Ian Zaretsky An Urban Peasant in Search of the Perfect Meal Years

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					           Ian Zaretsky: An Urban Peasant in Search of the
           Perfect Meal

           Years ago, the stand-up comedian Howie Mandell said
           that he’d really like to help the homeless, but he didn’t
           know where they lived. that’s how I feel about my friend
           Ian Zaretsky, a struggling writer who works bag-check
           at shakespeare & Company Booksellers in Manhattan. I
           really want to help Zaretsky, but I just didn’t know where
           he lives. that’s because a few years ago he abandoned
           a perfectly wonderful rented room in a Murray Hill
           tenement so that he could sleep on people’s couches and
           write a book about it.
                These days, the only place I can count on finding
           Zaretsky is at shakespeare & Co. He likes to think of
           himself as bag-check to the stars — he’s checked-in bags
           for celebrities like Claire Danes, Wilhem Dafoe, Janeane
           Garafalo, and someone else. once a month, I stop in to
           see Zaretsky whenever I get my twelve-dollar buzz cut
           at Astor Place Haircutters, which is where former tennis
           great Yannick noah gets his haircut, too.
                Zaretsky doesn’t need a haircut. He shaves his skull
           with a razor sort of like André Agassi, but more in the
           spirit of the comic strip character Ziggy. He also sports a
           goatee, like trotsky. I asked Zaretsky if I could interview
           him, and even though he was at first suspicious, he said
                I agreed to meet Zaretsky at the Baltic Coffee shop
           & Restaurant located at 15 east 33rd street. He arrived
           wearing baggy olive-drab dungarees, a cranberry
           windbreaker, and a knit winter cap with a white stripe.
           In his heavy work boots, several layers of clothing, and
           a Jansport backpack, he resembled an urban Cossack
           trekking across new York’s icy concrete steppe. His
           backpack was filled with extra copies of Eat This, one-
           dollar books from the strand, and Idaho potatoes. Ian
           Zaretsky is an urban peasant wandering the city’s frozen

asphalt tundra in search of the perfect meal.
      As we walked into the rustic Polish coffee shop, a
cook from the kitchen was seated at the counter eating
soup. He looked up from his bowl and greeted Zaretsky
heartily, recognizing him as a regular who frequents the
restaurant for its kielbasa-omelet breakfast special. In the
back, we found a small table in a nook that seemed ideal
for conversation. When a young slavic waitress brought
us the menu, she told us that they closed at 7:00 PM. I
glanced at the clock — it was 6:55 PM. Reluctantly, we
decided to go elsewhere. We pursued Plan B.
      “I’ve got a couple of Plan B’s,” Zaretsky assured me.
      We walked toward Fifth Avenue, which serves as a
sort of east-west DMZ between the Garment District and
Murray Hill. It is along this boundary that an economic
territorial war is being waged as the restaurants and
grocery shops of Little Korea expand and usurp storefronts
on its periphery. Zaretsky had a particular Vietnamese
restaurant in mind, but he suspected that its menu had
gone Korean. We walked into Al Bene, located at 36 West
35th street, and were seated by the hostess.
      I learned that Ian Zaretsky’s Jewish ancestry is a
kielbasa shrouded in sauerkraut — partially because
his great-grandparents’ origins place them somewhere
along the shifting border between Russia and Poland,
and partially because, as Zaretsky puts it, “they were all
crazy!” Although when pressed, the family tends to lean
toward Russia — Jews from Russia. Zaretsky recalled that
his grandfather on his father’s side was born in Russia.
      Zaretsky scanned the menu and confirmed that Korean
cuisine now dominated — only the Pho Rice noodles
soup was a holdover from the previous Vietnamese menu.
I let him order for us: Kimchee, Korean spaghetti noodles
with sauce, tang soo Yook (sweet and sour fried beef),
and two bottles of oB Lager imported from seoul.
      “Don’t misquote me, whatever you do, ‘cause I’ll
come after you — I went to law school,” Ian Zaretsky
barked at me in his hoarse and harmless bulldog Bronx
patois. I was not worried. I also went to law school and
therefore knew how toothless his threat. And I also know
that Zaretsky despises the law as much as I do. We both
           severed our troubled relationship with the law to pursue
           the writer ’s life. We both hoped to join that peculiar
           tradition of writers who abandoned the law for a career in
           literature — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Franz Kafka,
           Bohumil Hrabal, and Howard Cosell.
                Zaretsky asked the waiter for a business card and a
           take-out menu. All the information on the business card
           was in Korean characters.
                “Yeah, this place doesn’t really cater to westerners
           — it doesn’t have to,” Zaretsky said, sipping from his
           glass of oB Lager. on the take-out menu, Zaretsky circled
           what we ordered so I would remember later — he is the
           writer’s writer.
                I pulled out a copy of Dave eggers’ A Heartbreaking
           Work of Staggering Genius and asked Zaretsky if he’d heard
           of the guy.
                “You know what, I’ve heard real good things. eggers
           reviewed himself in Spin. It was hilarious. He gave himself
           a mixed review,” Zaretsky said, his throat unleashing
           a coarse and gravely laugh, “He got a great review in
           the Village Voice too, someone called him the ‘voice of
           a generation’, or something like that. His parents died,
           though — it’s kind of sad.”
                I told him that Dave egger’s parents died within
           thirty-two days of one another — both from cancer.
                Zaretsky suddenly interjected, “Did I tell you that a
           friend of mine from law school lost both her parents in
           the egyptian Airlines crash a couple of months ago? I was
           stunned — both her parents are suddenly dead. It’s weird
           — but I sent her a copy of Eat This. And I attached a note
           where I mentioned that my Dad had died not too long
           ago, not like I was trying to say that I can understand the
           sudden death of two parents, but I said maybe you could
           use a few laughs. But I don’t know. I was weird. I don’t
           know how to — strange.”
                Ian Zaretsky’s father died of a brain tumor in october
           of 1999 — and that Zaretsky disappeared for a few months
           was to be expected. those of us in his circle of friends
           left messages on his answering machine, but the truth
           of the matter was that we didn’t really know what to do.
           We waited. We worried. We wondered. And eventually

