How Art Critic Jerry Saltz Does Breakfast: “I’m into Sweet’N Low Because It’s Got a Kick”
Jerry Saltz is a refreshing figure in the art world. As the senior art critic at New York magazine, he’s clashed with celebrity artists like James Franco, railed against trendy “zombie formalism,” and generally served as a splash of color in a world dominated by austere black blazers. Through Saltz's meme-heavy, personality-driven social media accounts, he’s even become a something of an artist-celebrity in his own right. Yet despite being a prominent figure for two decades, he still sees himself as a bit of an outsider. He reminded me multiple times during our interview that he doesn’t have a degree, has never had an assistant, and was a long-haul truck driver into his 40s. Perhaps having been a late bloomer is what makes his writing feels so lively. Reading him, one never gets the sense that he’s writing because he has a deadline to file—perhaps the highest compliment one can give a columnist. I spoke to him from New York, where he lives with his wife, the New York Times art critic Roberta Smith. After convincing him I wasn’t a robocall and that I wouldn’t vote for Donald Trump, he agreed to answer my questions about how he does breakfast. An edited version of our conversation appears below.
Jerry Saltz: I thought I was getting a robocall at the exact moment someone was supposed to call me about an interview. So what is this, exactly?
Extra Crispy: Well, Time Inc. is launching a new publication that’s focused on breakfast…
By the way, you know I’m an art critic? Did they tell you who you’re calling?
Yeah, I chose you. The way this came about is that I told my editor I wanted to talk to notable people about what they eat for breakfast, and you were one of the first names I suggested.
Oh, thank you. You’ve got a book in this, kid! Everybody’s got a thing about their breakfast. Have you ever looked at my Facebook posts when I post what I eat for breakfast? You won’t be-f***ing-lieve it, because when I tell you what I do for breakfast, it’s going to be great. By the way, you can use anything I say and you can make things up.
Thanks, but I won’t make anything up.
No, you can. I never care, you’re working for you. You’re the writer, you have to make up the character.
Well tell me, what did you have for breakfast today?
OK. My wife and I don’t know how to cook. Neither of us were trained by anybody to cook anything. So today I had what we have every morning. Last night I went to the deli on the corner and I bought four cups of coffee. I put the four cups of coffee in the fridge, and then in the morning I unload them into big 7-11 Double Gulp cups, with ice. I make us iced coffee out of the deli coffee.
Do you add milk and sugar?
I have Sweet’N Low.
That’s what I like, too.
I’m into Sweet’N Low because it’s got a kick. And my wife wants to be healthy so she goes with stevia.
And what’s interesting to me is I often will post a picture of it, and people these days go batshit because they want to drink artisanal coffees or they tell me I should use special blends or special machines. I explain to them that I don’t have those machines and I wouldn’t know how the hell they work in the first place because I’ve never had an assistant or anybody show me. I don’t have the time. I want my coffee.
I also don’t understand with this entire generation, what’s so wrong with having regular deli coffee? What’s so wrong with having a 7-11 Double Gulp size? I don’t get it. Is everyone so fragile these days? It’s like when I posted a picture of me eating just a regular hot dog. People go crazy! Like there’s something wrong with me that I would eat normal food. And when I say I use Sweet’N Low, by the way, they really go crazy, like I’m going to kill myself.
I drink a lot of Diet Cokes, so I get that all the time.
It’s fine. You would have to drink 250 Diet Cokes a day for 25 years to maybe get an ounce of pancreatic cancer. Anyway, I find it very interesting that I’m surrounded by a generation that can only drink artisanal coffee spiced with kale.
So you just have coffee, or what do you eat?
I try to diet every day, and I never have succeeded in my life. But each day I wake up thinking today’s the day. So, for example, today I have not eaten yet but when I do eat breakfast I have cut-up cantaloupe in cellophane packages from Gristedes. How I prepare it is I slice it open with my knife and I put it on my plate and I eat it at my desk. If I eat a breakfast, that’s it.
Are you working while you eat?
Yes. I’m anxious enough that I must be working all day every day, because I hate writing that much. If I’m not writing all day, every day, I just think I’ll never write. You’ve written, it’s the worst art.
Yeah, I don’t like writing at all, it’s awful.
All writers say this. It’s best the art once you’re in, but starting, you know how it is. I actually had to delete solitaire from my computer. Let me just say something more about breakfast. Because of my obsession of wanting to always be on a diet, I haven’t had a waffle, French toast, or pancake in over 30 years.
So if you were going to let go, is that what you would have?
Yes. If you were a doctor and said, “Hello, you have one week to live, you’re not going to have any pain, so you might want to eat breakfast,” I would have 100 pieces of French toast and pancakes and waffles with so much maple syrup.
My wife and I, we both come from strange backgrounds where neither of us know how to cook, and being poor means never having an assistant or anyone showing you. I wouldn’t know how to make a waffle today if you paid me $1000.
One of the most famous paintings ever is da Vinci’s Last Supper. Then there’s Warhol’s soup cans, Dieter Roth’s work with chocolate, and Manet and Picasso have those Luncheon on the Grass paintings. But I was wondering, where’s all the art about breakfast?
Wow. Breakfast, it’s such an intimate, beautiful time. I would look at some Impressionist scenes of the morning, maybe Degas. The Impressionists could capture the way a day begins. But I think your question is better than my answer. You’re right, breakfast is a little unrepresented. It’s an intimate meal. You can eat it alone or with the person you just slept with or one of your siblings. It’s before the family has joined. Mom’s still upstairs or dad’s gone out or somebody’s eating in their underwear. I think it’s before you feel poor each day. By dinner, I feel poor.
In the morning you’re full of hope: Today’s going to be the day where you do the difficult things you know you should do. By dinner you haven’t done those things.
Yeah, you didn’t diet, you feel excluded from the party you haven’t been invited to, you’re worried about having sex, you didn’t start reading poetry. It’s a disaster by dinner. Look what breakfast does to us: It makes people get confessional.