In the last week I cooked chicken breasts in the oven and ate them with red quinoa and kale. I made an omelet in a non-stick pan without butter. I downloaded a calorie tracking app. I even—I can’t believe I’m even writing this—went for a walk.
How did I get here?
For about a decade my weight has fluctuated pretty wildly, and to be honest I didn’t really mind. When I was at my low weight I would feel sleek and vital. When I was at my heaviest I would wear nothing but my little pink swimming trunks and eat pork chops with my hands in public. I would spill champagne on my thighs or let marinara sauce run into my chest hair. I’m not sure what they were really thinking but in my head people would see me and think: “Wow. That guy really knows how to live!”
Since around thanksgiving my weight stopped fluctuating. I couldn’t fit into my suits anymore, and had to buy new jeans. The elastic band in my underwear left a nasty looking ring of broken blood vessels around my waist. Finally, I outgrew my pajamas. Family members started whispering about gout. Not good.
This post will not be about me getting fit. Anyone who knows me knows I will never really get my appetites under control. This post is about the glorious, decadent five weeks that got me to rock bottom.
Let’s start at Thanksgiving.
This was the first Thanksgiving I didn’t spend at home with family. My girlfriend and I decided to spend it at our apartment cooking, just the two of us.
We made this stuffed turkey breast from Juila Child, wrapped in its own skin and cheese cloth, and basted over hours with melted butter. We stuffed out breast with the caramelized onion and kale stuffing from smittenkitchen.com, and made a second batch for good measure. I love stuffing.
For sides there were buttery roughly mashed yellow fingerling potatoes with blue cheese and garlic, classic cranberry sauce, brussel sprouts with thick-cut chorizo and toasted almond slivers. All served with a big pot of gravy made from the surplus turkey skin, turkey drippings, and shallots, and spiked with white wine.
Again, there were only two of us.
And we drank.
On Thanksgiving morning, we woke up to a bottle of cold champagne, planned the meal for the day and split a bottle of dry cider for good measure. While we cooked it was bourbon over ice—a surprisingly good whiskey from Hilllrock Distillery in New York’s Hudson Valley—and small glasses of Pommeau de Normandie, a kind of hard apple juice fortified with calvados. Over dinner we dug into the wine: reds and sherry for her, and vinho verde and chardonnays for me with maybe an ale towards the meal’s end. In between courses we split shots of a cheap, harsh calvados—an old Normandy feasting trick—to help make room.
And there was dessert: sour smurf gummis—the best haribo ever— and dark Ritter Sport chocolate bars with hazelnuts, pecan pie, vanilla ice cream, and bottles of dark stout.
Afterwards when I was sure I was going to die, I downed a quick Underberg, a German digestif and felt much better.
The next day things really went off the rails.
After a few leftovers sandwiches, we took what was left and made a thick slab of shepherd’s pie: with a base of toasted rye bread, a top of mashed potatoes covered in oven-blistered sharp cheddar, and a midsection sloppy with hot gravy.
We proudly talked of how, with the pie thanksgiving could last us a week! And then took the whole thing to bed and ate it over one episode of Narcos.
In retrospect, that semi-somnolent shepherd’s pie was just the appetizer in a feast that was about to last me forty five days.
I spent December in California “working”: researching and writing stories like the best tacos on the west coast, a California dive bar taxonomy, San Diego’s best fish tacos, and a deep dive into the bay area’s flourishing Tiki scene.
For the first two weeks I met friends and made my way up the coast from the Mexican border to the Napa valley north of San Francisco.
In Tijiuana at Taco Nazo I had one of the best bites of my entire life: a tripa taco whose chunks of boiled small intestine turned the color and texture of caramel on a battered iron plancha.
With a six pack of dark Bohemias from the adjacent convenience store I worked through Nazo’s entire taco menu: spicy birria—goat stew—the tortillas soggy with broth, fatty, chewy carnitas, charred carne asada, spicy chorizo, and al pastor cut thin from a spit-grill like a pork shawarma served with bits of burnt pineapple.
Over one afternoon in San Diego I ate at five different fish taco places before ending the night at one of San Diego’s best dive bars, Last Call, a bar sandwiched between two pay-by-the-hour motels, where there were hotdogs on the grill out front, and the slogan was “get ugly early”. Whenever emergency vehicles with their sirens on went by, the bar tender passed out kamikaze shots to the whole bar. There were a lot of sirens; we obeyed the slogan.
There were tacos in LA too, and an obligatory stop at Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles.
A friend visiting from Hong Kong joined me over prohibition-era cocktails at The Varnish—the least obnoxious speakeasy in the world—gin and tonics at the famous Frolic Room (where I decided I love bars with murals), beers and snacks at the Chateau Marmont, and martinis at the Musso & Frank Grill, the oldest restaurant in Hollywood.
The best meal in Los Angeles came as a surprise: a pastrami sandwich on rye from Langer’s Deli. They claim to serve the best pastrami sandwich in the world, and as a deli fanatic living in New York City it’s hard for me to admit that they might be right. Their rye bread, chewy and toothsome with a nice crunchy crust, is certainly the best I’ve ever had.
Then it was up the coast, stopping at the greatest hits to give my visiting friend a taste of California road food. We had rushed In n’ Out burgers along the 101, ate piles of fried seafood and sardine sandwiches over looking the pacific ocean in Morro Bay, and closer to San Francisco, ordered up two of my favorite burritos of the moment, a steak super burrito from La Corneta Taqueria in Burlingame with pickled jalapenos and fresh lime juice.
San Francisco is my home and every time I’m back I check in at my favorite dives. San Francisco is, or rather was, woefully misunderstood. It used to be a hard city, a rough and dirty drinking city where the Brown Jug opens at 6am, and corner stores sell plastic cups of vodka under the counter for a dollar.
Things are changing and not for the better, but that’s a story for another post.
Anyway, San Francisco used to be home to the best dive bar culture around. Sadly, when I tried to take some friends on a tour of my favorites, one after another had closed, or been scrubbed up and sanitized and was now full of furry roly poly white people in fleeces taking pictures of each other. Luckily the Geary Club is still there, unchanged and unchangeable.
The tiny, sticky bar is maybe my favorite dive bar in the world; it has absolutely nothing to recommend it but me. I used to do my homework there, and passing drunks would splatter my textbook with jaeger. This time, like every time I visit the Geary Club I was gleefully, gratefully, and disastrously over-served.
I had decided I would try and get healthy in preparation for the holiday-binge but missed the mark by a fair bit when I ate another burrito, this time from Taqueria La Cumbre, home of the original mission burrito, in the bathtub first thing on Christmas eve morning.
That afternoon was the big family dinner, this year a little restrained by our standards: green beans steamed and tossed with lemon juice and sea salt, Brussel sprouts wilted in bacon, and huge salads of bitter greens with perfect Oregonian pears, candied pecans, and little nobs of goat cheese. The main course was a whole tenderloin, smeared with rough mustard, wrapped in pancetta and roasted. Then my family’s traditional Christmas dessert: peppermint ice cream pies with hot fudge.
This year, for the first time we hosted Christmas morning at mom’s house and she gave me a free hand in planning the breakfast. Enter a whole spiral cut honey baked ham with a pot of spicy mustard, lox with whipped cream cheese and capers, fresh baked cinnamon sticky buns, a pyramid of sausages and three tiers of donuts. Another friend, also visiting from Hong Kong but from the U.K. was put in charge of the bacon buttys and brown sauce, while I made eggs scrambled in truffle butter. Fresh orange juice. Egg Nog. Champagne.
Just a few hours later was dinner time. For the last few years we’ve been having Christmas dinner at a friend’s; he’s an ex-chef and plans his holiday dinner for weeks ahead of time.
Already full, I found room for green garlic soup, gravlax cured in gin with pickled onions, rare roasted duck, quails stuffed with homemade turkey sausage, a bowl of thick risotto and two slices of dark chocolate, candied ginger macaroon cake drenched in chestnut liqueur.
First thing the next morning I headed off to join my girlfriend’s family for their Christmas tradition: passing the holidays in the Napa Valley—San Francisco’s wine country. She promised all we would do was eat and drink, a nice change of pace for me.
Days in Napa were spent dripping runny cheeses onto draped piles of charcuterie from the Fatted Calf, or eating sweet duck liver pate straight from the jar, or putting on layers of sweaters to sit outside in the frosty mornings slurping fresh Hog Island oysters.
