Sam Lipsyte on Death Row Cooking Shows, Meat Guilt, and Why Jesus Might Like Outback Steakhouse


In Sam Lipsyte is a writer who’s both critically acclaimed and funny as hell. His newest book, The Ask, concerns the plight of a newly unemployed man scrounging for odd jobs to support his family, and touches on themes ranging from sex and war to wraps and death row cooking shows. The book, which will be published next week, is Lipsyte’s fourth. His last, Home Land, earned widespread love for its lucid, darkly hilarious account of a man who writes embittered letters to his high school alumni newsletter, and led one besotted reviewer to declare that Lipsyte “has got balls the size of watermelons.” The author lives with his wife and two young children near Columbia, where he’s an assistant professor and associate director of the university’s undergraduate writing program. He took some time to reflect on boiling pasta, the surprising vibrancy of New York’s wrap culture, and why eating meat is basically like taking a shit in the Hudson.

Do you cook?

We used to cook before we had kids in that kind of fun couples way, but now it’s just sort of we heat some stuff up. I wouldn’t really call it cooking, though we try to cook occasionally. We always cook for the kids, and then half the week we then cook something for ourselves and half we order in. My wife is a really good cook; I’m kind of a very limited cook. I can do a mean stir fry and can boil all sorts of pasta. I really understand that process.

So where do you order in from or go out to in your neighborhood?

Near us there’s a good Thai place called Thai Market. We live up near Columbia, so the options are somewhat limited. It’s not one of the leading culinary neighborhoods, I don’t think. But there’s a restaurant we go into called Community [Food & Juice] that’s actually really good.

And you’ve got Coronet pizza, which is held in high regard among inebriated Columbia students.

I have a friend who lives all the way downtown, near Wall Street. He likes to come up — he says it’s to visit, but really it’s to get a slice of Coronet, which I don’t understand. I like big cheesy pizza, too, but I don’t know if I’d cross Manhattan lengthwise for it. But it’s great hangover pizza.

And then plenty of people travel from farther away than that to go to Tom’s Diner.

I live a hundred feet away from Tom’s Diner. It’s just one of those Sysco diners, but people come from all over the world to eat there. They just don’t know it’s an average diner; it’s all about the sign. The real Kramer brings busloads of people there, and then he takes a picture with a person in front and they all go in and and he goes back to the bus and counts his money.

I know at least two people who claim to have gotten food poisoning there.

It’s still holding the standard of mediocrity. Somebody has to do it.

Do you consider yourself a regular anywhere?

Not really. There’s, like, coffee places — there are Oren’s and a bunch of little cafes on the Columbia campus. I’ve been sussing them out for a few years now. You get a lot more choices at the business school than you do at the school of the arts. I think they just have more money. There’s a good place underneath the Avery [library]; I’m kind of a regular there. I go and pretend I’m an architect. If you wear glasses and a sweater and have your laptop, people assume you’re an architect.

Anywhere you like to go for a drink?

My couch. It’s easy to get on and I know the bartender really well.

How does eating fit into your writing schedule?

I don’t write at home because there’s no room anymore. I write in the libraries, sometimes in the New York Public Library or the libraries around here. I write a lot about wraps in my book; it’s a major theme. I ate a lot of wraps while writing this book — in that area of midtown [around the public library] there’s a vibrant wrap culture. They’re all competing — it’s like those medieval towns where all the drapers would have shops on same street. There’s fierce competition there. But they’re all quality wraps.

In addition to the wraps, food finds some expression in your book through the idea of a death row cooking show.

The protagonist meets a man [who] builds decks attached to houses, but the man’s real dream is to produce a reality show in which America’s leading chefs go to death rows and cook last meals for condemned prisoners.

That sounds like something that could actually happen.

Several people have told me it’s actually viable. I didn’t want it to be totally far-fetched.

Do you ever watch the Food Network?

