“I lived in various neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn over the years, so I kind of saw brunch culture happen”
In Luc Sante’s recent book The Other Paris, a chronicle of the faded riptides of Parisian gutter culture, the 62-year-old author devotes significant real estate to the flâneur, the Walter Benjamin-coined social archetype that once thrived in the city. “The true flâneur,” Sante writes, “takes in construction sites and dumps, exchanges greetings with the bums and truck drivers and the women washing their sidewalks in the morning, consumes coffee and gros rouge at as many bus stop cafes as terrace-bedecked boulevard establishments, studies trash and graffiti and sidewalk displays and gutters and rooftops, devotes as much attention to the arcades filled with dentists’ offices as to the ones lined with antique shops, spends more time in Monoprix than at the Louvre.”
That description might as aptly describe Sante himself, who has dedicated his career to picking through the historical cruft to uncover jagged, half-forgotten stories as ragged as they are beautiful. Before he rose to literary prominence with his 1991 book Low Life––a spiritual predecessor to The Other Paris which documents the goings-on of the downtrodden during New York City’s salad days––Sante lived on the Upper West Side, attending Columbia and for a time living with a young Jim Jarmusch, before moving down to the Lower East Side, back when it was an affordable thing to do. He worked in the mailroom at the New York Review of Books and as a clerk at The Strand, all the while involving himself with the flowering downtown culture that nurtured such figures as Nan Goldin and Jean-Michel Basquiat. He’s written on everything from New York’s party culture to H.P. Lovecraft to World War I-era crime-scene photographs.
Sante and I spoke on the phone recently to discuss the breakfasts of his past, as well as what people in New York and Paris had every morning. He’s currently working on a biography of Lou Reed; as far as he can tell, Lou never cared too much for breakfast.
Extra Crispy: In The Other Paris, you write, "The future is a threat or a sales pitch, the present flies around you like the landscape as seen from a moving car, but the past is what you stand on, lean against, breathe in.” With that in mind, what did you have for breakfast this morning?
Luc Sante: Today, I had a banana cut up in some yogurt and two cups of coffee.
How do you take your coffee?
With milk and a little bit of sugar. I have to watch my sugar these days. I always used to take two spoons, but as of the past year it’s gone down to one scant spoon.
Do you grind the beans yourself?
No, my coffee grinder broke and I decided I didn’t really need another one. I just go to the store and have them grind them for me. Then I do a Melitta drip as I’ve done for the last 35 years or something. It’s a glass pot fitted with a plastic cone. Some people use paper filters but I use what’s called a gold filter, which is this very fine metal, mesh filter that I rinse after every use.
You lived in the Lower East Side in the late 1970s, right?
Until 1992, in fact.
As the neighborhood changed, did you notice a change in the type of breakfasts that were available?
They were pretty consistent; what happened is the number of outlets changed. Whenever I went out for breakfast, which was two or three times a week, I’d invariably go to a Ukrainian joint, of which there used to be four or five near my apartment. I think it’s down to one or two now, but there used to be a lot of them. Immigrant Ukrainians would come in and get jobs at these places. They would serve Ukrainian dishes––pierogis, things like that––but standard American diner fare was the backbone. They actually used American diner slang, too. If you were getting rye toast, they’d yell “Whiskey down!” to the cook. “Stretch One” meant a cup of coffee.
What do you think the proliferation of brunch culture in the Lower East Side says about the way the neighborhood has changed?
I lived in various neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn over the years, so I kind of saw brunch culture happen. I first observed it fleetingly in the ‘70s, but I think the first time I ever had brunch, probably, was in the early- to mid-’80s. I was in a relationship with someone outside my socioeconomic spectrum––namely a magazine editor––and with her, I’d go to the West Village and have brunch sometimes. There wasn’t any place to get brunch per se in the Lower East Side in those days. You could get breakfast 24 hours a day, though nobody served mimosas. It was hard to find eggs Benedict in the neighborhood. Now the neighborhood has completely changed character.
What did you and Jim Jarmusch have for breakfast when you lived together?
In the two years we shared an apartment, we almost never cooked. We had a huge Upper West Side apartment––in those days they cost nothing––and we never used the kitchen. It was really big and beautiful, with tiles on the walls. [Not using it] was probably criminal. Instead, we went across the street to this place called Donuts Muffins Snack Bar. I think we went across the street and ate muffins and drank coffee every morning.
Can you trace the history of bagels in New York?
Bagels came in with Jewish immigrants from the East. Not with the German Jews, who came in the middle of the 19th century, but with the Polish and Russian Jews who came in the 1890s mostly. They brought bagels and bialys. Everybody forgets about bialys.
