Jim Gaffigan loves food. He loves it so much he has dedicated an entire book to the subject. Food: A Love Story is the comedian's second book — following last year's bestselling Dad Is Fat — and in it, Gaffigan riffs on his favorite foods like bagels and steak. In the introduction to the book, he writes: "What are my qualifications to write this book? None really. So why should you read it? Here's why: I'm a little fat."
Eater spoke with Gaffigan recently to learn more about why he decided to dive into food essay writing, his favorite restaurants, and how he chooses where to eat on the road. Gaffigan also defends his claim that Chicago deep dish pizza is the best and muses on why he is not a foodie. "I could probably name three celebrity chefs. I've never commented on Yelp. [I'm] somebody who wants the closest best burger."
What inspired you to write the book?
Well I've had this kind of ongoing romance with food in my stand-up for 20 years ... I think I always kind of didn't want to be known as the food guy. Then in my last special I was like, "Alright, fine." The special was called Obsessed, but I was just admitting that I'm food obsessed.
I felt like there was always kind of a food book in me. I think that with after Dad Is Fat, I realized that I had tons of material. I also learned from writing Dad Is Fat that I would have a lot of fun writing essays, giving myself an assignment of just writing an essay on crackers and stuff like that. It wouldn't work as stand-up but it would work, hopefully, in an essay form.
I love the distinction you draw between "eaties" and "foodies." Can you talk more about what those two terms mean and when you first realized that you were one and not the other?
You can't exist in a large city without being aware that there is a foodie culture.Some of it is, I'm aware that there is this whole culinary landscape that goes way beyond gourmet magazines, right? You can't really exist living in a large city without being aware that there is a foodie culture. I thought that it was appropriate to make that distinction to keep my point of view authentic.
I didn't want to present myself as a foodie or someone that even knows tons of celebrity chefs. I kind of identified myself as like: I could probably name three celebrity chefs. I've never commented on Yelp. [I'm] somebody who wants the closest best burger. I admire and I'm jealous of some foodies' culinary escapades but I've got five kids and I do stand-up every night, so I'm not somebody that can go out to dinner and go on these foodie adventures. I mean, I would like to, but I don't even get to go out to dinner as much as I'd like.
In the book you create a map of America's food regions, like Steakland and Seabugland. Were there any surprises researching the various regions?
Obviously it's a little tongue-in-cheek, right? Because I write everything with my wife, so I had to explain what I meant ... You know, Mexican Foodland makes sense. Even Eating BBQland makes sense, and Steakland. But Super Bowl Sundayfoodland, it probably took my wife ... It took me like two weeks to explain to her what I meant by that. There's also something about where I didn't want to get too detailed on it because then you just go down the rabbit's hole.
I just did shows in Salt Lake City and I was exposed to fry sauce. I was like, well, fry sauce would have been on the map as a french fry symbol. I had done a show in Boise and I was like, wow, a potato should be there. You could sit there and you could break it down by community, and then classifying Boston as just Seabugland. I've been to Boston enough to know that there's great pizza at that place where the Facebook guy used to go when he went to Harvard.
That's why it's tongue-in-cheek. You can't do it completely to a T, right? And it's always moving. I had the opportunity to meet Calvin Trillin. It's interesting to see his essays on food ... His experience when he wrote some of those, The Tummy Trilogy, how that's changed from local specialties, or even bagel shops downtown. It's always moving and it's changing. And it's very personal obviously, too.
One of the bold claims in your book is that you call Chicago pizza the best pizza. Was that a tough call for you? Did New York pizza even come into the mix?
I don't know if I accomplished this in the essay .... In some ways they're not comparable, right? And what I wanted to accomplish is that Chicago deep dish only works in the Midwest because it's the only place to find it and Midwesterners are the only ones that would have the patience to wait 45 minutes. Also, it doesn't make sense from a business model. It's like a restaurant can't turn the tables fast enough to make enough money. I wanted to make that distinction, but I'm also just kind of honest.
