian, Buzzfeed, The Hairpin, and Lenny Letter, among others, always feels like the best parts of cooking alone: the attention to detail, the meditation, the challenge, the comfort. Reading Durga is nourishment.
We have always wanted Chew-Bose to answer our Aftertastes Questionnaire, but it wasn’t until she published her “Addendum to the Proust Questionnaire”, with questions like “My go-to deli sandwich order” and “My favorite drunk 3 a.m. snack” (among many other non-food questions), that we finally got the courage to ask her our own. Below, she does what she does best. We’re rereading in bed.
Favorite place to eat (and why):
Breakfast: I enjoy breakfast most on weekend trips. When I wake up to unaccustomed sounds and sunlight, to an unaccustomed kitchen with someone else’s bowls, glasses, worn wooden spoons, to an orange juice carton of which the illustrated label is new to me. I’m so susceptible to the extra steps it takes to navigate someone else’s kitchen. I love opening the wrong cabinet and happening upon a collection of well-loved mismatched mugs, when really, what I was looking for was a plate to rest my spatula on as I prepare an omelette. The pretend quality of someone else’s kitchen on a weekend morning is the only way I truly experience the wonder of delaying time.
With weekend trips come, of course, the weekend diner. I’m not one for adventures, I don’t even take well to the word adventure, but seeking out food in the morning is always fun, especially if it involves driving down a dirt road and back on the highway, searching for some place with illustrated menus and coffee in those putty-colored cups. I am most in love with my friends on weekend mornings, when we’re huddled in a diner booth, still flush in the face from having slept soundly away from the city.
There’s a bakery near mine in Crown Heights on Nostrand owned by a man named Albert. He’s from Paris and has a huge kitchen in the back where he bakes the best croissants. Better than anything you’ll have anywhere in New York. The bread, the pastries, the madeleines, the danishes: they’re all fresh and so tasty, and never overly sweet or sticky. The kind of food you bite into and remember that some tastebuds spark at different clips. Also, they serve their coffee with heated up milk, as all coffee should be served.
Lunch: I love lunch! If I’m diligent, I’ll wait until noon to eat but if I’ve packed a sandwich, it’s terribly hard to hold out. Soup, sandwiches, a bag of chips for crunch. I don’t really have a favorite place for lunch but I do I enjoy how ’80s it feels in my mind to meet an editor say, at one of those places in midtown with white tablecloths. Ordering iced tea for lunch seems very ’80s to me. Iced tea and white tablecloths, and a salad with a name like Waldorf or Niçoise. (I used to confuse them.) Those wide shallow bowls and forks with extra long handles that are satisfyingly heavy to hold. I find the whole spectacle dated in a great way. It’s not just lunch, it’s a scene from a Steve Martin movie.
Dinner: Buvette for their side of leeks, Glasserie for literally the whole menu and their lighting fixtures, Spain for starting off with wine and tapas as it comes and then hankering for something more substantial like paella. Joe’s for soup dumplings. But my favorite is Gloria’s, near mine in Crown Heights: for doubles, for oxtail stew, roti, callaloo, macaroni pie. The owner recently told me that whenever I order my dinner at the counter, I look excited. How embarrassing.
Favorite qualities in a restaurant (aside from food) / in a restaurant companion?
My favorite qualities in a restaurant are: a booth that makes me feel like I’m sitting in a cozy shell or a baseball mitt. Yellow lighting. Marble bistro tables or a marble bar. Not too loud. A place with regulars. Stemware! One of my favorite sounds is stemware on marble. I miss drinking wine from wine glasses instead of these miniature, stemless tumblers that everyone’s using. Glass stumps that never look properly cleaned.
My favorite qualities in a dinner companion are someone who always wants to split two or more things, who doesn’t do all the talking but who also understands that talking doesn’t simply mean asking countless questions. I love sitting across from someone who calms me and reversely, sometimes it’s nice to feel the manic intimacy of someone who makes me incredibly nervous. One of my favorite people in the world to get dinner with is my friend Teddy because I spend the whole meal remembering how incredible it feels to completely enjoy the company of someone else, especially since I spend most of my days entirely alone. I also love his ordering style. He knows what he wants, and more importantly, knows how to respectfully order for me. Also, if there’s tiramisu on the menu, he’ll order it without fail. I love a consistent dessert order. It’s the most classic extravagance.
I am most in love with my friends on weekend mornings, when we’re huddled in a diner booth, still flush in the face from having slept soundly away from the city.
Your drink of choice? How did you discover it?
I don’t think I have a drink of choice. Nothing sweet. If I’m out and want to stay out: tequila soda. Wine at dinner, sometimes too much of it. I love a Kettle One extra dirty martini with extra olives. I really can’t stand cocktails with a million ingredients and punny names.