I don’t watch it that religiously. I’m more inclined to watch Celebrity Rehab — they’d go cook for displaced Haitians, I’m sure. But there is a subculture of people obsessed with what people eat as their last meals — they post it on websites. It’s always three Whoppers and some Biggie fries. I’m mixing franchises here, but you get the idea. It’s always this crap and apparently — I say this in the book and I’m pretty sure it’s true — but the reason this is is not that everyone’s who’s ever been killed is always craving fast food, but there’s a rule that wherever you order food from has to be three or four miles from the prison. You can’t just order baked Alaska. You have to order whatever’s available. Everyone’s eating shitty food.

In the imaginary episode [of the show] that someone outlines in the book, the chef would be sensitive to the fact that it’s not the time to present some hyper-foodie technically masterful dish; it’s really about elegant comfort food at this point. You don’t want to take a chance that the ostrich steak and persimmon spaetzle is not to the prisoner’s liking. You have to consult with the prisoner about tastes from childhood, or one of the few happy memories in his life. The show’s all about the excavation of taste and memory, the Proustian process. There’s a little bit of pressure on the chef.

So having said that, what would your death row meal be?

It’s actually been a long time since I’ve had a Big Mac. So maybe I’d go with that.

Speaking of which, where do you go for a good burger?

The truth is the meat guilt can get overwhelming at times. There’s no sex guilt anymore; there’s nothing you can do sexually that can cause you guilt or that anyone will judge you for, but it’s completely been replaced by food. It’s all loaded and fraught and what you’re doing is wrong. Biting into a burger is wrong. I’ve cut down for good reason; it’s not healthy anyway. Also my son is in a stage — who knows where he’ll end up, but he’s in a stage where he’s weirded out by too much meat around. You’re destroying the planet when you eat meat. You might as well take a shit in the Hudson or a hot tub.

But you still eat it.

Yeah, I do. When I go out, I definitely eat meat. Community has a good burger.

On a possibly less scatalogical note, where do you go for a slice?

Just because I ate it for years, I’m still very fond of Two Boots. And V & T Pizza. They do like a John’s or a Patsy’s — you go for a pie or slices.

So you’re not a pizza snob.

I know there’s a correct kind of pizza that seems like melba toast with tomatoes, and that’s the kind of pure high-end stuff that’s probably the proper thing, but I grew up with kind of Jersey-style cheesy, soggy pizza and I still like that.

Would you in any way consider yourself a foodie?

I’m not a foodie, but I’m not a rampant anti-foodie, either. I’m someone who appreciates the efforts of my foodie friends from an eating distance.

You were born in New York but grew up in New Jersey — are there any foods or restaurants that helped define the city for you?

When I’d make occasional forays into the city I remember going to Victor’s, this Cuban place on the Upper West Side. I’d be really excited about getting those black beans and rice. And then getting dim sum in Chinatown. We got to do those things very occasionally. So those and this crazy candy-striped restaurant. It was like a kids’ restaurant called Rumplestiltskin’s or something [Ed: it was Rumplemeyer’s]. Those are the three things that stick out in my mind.

Who’s your ideal dining companion?

Well, my wife is an ideal dining companion. But I’d like to know where Jesus thinks the best burger place is.

Like What Would Jesus Eat?

I don’t know. It’s a good question. It depends on which Jesus you embrace. The eco-sensitive Jesus or the hard-charging Jesus? The fighting Jesus definitely wants a burger. The Reverend Jerry Falwell once said that Jesus was no sissy. I can see him at Outback Steakhouse.

You once said in an interview that Gordon Lish taught you not to use the word ‘restaurant.’

I do remember him saying that. He taught me everything, and he taught me that as well. I took him seriously, but I think his point was that at the time, in the early ’90s, ‘restaurant’ was a very overused word in American fiction. I don’t know, but I think there was a sense that too many stories took place at restaurants, or the couple meets at a restaurant. I’ve been very judicious with the word. ‘Slop joint’ connotes a better time.

Archive Highlights