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In ‘Memorial,’ Houston Author Bryan Washington Uses Food to Connect Queer Love, Culture, and Place

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Author Bryan Washington is a native Houstonian, something immediately evident while reading Memorial, his much-lauded debut novel. Named for the sprawling neighborhood that’s home to tens of thousands of Houstonians, Memorial is a stunning debut, one that digs deep into relationships both familial and romantic, what it means to love and be loved, and the healing power of food.

Set in Houston and Osaka, Japan, Memorial follows preschool teacher Benson and his partner Mike, who works as a cook at a restaurant in Montrose. The city’s culinary scene and diverse demographic identity lend both inspiration and conflict to the novel as it explores Mike and Benson’s relationship when the couple is pulled apart by thousands of miles, with Mike traveling to Japan to care for his ailing father and Benson staying behind in Houston alongside Mike’s mother Mitsuko, whom he’s never met.

Memorial offers a visceral, sometimes uncomfortable look into how the bonds we form with other people are impacted by our upbringing. Simultaneously, it’s also an exploration of how food can connect people from disparate backgrounds in profound ways. Its casual prose eschews pretentiousness and overwrought turns of phrase in favor of the kind of real-ass, familar language that made Washington’s first work, a collection of essays called Lot, a literary smash-hit.

And of course, media executives seized on the book’s undeniable relatability. Last week, Deadline reported that the book had been optioned by production company A24, and will be adapted by Washington into a television series over the coming months.

In their respective cities, Mike and Benson cook and eat — a lot. In Osaka, Mike helps his father run the izakaya he’s owned for years, steaming rice and cooking okonomiyaki while repairing a relationship strained by absence and time. Back in Houston, novice cook Benson gets a crash course in culinary basics from Mitsuko, who teaches him how to make seafood curry, udon, and how to break an egg in one hand.

These situations make for moments that reveal the tensions inherent to the evolving relationship between queer people and their families, both their own and those of the people they love. It’s in these moments where Washington explores how homemade dishes can function as a language; how stirring eggs together can plug the silences in awkward conversations or serve as a quiet expression of love.

Eater sat down to talk with Washington about Houston, food, and how his experiences in the city shaped one of the year’s most exciting new novels.

Eater Houston: Are you riding out the pandemic in Houston?

Bryan Washington: I am. I was in Toronto in February for about a week, then I went to New York. The week after that, New York closed and a few weeks later Houston shut down. Since then, I’ve been in Houston.

What are you eating right now to comfort yourself and, you know, stay alive?

It varies really wildly. Like everybody else, I’m cooking as much as I’ve ever cooked. I’m not comfortable sitting in restaurants just yet. I’ve been eating a lot of tomato and egg dishes, a lot of curry. There’s a restaurant called Korean Noodle House and I pick up kimchi there every two weeks. I am staying inside, I am avoiding people, but I am going to get my kimchi. Also a lot of banh mi, that hasn’t really changed — I go every couple days and pick up croissants and baguettes. Trying to balance between staying inside and supporting restaurants that are dear to me.

At the beginning of Memorial, Benson says that Mike works at a Montrose restaurant “where they butcher rice bowls and egg rolls,” which seems like a nod to the neighborhood’s gentrification. Is this a specific spot, or just an amalgam of trendy Montrose restaurants?

It’s not based on any one specific place, and there are a few different Montrose restaurants that could probably be described in that way. This description, though, is from a person who is pretty jaded about his partner’s place of work, so I don’t know that I would necessarily describe the restaurant that Mike works at in that way.

A really interesting thing about Montrose specifically, and Houston generally, is that you have all these coffee shops and restaurants that are blending various cuisines and flavor profiles very fluently, and they’re very cognizant of the cultures that those cuisines come from. It’s done in a way that is respectful.

Scenes in Memorial are often set at restaurants in Houston. Benson and Mike go to an Irish pub in the Heights and have drinks at a bar in River Oaks. Does name-checking these neighborhoods help tell the story of Houston through the lens of its bars and restaurants?

These places were really grounding and helpful in establishing a certain tone. If I write that a restaurant is in the Heights, that implies something wildly different than a restaurant that’s in Chinatown on Bellaire. The tricky part on my end was making it clear enough to the reader that didn’t have the shorthand for what that meant, while also appealing to someone who would know exactly what that meant. It also seems like it helps get at exploring the way that a person’s economic class impacts what they’re exposed to, even in a place like Houston. Mike and Benson have very different upbringings in that respect.

