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From the book
You will develop a palate.
A palate is a spot on your tongue where you remember. Where you assign words to the textures of taste. Eating becomes a discipline, language-obsessed. You will never simply eat food again.
I don't know what it is exactly, being a server. It's a job, certainly, but not exclusively. There's a transparency to it, an occupation stripped of the usual ambitions. One doesn't move up or down. One waits. You are a waiter.
It is fast money—loose, slippery bills that inflate and disappear over the course of an evening. It can be a means, to those with concrete ends and unwavering vision. I grasped most of that easily enough when I was hired at the restaurant at twenty-two.
Some of it was a draw: the money, the sense of safety that came from having a place to wait. What I didn't see was that the time had severe brackets around it. Within those brackets nothing else existed. Outside of them, all you could remember was the blur of a momentary madness. Ninety percent of us wouldn't even put it on a résumé. We might mention it as a tossed-off reference to our moral rigor, a badge of a certain kind of misery, like enduring earthquakes, or spending time in the army. It was so finite.
I came here in a car like everybody else. In a car filled with shit I thought meant something and shortly thereafter tossed on the street: DVDs, soon to be irrelevant, a box of digital and film cameras for a still-latent photography talent, a copy of On the Road that I couldn't finish, and a Swedish-modern lamp from Walmart. It was a long, dark drive from a place so small you couldn't find it on a generous map.
Does anyone come to New York clean? I'm afraid not. But crossing the Hudson I thought of crossing Lethe, milky river of forgetting. I forgot that I had a mother who drove away before I could open my eyes, and a father who moved invisibly through the rooms of our house. I forgot the parade of people in my life as thin as mesh screens, who couldn't catch whatever it was I wanted to say to them, and I forgot how I drove down dirt roads between desiccated fields, under an oppressive guard of stars, and felt nothing.
Yes, I'd come to escape, but from what? The twin pillars of football and church? The low, faded homes on childless cul-de-sacs? Mornings of the Gazette and boxed doughnuts? The sedated, sentimental middle of it? It didn't matter. I would never know exactly, for my life, like most, moved only imperceptibly and definitively forward.
Let's say I was born in late June of 2006 when I came over the George Washington Bridge at seven a.m. with the sun circulating and dawning, the sky full of sharp corners of light, before the exhaust rose, before the heat gridlocked in, windows unrolled, radio turned up to some impossibly hopeful pop song, open, open, open.
SOUR: all the puckering citrus juices, the thin-skinned Meyer lemons, knobbed Kaffirs. Astringent yogurts and vinegars. Lemons resting in pint containers at all the cooks' sides. Chef yelled, This needs acid!, and they eviscerated lemons, leaving the caressing sting of food that's alive.
I didn't know about the tollbooths.
"I didn't know," I said to the tollbooth lady. "Can't I squeeze through this one time?"
The woman in the booth was as unmoved as an obelisk. The driver in the car behind me started honking, and then the driver behind him, until I wanted to duck under the steering wheel. She directed me to the side where I reversed, turned, and found myself facing the direction from which I had just come.
I pulled off into a maze of industrial...
About the Author-
- Stephanie Danler is a writer based in Los Angeles, California.
Starred review from December 7, 2015
This debut is a quintessential coming-of-age story set in a remorseless, unusual city. Time and place are superbly established: the setting is the behind-the-scenes milieu of a celebrated restaurant in 2006 Manhattan. Propelled by “unbridled, unfocused desire” but still essentially naive, 22-year-old Tess has fled an empty life in the Midwest and landed a coveted job as a server in a restaurant that strongly resembles the famous Union Square Café. At first crushingly lonely and exhausted by the arduous routine, Tess is mentored by longtime senior server Simone. Despite warnings to avoid falling for bartender Jake, and willfully blind to the strange relationship between Jake and Simone, Tess begins a passionate affair with him. Meanwhile, she becomes an accepted member of a select society of overworked, terminally tense and bone-tired wait staff. Danler writes about food with sensory gusto as Tess learns how to distinguish the fine points of every wine, how to identify an heirloom tomato or oyster, how to shave a truffle. Tess also learns how to get seriously drunk and snort lines of coke. Early on, she defines the foods and condiments that are sweet and those that are bitter—and her relationships with Simone and Jake are ultimately just that: a sweet time of consummate happiness followed by bitter betrayal. Throughout, Danler evokes Tess’s voice—intimate, confiding, wonderstruck, depressed—with deft skill. This novel is a treat, sure to find a big following.
- Gabrielle Hamilton, The New York Times Book Review "Outstanding."
- Entertainment Weekly "Vivid and exquisite."
- Los Angeles Times "[A] heady first taste of self-discovery, bitter and salty and sweet."
- O, The Oprah Magazine "Meticulously rendered."
- The Washington Post "Ravishing. . . . It tantalizes, seduces, satisfies."
- People "Smart, delicious. . . . A sexy, sweaty book of sensory overload."
- Bon Appétit "Sexy, astute. . . . Anyone who's ever tied on an apron will think, 'Finally, someone wrote a book about us.' And nailed it."
PublisherKnopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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