Parenthood sometimes feels like a series of checklists: Disneyland, the Grand Canyon, the Lincoln Memorial. New York Times book critic Dwight Garner has a list of his own. “For me, I made sure my kids went to John’s for pizza, got dim sum at the Golden Unicorn, and soup dumplings at Joe’s Shanghai,” he tells me over breakfast at Barney Greengrass, an Upper West Side fixture, and another station in his children’s culinary education.
We both order “the scramble” (sturgeon and Nova Scotia salmon with eggs and onions), and he explains that the title of his new book, The Upstairs Delicatessen, comes from the critic Seymour Krim, who once referred to his memory as “that profuse upstairs delicatessen of mine.” The book’s subtitle—On Eating, Reading, Reading About Eating, and Eating While Reading—underscores Garner’s twin passions.
He has been coming to Barney Greengrass for 30 years, and he had its smoked fish mailed to him and his wife during the year they retreated to West Virginia, his home state, to work on the book. “It always feels like a mixed crowd here, in a good way,” he says, “and I usually see a writer or two. I used to see Jim Atlas or Daphne Merkin.” Just then, the novelist Gary Shteyngart and his wife entered. Shteyngart seemed thrilled when I told him he’s quoted in Garner’s new book. (“Cereal is food, sort of. It tastes grainy, easy and light, with a hint of false fruitiness. It tastes the way America feels.”)
Garner has been at The New York Times since 1999, first as an editor at the Book Review and since 2008 as one of the daily book critics. His earthy, intellectual style has been compared to Anatole Broyard’s and John Leonard’s, earlier critics who broke free of the paper’s restrictive tone. Garner writes that the novelist Stanley Elkin “squeezes the blackheads behind the ears of your imagination”; he says J. M. Coetzee’s descriptions are a “thin stream,” “like urine drawn from a catheter.”
While Garner is tasked with requisite “big books,” he is partial to what he calls “literature’s offal: rock memoirs, books of letters and essays, diaries, collections of food and travel writing, volumes of criticism.” Which isn’t to say he’s a pushover; books that fall flat seem to offend him. He recently called a novel by Jayne Anne Phillips—a fellow West Virginian, and a writer he admires—“sludgy, claustrophobic and pretentious,” lamenting that “each succeeding paragraph took something out of me.”
The Upstairs Delicatessen is precisely the kind of genre-bending book one imagines Garner reviewing. “I didn’t want to write a typical memoir,” he says. “My life, frankly, hasn’t been that interesting.” Like his previous book, Garner’s Quotations: A Modern Miscellany, it emerges from the commonplace book he has kept since he was a teenager. “When I read, I underline a lot, and then type up the best bits,” he explains. He then organizes the items into categories (“driving,” “social class,” “Diet Coke”), one of the largest being “food.” He estimates the collection is now several thousand pages long. “It’s a monster. I secretly hope it will be published [in full] after I’m gone,” he confesses. Judging by the excerpts he’s released to date, it doesn’t contain any moral instruction or uplift. “I like quotes that punch you in the snout and say something interesting about what it’s like to be alive.”
In Garner’s hands, food is rarely just food. “It’s as revealing as sex, and as we age, it’s sexual compensation. As feeder and fed, we know the world by putting it in our mouths,” he writes. The Upstairs Delicatessen is structured around a day of his meals: coffee for breakfast (“Balzac was said to consume fifty cups a day; his bladder should be in a museum”), lunch (“The lunch canceler—expunctor prandii—is a well-known species in Manhattan. When a plan for a proper restaurant lunch is made, it’s usually nixed. On the morning of, a game of chicken begins: who’ll lose status by canceling first?”), and cocktails (“I drink more than most people but less than some. I don’t have an especially big tank; my tolerance is not Homeric. But almost nightly I drink two martinis and, with dinner, a glass or two of wine, without negative effects in the morning”).
Garner’s literary heroes are Calvin Trillin and A. J. Liebling. (Of Liebling, who died at 59, Garner writes, “He chose a short, glorious life, at the table, over a long undistinguished one.”) Celebrity chefs and fine-dining trends are absent. Garner calls himself “America’s most ardent consumer of the peanut butter and pickle sandwich” (after reading that, New Yorker editor David Remnick left him a phone message, saying, “That sandwich is the most goyish thing I’ve ever seen in my life”) and chronicles the summer he spent on the overnight shift at an Exxon gas station on the edge of the Everglades, stuffing himself “with Drake’s Ring Dings, tubs of Cheez Balls, and single-serving bags of Famous Amos cookies.”
Garner was born in Fairmont, West Virginia, where his grandfather was a coal miner, and his family moved to Naples, Florida, when he was eight. “I’ve always been obsessed with Southern culture: liberal rednecks and irony-filled writers like Randy Newman, Barry Hannah, Lucinda Williams. They gave me a sense that literature doesn’t have to be serious all the time to be great,” he says. Some of the best passages of The Upstairs Delicatessen are about Garner’s childhood. “I’d read on my stomach, chin cupped in my right hand, the pages pushed out in front of me. It was important that the food not run out before the newspapers and books did.” He revels in seedy barbecue dives, where bikers “whipped out their greasy dicks and peed in the palmettos.”
While Garner is tasked with requisite “big books,” he is partial to what he calls “literature’s offal”: “rock memoirs, books of letters and essays, diaries, collections of food and travel writing, volumes of criticism.”
Garner majored in English at Middlebury College and was an arts editor of a Burlington weekly. He was one of the original editors at Salon before working for Harper’s Bazaar and The New York Times. “The West Virginian and the Manhattanite in me are locked, like the ouroboros, in constant battle,” he writes.
“I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider at the Times,” he tells me. These sentiments are the subject of his next book, an essayistic memoir about West Virginia. “I have a lot of thoughts about the way Americans have viewed mountain people and Appalachia. My people.”
Eating and reading have been good to Garner. He has an enviable job, a loving marriage (to the writer Cree LeFavour), and two successful adult children. But he “lives in terror” of the following scenario: “My wife and I are out having a big meal with friends. It’s two in the morning, and I’m on my last glass of grappa. My phone rings, and it’s my editor telling me a major writer—Toni Morrison, Philip Roth—has died, and the paper needs something quick. Obituaries are written in advance, but critics write an ‘appreciation’ when a major figure dies.” At moments like these, Garner remembers he works for a news-paper. “I’m 58, but the adrenaline still works, even if I’ve had a glass of wine or more,” he says. “When that goes, all will be lost.”
The Upstairs Delicatessen: On Eating, Reading, Reading About Eating, and Eating While Reading, by Dwight Garner, is available now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Robert S. Boynton is the director of the Literary Reportage program at New York University and the author of The Invitation-Only Zone: The Extraordinary Story of North Korea’s Abduction Project and The New New Journalism: Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft