“I think having been kosher has a lot to do with why I eat the same meals all the time,” says the illustrator and writer Liana Finck. “I think I’m a ritual-minded person.” So when The New Yorker and Catapult contributor — whose
“acid wit” and raw honesty have earned her a dedicated following — is home in the city, she likes to keep to a very particular routine. That was interrupted this fall, when she went on tour for her latest project, the cartoon book Excuse Me, a collection of 500 of her cartoons, but she’s now settling back into her New York swing. Finck found herself in New Jersey for Thanksgiving, where she ate turkey and “Scott stew,” but otherwise spent the holiday week eating Indian food uptown, making cranberry relish and dirty martinis, and getting her “ritualistic lunch salad.” Read all about it in this week’s Grub Street Diet.
Thursday, November 28
I️ woke up early, checked my email, peed, brushed teeth, got dressed, made the bed, and agonized over whether to bring running clothes with me when I️ travel for the next two nights. Then I️ walked the mile to Konditori, my current café of choice. The walk was beautiful, silent — the schools were closed for the holiday, so the streets near me weren’t mobbed with put-upon parents hustling their kids to class— and the light was wonderful, with swiftly moving clouds, and fleeting intensity of sunlight, and leaves blowing down the sidewalk. I’d been listening to Age of Innocence on audio since the day before. I hadn’t read Edith Wharton in a long time. She used to depress me. No longer.
The tiny but spatially efficient café was full of newborns (two newborns, three parents, and one man who assured the other adults very heartily that he was on his way to pick up a grandson, age 5 months). There was only one barista behind the counter because it was early. I wondered if she was annoyed to be working on the holiday. Outside were two adults, two cute 6-year-olds, and three dogs, one of whom was shy with a pink mark over its nose.
I️ ordered a chocolate almond croissant (that’s my order, except when they have doughnuts) and a large coffee, into which I put half-and-half, and sat at the bar in the storefront window I️ ate 5/6ths of the croissant and felt vaguely dissatisfied by it, vaguely cheated. Some parts were too dry today. Some parts were too wet. The coffee was okay — hot, but a little on the bitter side.
Sometimes my hour in the café in the morning is stressful, as when someone sits too close to me and my head explodes, and sometimes it’s wonderful. My favorite place to work is in the quiet corner of a public place. I️ wish I️ could put it into words better than that. “A room of one’s own” is an important concept for me, of course — but so is avoiding that room.
The other night I️ broke the politeness barrier with my upstairs neighbor and complained about a strange, repetitive knocking noise that had been going on for a good half-hour. It turned out he’d been making coleslaw. I️ felt bad for complaining. But glad to know that coleslaw is made in this mysterious way. It’s a deep relief to know your current neighbors are nice people who make coleslaw, rather than monsters who — well, I️ have stories.
My mom had asked me to bring rice for Thanksgiving. I️ took this as a challenge: She was asking for too little. The elegant move would have been to make a fancy rice dish, but I️ don’t know any. So I made rice. Black heirloom rice from the Park Slope Food Co-op. Way too much of it, I realized after hastily cooking what I’d put in the bag. And I took a bottle of wine out of my cabinet as an apology for only bringing rice. I also seeded two pomegranates — an obscure labor of love — but remembered I’d done the same thing last year and everyone had seemed a little puzzled. So I changed my mind about the pomegranates. Reader — I️ ate them. I’m much more adventurous with fruit than anyone else in my family. They like apples, oranges, bananas, and pears. I like pomegranates, gooseberries, crabapples, persimmons, jicama, rutabaga (I know I’ve veered into vegetable territory here), dragon fruit, rambutan, durian. Nothing against apples, oranges, bananas, and pears, but I’m picky about quality. I like my bananas very slightly greenish, my apples crisp. My life’s goal — one of them — is to try pawpaw.
I’d found out the night before that my boyfriend made his signature “stew” for Thanksgiving, for which I️ was grateful. He’s a mensch. The other thing about him is he doesn’t own any Tupperware. When he brings food to someone’s house, he carries it in a pot. I️ know that if I️ give him a Tupperware, it will make his life easier — mine, too — but I’ll feel crushed by household responsibility and won’t be attracted to him for a week. These things are important. Edith Wharton gets it.