The Napa trip was a trip of firsts for me: my first visit to a winery, my first dip in a hot spring, my first mud bath, my first oysters bingo—fresh oysters piled with garlic, spinach, and cheese then broiled.
It was also the first time I sat in a California bar that allowed smoking. In fact that was the biggest surprise of the trip, that the uppercrust wine country was also the home of some of the best and diviest bars in the state. It’s like the local bar scene is trapped in amber.
We visited Pancha’s where the bartender/owner Rose has a fearsome reputation. I thought stories of her might be exaggerated, she was unfailingly gracious to us, then she told a group of be-ugged tourists to “fuck off” before they even got in the door.
We also visited the famous Green Door, where the bartender told me stories of working biker bars up and down the coast: “Those guys had something called honor.”
Both bars readily sold cigarettes, provided ash trays, and encouraged patrons to light up. Many drunk people tried to explain to me how this was so: legal loopholes, the owners were grandfathered in, they weren’t technically public bars. But, I think it mostly came down to those two bartenders. Some people you just don’t fuck with.
Writing about Napa is bringing back memories: tacos from a truck in the dusty lot down the street from the French laundry, barbeque and rare small-batch bourbons, the best fajitas I have ever had, and of course near-perfect classic cheeseburgers from Gott's Roadside.
I'm not a breakfast person, I'm usually too full from the night before, but in Napa I discovered one of my favorite light holiday breakfasts: pizzelle, those Italian waffle-cookies flavored with anise and lemon zest, dipped in a glass of Dream Catcher, an Irish liqueur made from roasted chestnuts backed up with a cup of black coffee.
My girlfriend and I got back into town with just a few days to spare before New Year’s Eve. I had work to do, which for me meant visiting 14 tiki bars in three days as research for this story in Time Out: that's 14 mai tais with a few scorpion bowls and at one place a full rum tasting thrown in for good measure. I know I must have eaten, but the only solid food I remember in the whole tiki haze is a cheeseburger with bone marrow from KronnerBurger in Oakland.
New Years Eve came as a welcome respite from the thatch, and sugary cocktails. New Years Eve is also our anniversary and we have something of a tradition: sequester ourselves in a house by the beach and cook a too-large, labor intensive meal.
This year it was David Lebovitz’s Chili with chocolate which was a joy to make and turned out OK. I followed my personal New Years Eve tradition by falling asleep on the couch before 11. At least this time—for the first time in years—I managed to wake up for midnight and force a few sips of Prosecco. My spirit was willing but my body had had enough of 2015.
Writing this I keep remembering more meals I’d forgotten. The spot-on Taiwanese food from a strip mall in a suburb south of the city, the reuben, lox, and out of this world chopped liver from Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen in San Francisco, and the famous Nopalito carnitas, served slick with grease and steaming in a paper sack.
And how could I forget the ham? One of the best Christmas gifts I’ve ever received. A whole 400 day old, peanut fed, heritage hog ham hock from Virginia, meant to put even jamón ibérico de bellota to shame. It’s sitting on the counter in my Brooklyn apartment as I write this, all but its sharp little hoof covered in dish towels and wrapped in twine to keep the rats at bay.
On my last night in the city I met an old friend at Hard Water, a New Orleans style whisky bar in the fog out on pier 3. I’d heard they had a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 23 years, supposedly the best, certainly the most expensive, and certainly the most over-hyped whisky on earth. Bottles of Pappy are getting so rare I’d never actually seen one in person. And, they did have it but only offered it in half ounce tastes as part of a flight that would cost me nearly $250. I passed on the Pappy, and instead drank two other breathtaking bourbons I’d never heard of. When I got up to settle my bill the bartender slid over a glass and smiled at me. “I don’t want you leaving thinking San Francisco isn’t cool anymore.”
San Francisco isn't cool anymore, but the Pappy was excellent. That said, I think I preferred my $40 Rittenhouse 25-Year-Old Straight Rye. No sip of anything is worth $250.
It was a very good month.
Now I have cauliflower and some boneless skinless chicken breasts to tend to. Just don't think I'm giving up too easy.