The differences in their experience are refracted every time something as simple as the cost of a meal comes up or being in a neighborhood that Mike would have never stepped foot in otherwise, even though he’s deeply fluent in the city. I don’t think it’s a secret at all to say that there can be a staggering dissonance between the food that folks are eating and how they think it gets to them on the table.

What do you mean by that?

The image that a person might have of the back-of-house or a restaurant as a whole can stray wildly from the reality of it. When you have a litany of Chinese restaurants and Vietnamese restaurants and Korean restaurants whose diners are coming from all over, and the entire back-of-house staff is mostly Latinx. Those communities aren’t being given equitable compensation or credit for what they’re bringing to the table.

Conversely, when you do have a restaurant that is primarily staffed by folks of the background, or of the culture that they’re cooking from, and you have white diners that come in and expect to pay little to nothing under the guise that ‘It’s under this part of town, so I don’t have to pay over a certain amount.’ I don’t think that those conversations are divorced from the ones that Benson and Mike are constantly having.

A cool thing about Houston, as far as major American cities go, its residents are hyper-conscious of that. Simply because you have to be to live here. You live amongst so many other folks from so many different places, it’s just understood that those systems are interconnected together.

Memorial is set in Houston and Osaka. What do these two cities have in common. How are they different?

I think I wrote the book to try to and figure that out, and I still don’t think I know the answer to that. They are both cities that i’ve had the privilege of experiencing an excess of warmth and generosity, whether from friends or from strangers. Trying to put that warmth on the page was really interesting to me, and also seemed like a challenge that I wanted to undertake, partly because Houston is such a deeply diverse city.

And yet, even though so many of the communities might be parallel from one another or seemingly disparate, they constantly find a way to make things work together. Whereas with Osaka, it’s pretty culturally homogenous within a deeply culturally homogeneous country. But there’s been so much warmth, as a complete outsider, that I have experienced within that city from folks who absolutely did not have to share it with me. It felt like it would be interesting narratively to see what that warmth and generosity and sensitivity to your neighbors could look like on the page, even it wasn’t the primary part of the narrative.

Were there specific restaurants in Houston — or in Osaka — that inspired the setting in Memorial?

I visited a litany of places through the process of writing. In Osaka, I was eating at a lot of food stalls and yoshuku, or Western-style diners. I spent a lot of time at izakayas with friends and by myself, which was really helpful in building ambiance in Mike’s section. In the time I spent editing the book while I was in Japan, it was just so comforting to eat home-cooked meals with friends.

The types of dishes that Mike cooks for Benson — sopa de pescado, yams, macaroni, and rice — feel so distinctly Houston. How did your own upbringing here influence Mike’s culinary identity?

This is the really interesting thing about growing up in this city. It’s something you can’t plan for and have to be grateful for if you’re privy to it. I grew up in a white neighborhood, but our actual cul de sac was deeply diverse. I had Filipino neighbors, Cuban neighbors, Japanese neighbors, Iranian neighbors. It wasn’t a big deal to have pancit on Saturday evening and black beans on Sunday morning and then have yakisoba on Sunday evening and then ackee and codfish on Monday morning.

As a kid you don’t appreciate how you live, but I’m so grateful to have it now. You get older and you see the context behind how and when folks pick up their culinary vocabularies. It’s a very rare thing for most parts of the country, but it’s not very remarkable or special for someone growing up in Houston to have access to this litany of cultures from a very young age.

For Mike, it was really just trying to have a character that was so ingrained into the city, that he would think nothing of cooking enchiladas for his boyfriend. Nothing of cooking black bean stew for his black neighbors and turning around helping out his Honduran neighbors with a meal for themselves. It’s someone who is comfortable in a number of different cuisines.

How did you set out to capture the sheer awkwardness of two people — Benson and Mitsuko — who don’t know each other and are becoming acquainted in this really intimate way, by cooking with each other?

A lot of drafting and editing. I was trying to get a sense of how the dialogue moved on the page, and what a silence between Benson and Mitsuko would mean on the page. What was underneath that silence. I kept thinking of this film Still Walking, directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, that largely takes place in one house over the course of a few days. For the overwhelming majority of the film, people are cooking and eating and preparing food. And there’s so much drama in how a dish is placed on a table, or the speed at which someone is shaving daikon. Trying to find a way to put that on the page when you lose the visual element was tricky.

While Mike’s running the izakaya, Benson’s at home cooking with Mitsuko. Did you cook the seafood curry, udon and abura-age, and other dishes that are mentioned in the book?

