ON MEAT OVER MEAT: DINNER WITH GARY SHTEYNGART by James Yeh
from print issue 1
 

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This interview took place over dinner at Madangsui Korean Barbeque in Manhattan. The restaurant was Mr. Shteyngart's suggestion; the topic my own.

Gary Shteyngart head and text illustrations by Andrew Bulger; Gary Shteyngart body by Joanna Neborksy.

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GIGANTIC: There's this YouTube video of you, in which you talk about Katz's Delicatessen: "I always think smoked meats are a very sexy thing. I always connect these meats with virility. You can't get virile from a broccoli cheddar melt. It has nothing to do with reproduction." Is there something about pastrami, or smoked meats in general, that speaks of virility?

GARY SHTEYNGART: Hmm. Right now we're having a Korean meal, but the Jewish meats are very interesting. Jews are a small nation which has come close to extinction.  I think meat is a big motif, with Jews. Smoked meats, especially. There's something about it. The preservation of it. The marination. It's like a small nation trying to hang on to a sense of reproduction. And so, to me, meat is survival. Maybe that's what makes me think of virility, survival, and meats. One gets hornier after eating a big piece of steak. One also feels tired as hell and needs to sleep for four hours.

GIGANTIC: What about vegetables? Are there any, like, virile vegetables?

GARY: Well, the avocado, maybe. Because of its Southern connection. It's a happy vegetable. It has fat to it. The slow digestion of it. The idea of winter.

GIGANTIC: Is pastrami sexier than corned beef?

GARY: Well, I think in the way the pepper sometimes settles around the edge of it, that's sexy. And it looks sexier.

GIGANTIC: It does look much more appealing. It's darker, a richer color...


GARY: Corned beef looks like an uncle of yours that's been on the beach for way too long. And you know, sometimes the mustard seems like ointment up his ass. But pastrami is, uh, sometimes you see pastramis lined up on Rio de Janeiro, down there on the beach, and you just want to run up and take a bite of it. To eat meat is to be alive—while killing other animals.

GIGANTIC: Like in White Noise. I mean, that's the whole sort of theme [in the latter part of the novel], that you kill another and then you take their life-force. Their life-points? I can't remember the term.

GARY: I feel OK with the world. You know. I'm not fatalist about it. Like: when I eat a piece of meat I can see my own death and I can see my own birth. Cyclical. A complete act. There are no burgers in Russia. Now there are, I mean, but not before. The first thing in your mouth is a piece of meat—it's your mother's tit.

GIGANTIC: [nods]

GARY: …And my dreams will be different tonight because I've eaten so much meat. I'm definitely going to dream I'm on a pier waving goodbye to someone. There will be waves, there will be emotion, there will be water…You eat a bunch of vegetables, you dream about the stock market maybe having a couple "interruptions."

GIGANTIC: I had a dream recently where I went to a computer lab to check my email. I wrote a few emails.

GARY: Oh yeah! I have dreams where I write emails.

GIGANTIC: [You] surf the internet for a while…

GARY: You're like, oh, there's a sale on flip-flops…I guess I should get three pairs. Eating meat I think is very different. The mind is submerged for many, many hours. Sometimes there's a hangover. (There's also the alcohol involved.) Still, there's a depth, there's a dimension to the dreams after a big meal.

GIGANTIC: What would be a romantic meat?

GARY: I think all meat is sort of romantic. I don't believe in a porterhouse for two or something, necessarily. Actually, pork can be romantic. It glistens.

GIGANTIC: What kind of meat would take you out to dinner at a nice restaurant and hold the door open for you while you walk in?

GARY: I mean, a very friendly meat. Veal. I think veal would do that. Veal is a loving, loving animal. It dies for our sins. The veal is so young. It hasn't learned any of the bad stuff.

GIGANTIC: How about a literary meat? Like, what kind of meat would write a book?

GARY: Aged.

GIGANTIC: Aged.

GARY: Old meat. The Saul Bellow of meats. I don't know. Sometimes I look at some of these writers, pictures of older writers, I just see all the meat that's gone into them. Mordecai Richler, case in point. The man looked like a meat at the end of his life. I mean, you know, just put him on a grill and he's served. So much of literature is centered around meat. Reading while eating brisket is one of the most voluptuous things you can do with your time.


