From Sydney's north shore to Harvard to The New Yorker… Breaking bread with Amelia Lester.By Ceridwen Dovey.
Moveable feasts with The New Yorker’s Amelia Lester
I don’t miss everything about my old life in New York, but I do miss my meals with Amelia Lester. This was true long before she became editor of The New Yorker’s food issue, roaming the restaurants of her adopted city to write the magazine’s Tables for Two column. She has always been the best dining companion a homesick girl could wish for in a big city by turns exhilarating and baffling.
Amelia and I were a couple of years apart at our school in Sydney, so we only properly became friends during our overlapping years as undergraduates at Harvard, over long meals in the dining hall. We each had our peculiar dining hall habits. I used to put a mint tea bag in a plastic cup of awful filter coffee. Amelia’s lunchtime favourite was the popcorn chicken, though she knew it was poultry only in the most notional sense. We were both fans of “Brain Break” – the entirely unnecessary bagels laid out at 10pm to fuel bookish all-nighters. These meals with Amelia always made me feel better about life. She has a unique talent for observing the rituals of breaking bread together. Indulgence was encouraged, lingering for hours after the food service had closed was a given. The conversation as a result was as comforting as the food.
Amelia spent so much of her time at Harvard socialising in the dining halls – in four years there, she doesn’t think she missed a single meal – that at one stage she wondered out loud to her parents whether she shouldn’t be making more of the opportunities on offer by remaining cloistered in her dorm room to study. They reassured her that the time she was spending hanging out over meals wasn’t wasted. When Amelia looks back at her time at college, more than the scattered bits of information she retains about Chaucer or Faulkner, she values the ability she developed to have a lively, interesting conversation with just about anybody, about anything. That took hours of practice in the dining hall.
Her Tables for Two columns aren’t traditional restaurant reviews. Amelia sees them instead as a scene that happens to take place in a restaurant, “a sketch of a place, a time, a neighbourhood” in a city where public restaurants become by necessity “private spaces, the extra room that New Yorkers often dream of having. They’re where love affairs, break-ups, and family fights take place, and everybody has entered into a contract of pretending not to hear the conversation at the next table.” Her goal is not to review but to describe what it felt like on a specific occasion to be at a particular restaurant. The pieces she writes re-create the frisson of first encounters, and reveal her real delight in simply being there.
Like many long-time New Yorkers, Amelia can’t cook, and with no counter space in the tiny kitchen of her Brooklyn apartment, she has little desire to learn. She prefers to make forays far and wide, to the Burmese place under the 7 train in Queens for tea-leaf salad, to the old diner car under the Williamsburg Bridge for gin fizzes, to Maialino for cacio e pepe scrambled eggs with the sun streaming through the window onto Gramercy Park. Sometimes there are disappointments, such as the veal meatloaf – “grey, pallid, probably a decent packing material for jewellery” – at The Writing Room in the space previously occupied by Manhattan institution Elaine’s. She once sustained an ill-advised romance for an entire summer based on a shared obsession with the ricotta crostini at Frankies. She finds a way to thread narratives into her restaurant portraits; they’re Tables for Two, after all, not Tables for One:
So the two of them got sandwiches, which turned out to be better than they could have imagined. She got the one with charred eggplant, which she thought would be an Israeli-style sabich, but which was actually more of a true vegetable sandwich. The eggplant was in the form of a spread, made tangy with capers and delicate with mint, which allowed the crunch and taste of grilled baby artichoke and harissa-pickled carrot to burst forward. The man chose the ricotta sandwich, thinking it might be sort of like a calzone. It arrived stuffed with garlic-sautéed bitter chicory, roasted butternut squash, and sage leaves. Reluctantly, he was impressed.
For Amelia, it always comes back to this amplified sociality that a good meal enables, the slowing down of the perceived flow of time. One of the great joys of life, she believes, is that we get to eat three meals a day, and she tries to make each meal count, in part by making every effort never to eat alone. “Humans connect through the ritual of eating together,” she says. “It’s a weirdly intimate, objectively unattractive thing that we have decided should be done with others.”
Many of our meals over the years have been spent exploring the shared heartache of living far away from our parents, so it’s fitting that the most memorable meal of Amelia’s life so far is one she shared with her mum and dad. On a trip to Chicago, they went to Next, one of chef Grant Achatz’s restaurants, which features a changing theme. On this particular night, the theme was “childhood”. The first course was presented as a gift to unwrap, followed by a foie gras sandwich packed into a 1980s-era Who Framed Roger Rabbit? lunch box. There was a fish and chips course styled like a child’s painting of a sunset, and a sweet potato dessert that tasted as if it had been roasted over a campfire. The food inspired a nostalgic four-hour conversation with her parents about their childhoods. “It sounds crazy,” Amelia says, “but the meal moved me to tears. I felt I had learned so much more about these two people I thought I knew everything about. It was the perfect example of how the act of sharing food can make us open up in ways we wouldn’t otherwise.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 2, 2014 as "Moveable feasts". Subscribe here.