Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. His first collection of poems, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much was released in 2016 and was nominated for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. His first collection of essays, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, was released in fall 2017 by Two Dollar Radio.
Here, he talks about how food can create an atmosphere, how snacking and writing could be siblings, and about sharp cheddar becoming family.
On his all-time favorite meal:
I imagine my all-time favorite meal is something my mother made once when I was small and she was still living. Which is to say that my all-time favorite meal is something that I haven’t had, and haven’t been able to replicate in my own kitchen. You can pass down recipes, of course. But it seems significantly harder to pass down whatever the hands behind the meal have lived through. I think that, too, is a part of the recipe and perhaps why I can get nothing to taste like it did when my mother laid it out before me once.
I think my favorite meal now is perhaps the Jumpin’ Beef sandwich, a small and perfectly-seasoned joy which one can get from Sí Señor Peruvian Sandwiches off of 5th Ave in Columbus, Ohio. A place where the woman behind the counter is often extremely kind to me, despite my rushing in the door mere minutes before closing time most nights. I don’t remember when I first ate it exactly, but I do remember that it was in 2012, still recovering from a heartbreak, sitting alone in a booth. It comes with this very flavorful hot sauce, and I remember letting it sit in the back of my throat for a while during the last bite. It was some kind of odd, food-inspired rebirth.
My favorite meal now is perhaps anything I can get at the Pita Pit, which is right in between Clintonville and Worthington, and right next to the Target I’m relegated to these days, since the Target by my apartment has been overrun by Ohio State Undergrads. My pals at Pita Pit will speak Arabic to me, even though they know I can only kind of keep up with them, and I’m sure they laugh at my attempts when I’m not around. I’m always late there, too. So when I order online, they know not to start my meal until I get in the door, and there’s something comforting about a person who knows you so well that they have come to expect your flaws.
My favorite meal now is probably anywhere that feels like a small corner of where I’m from, or the people I come from. I think I’ve grown less interested in taste that way – though I still do love a tasty meal. I think I’m more interested in how food can create an atmosphere. Yet another door, isn’t it? A vessel to carry us from one room to the next. I’m going to go to Popeyes Chicken tonight because one time, in a city not my own with people who loved me like family, I went into a Popeyes Chicken and spent enough money to feed a table full of friends with cards in their hands and jokes at the ready. And I miss those people tonight. So I will eat something fried at an hour I probably shouldn’t and allow myself to be pulled closer to a memory that has kept me going today, and has kept me alive today, long enough to spend time with these splendid questions.
On what the light looks like during his favorite meal of the day:
In my workspace/office, I leave the blinds slightly open, but not all the way. I love how the sun fights through the small spaces and earns its way onto a desk, or a couch, or a floor. It’s a reminder of how so much joy is about what we can get away with while the misery sleeps. I’m working on eating more fruit in the morning. Have you ever seen the way the sun looks when it spills over a Kiwi? Or upon the face of a grapefruit? It has been cloudy in my beloved Columbus lately, so when I say this, it is all from a memory of the last great breakfast I enjoyed at my desk. Perhaps it wasn’t so great, but I just miss the way the sun falls into a room and makes itself at home.
On snacking while writing:
I find that I drink more when writing. I don’t drink alcohol, but I will drink several large cups of water or something else while writing. I’m an anxious writer – an anxious person, really – and so that gives way to a lot of pacing about and mumbling and literal hand-wringing. The act of writing becomes physical for me, and so I find myself often in need of hydration. There are times when I finish writing that leave me feeling like I’ve finished several short sprints. I would like to snack while writing. I find that if I put a small treat on the desk beside me (perhaps some chocolate) it usually goes ignored, and I feel sad about that. I would love tips on snacking while writing. Of all the things to do simultaneously, snacking and writing seem like they are the truest siblings.
On his go-to late-night snack:
Unfortunately, I want to talk to you about cheese and I want to talk specifically about cheddar, and I want to talk specifically about sharp cheddar, and I want to talk very specifically about a 10-year aged sharp cheddar that a person can acquire from Grandpa’s Cheesebarn at a startling thirty-five dollars per pound. Now, I’m not saying I’m wealthy. But I am saying that I am of a type of wealth that is not above spending tens of dollars on the sharpest cheddar known to these united states. It is an overwhelming cheese, so it has to be paired with crackers to dull the sharpness of it a bit. It also crumbles easily, so cutting it is hard and almost impossible. But once you get some on a cracker, it is an experience like none other. I will maybe one day have a family and no longer be able to spend a lot of money on cheese, but what’s much more likely is that cheese will one day be my family. Sharp cheddar will one day be the only child I need. I heard a boy at a store recently yell “if you love the cheese so much, why don’t you marry it?” to his older sister, who was enamored with a cheese sample. And I say yes. Yes, marry the cheese. Invite me to the ceremony as I, too, hope to one day enter a legal union with cheese. If you love the cheese so much, I encourage you to bring it home to your parents and ask for their blessing in an eternal union.
Anyway, what I’m mostly saying is that I eat cheese at hours of the night that a doctor would not be thrilled with.
On his food quirks:
I don’t drink cereal milk and I refuse to welcome anyone who drinks cereal milk into my home.
On his final meal request:
Oh, wow. I think what I would want most is a last meal that I didn’t know was going to be my last meal. Something mundane, like a fast food cheeseburger eaten hastily with one hand while driving at two in the morning on the way back to my bed from somewhere I felt briefly loved. But, if I must. I would want my last meal laid out in the parking lot of what used to be the old flea market on Livingston Avenue. I don’t know if I’d care so much about the food, but I wouldn’t mind some thick-cut French fries. I suppose I wouldn’t mind a peach or apple cobbler. I guess I could do worse than having some sweet tea, though not as sweet as my old school friends might like it. The tea can never be sweet enough for everyone’s tastes, and since this is my last meal, I’d like the tea catered to my own leanings. You can always make the tea sweeter, but it’s much more work to unsweeten it once it hits the cup, you know?
I would want to eat it with anyone who I’ve ever been lucky enough to love and anyone who I’ve ever been lucky enough to see a bit of myself in. I’d want to eat it with whoever still lives on the east side of Columbus and maybe has a large radio and a few dance moves to go with whatever comes out of that large radio’s speakers. I’d want to eat it with anyone who knows how to play the dozens and it wouldn’t hurt to eat it with anyone who knows how to play spades too. I’d want to eat it with some folks who could maybe find their way to a tune on some horns and a couple guitars and maybe a bass if we can scare one up. I’d want to eat it with some kids who love to play basketball but aren’t so good at it. I’d want to eat it with some good folks who have read a lotta books but would rather talk about pop songs for the moment. I’d want to eat it with black punks who made it out of the scene as whole as possible. I’d want to eat it with mothers and their mothers and their mothers and and and.
I think I’m saying I want a block party, really. A last meal where I can see every part of myself echoed through the faces of everyone there. I guess I’d like an ice cream sundae, too. Though I don’t think I’d finish it.