Zaretsky emerged — the first time I saw him out was at
a poetry reading given at the national Bohemian Hall on
east 73rd street.
     the reading series, called the Ex Ex-Patriot Cafe,
featured poets from Bosnia, the Czech Republic, Romania,
and slovakia. A friend of mine organized the series — so
I invited Zaretsky, not sure whether he would show up
or not. to my surprise, he did. As we sat in the audience,
a strange thing happened. A young Bosnian poet — who
carried himself like a soldier — read from his book of
visceral and palpable poems about the war. And after his
reading, the poet came up to Zaretsky and asked, “Ivo?
Ivo?” as if Zaretsky were a long lost friend. Zaretsky
told the shell-shocked poet that sadly he was not Ivo.
Afterwards, we joked about it — and I suggested that it’s
a good thing the Bosnian poet didn’t mistakenly think
Zaretsky was an enemy who had eluded him for years.
now it’s a running gag, and I sometimes call Zaretsky by
his Bosnian name, “Ivo.”
     I opened eggers’ book to the preface and read a
quote pulled from oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being
Earnest: “to have lost one parent, Mr. Worthing, might
be considered a misfortune. to have lost both smacks of
     Zaretsky laughed, “that’s a good one. that’s a great
line. that’s cool that he can laugh. that’s very funny,”
but then he tempers his laugh, as if simultaneously
experiencing two emotions at once, and says, “oh my
God — that’s horrible, though.”
     not long before the interview, I discovered the latest
issue of Eat This in my mailbox. It was as if an absent part
of Ian Zaretsky had re-emerged — a part that had been
missing for some time. And it occurred to me that I didn’t
even know the story behind the birth of Eat This.
     “Growing up in the Bronx, I read a lot of punk-rock
zines. And when I went away to college up at Rochester,
I started writing record reviews for The Campus Times. I
completely intended to be a writer, although I was sort
of half-assed about it. My brother Donn (yes, that’s how
he spells it) and I love to eat — we each keep a food file
filled with newspaper clippings of restaurant reviews.
           But the writing is so boring! And so after I graduated
           law school, my brother said to me ‘Why don’t you write
           a zine for food.’ I said ‘Why not?’ so I went around to
           all these tacorias — little authentic Mexican joints — and
           tried all their tacos. You know, like authentic soft-shell
           two-flour tortilla, cilantro, and onion. That was the first
           issue — cover-dated December 1995.”
                In the first issue, Zaretsky included a mission
           statement that warned readers of a few things they should
           be aware of as they embark on this journey called Eat This.
           one of them is: “I have no idea, no idea, which side the
           fork goes on.”
                the waiter brings over our appetizer — Kimchee.
                “Have you had Kimchee before?” Zaretsky asked.
                “It’s pickled cabbage — lots of garlic and chilly
           pepper. It’s served at nearly every Korean meal. It’s a
                I tried some — spicy. It’s delicious, I say. I never
           thought cabbage could taste so good.
                “It’s one of my favorite things. I buy a jar at a Korean
           grocer and keep it in my fridge.”
                so that’s what’s in Zaretsky’s backpack — extra
           copies of Eat This, dollar-books from the strand, Idaho
           potatoes, and jars of Kimchee.
                “I started showing Eat This to friends, they showed it
           to their friends and people started subscribing.”
                Do any famous people subscribe?
                “Robert siestema, food writer for the Village Voice
           — he’s also got his own food zine called Down the Hatch.
           Jeff Weinstein, the former food writer for the Voice — now
           he writes about art. And Ruth Reichel — she used to be
           the food writer for The New York Times — now she’s the
           editor-in-Chief of Gourmet.
                Writers often write for a specific person. Is Eat This
           written for Ruth Reichel?
                “It’s funny you ask that. In 1997, Fred Martin of Time
           Out New York interviewed me, and I mentioned Ruth
           Reichel. He actually called her, and she said something
           about my ‘passion’ for food. But I get the idea that
           someone like her would be disappointed in the direction

