Naomi Washer is the author of Phantoms (dancing girl press) and American Girl Doll (Ursus Americanus Press). She is also the translator from the Spanish of Sebastián Jiménez Galindo’s Experimental Gardening Manual: create your own habitat in thirty-something simple steps (Toad Press). Other work has appeared in Funny Looking Dog Quarterly, Court Green, Asymptote, Sundog Lit, Passages North, Essay Daily, Split Lip Magazine, and other journals. She has been awarded fellowships and residencies from Yaddo, Vermont Studio Center, Studio Faire and Chateau d’Orquevaux in France, and Columbia College Chicago where she earned her MFA in Nonfiction. In 2019, she was named one of 30 Writers to Watch by The Guild Literary Complex. She lives in Chicago where she is the editor and publisher of Ghost Proposal.
Here, she talks about learning how to cook for real, the difference between mortals and exceptional cooks, and the absolute joys of a late-night frozen pizza.
On her all-time favorite meal:
This is the fifth question I am answering instead of the first because it is so extraordinarily difficult. I’ve been thinking about it for weeks and I am completely unable to narrow it down. However, a few examples rise to the top and that is what I am going to write about now and we’ll just see where it goes!
I love my mother’s pizza. I do not think there is anything particularly exceptional about this pizza, although I have never been given the recipe or attempted to make it, which means I have a childlike belief that my mother is the only one who can make it, which is a thought that is both gracious and terrifying. But I am interested in what seems to be a common thread amongst many, which is that the first version of a food item they grow up with becomes their favorite because it feels so right. I’m sure my mother’s pizza is the first pizza I ever had, and I pretty much never turn down other kinds of pizza, but hers is special: when I was a kid, my mother, father, older sister and I would eat mom’s pizza on Friday nights while watching Star Trek. The pizza means comfort and laughter and nerdy jokes, and that no matter how many miles I keep placing between me and my family, it is still the place that I came from and can return to and that we all recognize and celebrate. Now that my sister and I are grown, we’ll often have mom’s pizza and watch some iteration of Stark Trek when we’re home for Christmas, and it is truly my favorite day of the year aside from October 1st which is just a great and beautiful day.
There’s a dish I make with spicy tofu, broccoli, bell peppers, and rice noodles. It was a meal that emerged out of a conversation in which the two parties said, We could make stir fry, and it turned out they were talking about entirely different things. I didn’t even know how to cook tofu when I started making this meal. The meal was originally based off the other person’s impulses, but it’s one of my favorite meals now because I honestly did not know how to cook anything except like, biscuits and scrambled eggs before I taught myself to cook this. It’s the meal in my repertoire that has the most steps, which means sometimes I’m too tired to cook it, but it’s always a reward and it’s always worth it because you become a different person—more of a person, more of yourself—when you finally learn how to cook for real, and this meal will always represent that for me, so I love it, and I’m hungry just thinking about it, and I’m grateful for it.
I spent this past summer in southwest France, which was full of too many delicious meals to describe, but while I was gone, my partner taught himself how to make croissants so I could have a homemade croissant on my first morning back in Chicago, and since making food for others is really a form of love, I’ll never forget that croissant.
Last fall I started making a pot of soup that has become my favorite. Again, there is nothing particularly special or complex about this soup. It’s my favorite because I start making it in late October when it starts getting dark around 6pm, and you feel that cozy impulse to fold into yourself and feed yourself well. The soup is sausage, kale, carrots, and potatoes, and I toast two halves of a baguette from the French bakery down the road, dripping with butter. I make enough of the soup to last for about three days, and I love knowing that I made it, that it’s simple but satisfying, and I am going to eat the last of it as soon as I finish writing this and I am so happy.
On what the light looks like during her favorite meal of the day:
I love the way the morning light illuminates my living room. I really can’t express my love for this morning light enough. I don’t know if I can ever leave this apartment. I post a picture of this light to my Instagram stories like every other day. I have to place myself inside that light when I wake up every day. I put the kettle on for coffee and stand in the library, which is darker, just watching the light in the living room move over the plants and the rug and the pillows. When I hear the water boiling, I grind the coffee beans (at some point, I don’t remember why, I decided that I should press the button on the coffee grinder five times to achieve the desired coarseness, so I press the button on the coffee grinder five times and this is one of the crucially important rhythms to my morning which also run throughout my day, almost everything I do has a certain rhythm to it—the way I wash my hands, brush my teeth—I think because I was a dancer and played instruments and sang my whole life, so, rhythm runs through everything), and after I grind the coffee beans I pour hot water over them in the pourover cup into a very large mug, a white mug which was a housewarming gift from a friend. But this is meant to be about the light, and my kitchen is not very bright, so this is when I go back into the living room so I can be inside the morning light. I have to drink my coffee before I eat anything. A friend once told me that I must be burning my stomach that way each day, but it’s possibly my greatest daily pleasure and like, I also smoke cigarettes and stand in front of microwaves, so, what are you gunna do.
At around 10:30 or 11am, I make breakfast. The light is still really good but it’s a bit noisier outside. I have to drink my coffee in the morning when it’s still quiet, before the baristas from the coffee shop next door gather in the alley to complain about their job. The table where I eat is right next to three large windows that look out on the alley where the baristas gather to commiserate and support each other. They’re usually in the thick of it by the time I sit down for my breakfast, which is usually eggs—scrambled, fried, or an omelet, I love eggs so much—and some kind of toast and some fruit and cold water and a book—and I always kind of want to lean out the window and be like, hey guys, are you doing okay, I mean is there anything I can do for you, would you like a slice of apple / peach / clementine / a little bite of toast, because I’m a Cancer and I like feeding and taking care of people and making sure they’re feeling okay in every way. But of course, I don’t actually do this: I’m a big eavesdropper so I just listen to them talk while I read my book or stare off into space and feel like I’m inside a Hopper painting.
