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Even a Struggling Writer Can Dine in Style—When Mom and Dad Pay the Bill

I enjoyed some very expensive restaurants when my parents were treating. But as I approached 30, I wanted to pay my own way.

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The swank bar was filled with literary hotshots and hopefuls, all of them trying to distinguish themselves from the latter or pass themselves off as the former. I’d already begun sweating. I was nearly 30, but I had yet to publish a book, write for the New York Times, or strike anything off the long list of accomplishments I’d expected to achieve by now.

My eyes landed on a familiar person, an author who specialized in cultish topics. He was wet and alone, just as I was, and we began to chat. He was working on a book about food—a topic I knew I could handle. A half hour later another successful young author joined in, along with a columnist I’d worked with. Soon the host of the event joined the conversation as well and with him, an up-and-coming literary agent. We discussed restaurants and my confidence grew.

“Have you been to ABC Kitchen?”

I had.

The agent asked me about the pretzel-dusted calamari and roast suckling pig. I’d had both. He mentioned that he was looking for a great new Italian spot. He liked Scarpetta. I told him I’d had better. The two writers had been to Babbo and Marea—and so had I. The agent countered with some of his favorites. Had I been to Lupa, Momofuku Ko, Dovetail? I’d been to all of these restaurants. Dovetail was right after college. I remembered the succulent black sea bass with peas and turnips and how it was oddly paired with a conversation about why I could never seem to find a Jewish girlfriend.

Because of course as a young, struggling writer, the prices at these swanky Manhattan restaurants were far out of my reach. So, while I was I actively using my experiences eating at these restaurants to keep myself a part of the conversation, I left out one very important detail: I’d only ever been to any of these restaurants with my parents.

This was not the kind of detail I wanted to share at a professional networking event, not something I wanted these authors, agents, and publishers to know. And perhaps, I realized, if this was something I was embarrassed to share, then I needed to make a change. I did not want to be 30 years old and dependent on Mom and Dad when it came to eating well.

***

Food is part of our collective Jewish history. We’ve kvetched over manna during particularly long stretches of desert roaming. We’ve dined in secret and in quiet while hiding from enemies. Our holidays revolve around meals, around delaying the gratification of meals, around the stories we tell during meals. We take special care to include children in the mealtime narrative, to ask questions. It’s how we learn to socialize. If something of import is to happen, we expect there to be a meal to punctuate that importance—and not always a home-cooked meal.

Many of us grew up with parents who shared financial responsibility. For most of us, having a parent who cooks elaborate and comforting meals wasn’t lost entirely, but eating out also became a built-in part of family bonding. My mother cooks a mean brisket, but she also has a career. For the modern Jewish family with two working parents, “giving Mom a night off” became less a playfully kind gesture, reserved for special events and celebrations, and more a crucial break the sake of familial sanity—another kind of Sabbath.

In a lot of ways we’re an archetypal East Coast Jewish family: two lawyer parents in the suburbs with grown-up kids who live in the city while they’re pursuing careers in the arts. For my mother and father, nice dinners are the currency of success, the way they most enjoy rewarding themselves for hard work, and how we bond as a family. We would go out to celebrate a settled court case or a good grade. We went out after long stretches of Mom and Dad working late. We went out because it was Christmas Eve and everything except Chinese was closed. When I left the predominantly Catholic Italian New Jersey neighborhood I grew up in, I learned that how common this is among East Coast Jewish families: We eat dinner in the city. It’s how we celebrate, how we mourn, even how we convalesce. It’s the forum through which we share our lives.

As kids, my sister and I dreaded staying quiet and keeping our napkins folded on our laps, hoping our parents would pay in cash so we could leave faster. We whined as we waited an extra hour driving into the city to break the Yom Kippur fast at a restaurant mom read about in New York magazine. As a teen, I scoffed because I’d been vegan for two whole months and nothing on the steakhouse menu suited my diet. I resented finding my napkin re-folded on the table when I returned for the bathroom. To me it represented “the system,” everything about society I wanted to reject: the over-abundance, the decadence, the ties. New York City had head shops, tattoo parlors, and CBGB’s, and I was stuck inside Palm Too with a bunch of men in suits.

Six years later, my younger sister and I had finished college and were both living in New York City. She was on her way to a career as a casting agent, and I was learning that “being a writer” wasn’t as easy a career path as I’d hoped. Living in Brooklyn in a shared loft with seven roommates and selling concessions at a movie theater, I changed my attitude about dinners with my family.

I came to covet these meals, and for obvious reasons: I was hungry! My palate had developed enough to appreciate the creamy appeal of a nice burrata, but my bank account hadn’t matured as quickly. Meeting the folks for dinner rescued me from my un-heated, un-air-conditioned apartment for a few hours. Sitting across from my mom at Maialino, sucking down carbonara, provided an escape.

But those free dinners came with a price. I remember looking over the menu at Dovetail, trying to choose between a rich pork dish and the black sea bass. It was a rare moment of contentment. With a few articles published, I seemed finally to be on the right track professionally. Then the conversation shifted to a wedding announcement in that day’s paper about a kid I went to Solomon Shechter with. He was marrying a nice Jewish girl and had a steady job at Goldman Sachs. My mom suddenly suggested I consider using J-Date. The word “grandchildren” was muttered. I skipped dessert.

***

As I got older, I worried about how much I’d yet to achieve, and how much these meals re-enforced my self-doubt. Three years ago at Tailor, even as the black-garlic chicken entranced my tongue with notes of coffee and sugar cane, I found myself looking over at the swank bar, scared I might see an editor sitting there having drinks as I waited for my mom to pick up the check.

Then, in the midst of my pity party, my mother told my sister and me why she had taken us out to this dinner: to tell us that she had breast cancer.

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Even a Struggling Writer Can Dine in Style—When Mom and Dad Pay the Bill

I enjoyed some very expensive restaurants when my parents were treating. But as I approached 30, I wanted to pay my own way.