Scott and I both got seats on the train, but not next to each other. The woman next to me stress-ate Cheetos. Or maybe I️ was projecting the stress. Maybe she was eating Cheetos from a family-size bag on the train from a sense of well-being and joie de vivre.
Thanksgiving started in the living room of my parents’ new house in Montclair, New Jersey, and proceeded to the dining room. During dinner, I️ had three glasses of wine: two purple and a white called Josh (the back of the label said, “My father’s name was Joseph, but his friends called him Josh.”) Josh put me over my limit. At least four of us had bad migraines that night.
I’m pescatarian except when I’m at my parents’ house, at which point I revert to being kosher. So: I had some turkey. What else? Some squash soup. Also many sides: parsnip, cranberry sauce, good stuffing (which my mom apparently calls bread pudding: a family quirk I was heretofore unaware of), Brussels sprouts, and Scott stew.
(The unkosher things I️ eat in my life as a pescatarian are: oysters and grasshopper tacos. Although I’m pretty sure grasshoppers are kosher. Locusts are.)
Friday, November 29
I️ woke up before Scott and couldn’t believe my luck: I️ was the first one awake! It was 7:15. I️ snuck out as quietly as I️ could and walked to a café: Crazy Mocha. I️ had a really good chocolate croissant and large, wet-tasting coffee (I’m synesthetic and am not sure my categorizations of coffee flavor are legitimate descriptions of taste or something totally out of left field. But here they are. The bad coffee flavors are: wet, hollow, mustache, and extra-mustache. The two good coffee flavors are: mild, and softly grainy). The barista asked me if I’d like my croissant warmed up. (No.) Also if I’d like room for milk or cream (I pondered the language choice, wondered if it was a personal choice, or café policy).
The café was so spacious. The suburbs are, in this way, like the moon.
At my parents’, everyone who stayed in the house was talking in the kitchen. I️ get really depressed sometimes, during the day, indoors. I️ think it’s partly the lack of structure, the knowledge that I might be called upon to do something at any moment (when I’m with people, this is literal. When I’m alone, it can come through email), and partly — when there are people around — the noise, the hecticness. Being surrounded by noise and movement, feeling constantly in the way.
I️ haven’t been eating lunch lately, so I️ stayed in the dining room while everyone washed their breakfast dishes and piled up lunch dishes — but after everyone dispersed, I️ got myself a little food. Was it hunger or the loneliness of the outsider?
Scott, my mom, and I stopped at my mom’s art studio and then went to visit my grandma, who is 99. Her apartment hasn’t changed since I️ was born, except that my grandpa is gone.
At Grandma’s, I ate three very good small cookies called, I think, French Twists, tea with almond milk, two pieces of dried mango, and one date. And then I️ wrapped myself in a cocoon and became a beautiful butterfly. My mom dropped Scott and me at the bridge. We took a bus and then a subway and then another bus to the Upper East Side.
We went to Toloache — a very worthwhile fancy restaurant — for a drink and guacamole, firstly because I’m writing this (we’d never normally go out twice in one night) and second to decompress after Thanksgiving. I️ ate the paprika salt off my Mezcalita, and Scott let me eat his, too.
After the Met, we went to a quiet, strangely formal quite wonderful Indian restaurant on the Upper East Side called Tandoor Oven. We had: a glass of Cabernet. Poppadum with green/brown/red chutneys. Mulligatawny soup with lemon, my favorite thing here. Aloo ghobi, yellow dal, rice, naan.
I️ told Scott I️ was stressed from having too much going on, and that I didn’t know where I’d run tomorrow — and he offered to come to my place.
Saturday, November 30
We woke up late for me, early for Scott: 8:50. When I get up really late, all the good pastries are gone, but this morning I felt safe. At Konditori, I got a hibiscus donut and ate the frosting, garnish, and skin with the help of a coffee stirrer and several napkins (I’m weird, but I’m fastidious). The coffee was good. I️ put some soy milk in with my half-and-half, an old trick.
Scott got coffee and a vegan muffin and a vegan cookie for later.
