How Junot Díaz Does Breakfast
"Anyone reading my fiction would never guess how seriously I take food"
One of the most deceptively difficult techniques in all of literature is writing the way one speaks, and Junot Díaz is its master. His prose hits the sweet spot between Borges and shit-talk, humming with warmth and humanity as he details the intricacies of failed romances, mysterious outbreaks, and the sensation of living life caught somewhere between a multiplicity of identities. He’s been known to spend a decade on a single story, struggling and whittling until he’s left with something as close to perfect as he can get it.
Díaz is as passionate about food as he is about his work. He once wrote that growing up, “I drove my mother berserk; if she made the mistake of cooking something I didn't really feel like eating I would simply get up from the table and go buy myself something I did like.” His epicurean tastes range from diner fare to fine dining, Spartan to Roman in portion preferences, and global in scope. He has many thoughts about breakfast, all of them worthwhile.
This interview was conducted via email. Aside from the occasional capitalization of a word here or there, I left his answers unchanged.
Extra Crispy: I'm interested in the role that you feel food plays in your work.
Junot Díaz: I write about food for various magazines but I don’t have enough food in my writing. This is something I hope to repair in future works. They say write what you know but sometimes the things you know best become invisible to you. Anyone reading my fiction would never guess how seriously I take food. So hard to write fiction; sometimes even that which matters to us is left off the page.
What have you been eating for breakfast?
When I was running I used to eat an enormous breakfast—oatmeal, fruit, and three boiled eggs, but now that the running is off the table because of an injury I have to keep it simple during the week. A piece of fruit or avena (as we say). I save my real breakfast eating for the weekends. I split my time between two cities so when I’m in Boston there’s a Dominican restaurant that I love called Merengue that serves the classic Dominican breakfast of mangú, fried egg, and fried salami. I leave off the fried cheese because well, damn. That’s Saturday. On Sunday I hit this Spanish spot called Toro whose brunch is second to none. They have huevos con salchicha that fucking rocks and their huevos rancheros (when it’s on the menu) makes you feel like you’re not in Boston.
Back home in NYC I swear by half the restaurants in Washington Heights for breakfast. Uptown the battle of the mangú is serious business. But for my money the best brunch in NYC is at Maharlika. Their fried egg, garlic rice, and longganisa is pinoy magic. As is their tortang talong.
Do you have a favorite breakfast place in Boston, where you teach?
Besides the above I’m partial to the breakfast sandwich at Darwin’s. Extra avocado of course.
Do you eat breakfast before or after you brush your teeth?
I always brush my teeth before I eat.
What's your earliest recollection of drinking coffee?
My abuel was from Ázua and he was a small-time coffee grower and coffee was in our blood, literally. I still remember my abuela and his fellow cultivators tasting the first beans of the season and he would always offer me a sip from that almost muddy cup––how that alluvial bitterness kissed my mouth unforgettably.
How do you prepare it? Do you drink it when you write?
I actually don’t make my own coffee. I go out into the world to get it. I’m locked up enough in my apartment, and this is a way to ensure that I get out. I drink coffee when I teach or have to do events but never when I write.
Have you ever had a relationship, romantic or otherwise, end over breakfast?
My relationships often end in cars. A Jersey fate, I guess.
Can you contrast the breakfasts you had as a boy in the Dominican Republic with the ones you ate when you moved to New Jersey?
Breakfast in the Santo Domingo of my youth was cafe con leche with some pan. That was it. On better days there was avena. It was only after we immigrated that the whole eggs thing appeared on our menu. A part of me never lost my preference for spare breakfast––which is why I’m so abstemious during the week.
Which individual breakfasts stick out the most in your mind?
Breakfast in a lodge in the mountains of Hokkaido because of the snow and how fresh everything tasted. Breakfast at the hostal Nicolas de Ovando in Santo Domingo with my friend Tony Capellan, one of the Dominican Republic’s greatest artists.