GIGANTIC: One of my favorite things you've written is an essay that was published in The New Yorker about a year ago [called "Sixty-Nine Cents"]. I thought the essay was, in a lot of ways, about assimilation, and about the gaudy allure of American culture, particularly to young immigrants. In the climactic moment, the young Russian-American boy—you—are forced to make a decision, at a McDonald's somewhere in Georgia of all places: burger or bulka. I feel there's a lot that you are saying here with that moment of decision. Do you feel the full weight, complexity, and nuance of a person's relationship to a particular culture can be viewed through their relationship to that culture's food?

GARY: Actually, we were just reading a Chang-Rae Lee novel in my [Immigrant Literature] class [at Columbia]. And in every novel there is a gigantic amount of exposition on food. It's the main connection. You learn everything you need to know about a culture. Look at this, this Korean meal. You take the meat and cut it into little pieces and you grab them and put them into leaves. Spread the spicy paste on the little pieces of meat.  Dip them into salt. Ceremony is what we're doing. This means something. At one point when I was in Seoul, somebody told me there's an entirely different counting system for meat in Korea. You go to an American steakhouse for eighty dollars. First of all, the meat I don't think is as high in quality as the kind we've had today. You have a gigantic slab of meat. There's gristle, there's some fat, there's veins attached. You spend most of your time cutting it. The ceremony is basically the same as anywhere in the world. There's no garnishing, there's no this or that. Here, we're a part of the process. The American idea of meat is so sad.

GIGANTIC: This one is from one of the other editors of Gigantic. He asks: "Dear Gary Shteyngart—"

GARY: How'd he spell it?

GIGANTIC: I don't know how he spelled it. It's just a bunch of, it's like an "s", a "ch", some consonants. He did that thing where he sort of mashed the keyboard a lot. There are like 4 "a's" there in a row, too. [coughs] He asks: "Dear Gary Shteyngart, have you ever eaten something because you were afraid it was too phallic?"

GARY: I mean, I like bananas. Is that wrong? No. The answer is no. Come on. How could you? How could you stay away from something just because it's phallic? Most things we produce are phallic. Look at the skyline. Do you look away every time you see the skyline?

GIGANTIC: I recently read this really funny article in Asylum. It was called "Gary Shteyngart's Guide to Being a Novelist," in which you offer tips to the aspirant writer, ranging from coping with writer's block to tips how to eat and drink like a novelist. I remember I was hoping you'd wear a blazer or something, so I could call you out on it.

GARY: Never.

GIGANTIC: I remember you saying something along the lines of: "Everything I own is somewhat ugly." What would be your ugly piece on today? Would it be the orange of your shoes?

GARY: Hmm. Nothing is designed to diminish my failings or highlight whatever small physical successes I may have. Nothing flattering. Nothing baggy. Everything is form-fitting in a way. It says, you know, "Here's a man, who's not old yet. But one day he will be."

GIGANTIC: So sort of a sense of mortality and loss within even the clothing.

GARY: "M" and "L." You gotta have it in everything you wear.

GIGANTIC: Elegy. That should be a clothing store.

GARY: Elegy, yeah. [laughs] "Do not go gentle."

GIGANTIC: "But don't go too hard, either." Moderation.

GARY: Exactly.


GIGANTIC: So you had the tips on the drinking and dressing. Any tips for eating, for novelists?

GARY: Anytime a novelist has food in his mouth, it's not pretty. You ever see movie stars eat? Never. Similarly, writers should eat before going out. The pregame eating. Unless he's surrounded by other authors. In which case, it's OK. We can all make a terrible scene of gigantic pork flowing out of our mouths. Writers should only drink in public. Because we need to drink, desperately. Eat in private, drink in public.

GIGANTIC: [laughs]

GARY: Go to literary party and watch somebody go after the hors d'oeuvres! It's a sad sight! You almost think, ‘Does this writer really not have any money?'—

GIGANTIC: It's what the young writers do, a sign of inexperience.

GARY: The elders are standing there. Hands off.

GIGANTIC: Yeah, I've never seen any writer eat hors d'oeuvres. Only students.

GARY: Once, I came across Philip Roth eating. I almost fainted, it seemed so indecent.