How was breakfast eaten in the 19th century in the city?
I think meals were not as differentiated in the past. They’d have bread and cheese for breakfast and they might have it for lunch as well. Some people ate boiled meat and potatoes several times a day. The rich would have their cook prepare eggs for them. People who lived in boarding houses who were lower-middle-class would eat bacon and eggs. Health nuts started eating cereal toward the end of the 19th century. Both Kellogg's and Post were founded by health nuts who believed cereal like corn flakes could improve health as well as moral rigor. In some funny way, both these cereal magnates were also anti-masturbation crusaders. There was that whole health nut thing that was creeping in, but it didn’t really hit the American middle classes until the 1930s or so. A lot of people ate more something like the German breakfast, which is to say cold cuts and cheese and bread, and an egg and a tomato. Fried eggs are very much an Anglo-Saxon thing. Even in my childhood, eggs were a supper dish.
Are there any significant differences between the way breakfast was consumed in New York vs. how it was consumed in Paris?
Oh, huge. The classic breakfast of Paris was a bowl of café au lait and one or more croissants.
That was across the board throughout the 19th century?
And well into the present. The classic site of Paris is a whole row of people lined up on the zinc bar, standing up, consuming their bowl and their croissant.
When Paris was under siege and people were trying to stretch their resources out, what was the first meal to go?
Probably breakfast. Coffee was absolute; you could not live without coffee. But you could dispense with the morning food because the coffee had milk and sugar in it––that was your substance.
There was a large gypsy culture in Paris. What did they have every morning?
You know, you’ve got me there. I have all these books on gypsies. It was my favorite subject when I was a teenager, and probably if I went back to those books I could have an answer for you. I’d assume from what I remember that they are an all-purpose Eastern kind of food––chickens when they could get them. The chickens would be cooked, the meat eaten, and the carcass recycled as broth. The whole chicken could be stretched out for a few days. Probably whatever was on the pot would be eaten, and there wouldn’t be specific foods assigned to specific meals.
You mention in The Other Paris that the working poor smelled really bad.
Did the smell affect people’s appetites in any way?
It’s a bit like nowadays when younger people say, “Back when you guys smoked, you all stank, right?” Well, we all stank, so nobody noticed. Everybody smelled normal. It was a class issue––the rich didn’t like to go to poor neighborhoods because the poor stank. The rich probably stank too, but what they did was douse themselves with cologne, Florida Water, rice powder, all kinds of stuff to mask odors. Really, everybody stank. Even in my childhood when I lived in a modern, brand-new house in Belgium, we did not have hot running water. We had a little heater adjacent to the bathtub. The convention still was you had a bath once a week on Saturday night, and nobody used deodorant.
In The Other Paris, you mention ragpickers as a constant presence, fishing things out of people’s trash. Were people eating trash for breakfast?
Well, there was no food in the trash. There were bones, probably picked clean or boiled clean. Everything else would be recycled in one way or another. It is possible that people were recycling potato peels, but generally speaking, I don’t think anybody was driven to eating potato peels. You could probably find people eating leftover stuff on the floor of the market after market hours. Trash was really primarily rags and ashes.
You’re working on a biography of Lou Reed. Did he eat breakfast during the ‘70s?
Probably not much, since he was a speed freak for most of it.
Have you looked into his eating habits?
It’s not something I’ve come across so far. Food is not something that looms large in the Lou universe. Although footnote here: My one real intersection in life with Lou Reed is we both appeared in this Wayne Wang and Paul Auster movie called Blue in the Face. Lou had a fictional role in the movie, and I’m interviewed as “Local Resident Number Three” or something like that. I was given the task of accounting for Belgian waffles. So there’s a breakfast connection.
How long into the book are you?
Hard to say. At some point I’m going to put my foot down and say, “Enough research, now we write.” But that won’t happen for at least six or eight months.
Do you write as you research?
No. I get a big pile of information, and then I organize it. Only when I have a satisfyingly large amount of stuff do I start writing.
Any stray breakfast-related thoughts you want to add?
When the subject came up, I remembered the most amazing breakfast situation I’ve ever been in. I used to write for travel magazines, and one sent me to the Royal Hawaiian in Waikiki. That’s the hotel Joan Didion writes about when she says she and her husband went to Hawaii in lieu of getting a divorce. There’s this very fancy hotel; their breakfast buffet was the most elaborate I’ve witnessed ever on earth. They had four stations: the American breakfast, the Continental breakfast, the Chinese breakfast, and the Japanese breakfast. And you could actually fill your plate with all four, although you’d need a very big plate. That was the platonic ideal of breakfast.