Eat This has taken. not that she cares very much, but if
she did.”
     so whom are you writing for?
     “Woody Allen. I’m looking for laughs. Bill Murray. It
started out as a hopefully funny food zine, evolving into a
food-oriented humor zine. early on, I envisioned myself
as an underground food writer. My view of myself now:
ultimately I’d like to write fiction and screenplays, and
I don’t see myself as a journalist. You saw my interview
with the organic Donut Man in the last issue — I’m not
a journalist.”
     Indeed I did. And it’s worth reprinting here:

    JoURnALIsM 101

    The following interview with the Organic Donut Man, of
    the Donut Plant, was conducted in one marathon session.
    For the uninitiated, the Donut Plant makes some of the best
    donuts in the city and, while they have no retail outlets of
    their own, the Plant supplies several food shops around
    town with a variety of their donuts:
    Ian Zaretsky: Hi, can I speak to the Organic Donut Man
    Organic Donut Man: Speaking.
    IZ: Hi, my name is Ian Zaretsky and I write a zine about
    food and I was just trying to figure out where you’re selling
    your donuts at the moment.
    ODM: Yeah, Tuesdays through Saturdays.
    IZ: Where?
    ODM: A few places: Balducci’s, Dean & DeLuca... Those
    two sell the most, go there.
    IZ: Those are yours at Eureka Joe, aren’t they?
    ODM: Yeah. Listen, I’m kind of tired right now, can I get
    back to you, or can you call me later or something.
    IZ: Yeah, sure. Thanks.

    Is that a Pulitzer I smell?

