For a site inspired by the madeleine, we thought it fitting to have our own Proust Questionnaire. And there’s no one better for our inaugural Q&A than contributing editor and daily correspondent at The Paris Review, Sadie Stein. Stein’s posts often feature food stories (and even the occasional recipe!) that make us reflect—on our meals, memories, and bodies, physical and social, personal and familial. Here is a recent favorite. Even when she’s not writing about food, she has a knack for using a snack—a cheese danish, crackers— to situate a story. Stein’s writing makes us believe that the “real New York” still exists—if you know where to look. Below, she imbues food with a tint of rose, and makes us hungry for just the right donut or dinner locale.
Your favorite place to eat:
Breakfast: My favorite breakfast is a maple bar and a cup of coffee from Red’s Donuts in Monterey, California. Growing up, we always spent summers there with my maternal grandparents, but it’s not just nostalgia talking: they make the world’s best maple bar—very fresh, with very thick maple frosting. (Their old-fashioned donut is a close second.) The truth is, almost any California donut shop with high turnover has a much better donut than you can get here in New York. The baroque donut boom leaves me cold. Hibiscus and cocoa nibs are fine, but that’s almost never what I crave in the morning! Why doesn’t some west coast transplant start an old-fashioned donut truck? But back to Red’s: it’s very old-fashioned and full of regulars and the time to get there is really early in the morning, around six. Nothing in the world makes me happier.
Lunch: Lunch is great because it’s when you’re hungriest—or when I am, anyway. I don’t have a very good appetite, so I relish those moments when I do, just before it tips over into a blood-sugar crash. When I think of my favorite lunches, they always involve being ravenous. I remember a ham-salad sandwich on Wonder Bread, bought at a Vermont general store, that tasted like the best thing I’ve ever eaten. Or the cheese sandwich a kind pub-owner made us after some friends and I got horribly lost on an endless hike in the South of England. Or a steak sandwich eaten on a long-haul flight. You see the pattern: clearly it’s not about the food! As a kid, a friend and I used to trek about two miles to a tea room in a neighboring town. We’d always have tea sandwiches, and a cup of soup, and an iced tea—and that seemed pretty perfect, too.
Dinner: I like best to eat dinner in. Much as I love good company, my favorite thing of all is probably eating alone, curled up on the couch with a book. It would probably involve leftovers, too—and usually an avocado.
“I love bustle, and sepia-toned lighting, and house specialties that have been on the menu forever.”
Your favorite qualities in a restaurant (apart from menu)? in a restaurant companion?
Old restaurants hold an almost mystical appeal for me. I like a newfangled edison-bulb/retro-inflected joint just fine, but what really speaks to me is the sense of continuity in a place that’s been doing something well forever. Living history! I love bustle, and sepia-toned lighting, and house specialties that have been on the menu forever: places like Musso and Frank in Los Angeles, or Chartier in Paris, or the Tadich Grill in San Francisco. Bonus points for great martinis, an extensive potato selection, that starchy linen smell, chicken à la king on the menu, and bizarre retro salads, like grapefruit halves.
My dinner companion needs to like these sorts of places, or at least be a good sport about them! I’m actively uncomfortable in any spot that’s slick or sceney, so we need to be compatible in that regard. My best friends tend to immediately love the sort of place that some people might think was dreary, or think they ought to appreciate ironically—and there’s nothing ironic about love!
Your drink of choice? How did you discover it?
With the exception of the brief period when my brother and I tried to drink only gin and pineapple like Humbert Humbert (we were in college) or the two months when I forced myself to drink amaretto sours to go with my circa-1980-Harlequin-romance-heroine-pre-makeover look—I also wore a glasses chain—I’m pretty faithful. My mom has a glass of dry sherry and a couple of nuts every evening, and I love that tradition in the winter. For warm weather, I like a Lillet and soda as an aperitif. So far as proper cocktails go, I like a Sidecar in cool weather and a Smash or Southside in summer. I also like a bit of food when I drink. At home I serve deviled eggs, spiced nuts, or cheese pennies. Sometimes James Beard onion sandwiches, but made very tiny.
The food you hate most and why?
I don’t like to think of myself as a picky eater, but if I’m honest, there’s a lot I won’t eat. Not specific ingredients, just combinations I don’t trust. I hate it when an old-fashioned menu tries to get ritzy and modern and the results are sort of dated and fussy. There are things I wish I loved more—raw mackerel, for instance—but the only thing I genuinely despise is pre-packaged chilled chicken sandwiches, like the kinds you get at Starbucks, with extra hatred added for pesto and roasted red-pepper elements. Oh, and I don’t like bubble gum at all.
“I don’t like assigning value to anything that gives pleasure.”
Your strongest food memory:
Most of my memories are food-related! I can’t narrow it down to one. But I can remember a very early—pre-three years old—love of the food in certain children’s books: one called The Biggest Sandwich Ever, Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen (also included memorable nudity, when his gingerbread suit dissolves in the milk bottle), and, of course, Bread and Jam for Frances.
Your worst eating habit:
This sounds precious, but I don’t like assigning value to anything that gives pleasure. If there were something I could change about myself, it would be my tendency to wait too long to eat (wanting that ravenous moment), then crashing and either going into despair or gorging on something awful and wasting a meal. In terms of unhealthy foods, I have loads: I love California dip more than is healthy. And Kraft macaroni and cheese. And those Entenmann’s donut holes, Pop’ems. And I think some people are weirded out by my habit of snacking on straight tomato paste.
What’s one dish you know how to make well? How did you learn it?
I’ve always cooked a lot, but if I had to do something blindfolded, it would probably be a basic , perfect roast chicken, which was my childhood favorite and still what my mom makes when I come home. She makes it a particular way, which I think she learned from Pierre Franey: chopping the liver with parsley, salt and pepper into a coarse pate, spreading this on a garlic rubbed piece of baguette, and putting this sort of sandwich into the chicken as stuffing. That’s what I always do too, cooked on a thick-sliced onion “rack.”
Favorite food from childhood:
Roast chicken, peas in any form, poached eggs, and—for special occasions, and inexplicably—Healthy Choice frozen dinners, which I was allowed to choose from the freezer section when my parents went out for the evening, and which I thought were amazing. They must have had a really exciting commercial or something. Even at the time, my parents thought it was weird, but I insisted.
One cooking OR eating OR kitchen tip:
Add more salt if you’re serving things cold. Like I said, I love leftovers!
Your favorite food-related word:
“Damp,” the Britishism for moist—so much more appealing.
Dream dinner party guests?
There are loads of people I’d love to meet and eat with, but if I were hosting and cooking, and the pressure was on? Definitely the writer Julia Reed. In her books she just sounds like the most fun, generous, open-hearted host and guest, who loves people and a party—and that’s what you want as a hostess. A pro!