The Upstairs Delicatessen: On Eating, Reading, Reading About Eating, and Eating While Reading

Image of The Upstairs Delicatessen: On Eating, Reading, Reading About Eating, and Eating While Reading
Release Date: 
October 24, 2023
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by: 

Attention, eager readers and constant eaters. Dwight Garner, book critic for The New York Times, is here, and he has street cred: At 30 to 60 pounds overweight most of his life, his “bouts of afternoon grazing could last three or four hours “during his schooldays,” and always included reading.

In his delightful memoir The Upstairs Delicatessen, he writes: “Reading and eating, like Krazy and Ignatz, Sturm und Drang, prosciutto and melon, Simon and Schuster, and radishes and butter, have always, for me, simply gone together.”

“Food in literature has always made me turn the pages more briskly,” he says.

These pages are filled with wonderful quotations on eating from the books of Jim Harrison, David Sedaris, Toni Morrison, and dozens of others, not to mention Garner’s own tips on his diner favorites: fries, triple-deckers sandwiches, and stale cake.

But first, let’s consider Dwight Garner (b. 1965), a leading book critic, about whom we learn much here. He grew up in West Virginia and southwest Florida, got an early start on overeating in grade school (he was the youngest person at his weekly Weight Watcher meetings), and would write his first book reviews as a freelancer for The Village Voice.

Garner edited the school newspaper at Middlebury College, was a stringer for The Boston Globe and The New York Times, and worked weekends in the library’s periodicals room, where he became enamored of the book criticism in publications from The New Republic, National Review, and Harper’s Magazine to Elle and Harper’s Bazaar.

“No food was allowed at the library desk,” he writes. “If it had been, they might have had to wheel me out, like a refrigerator, on a hand truck.” He made up for that working an overnight shift at an Exxon gas station, where he “read novels while stuffing myself with Drake’s Ring Dings, tubs of Cheez Balls, single-serving bags of Famous Amos cookies.”

After graduating from college in 1989, he wondered how to make a career out of reading.

He jumped into book reviewing—first as a columnist for the Hungry Mind Review, then as an editor at a Vermont alternative weekly. He went on to successive jobs as an editor at Harper’s Bazaar, as founding book editor at Salon (1995–98), and as senior editor of The New York Times Book Review.

By then deemed an outstanding book reviewer in the class of John Leonard and Anatole Broyard, he became a daily book critic for The New York Times in 2008. He has remained there ever since.

Not bad for a man who grew up in a house where the Bible and Reader’s Digest Condensed Books were the only books.

Along the way, he tells us, he became a midnight cereal junkie. He no longer keeps cereal in the house. When the urge strikes, he now turns to a bowl of Quaker Oats, “eaten raw, with whole milk and brown sugar.”

He adds: “Unless I inform you otherwise in this book, I’m always either starting a diet or flunking out of one, living and dying on a binge-starve cycle.”

He has great fun describing obsessions with reading and eating in the writing of others.

In Bastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison’s narrator recalls, “When school let out for the summer, I found a hiding place in the woods near Aunt Alma’s where I could camp for hours with a bag of Hershey Kisses and a book.”

In his memoir Stop-Time, Frank Conroy recalls lying in bed after his father’s early death “with a glass of milk and a package of oatmeal cookies beside me.” For consolation he read “one paperback after another until two or three in the morning.”

The critic Albert Murray recalled a friend who cut school to binge-read Faulkner’s Light in August, holing up “Sherlock Holmes style with it and a jug.”

Sometimes Garner will simply zero in on writers for their food and drink quirks. Chekhov, he tells us, would “pick twenty cherries at a time and stuff them all into my mouth at once. They taste better like that.” In her novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Otessa Moshfegh explains why bodega coffee is preferable to Starbucks.

At a bodega, says Moshfegh, you don’t have to “confront anyone ordering a brioche bun or no-foam latte. No children with runny noses or Swedish au pairs. No sterilized professionals, no people on dates.” Bodega coffee was “working-class coffee—for doormen and deliverymen and handymen and busboys and housekeepers. The man at the bodega will remember your name.”

Garner himself spends several hours a day reading and writing in coffee shops, he says.

When off-duty, “reading cookbooks is how I unwind,” he writes.

His writer-wife Cree’s cookbook Fish was a finalist for a James Beard Award.

“I know I’m reading something sensational when I make multiple trips from the couch to the kitchen to keep the combinatory pleasure flowing,” he muses. These have been some of the great moments of my life, and thinking about them now, I can almost taste them.”

Regretfully he notes, “The worst thing about death is that you can’t take a book with you.”