I love Chicago deep dish. My brother who lives in Chicago makes fun of me because he's just like, "That's for tourists." I know all about the New York/New Haven pizza versus Chicago pizza but it's not like one or the other. For me, one is like a pie. I really consider the crust ... I remember when I was describing the crust as cake. My editor kept saying, "You mean pie?" It would go through these different versions and someone would be like, "You mean pie crust?" And I'm like, "No, it's a cake crust." Because Chicago deep dish crust, to me, is as good as cake.
Do you have an all-time favorite restaurant?
You know, there's ... For food or for experience? There's restaurants that have significant meaning ... I'd take my kids to Katz's Deli. It's like there's different places that have different meanings.
I get nervous talking to foodies because it reminds me of when I'm talking to a Deadhead.I just love going to Crif Dogs with my son who loves video games ... Then there's steak chains I love, Ruth's Chris. I love the experience of Smith & Wollensky. I get nervous talking to foodies because it reminds me of when I'm talking to a Deadhead about the Grateful Dead. I'm like, "I like the Grateful Dead, but I don't have your knowledge on the Grateful Dead."
So when people ask me about restaurants, I'm like, "Yeah. I don't know." I loved Otto but I've been there once. I don't get the luxury of going out as much as I'd like to make a true comparison. I love Oklahoma Joe's in Kansas City but I also know that when I do a book event there, there's going to be two people that come up to me and say, "You know, you really have to go to this other place."
Right. So how do you figure out where to eat when you're on the road? That was a big part of the book too.
It's also an explanation of my research is that I'm very much a word of mouth ... It kind of annoys my wife when we travel because I would just kind of ask someone on the street. I'm like, "Hey, where should I eat around here?" It would be like, you're asking, it might as well be a homeless person, where I should eat.
Usually every community has some place where you have to go there. There's almost a local pride associated with it, whether it's Minneapolis with the Juicy Lucy. It might not even be the best meal. It's just something where you have to try that or you have to go to this one crab restaurant if you're in a certain town in Maryland.
I want them to cut the pastrami and then I want to eat it immediately and then I want to regret eating it for a month because I can't move. I love doing that. I think that "tourist traps," we usually have an association with them being horrible. I think that's not always the case. Like Katz's Deli. I like that pastrami. I know it's a tourist trap, but it's still a great place to get pastrami. I still wouldn't want to bring pastrami home from any restaurant. I want them to cut it and then I want to eat it immediately and then I want to regret eating it for a month because I can't move. You know what I mean?
It's so funny because I was in Fresno, California and I did this show. I went to a Mexican restaurant that was unbelievable. It was Castillo's and it was insane. I had a chimichanga that was the size of a small dining room table. It wasn't like a stunt food. People in Fresno know about this restaurant.
I love Mexican food. When I first moved to New York, you wouldn't have Mexican food in New York. You'd wait until you were in L.A. or in Southern California or in the Southwest. Now it's like, in my old neighborhood where I'm always walking through, it's like every other restaurant is a Mexican restaurant. So, I eat a lot of Mexican and that was amazing. So Castillo's in Fresno. That's where you go.
What would it take for you to never go back to a certain restaurant again?
Jumping back to the tourist trap places. There is some ... There is wild inconsistency in, like, Detroit has great hot dogs but there is some wild inconsistency there. You have to go to the right hot dog place in Detroit. What would stop me from going back to a place? If the food's not good or ... You live in New York, right?
Did you ever, I don't know how old you are, did you ever go to Tavern on the Green? It was like, horrible. It was a piece of shit.
It's still bad. I went to the new Tavern on the Green. Beautiful, but it's terrible.
Oh, it is? Oh my God.
It's really interesting, the experience of going to a bad restaurant. I always think of when I was a little kid and I saw the movie The Bad News Bears Go To Japan. It was like the first — and I loved the first Bad News Bears movie — and this was the first time I saw a movie that wasn't good. I always assumed that all movies were good. It was a great experience, you went to a dark room and you ate popcorn, and you watched a funny movie. It's still shocking.
I'm still shocked when I go to a restaurant and it's not good.I'm still shocked when I go to a restaurant and it's not good. So I'm not going, again, on these culinary escapades. I'm going to a place that's supposed to be good. So when it's not good, I'm shocked. I'm even kind of surprised when I get delivery and it's not good. I'm pretty naïve when it comes to stuff.
