Grady Chambers is the author of North American Stadiums, winner of the inaugural Max Ritvo Poetry Prize and forthcoming from Milkweed Editions in June 2018. He was a 2015-2017 Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, and his poems have appeared in Forklift, Ohio; Diode Poetry Journal; Midwestern Gothic; New Ohio Review; the Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. He was born in Chicago, and lives in Philadelphia.
Here, he talks about acorn fights, Trader Joe’s oatmeal cookies, and a (shocking!) lack of enthusiasm about butter.
On his all-time favorite meal:
I would say that Thanksgiving dinner is the meal each year I look forward to most, mostly for the fact that it is one of two days each year that I know with certainty my sister, my parents, and I will all be together. It is also a day yoked to good memories of mine. One that stands out in particular was the day of the acorn fight (as I now think of it), during a Thanksgiving spent with my grandparents at the house they lived in for most of their lives in Riverton, NJ, a half hour or so outside Philadelphia. My sister and I were probably seven and eight years old, maybe a bit younger. There was a wooded, ravine-like area near the house; it was cold, the ground probably frozen, but snow hadn’t yet fallen, and walking around in there with my and sister and parents and grandparents (cousins, too, if I remember correctly) on Thanksgiving morning, the ground was covered with acorns. My sister and I had been gathering them as we went. We turned up the bottom of our sweatshirts to form little pouches to hold the shells. We’d probably gathered 100 each. At some point, she trailed off a little ways behind me, one of us threw an acorn at the other, and soon we had our backs pressed to trees spaced 30 or 40 feet apart, ducking each other’s throws and firing back. Part of the joy of it was that my mother or father or an older cousin, rather than tell us to knock it off (as I expected) instead picked up an acorn and joined in, and then everyone did. Soon, it was a handful of us on one side of the ravine and a handful on another, whipping acorns back and forth in the cold. I think I was really into knights and medieval battles and all that at that time, and so the acorn fight probably felt like some version of what I’d read about come to life. It felt like it went on all day, and we’d not even gotten to the things I now appreciate most about the day: the food; watching football at home; spending time with my sister and parents.
On what the light looks like during his favorite meal of the day:
Grim, of late! (but pleasantly so). It is winter in Philadelphia, and our kitchen window looks north across the rooftops of Fairmount towards Strawberry Mansion and north Philadelphia. My favorite meal of the day is probably breakfast, though less for the particulars of the food (breakfast for me typically consists of a pot of coffee and 12-14 small oatmeal-raisin cookies from a big plastic tub of them bought from Trader Joe’s) than for the time of day and the view. With the recent weather, the light looks like five pm even at eight in the morning. If I am somewhat unenthusiastic about the breakfast meal, I am very enthusiastic about the view. The rooftops are all closely crowded together and run north in a brown, blocky impasto. The light is often muted; the sky is mostly strict cloud, grey and cream. Minus the aerials and satellite dishes it looks like one of those Dutch or French cityscape paintings you see in a museum in which the palette and the mood of the day depicted transmit such a warmth and comfort you’d like to step inside and live there.
On snacking while writing:
Most of the time that I’ve set aside to write lately has been in the morning, so I tend to have a pot of coffee on and a glass bowl of the oatmeal cookies next to me at my desk—both my breakfast and my snack.
On his go-to late-night snack:
Red Vines and / or peanut M&Ms. My girlfriend and I both love them and always make sure to have them around the apartment. If I’m really hungry though I will sometimes pull some chicken & vegetable egg rolls from the freezer and cook them in the oven. This is a rare thing, however, since one has to wait for the oven to heat up, and the egg rolls take like 25 minutes just to cook, and most often I just find myself pacing around and peering into the oven every 5 minutes in the hope they’ll be ready faster than is culinarily possible or recommended. But the wait is (mostly) worth it!
On his food quirks:
To my own exasperation, too many to list them all. As a kid, I subsisted primarily on plain pasta (no butter, no oil, no sauce of any kind), sauce-free pizza, and fish sticks. I remember petitioning my parents each year to take me out to Maggiano’s for my birthday only to order a huge bowl of angel hair pasta with nothing on it. It’s pretty much the exact same meal I had at home every other night, but in my mind it somehow tasted even better at Maggiano’s.
My palette has gotten a little more expansive since then, but I remain very particular about what I eat, and eat mostly for subsistence rather than for pleasure. I am, let’s say, highly unenthusiastic about butter or anything cooked in it, though as is not infrequently pointed out to me, there are many things that I enjoy—cookies, croissants, popovers—that have butter in them.
When I lived alone, meals felt most often like a time-consuming if necessary thing. I ate almost every meal at home, and my main concern when putting together something to eat would be, what can I make that isn’t hellishly unhealthy that also won’t take more than a half hour to prepare and eat? I am very much a creature of routine, so often I was able to rely on a steady supply of chilaquiles materials (or my slightly unorthodox and definitely inelegant version of them—tortilla chips, green salsa, hot sauce, fried egg) quesadillas, or rice and vegetables. But if it had been a while since I went to the grocery store (and it often was) my meal-ethos could make for some odd pairings: plain white rice with turkey bacon; many nights of plain pasta (no butter, no oil; sometimes with parmesan, salt, or soy sauce if I had any of them around); toast with salsa spread on top.
That beholdenness to routine has, happily, changed a bit of late, and my girlfriend and I have taken to making varied and quite good dinners, though what I eat for breakfast and lunch consists of pretty much the same items every day. On the upside, that can make for speedier grocery shopping, since I know I know exactly where all the things are that I want.
On his final meal request:
There’s a French restaurant—Mon Ami Gabi—in a beautiful old ex-hotel not far from where my parents live in Chicago. For my last meal I’d ask for a very thin steak from that restaurant along with their very thin and crispy French fries, and much wine. We would eat in my parents’ backyard, and “we” would be the six or seven people I love most in the world, all our dead (though revived, for the evening) and living pets, and nobody would know it was our last meal together.