Favorite late night snack?
The best late night snack is leftovers. Or, if I’ve recently made a cheese plate for guests, preparing for myself a few bites with whatever’s left. Fries too. But fries, always.
Food you hate most and why?
There’s really no food I hate. I just can’t stand a meal where every bite tastes the same. I recently bought some fudge in Provincetown and after one bite I almost threw the whole thing out. Fudge is too rich. It’ll be ten years until I’m curious about it again.
Strongest food memory:
I have a lot of strong food memories. Food was and still is big with my family. Dimsum on weekends in Montreal. The whole experience demanded so much from us, eating quickly, asking for more tea, being alert to the passing carts, asking if we’d missed the pork baos—my brother’s favorite. There was something so dynamic about the experience, even finding parking was a group effort. And afterwards we’d buy groceries in Chinatown. I’d trail my parents and complain about wanting to go home, and then sure enough, sheepishly ask if we could buy some fried bread that I’d rip and eat the moment I was buckled in the car. Something about Chinatown in the winter, those slushy streets and the smell of fish, really has a way of making my childhood course through me once more. Every city’s Chinatown looks, to me, like a part of the city stuck in time. It’s the busy flow, the old people wheeling carts, the act of being among people doing their most basic errand: groceries.
I also remember a single green pea. Before my parents’ separation, when they were still fighting, I used to join my father when he’d go for drives, simply to get out of the house. We wouldn’t go far. It was mostly silent. Sometimes there was music playing in the car and I remember zoning out to the blue-lit dashboard, imagining all kinds of scenarios set in space because car dashboards always looked very Star Trek to me. These rides were sad. But they were also, for me, triumphant. I was his buddy. I knew how to provide calm, to answer everyday questions with silly stories so as to make him smile. I could be chatty if the mood required it.
Occasionally, my father would stop at this bagel place owned by an Indian family who sold samosas. We’d buy a few and get back in the car and eat them while he drove around the neighborhood. During one of our drives, a green pea jumped out of my samosa and rolled onto the car floor. It tucked itself somewhere, maybe under my seat, because I couldn’t find it no matter how far my small hands could reach. There’s really no point to this anecdote other than I sometimes think about that pea. Not because I never found it—a missing pea is by no means mysterious—but because those drives, that samosa, were a thing to do during a time when, for my parents, it probably felt like there was nothing left to do. Buying time and delaying the inevitable are two things that sitting down to eat or going out for snack, still afford me.
Your worst eating habit:
My worst eating habit is eating while working. Or convincing myself that snacks count as a meal. Slicing tofu into cubes and dipping it in soy sauce does not a dinner make.
What’s one dish you know how to make well? How did you learn it?
I’m not sure dal is considered a dish, but I make it often and try as I might to make it like my parents do, I rarely come close. That said, I love dal. I love the process, of making the tarka in a smaller pan, of letting it sit. Of squeezing lemon on it and eating it hot. Of staining my tupperware with turmeric. I learned how to make dal from watching my parents do it my whole life. That and remedial emails over the years.
Favorite food from childhood?
Too many to name but some of my favorite foods from childhood are my mother’s fried rice, her Caldo Verde soup, my father’s latkes on New Year’s morning, his soups, his curry. Both my parents used to make me kitchuri whenever I was sick and I still crave it when I’m getting a cold.
One cooking OR eating OR kitchen tip:
My stepmother has taught me so many cooking and baking tips and none of them, go figure, are coming to mind. But I guess that’s the thing about kitchen tips, they spark when needed. They’re instinct. My parents, all four of them, never cook wearing clothes they plan on wearing later. That’s a great tip, actually. I even have memories of my mother cooking with a shower cap on so as to make sure her hair wouldn’t smell of spices. She has her “cooking t-shirts”—these old ratty things from vacations in Vermont or Florida. Perhaps the one thing I try to always remember is never to put the burners on high. That seems basic enough but it really makes a difference and preserves your pots and pans. What a boring tip! Sorry!
Your favorite cooking term / food-related word:
This is more of a restaurant term than a cooking one, and I’m not sure of its etymology—something to do with the Prohibition era—but I love the expression “86’d.” Like a dish is 86’d off the menu when the chef is no longer serving it. Nixed!
For what it’s worth, I love when a recipe calls for whisking. The word, the sound of it, the utensil, are all things that appeal to my interests and yet, I find the act of whisking incredibly awkward.
Dream dinner party guests?
Zadie Smith, Dolly Parton, friends whose company I enjoy on Sunday evenings, Fran Lebowitz, Annie Baker, a crush, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Anna Deavere Smith, my cousin Samantha, Jeff Goldblum, my old super Sherlock who had a way of singing about his day when we’d catch up most evenings.