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Take It Easy

Daniel M. Lavery, interviewed by Daniel Drake
“I do think ‘humorist’ tends to get used in a way that pins a little college degree on a comic writer.”
Daniel Lavery standing on a street corner

In the October 5 issue of the magazine, Daniel M. Lavery reviews Jacques Pépin’s most recent book, a collection of the eighty-seven-year-old chef’s poultry recipes, memories, and paintings: 

The recipes on offer throughout Art of the Chicken are both flexible and virtuosic, and effortlessly woven into each part of [Pépin’s] career. There is lunch for one, dinner for dozens, blackened chicken à la Susie, salade bressane (the first nose-to-tail salad I’ve come across, starting with frisée, dijon-and-schmaltz vinaigrette, boiled potatoes, chicken liver, sliced gizzards, and sautéed kidneys, then topped with grillons, or chicken cracklings), and everything anyone, even a very imaginative pervert, could possibly think of doing to an egg.

This was Lavery’s second essay for the Review, after a spirited review last year for NYR Online of the Broadway revival of Funny Girl. In both he evinces the élan that readers have encountered in his books, Something That May Shock and Discredit You and The Merry Spinster; on Slate, where for several years he wrote the advice column Dear Prudence; on The Toast, a website he cofounded and ran from 2013 to 2016; and now on his Substack, The Chatner, and a new blog, The Stopgap, that he runs with Jo Livingstone. 

This week, I e-mailed with Lavery about cuisine, comedy, and gizzards.

Daniel Drake: In your essay you write, “Aside from a few chance encounters with wild blackberry bushes, my own relationship to food has been wholly commodified.” Could you tell me a little about your relationship to cooking?

Daniel M. Lavery: I have my buddy Auyon to thank for those blackberry bushes. I can’t even take credit for that. I like to cook! I like almost every way there is to eat: eating out, having a little plate of snacks for dinner, having a few low-effort almost-recipes for days when I would rather assemble a meal than strictly cook one, everyday cooking, and more elaborate cooking once in a while, too. I started cooking in high school and I really loved it. During my twenties I cooked with what I’d call intermittent enthusiasm, since I mostly lived alone and cultivated a lot of very specific-to-me recipes that don’t really scale to a group setting. Recently I’ve made a few things that I’ve quite enjoyed: Yotam Ottolenghi’s tomato-and-sumac salad, a big strawberry pavlova, and Žito sa Šlagom—wheat berry pudding from the Superiority Burger vegetarian cookbook—which is the greatest thing in the world. 

Did you attempt any of Pépin’s more ornate recipes as you were working on this review?

I promised I was going to try some gizzards, which are one of the few cuts of offal I just can’t get interested in. Pépin cures them overnight in sugar and salt before making a confit, and if anything’s going to do the trick, I think that’s it. I ended up doing a day’s trial run at a butcher recently, in part because I was working on the Pépin review, and I spent much of the afternoon separating chicken hearts and livers, and occasionally a gizzard would make its way in there. I’m setting aside some time this weekend to give it a go. I’ll report back. 

Are there other television chefs or food writers whom you admire?

I really do think the Superiority Burger cookbook is one of the best I’ve ever worked with. I come back to it all the time, as I do to Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat. On the other end of the spectrum, I love Fergus Henderson’s Book of St. John; my wife Grace has made the goose feast two New Year’s Eves running, and it just floors me. Helen Rosner and Kat Kinsman both, I love; M. F. K. Fisher, certainly, and Jane Grigson, of course. The Mushroom Feast and Vegetable Book—I’ve memorized her “chestnuts as vegetable” recipe and everything she does to turnips. I have fun with Margaret Visser, who’s only sort of a food writer, and of course with Movable Feasts: Changes in English Eating-Habits, by Arnold Palmer (not that one). I love to watch Nadiya Hussain, but I almost never bake, so it’s vicarious. I follow Alexis Nikole on Instagram (she’s @blackforager), and I want to find some pawpaws now.

Transmitting sensual experiences through writing is a notoriously tricky task—dancing about architecture and all that. How did you approach writing about food?

I only write about food when it suits me, which makes things a lot easier; I wait until I think I have something interesting or useful or unique to say. I try to take it easy, because I think more than is true in other genres, it can be difficult to write about food sincerely without sounding affected. If I take it easy, I’m less likely to get anxious and collapse into superlatives. 


Do you find that you face a similar challenge when writing about, say, art or music? Or is there something particular to food that tends toward a kind of totalizing hyperbole?

I think I write about art and music less often than I do food. Certainly less directly, which makes it possible to bypass the kind of pitfalls that I encounter in food writing. It’s simply difficult to think well about something you do more or less every day, and easy to resort to shorthand, cliché, things other people have said about food that seem broadly true at first glance. And for me at least, it’s easy to attempt to universalize my own experience. I’ve never been too busy or upset to eat, for example, despite having been both busy and upset on more than one occasion, and for years I assumed other people were joking or playfully exaggerating or outright lying when they said they were. Since everyone experiences hunger, I assumed we all experienced hunger in the same way, and in the process I limited my ability to think imaginatively about other people. I don’t feel anything like that degree of confidence in my reactions to art or music (either concerning their rightness or their universality), so I end up feeling a little less constrained on those subjects. I have a healthier sense of my own ignorance and a better sense of my limits there. 

Much of your public writing, typically published on your own platforms, has been humor—one might even describe you as a humorist. This seems to be a genre that has fallen into some disfavor, at least outside of “Shouts and Murmurs.” Why do you think that might be? Are there other humorists you enjoy, past or present? 

It is a funny word! I do think “humorist” tends to get used in a way that pins a little college degree on a comic writer. But I think it’s probably also a catchall for someone who writes funny things without being a comedian or a TV writer, and in that way it makes sense. A lot of the humorists I take my cue from are old newspapermen from the 1920s, like Robert Benchley and Don Marquis, who did those wonderful old columns featuring the urbane cockroach and alley cat duo Archy and Mehitabel. Frans G. Bengtsson’s The Long Ships has a perfect touch for what is not strictly a “humor book” but is often funny and always beautifully light, even when it’s serious.

For me it’s been more or less accidental, since I’ve never been able to find a staff writing job anywhere and have had to (and gotten to!) cobble together whatever I can wherever I can. I think they should bring back Army Man magazine—that would help a lot. 

What else have you been enjoying reading lately?

I’ve been reading aloud to my partners from Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts the last few nights in a row and enjoying it immensely. And David Niven’s second memoir, Bring on the Empty Horses, which was sort of horrifying but also very breezy. Earlier this summer I finally read L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between—that’s the book where the line “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” comes from—and I wept so beautifully. It really is as good as everyone says. And L.T.C. Rolt’s Narrow Boat

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

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