I remember I went to a Chipotle in San Francisco in the horrible Fisherman's Wharf tourist area. The Chipotle wasn't good. It was shocking to me. I was like, "But wait a minute, Chipotle's always good."
I don't know if I captured this [in the book], but I go through periods where I'm eating healthy. And then when you're eating healthy, you're treating yourself to a cheeseburger. At this point I eat like five cheeseburgers a day. But when you're treating yourself to a cheeseburger and that cheeseburger is not a home run, you're really angry. You're like, "This is my cheeseburger? And it's not amazing?" You're like, "How dare you waste my time? I'll eat something else, but how dare you say that this is a cheeseburger if it's not good?"
Do you have any specific memory of the best restaurant experience you've ever had?
It seems like when I go to a restaurant and I have a really good steak, I can't stop talking about it... This is not answering your question either.
Let me tell you this funny story. So I went to see this friend of mine, I have this friend of mine that I went to college with. She married this guy who's like a billionaire. Once every six months my wife and I go out with them. That's how I went to Otto and all these places. They sent us some Kobe beef steaks in a Styrofoam cooler. Occasionally my wife and I, we cook them late at night, as we have a writing session. They were amazing. They were unbelievable. It was like Kobe beef, amen.
So then I see them six months later and I was like, "Thank you so much for sending that Kobe beef. Those were amazing. Where did you get those from?" And they're like, "We got them from Costco." I was like, "What?" I just assumed ... I mean, this is a guy who someone pours water and he gives the waiter $20. I know that's not answering your question, but I think that kind of illustrates [that] some of it is environment and perception and who you're eating with too.
Steakhouses are like Chuck E. Cheese's for adults.
I'm trying to think of an amazing restaurant experience. I think that there's something about a steakhouse. I love steak and I also love that there's a celebratory aspect to it. People aren't going to a steakhouse after a funeral. They're going there to celebrate a birthday or a career achievement or a business agreement. Steakhouses are like Chuck E. Cheese's for adults. That's good. I'm going to tweet that. Right?
Yeah, without the scary mascot.
Yeah. That's what's so amazing. It's like New Orleans. You go to New Orleans and you'll be in a classy restaurant and a rat will run across the ground. You'll point it out to the waiter and they're like, "Yeah, that happens." And you're like, "What?"
What other places do you like to eat in New York?
I love Shake Shack and my kids love Shake Shack. They're like, "Are we going to Shake Shack?" When they were younger I would kind of lie to them and I'd be like, "Yeah, this is Shake Shack." Now they're old enough where I would never try to lie to them about it.
I love Mamoun's Falafel, getting shawarma there. I have a whole essay on bagels. I feel like I've received a bagel education. Tal Bagels. Great bagel, worst coffee in the world. They're like, "You know what? Our coffee can be horrible." It's obviously someone who is like, "It'll make our bagels appear better if our coffee's worse."
I miss what was this great Dominican rice and beans place on Lafayette. They were open for a couple of hours and it was just construction workers that go there. I really miss that rice and beans place. I'll tell you, Il Buco Alimentari, their sandwiches at lunch are great. They're like $30 a sandwich but they're amazing ... I love Balthazar's burger à cheval.
I love going to a restaurant at 10:00 at night. I love going to Veselka. A plate of perogies and sitting with a couple comedians. That's pretty fun. I'm sure there's something really big that I'm missing where I'm going to get off the phone and be like, "I can't believe I forgot that!"
People probably think I'm looking for weed to buy. No, I'm looking for Porchetta.
You know when you're in a certain neighborhood, and you're like, "Alright, I'm going to walk by Shake Shack, see what that situation is like. Then, let's see here. I know that ..." Like Porchetta. Where I've walked down, I'm like, "I know it's on 7th Street. Or is it on 8th Street?" I like walk ... I'll do a show in the East Village and I'll be like, "It's on 7th, 8th, or 9th. Or what is it? 7th, 8th, and 9th?" I'll be like, walking around. People probably think I'm looking for weed to buy. No, I'm looking for Porchetta. I'm looking for that place.
Food: A Love Story is available on October 21. (Pre-order on Amazon)