The café wasn’t full and there was a cheerful, cozy vibe. This café is less snobby than the ones closer to me in Park Slope Proper. The people are more fun to watch and are mostly people I’d like to know. And the babies are cuter.
This morning, there was a man humming in a vibrating falsetto to every single song that came on — that is, when he wasn’t whistling — and I️ was so annoyed. It got steadily louder. Either the hummers follow me, or I’m bizarrely good at locating them in any given place.
I was so excited to go for a run.
I left the café to go do that. I️ decided not to have lunch. While I️ love to eat lunch, I️ also love not to have to bother with lunch (usually, lunch is a time of ritual: I always eat the same salad, and worry about when and where I’ll be able to obtain it). I’m in a kind of lawless, in-between phase now when it comes to lunch.
My ritualistic lunch salad is a kale salad with sweet potatoes, tuna, coleslaw, cilantro, jalapeños, yogurt-cucumber dressing, and a squeeze of lemon from Just Salad. They call me Jessica there because that’s what I️ tell them my name is. Partly because Liana is a hard name and partly because these people who make my specific lunch every day already know too much about me, and probably suspect my undiagnosed OCD. Why should they also know my name?
The irony is not lost on me, dear reader. I️ have told you everything.
Just Salad doesn’t have its workers chop the salads with loud, menacing cleavers. They therefore seem a lot happier than the workers at Chop’d.
I had a panel at three, downtown: a memorial for the excellent and kind comics artist Ted Stearn. I was nervous I️ wouldn’t know what to say, besides that I️ loved his work and thought he was a nice person.
Afterward, I️ was planning to see a friend. I️ always bring wine when I️ go to someone’s house, except when I️ deliberately don’t, to prove to myself and others that my politeness doesn’t come from cold fear, which in fact it does. I decided that wine would be presumptuous for a 5 p.m.hangout and brought a jar of honey instead.
My favorite non–Just Salad salad is a Sweetgreen kale salad with falafel, cauliflower, sweet potato, onions, cilantro, basil, squeeze of lime, and tahini dressing. I️ thought maybe I’d get one at some point to bring home for dinner.
I️ don’t like to really cook when I’m alone, besides my dirty martinis, partly because I feel a strong responsibility to finish leftovers in time. There was some Scott stew in my fridge that was going to go bad.
Before I met Scott, I️ often cooked salmon with shiitake mushrooms and butter, and spinach pie — an invention of my mom’s. My other favorite thing to cook, which is easy to make vegan but too spicy for Scott, is vegetable jalfrezi — the recipe on Serious Eats. I️ love all spicy foods, especially when they’re not fried.
On my way home, I️ went to the food co-op and shopped very carefully because my friend had given me a drawing that I️ was carrying.
Came home and cooked chanterelles with onions and garlic. Ate a Sharon fruit.
Had a cup of my signature drink — diet root beer, seltzer, and vanilla Coffee Mate with ice — while cleaning my floor. Make that two. Three.
A three-olive gin martini. Gordon’s gin, vermouth from the green bottle, large “martini” olives, normal toothpick. I drink them in the bath.
Sunday, December 1
Coffee, doughnut skin.
The types of people who come into (and/or work at) a café around here: the performatively jovial, the boundaryless, the erratically guarded, the confused, the truly oblivious, the performatively oblivious, the manic, the desperate, the scold.
What I️ believe about existence in the present tense is that you are who surrounds you. That’s why I️ don’t work in libraries. Too many drifters: parents trying to make the time pass, high-school kids, homeless people, and, in some libraries, academics.
I️ had an eating disorder from the age of 14 through 23. I️ was too skinny for two of those years, and too fat (although I suppose I’m not the best judge) for seven. A better way to put it: First I was a compulsive not-eater, and then I became a compulsive eater. Until I left for college, I ate primarily in the basement of my parents’ house. Primarily cookie dough that I made myself, always intending to make cookies for the family. After I left for college, I ate in a public bathroom no one went into, which had grand marble floors and a full-length mirror. Throughout, the eating disorder was defined by my obsession with how I looked and what I ate. I️ am not sure who I’d be if I️ hadn’t had the eating disorder, whether I’d be different, eat differently. I️ had the eating disorder because something felt wrong with me, and I️ decided that since I️ couldn’t examine those feelings, it must be my changing body. It turns out that what was wrong with me was society. I️ am, in all fairness, a part of society, and don’t think it was silly of me to punish myself for society’s evil.
