When I called Jami Attenberg, she was raiding her hotel room in Washington, DC for snacks, waiting out Winter Storm Stella. "Because it’s snowing here, I don’t want to leave my hotel room, so I’m just ordering room service," Attenberg explained. (Her breakfast that morning consisted of, "an egg white wrap with mushrooms and a cup of coffee, and there were some roasted potatoes. None of it was particularly nuanced in flavor," she laughed.) The author, who splits her time between Brooklyn and New Orleans, was less than a week into her 30-date book tour, promoting her sixth book All Grown Up, about a 39-year-old, defiantly single and child-free woman in New York who struggles to define adulthood for herself.
So I spoke with Attenberg about the role of food in her newest novel, breakfast in New Orleans, and why she thinks thinks it's funny that everyone asks her about the sex scenes in her book.
Extra Crispy: I really loved All Grown Up, and Andrea [Bern, the book’s protagonist] has a lot of complicated relationships with her family and the men in her life and food, as well—so I’d love to hear you talk about her relationship with food a little bit.
Jami Attenberg: I actually feel like it’s the simplest relationship Andrea has. Because food doesn’t really talk back to you, you know? It’s offering you love, which is great. It’s like a dog in that way. Somebody reviewed my last book [Saint Mazie], and she described my narrators as “guilt-ridden sensualists,” which I think probably might apply to Andrea, as well. She doesn’t really know necessarily what makes her happy, but she does know the things that make her feel good, and I think food might be one of those things that both makes her feel good and makes her happy because it’s there for her. Although I wouldn’t really describe her as an overeater. I think she’s a perfectly healthy eater, but she likes to feel full and satisfied, and food is one of those things that can do that for her.
It seems like something she’s protective of, too. Like there’s that one scene where she tells Matthew [a boyfriend of sorts], “Don’t fuck with my food.”
Honestly, when I was writing the book, I was like, this is one of the most important sentences in the entire book. I just kept rewriting it because I was like, this is really part of it. Not just for her but for all of us, there’s only a couple things that we really want to have for ourselves. Maybe it’s just, ‘Please don’t spoil this TV show for me.’ Or, ‘I love my child, and the time I get to spend with my child is really precious to me, so don’t cut into that time.’ There’s three or four things for all of us that we’re just like, can I just please have this thing for myself? And so for her, that thing is food. There are other things for her, as well, but that feels really important and crucial to her.
I do think there’s also this interesting relationship between food and sex that Andrea has. Like when she’s texting that guy about eating steaks that quickly becomes about having sex.
[Laughs] Yeah, sometimes you go down that path of sexual metaphor that’s a little too far, but you don’t know how to get out of it anymore. It doesn’t bother me that people ask me about sex, it’s always just sort of fascinates me that people think it’s such an unusual thing to write about or be candid about when it’s something that we all do. Or most of us do, anyway. But America, of course, is very weird about sex.
Yeah, sex and food, it’s that sensualist thing. They can be indulgences. Food, of course, you need to survive. Sex you don’t necessarily need to survive, although it depends on who you talk to. But they are sensory delights. They’re pleasures, or they can be pleasures. And I think they’re things that you do where, when you’re really, truly enjoying it, you kind of shut off your brain and just dive into it, and you can lose yourself in it. That’s maybe a connection between the two.
Has there been any meal as of late where you feel like you’ve had that experience? Of it being so good that you just singularly focus on the meal?
Well, I live in New Orleans, so a lot of the food is like that. Actually, I’ve had several meals that have been very good lately that have been very simple. There’s just place near my house that, on Tuesdays, has a guy standing outside underneath a little tent, grilling oysters and shucking oysters, and it’s just Tuesday oyster night in St. Bernard Parish, which is the next parish over from New Orleans. Those oysters were pretty good; those grilled oysters were really good.
When I was in New York, after my book party, I went to the Breslin and had a steak with Alex Chee. He interviewed me for my book party at the Ace, and that steak was really fucking good. [Laughs] I try to eat really good things, but yesterday, I was traveling on a train from Philadelphia to D.C., and I had a terrible train station salad, and it just made me really sad. I try really hard to eat delicious things because it’s worth it.
What do you think is the best breakfast in New Orleans?
I don't really eat breakfast out a lot, but I was thinking that I love the cafes in my neighborhood the best. Because I just like the people there, and there's some really good places to get coffee. I try to eat really in the mornings, but it's more about going and getting a coffee from one of these places that I like. Like I love Sólo Espresso, and I love Satsuma Cafe, for example. They're both in my neighborhood, and then taking a walk in Crescent Park, which is right on the Mississippi. I think the experience of sitting down and having breakfast is great, of course, but it's also just a really fun place to walk around and look around. That, to me, is the best part of my morning, is walking down the Mississippi.