"The bagel is really under assault"
Jonathan Lethem's newest book, A Gambler's Anatomy, involves an occasionally masked international high-end gambler who may or may not have psychic powers, a real estate developer capitalizing on gentrifying Berkeley, and several pivotal scenes in rival hamburger joints. It's a book that combines elements of a James Bond thriller with Don DeLillo touches, page-turning and pleasingly odd in equal measure. The novel is Lethem's tenth, joining his critically acclaimed coming-of-age Brooklyn tale Fortress of Solitude and his caper about a gangster with Tourette syndrome, Motherless Brooklyn. When he's not writing fiction or essays, Lethem teaches at Pomona College. He spoke with Extra Crispy on the phone about coffee, the tyranny of over-large bagels, working the sandwich line in his Brooklyn childhood, and the bleakest breakfast in his novel.
Extra Crispy: These are odd times to be talking about breakfast, I know.
Jonathan Lethem: I’m the parent of a couple of young kids so keeping a brave face has been an organizing principle. Not letting them think that the world is ending. It’s pretty confusing. And at the other end, I have my college students who are all falling apart at the seams and don’t deserve to be kidded. There have been a lot of intense conversations going on. Some good work is beginning to occur, but there’s also a lot of stunned-ness and silence, a kind of gutted feeling.
What is your breakfast like normally?
The truth is that I was already readying an apology for having a fairly unglamorous reply to that question. I get up in a house where there’s like an hour and a half to get everyone out the door before grade school starts. I have a first grader and a fourth grader. What I eat tends to be an afterthought, or a stolen moment, cleaning up the remains of their bowl of yogurt and granola. It’s a very pragmatic morning I tend to have, at least on the weekdays. Making boxed lunches while getting them fed and yelling at them to get dressed and brush their teeth and make their beds. It’s not exactly the breakfast of my luxurious fantasies.
Do you have one of those?
You know, back several worlds ago, I liked nothing more than the classic New Yorker’s breakfast: every section of The New York Times over bagels and sliced lox and a lot of black coffee. I can still reconstruct those days; every now and then I get to re-enact them.
Is that a kind of comfort food breakfast?
I don't love pancakes or waffles. I just don’t dig sweet in the morning. I’m a straight savory guy. So if I make a big bowl of oatmeal, it doesn’t have maple syrup or candy-encrusted walnuts, the way hotels are always trying to force on you. It gets butter, salt, and lots of black pepper. To me that’s a comfort food.
Are you a drink-coffee-all-day kind of person?
I have the most ridiculous relationship to coffee. It’s my absolute regular boon companion. I drink two or three shots of it at home from a Nespresso machine. Very bad on the carbon footprint, I’m afraid. Then I get to the office and I immediately switch to mediocre but still completely cherished English department coffee from the machine that everyone relies on. Anyone who empties out the last dregs has to make the next pot. One of my colleagues here in the English department calls it “black food”: strong black coffee.
One of the characters in your new novel A Gambler’s Anatomy has a fairly bleak breakfast: dry Cheerios washed down with tap water.
[Laughs] We can all look down on that breakfast, no matter how bad it gets. For the moment.
There’s also a great scene involving a backgammon game played on a hamburger griddle.
I’m pretty obsessed with hamburgers and fast food as a symbol of American greatness and simultaneously the degrading, default assembly-line garbage food. The way they represent multitudes. Like anything that interests me, in my books, it tends to mean more than one thing in a confusing way. I love a really great hamburger, myself. It’s one of the things that pulls me back from the brink from a full commitment to vegetarianism. I really don’t eat a whole lot of meat anymore, but when I do, it tends to be In-N-Out burger. Mine is on Foothill Boulevard. There’s some street cred there in a weird way, since it’s on Route 66. It’s the burger joint that Steinbeck’s Okies didn’t get to stop in on the way to LA from the Dust Bowl.
You’ve spent time eating on both coasts—where do you fall on the rivalry between New York and Los Angeles? The most common complaint I hear is the lack of a good bagel, or Kaiser roll, on the west coast.
Well sure, but you could, for fair and balance’s sake, you could debate the availability of a really good avocado. There are consolations. But I’m not going to kid anyone. As hard as they try, the New York bagel is not to be found out here. But then again the New York bagel—the really just right one—is a little scarcer in New York than people would prefer to believe. There’s a ratio problem. The bagel is really under assault from the American ethos of “bigger is better.” The amount of exterior surface to interior dough is thrown out of whack with these gigantic bagels. They’ve gotten fatally enormous. For that reason, I’m going to be really heretical and say that my ears really prick up when I hear about a Montreal bagel these days. They’ve kept the proportion right.
Do you have any fond Brooklyn breakfast memories?
We used to go to this place in the weird cultural blind spot between genuine Old Brooklyn nostalgia with the Dodgers and egg creams and everything that has been commemorated in the internet era, in terms of gentrification. There was a place called The Food Basket on Atlantic Avenue. I even worked there as a kid for a while, putting together some classic breakfast sandwiches. I ran a classic slicing machine, where someone sticks the big chunk of roasted turkey or bar of yellow cheese and runs that whirring blade. I did all that stuff for a little while.
You’d wait until lunchtime to go to the Damascus bakery for a spinach pie, or up to Flatbush and Nevins for a Jamaican beef patty. Those aren’t really breakfast foods, instead of in that classic “I haven’t slept yet” breakfast sense. I’d recommend either one to you over the dry Cheerios.