Food isn't at the center of Ivy Pochoda's Visitation Street. The Brooklyn-born novelist's latest is about the soul of a tight community, the forestalling of grief and the human need for companionship, all folded into a mysterious tale about two teenage girls who float into the upper New York bay on a pink rubber raft and only one of them returns. But somehow, as her characters crack open ice-cold beers or wolf down breakfast sandwiches, food feels integral to how the Harvard-educated Pochoda brings New York City's borough of Red Hook vividly to life.
Recently we caught up with Pochoda by phone while on book tour in Boston. In the background we could hear a hushed conversation she was having as she bid farewell to a reporter, then she turned her full-bore, upbeat attention on us. She spoke energetically about Red Hook, of how her book landed on the imprint of Dennis Lehane (who called it “an urban opera writ large” and then compared Pochoda to Junot Diaz and Richard Price), and why she pledges allegiance to San Gabriel Valley and Sarita's Pupuseria. Once a professional squash player, she told the story of how a botched game led her into her home kitchen. Before addressing all of that, though, she professed her love of Squid Ink. “I'm the biggest fan,” she said. “I'm obsessed with it. When I first moved to L.A., I thought, 'I need to know what's going on and where I should eat, so I read it every day.”
Squid Ink: In Visitation Street, the descriptions of slippery beer bottles and the scent of grilled meats in the air are palpable. Was that something you set out to do about Red Hook? Or did it just happen?
Ivy Pochoda: It's weird. There's no instance in the book where everyone sits down to eat or has a meal. One of my favorite things about Red Hook is the Old Timers Day festival where everyone is cooking barbecue. A friend of mine who grew up in the Red Hook houses, he described Old Timers Day to me as a barbecue competition. It's a private event: The food isn't for sale. You can't experience other people's food. They cordon off the park and people set up overnight and guarding their spots and grilling. It's like going to Elysian Park and seeing people barbecuing. I remember the smell just hanging in the air and thinking, “Well, this is really frustrating.”
SI: So Red Hook is a grilling-in-the-park sort of place?
IP: A lot of people just grill out on the street. In the summer, the air is filled with butane smell and the smell of Kraft barbecue sauce. A lot of these apartment buildings, the bigger ones, not everyone has access to the backyard, but there's always a front yard area. In the summer you'll smell butane cooking smell — or whatever the Kingford bad charcoal smell is.
SI: One of the central locations in Visitation Street is a dive called The Dockyard. You lived across the street from the bar it is based on, right?
IP: Yes, it's called Red Hook Bait and Tackle.
SI: What would be the equivalent of the Bait and Tackle here?
IP: The King Eddy. There's a whole mixture of locals — people who've been going there forever, real people who'd lived in Red Hook their whole lives. Artists, newcomers. It's a dive bar with a community spirit. There were no rules.
IP: We could be there until 6 a.m. and the police never came. You could smoke in the bar. It was a little out of control. You could come home from a party in the city at 4 a.m. and you'd see that the grate was down, but not all the way to the ground. If you could stoop to get under it, you knew that the party was inside and that it would keep going until 8 a.m. and that no one was going to stop it. At the end of the night, you'd just pour your drinks yourself.
SI: If we spotted you fixing yourself a drink at night's end, what would you be pouring?
IP: I would drink either vodka on the rocks with three limes or — this is just so gross — vodka and Kahlua. [laughs] I don't know what I was thinking.
SI: Share a crazy Bait and Tackle story.
IP: We went in one night at around 3 a.m. just for a nightcap. When I was getting ready to leave about 3:30 a.m., the bartenders said, “You can't leave. At 6 a.m., they're coming to film Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and it has to look like we've been up all night. You can drink for free but at 6 a.m. we will lift the grate and the camera crew will be there and you have to act startled. Then they just closed the grate and locked us in.
SI: So the grate comes up at 6 a.m. What does Anthony Bourdain see?
IP: Anthony Bourdain wrote on his blog that it was the wildest party he'd seen since 1972. But I saw all sorts of nutty things. The amount of drugs I saw was crazy. You know those horses that have springs that kids ride on?
IP: Someone made one out of a giant furry mustache and we used to ride on it a lot. The local drug dealer at the bar came over to my house with a birthday cake once. It was just a weird scene.
SI: Did you tell the regulars at the Bait and Tackle that you were writing a novel set in Red Hook that boasted a suspiciously familiar dive bar?
IP: Not at all. I moved after I started it. But I was really, really nervous.
IP: People who live in that area, especially the bar flies, are very protective of Red Hook. It's like if you leave, it's like, “Fuck you. You're out.” I thought I'd forfeited my right to write about Red Hook by leaving. Especially to move to L.A., of all places. It wasn't like I moved somewhere else in Brooklyn. To them, it was beyond the pale, it was wimping out on life.
SI: How has Visitation Street been received by the Bait and Tackle bar flies?
IP: Great! We sent them a galley of the book and they made a sign-up sheet and were passing it all around. The other day I saw on Twitter, “Who has a copy of Ivy's Visitation Street? It's my turn now.”
SI: “Bulletproof Chinese” is a term that is used throughout the book. Explain this term to the uninitiated.