Left café to run early before an interview I️ wanted to refuse but didn’t because I️ hate saying no.
I️ ran for 45 minutes. It was raining a little, and the park was blissfully, beautifully quiet and empty.
The interview — for an Indian magazine — was wonderful. I’m glad I️ agreed to it. The journalist brought me treats from India: beautiful rose candy, and beautiful mango white chocolate in nice boxes.
I️ decided to make cranberry relish and take it to Scott. I googled the recipe (even though I do own the cookbook, which I’ve never opened) to eyeball the amounts, but didn’t read the steps. It feels wasteful to me to read anything that isn’t necessary.
Then I spent a good half-hour figuring out, with increasing desperation, how to close the food processor. I finally located the part that wasn’t closing and worked it out from there. I find the food processor’s noise unpleasant; also the washing of all the parts. The assembly is the worst part, though. It’s unwieldy and awful, like carrying a bicycle up stairs.
I️ got wet in the cold rain walking to Scott’s but was glad to be there. He was at his desk drawing coral from our hectic trip to Miami last week for the book fair. (Also, he’s drawing a pretzel). I was working on my screenplay on his bed with one of his stuffed animals, Stimpy. Before I️ could stop him, he read me a long “coral manifesto” he’d written.
I️ gobbled down both Indian treats I️ brought while we worked — and some chocolate. I’m going to have to be careful with those treats. An extremely kind friend got me a jar of maple butter a while ago — it was the best thing I’d ever eaten — and it started me on a kick of eating honey straight from the jar — a habit that lasted months.
Monday, December 2
Both our alarms went off at the same time, a bizarre sound. I️ disentangled myself from a dream about mind-bending airplane schedules and labyrinthine airports, and then Scott’s morning monologue, and went to the Ange Noir Cafe, a French Goth café that’s also, sometimes, an antique or thrift store, and has great croissants and coffee.
I️ bought a refill and was given what I️ knew wasn’t half-and-half and was too polite to complain, although the disappointment and feeling of having been gaslit would linger …
Someone is singing to the music in a strange falsetto. Why does every café have one person who sings? And only one? Usually male. (In my experience, women are more likely to sing on trains. I️ myself sang in a gym shower the night before my 30th birthday.) I️ supposed I️ should count my blessings. At least he isn’t drumming.
I️ didn’t eat lunch, even though I intended to. I️ felt a little bit like I was mourning something, I️ didn’t know what. (Okay, I did pick a fight with Scott.) And I️ knew that eating lunch would drive the feeling away from my surface and into my depths.
The point of eating salad for lunch every day is to pretend that time isn’t barreling away with us; to pretend that everything is okay and under control. But today I needed to sit with the reality that everything isn’t under control. I️ felt bad for having hurt Scott’s feelings.
The day went from bad to worse. I wrote a quippy retort to a self-promoter’s generic “follow my account” comment on my Instagram feed that I thought was very funny (my sense of humor is very dark when I’m in a bad mood), and got a lot of hateful backlash from people who pointed out that I, the big Instagram illustrator, was being cruel to a small-time Instagram illustrator. I️ didn’t eat. I didn’t work. Walked in the snow. I️ cried. It was a bad day for reasons I can’t articulate yet. I️ drank a cup of oolong tea that Scott made me from the last oolong tea bag. I️ cried more. I️ worked on the screenplay.
Anyway, I️ brought the rest of the relish to my slaw-making neighbor and got to try his slaw, which was great.
At ten, I️ felt sane enough to fix myself a diet root beer/seltzer/creamer/ice drink, and to start thinking about a round of martinis for me and Scott. Then — while listening to Age of Innocence for the fourth time — I️ sent in my New Yorker cartoons and emailed myself a copy of the screenplay so I️ could read it from my phone tomorrow in between meetings and teaching.
Midnight approaches, so you won’t hear about my late dinner. But I️ assure you that I️ will eat it, and enjoy it.