GIGANTIC: I was really struck by the exuberance in your essay "Sixty-Nine Cents". There's this exuberance in describing the McDonald's experience that I thought that was really admirable: "The ketchup, red and decadent, embedded with little flecks of grated onion. The uplift of the pickle slices; the obliterating rush of fresh Coca-Cola; the soda tingle at the back of the throat signifying that the act was complete." When I read that last night while I was eating, I had to order a Coca-Cola.

GARY: [laughs] What have I done?

GIGANTIC: I mean, there's clearly an order to it [the way you wrote about McDonald's]. What are the ways of composition you are looking at?

GARY: I want to do a very documentary feel about what it's like to eat something. I want to write about, from the very beginning, what emotions it arouses in me, each sensation catalogued. It's something we do all the time and we don't think about it. We have an immediacy with meat, for instance. A McDonald's meal is an experience. I wouldn't eat it now. [But] back then, it was a holy experience. I went to Hebrew School, chanted prayers all day long. Some line from the Torah, somebody chanting God: "Blessed are thee oh Lord, who created the animals"…and I just kept thinking "hamburger meat!  Whoever this God is, he's a jerk. But at McDonald's, there's no judgment. You have sixty-nine cents, just give me a burger. American democracy basics.

GIGANTIC: What is in a Russian hamburger?

GARY: Well, we didn't have proper hamburgers when I was growing up. We had kotleta. Which means "cutlet." You don't eat it between buns. It's just a piece of meat made into a patty with a lot of bread mixed into it. It's not very appetizing. Especially compared to the sexy American burger. So thin. So rich. Such a richness to it. Now they have fois gras burgers and all this other crap. Paradise. And I just wanted to go to McDonald's so badly. And on my birthday we'd go Upstate…and we'd get two sixty-nine cent burgers. Nothing could be better.


GIGANTIC: You ever eat the double cheeseburger?

GARY: No. We couldn't afford that. I mean, you could, but nobody wanted to spend resources on cheese.

GIGANTIC: Cheese was seen as sort of unnecessary.

GARY: You have meat—why have cheese? I mean, my mother still, when you take her to an expansive restaurant or something, and you order the chicken…it's like abandonment. "What about meat?" In Russian: it's miyaso. Meat. It has to be meat. Everything else is lesser. There's a very strict hierarchy.

GIGANTIC: So what would be the hierarchy? So chicken would be one of lowest meats, I guess. Not even a meat.

GARY: It's not even a meat.

GIGANTIC: What about fish?

GARY: Not a meat.

GIGANTIC: Is fish higher or lower than chicken?

GARY: That's a good question. I think fish may be higher just because it's priced higher. But let's just think it through. I mean, there's meat. And there's everything else. Now, one of my favorite dishes is the most unkosher dish ever. In Russian it's called salo. It's just pig fat. Unrendered pig fat. Amazing. And there's a saying in Russia, about Jews or any other people, that are, you know, getting uppity: a salo russkoe ediyat. Meaning: "And yet they still eat our Russian lard." There's a restaurant in St. Petersburg when I go back called Shinok, or "Puppy." And they have this dish called Svobodnaya Ukraina: "The Free, Liberated Ukraine." And it's like five different kinds of lard. And then they have this thing called the pork lobster. A pig knuckle. It's so red, it looks like a lobster. That is also paradise.

GIGANTIC: Writing about eating is like writing about sex. Agree or disagree?

GARY: Well, both involve a certain element of satiation upon completion. After finishing sex or finishing a rib-eye, you don't want another rib-eye or another unit of sex. And that's good! I mean, you're satisfied at the end.

GIGANTIC: So actually, according to that, having sex like four times would be like, the rib eye wasn't good enough [and] you just want to keep eating, in hopes of a better rib eye?

GARY: Let's say you find yourself in Rome with a beautiful cut of freshly killed veal the locals are just burying in some fresh tomato sauce and olive oil. The veal died for your sins. It's OK to have it for every meal. Take your time. Get to know the taste. Likewise with a lover, new or old, pace yourself. Even in today's world, some sense of moderation is important.

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Gary Shteyngart is the author of The Russian Debutante's Handbook and Absurdistan. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Slate, Granta, Travel and Leisure and The New York Times.

James Yeh is a founding editor of Gigantic.

Andrew Bulger is the house illustrator of Gigantic.
 
 
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