IP: In bad neighborhoods in New York, after a certain hour at night, Chinese is [served through] bulletproof glass. You slide your cash through a slot and then they slide you really greasy ribs or whatever back to you.
SI: On a culinary scale of one to ten, how does bulletproof Chinese rate?
IP: Two. [pause] No, I'll give it a three. It's fine when you're hung over. [pause] It's not that bad. It's exactly what you think it's going to be like. Let's be nice: Let's give it a three. [pause] It seemed okay then. But I recently ate something from there and I thought, “I can't believe I just ate that. I'm going to be sick.”
SI: What do you eat when you're writing?
IP: It changes. I eat a lot of avocado sandwiches, but I don't know why. Now that I live in L.A., I eat a lot of tacos and burritos. When I was living in Echo Park, I liked this place called Maya's, which is very under-rated. They have great, great, great chicken tacos with avocado and pickled red onion. But I live in the Arts District now. I go to Guisado's a lot.
SI: And there is nothing wrong with that!
IP: No, there is not.
SI: In 1999, you moved to Amsterdam. Dutch food. Tell us about it.
IP: I really like Dutch food. I developed a taste for it. A lot of Dutch food is influenced by war rations cooking during World War 2. There's a lot of weird meat things that you wouldn't necessarily consider good. They have something called slavinken which is sausage wrapped in bacon. They really treat their meat well — it's not overpowering, there aren't giant slabs of meat. It's very homey, very down to earth. Their national dish is called stamppot, which is potatoes mashed with sauerkraut and bacon. It's really good. When you get a sandwich it's bread, really great cheese or meat. They never mix the meat and cheese — they think that's weird. There's never any garnish.
SI: What lured you to Amsterdam besides the stamppot?
IP: I moved to Holland because I used to play squash professionally.
SI: This is a food blog so here is where we should probably throw in a bad pun about squash …
IP: The funny thing is I don't like to eat squash. I'm afraid of zucchini. It's disgusting.
SI: Do you cook?
IP: Yes. When I was playing squash, I trained really hard all year to play in the U.S. Nationals. I came home from Amsterdam and I had a complete meltdown. I played like absolute crap. I lost in the first round to, like, a 17-year-old. I couldn't believe it. I was so upset. I was like, “I'm going to quit squash.” So I went home and on my way out the door to fly back to Amsterdam, I took one Thai cookbook and one Indian cookbook. I thought, “I'm not going to worry about squash, I'm going to cook,” and I cooked my way through both of the cookbooks. Every dish. My husband loves Italian food and pasta. But if I had my way I'd make Thai or Indian food every night.
SI: Do you still play squash?
IP: I do. I play at the Los Angeles Athletic Club.
SI: Ivy? You eat at Guisado's, play squash at the Los Angeles Athletic Club and you love Monterey Park. I don't know if you know this or not, but you are a full-on Angeleno.
IP: I moved to downtown L.A. to be close to the squash club, but then I could also eat and ride my bike everywhere.
SI: Switching topics. Visitation Street was published on Dennis Lehane's imprint. How did you meet one of our country's best crime fiction writers?
IP: This is what happened: My editor at Ecco showed me the cover of the book and said, “Do you like it?” And I said, “Yes, I love it.” And she said, “Now imagine it with a big old quote by Dennis Lehane on it.” And I said, “There's no way!” She said, “Don't get your hopes up.” They sent it to him blind. He said, “I don't want to just blurb it, I want to release it.” His imprint is at the same publishing company as mine — Harper Collins. They co-released it. He gets a ton of books for his imprint and he's really picky. This is only the second one. I am just flabbergasted that he picked it.
SI: You've never met him?
IP: We only met for the first time a couple of weeks ago. We had lunch at the bar where they filmed Mystic River. Doyle's in Jamaica Plain. It's the bar where they film the opening scene in Mystic River where the girls are dancing on the bar before she gets killed.
SI: What does the author of Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone and part of the writing staff for HBO's The Wire eat for lunch?
IP: This is so weird. He had a pressed grilled chicken sandwich, ginger ale and red pepper hummus. I was very shocked by what he ordered. I thought he'd have whiskey and a burger. But I saw him last night and he had a beer, so it's not like he doesn't drink or anything.
SI: How long ago did you move from Brooklyn to L.A.?
IP: Almost four years ago.
SI: How much time passed before you realized that the Chinese food in L.A. is so much better?
IP: It was instantaneous. Every time my friends come in from out of town, we go to a different place in Monterey Park. I went to Jitlada and I thought, “Oh when you read about Thai food, this is what it is supposed to be like.” Thai food in New York is awful. Besides, Pok Pok, I would never eat Thai food there.
SI: According to your Twitter feed, your husband works near Musso & Frank's.
IP: He did.
SI: Have you gotten used to the crabby waiters there?
IP: Yes. Whoops. [laughs]
SI: We just heard a strange rustling noise. What just happened?
IP: They were closing the restaurant I was sitting in. It's fine. I didn't want their Irish soda bread anyway. [laughs] What we usually do [at Musso and Frank's] is sit at the bar and then go to a table. We had the jellied consommé the last time we were there. Is the food great? No. You're going there for the experience.
For a list of Pochoda's upcoming readings here in Los Angeles — including Vroman's and the Last Bookstore, check out her website.
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