      — Eat This, Winter ‘99, Issue 9, “Canadian Bacon”
                 Zaretsky has produced nine issues of Eat This,
           including “tacorias,” “Cuban sandwiches,” “Burgers,”
           “Filipino,” “Malaysian-Indonesian,” “the Dollar-and-
           Under Issue,” “odds and sods,” and most recently,
           “Canadian Bacon.” I suggested to him that Eat This was
           a bi-annual.
                 “on average, it’s quarterly, if you average it — you
           know, four years, thirty-six months... no, no, I’m sorry
           — bi-annual, you’re right — a little more frequent than
                 so we agreed that Eat This was something between a
           bi-annual and a quarterly.
                 “But early on, issues came out a little more frequently.
           I think I probably got four done in the first year. What
           happened? My subscription list got too big for my work
                 Zaretsky’s subscription list peaked at around 150.
           And because he licks his own stamps, he didn’t want
           to expand the zine much beyond that. Eat This was on-
           line for a few months in 1996 when three of Zaretsky’s
           ambitious web-designer friends translated the content
           into HtML. the site caught the eye of executives at the
           Internet powerhouse Prodigy — Zaretsky and his three
           friends were invited to its corporate offices in Manhattan.
           the fab four were offered $500 a month to maintain and
           update the Web site. they discussed it, but ultimately
           rejected the offer because they felt that $125 per person
           would hardly compensate their work. eventually the Web
           site was disintegrated.
                 the waiter brought the tang soo Yook and the Korean
           spaghetti noodles with sauce.
                 “Mmmmmm,” Zaretsky hummed, “it’s good, you
           don’t get breaded deep-fried beef very often. It’s nice. My
           brother said a really interesting thing, he said that the guy
           who writes Eat This is not me. He’s a character based on
           me. He’s not a stranger, but the voice is not necessarily
           my own.”
                 As I spin my fork in the noodles, I wonder if the Ian
           Zaretsky sitting across from me is really Ian Zaretsky — or
           if it’s just a character based on him. And what about the
           Ian Zaretsky that will emerge in my writing? Who is he?

And is it really me writing this piece, or a character based
on me? Who am I?
      Like eggers, Zaretsky is constantly subverting
traditional forms in his writing, although less famously.
In the last issue, Zaretsky wrote a short and imagined
biographical blurb — or so I thought.
      “But you know what’s funny, and that’s funny
enough if I just wrote a fake biography — that’s Charles
Bukowski’s biography — everything except currently
living in new York City.”
      Zaretsky once told me that Ham on Rye is the best
thing ever written by Bukowski.
      “I always have the feeling, as much as people revere
Bukowski for how real he is, and I do feel he is a genius,
it’s from the heart. But he created an alter ego, Henry
Chinaski, who runs through most of his work. And if you
have one alter ego that dominates your work, it’s a natural
assumption to make that that’s you. But the thing with
Bukowski is — I feel like it’s not him. And who cares
who he is, I guess, ultimately.”
      Although Zaretsky is willing to experiment with
form in his own zine, he is wary of experimenting for
experimentation’s sake.
      “I’m not particularly attracted to any kind of
experimental — and I hesitate to say art — because Eat
This isn’t art. Do you know tibor Fischer — the Hungarian
      “He’s actually British, but I think he’s of Hungarian
descent. He was born in england. I just read his third
novel. I read his first two, and I loved them. He’s brilliant.
He’s one of the best writers alive. You should read him.
Absolutely hysterical. But the last one I just read, called
The Collector Collector, is told from the point of view of a
vase — a ceramic bowl. the bowl is the protagonist and
the narrator. And to me, I felt like it’s a good book, but
it’s clearly the third best of his three. I felt like it was more
impressive than it was good — and it was unnecessary.
Most of the time, the instinct toward experimental or
avant-garde is a bad one. I like stories better when a man
tells the story rather than a bowl.”
               “But with something lightweight like Eat This — who
           cares? I don’t think anyone reveres typical food writing.
           Who cares about those reviews? MFK Fischer was a
           great food essayist, but her essays aren’t really about
           food — they’re about life. Who really cares about a food
           writer’s review? so you can play with it. It’s not a holy
           form. It’s not blasphemy. that’s to Eat This’s benefit. I can
           do whatever I want.
               Zaretsky recently completed his first screenplay
           — and perhaps not surprisingly, much of it is set in a new
           York City diner. even the title is playfully food-oriented:
           over easy.
               I ask Zaretsky what he does for inspiration.
               “Writing can’t be about inspiration. there’s a great
           quote by André soltner, the Alsatian chef who founded
           Lutece in 1961. He’s retired now, but anyway, soltner said,
           ‘the Chef can’t worry about whether or not he’s inspired
           — the customer is here today.’”

           René Georg Vasicek


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