On snacking while writing:
I can’t eat when I’m writing. I actually dislike the feeling of being full and slightly uncomfortable from that fullness, like you can’t think about anything else and just have to get yourself into a comfortable position, possibly with your pants unbuttoned, until you fall asleep. It makes my head feel funny and foggy and I just don’t like it. This is an entirely different kind of discomfort than the discomfort I must feel in order to write. I like to write in the morning, which is how I know I’m old now, but hey, I love it. I need to feel thin and hungry and on edge because that is the quality I am seeking from my prose: I need my sentences to be lean and searching. I can’t write a lean and searching sentence if I feel full and lolling. So, I drink water and coffee and loose leaf tea and the writing and me, we usually come to an unspoken, mutually-agreed upon moment where the writing is like Ah yes, enough now, and I’m like, That means I can eat now.
But there are always exceptions to the rule, and my favorite exception is when I hear my partner in the other room saying, I’m making you a plate, and then he brings it in and sets it on the desk and it’s so beautiful and I realize I’m so hungry and no matter what it is, it is perfect, because he is one of those strange and magical people who is an exceptional cook, unlike myself who is merely mortal. The difference between a mere mortal and an exceptional cook is how they make snacks. For example: I, a mere mortal, would tear off a piece of baguette and toast it in the oven with some butter. Voila! Snack! But Joe, an exceptional cook, will bring me a plate that includes the most flavorful toast I have ever experienced in my life, and I have to genuinely ask him if he used the spices in the kitchen to make this wondrous creation or if he has some secret ingredients up his sleeve, and he’s just like, Yeah! It’s just x, y, and z. Yeah! he says, as if he is merely mortal! Or when he brings me a mug of homemade chicken broth to drink while I’m writing. Is there anything more heartwarming than a mug of homemade broth? A mug of homemade broth is like the sentences I need to write: lean yet rich, simple yet complex.
On her go-to late-night snack:
How long can I talk about cheese before it’s too much talk about cheese?
When I was in grad school and didn’t know how to feed myself, I would go to the Family Dollar or the CVS or the Mariano’s or whatever at around 10pm and get a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and a box of Cheezits and eat the whole thing and all I have to say about that is that I am so glad I know how to feed myself now. But at the same time, I want to proudly say that I am no snob about the late-night frozen pizza. I love the late-night frozen pizza. Oh my god. I got a late-night frozen pizza at the 7-11 the other night and I was in line behind this woman who got one slice of 7-11 pizza and she gestured to the whole entire frozen pizza I was holding and was like, This girl is real hungry, and I was like yes, oh yes girl, I’m fucking starving and I don’t care who knows it. The cashiers at this 7-11 know my cigarette brand so they just smiled and laughed at me kindly.
Like I said before, I’m old now, so snacking and especially late-night snacking is a little rough on the body, but really what I like to do now is eat a good dinner sort of late at night. That way I’m nice and full and happy about the meal that I cooked and ate. That curbs the snacking issue most days. But if it was a weird day, where I had to be out of my house during dinner-cooking hours and didn’t want to eat at like, Chipotle, then it’s almost guaranteed I’ll be picking up a frozen pizza on my way home and eating the leftover slices cold for breakfast the next morning.
Also, there’s a froyo place right next door to my building with low-calorie options and about 1800 different toppings, so…
On her food quirks:
When I was a kid, my dad used to tell people that all I ate was pizza and popsicles and I do not think he was wrong in that statement. I was a very picky eater as a child—the whole white / beige foods thing. So sad. I’m not like that anymore, but in general I would say that my food choices often seem to be somewhat more reserved than lots of other people, so while other people’s food quirks are like, combining flavors that sound like they should not be combined, my habits are sometimes judged by other people because they are plain. Like Joe and I were at this hot dog place recently on our way to a show, so we didn’t have a lot of time, and way too late the guy realized that he’d run out of caramelized onions for my order, so I was like oh it’s fine, just the cheese is fine (cheese again! This is what I’m saying!), and he was very generous and named like every other ingredient he had available to him as a replacement, and I kept saying no, no, no, no, it’s really fine, I don’t mind! and I really don’t think he believed me, but it really was fine. I’d rather go simple most of the time. Also, I can’t stand pickles. I’m sorry. I’m truly sorry.
On her final meal request:
I hope to somehow not know that it’s my last meal. I grew up in the theatre and as a dancer, and after a lifetime of a lot of fanfare, my quiet writing life (and I guess my introverted personality) has made me shy away from moments that the world expects you to celebrate loudly or with much somber, grave attention. I hope that instead of knowing it’s my last meal, whoever I am eating it with does that thing where they’re like, It’s just so nice to have a meal as good as this sometimes, you know? And I’ll say, Yes, I know, as we sigh together and I take my final bite of whatever I am eating—a really delicious piece of pie, or some melted camembert on a slice of baguette—and I’ll sit back and light a cigarette at the table, because in this final-meal-fantasy I live in southwest France, where you can still smoke at the table, and the summer nights go on forever, and I’m about 78 years old, and my hair is still very long though very gray, and there’s good conversation but also comfortable silence, and the food is sweet and sharp and salty, and I’m grateful for all the life choices that led me to this moment, and eventually the image of this moment begins to curl up at its edges, first slowly, and then a little faster till the light flickers out.