For almost every dish in the book, I cooked it in some variation. Even if only because I wanted to have a sense of whether Benson or Mike could be cooking while simultaneously doing other things. It was really important to me — and I don’t necessarily expect the reader to pick up on this or even care — to show Benson’s arc. He is someone who went from being shocked that people crack eggs in a pan and then scramble them to someone who is comfortable in the kitchen. I wanted to go through what he was cooking and what he was learning and the mistakes he made.

For Mike’s arc, it was a little bit less difficult because he had a more stable culinary foundation. The question for him became more about what someone would be cooking when they’re using food and cooking as a language, using it to fill gaps in the conversation. Mitsuko was just as challenging because she’s someone who is very confident and comfortable in the kitchen, and trusts herself with the decisions she makes. For her, I wanted to know what someone would cook when they’re just super aware of what the people they’re cooking for need.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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The Eater Guide on How to Help During the Crisis

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Not all that long ago it seemed like if the pandemic weren’t exactly over by now, then at least the worst of it would be. But the summer didn’t make things any simpler. Cases continued to spread, and fires and hurricanes ravaged the West and Gulf Coast. As the weather turned colder, more states began allowing indoor activities and face-to-face school. As a result, the virus appears to be surging once more. It is increasingly clear that not only will thousands more Americans likely die as a direct result of COVID-19 by the end of 2020, but the mass misery of the economic devastation it has unleashed — suffering disproportionately endured by Black and Latinx communities — will not lift anytime soon. 

Benefits like the federal $600 a week unemployment expansion ran out or contracted for more than 25 million Americans in July and the federal government has failed to agree on the terms of a new aid package. Organizations that provide food and housing assistance to low-income people across the country, already strained by the last several months of the pandemic and the government’s appallingly incompetent — and at times malevolent — response, are scrambling to meet a tidal wave of need. As roughly 40 percent of restaurants on the brink of closing forever, programs that aid people in the food industry are also seeking further support so they can continue to provide assistance to worker who remain unemployed or underemployed. Groups representing Indigenous communities, undocumented immigrants, farmworkers, and people of color are also mobilizing to get assistance to marginalized people and lay a foundation for a more resilient food system — because while it’s an extraordinary time of need, it’s also not new. 

Hunger and poverty have always been the U.S.’s most shameful open secrets. Despite being the wealthiest country in the world, as of 2018 more than 13 percent of people in the U.S. lived below the poverty level, according to the Census Bureau, while a full 78 percent of U.S. workers lived paycheck to paycheck. The pandemic and its economic fallout have put those statistics into ever starker relief, as the nation’s working class and its poorest residents have faced the largest health burden from the virus. Several studies have estimated that pandemic-related job losses and increased food costs have roughly doubled food insecurity in the U.S., and No Kid Hungry estimates that one quarter of children around the country could face food insecurity in 2020 due to the novel coronavirus. 

In this guide, Eater has identified a range of programs, organizations, and charities fighting hunger, developing sustainable food networks, and providing support to the roughly 31 million people who are unemployed or are working less than they’d like to be due to this global medical disaster. These are places that are stepping in to do work in their communities where governments and elected officials have left people behind. Collected here are opportunities for giving and volunteering in and around the United States and its territories, at both the national and the local level, as well as in the U.K. Editors have done their best to vet the charities included here, but it’s always important to make sure when you give money or time that the organization you’re supporting aligns with your values and has a transparent, proven track record. If you only have time or resources to give, give it, but monetary donations — especially those offered over an extended period — can be even more impactful because charities tend to know where the greatest need is. If you’ve chosen a group and aren’t sure what’s the best way to help, it’s worth reaching out and asking.

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Trump Teases an ‘EPIC’ Election Night Party at His D.C. Hotel Despite Capacity Limits

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Despite D.C.’s ongoing COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings, President Donald Trump’s campaign has teased plans to host a party for election night on Tuesday, November 3, at the Trump International Hotel downtown. Fundraising emails from Donald Trump Jr. include details on a “sweepstakes” to fly a supporter to D.C. for a party described in all-caps as “EPIC,” “ELECTRIC,” and “INCREDIBLE.”

Under D.C.’s Phase 2 reopening restrictions, mass gatherings are capped at a maximum capacity of 50 people. Restaurants are still limited to half-capacity seating with no standing and no countertop service from bartenders. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser says she wasn’t aware of plans for the party until Monday, October 26, Washingtonian reports.

The location of the election night party is unclear, but the opulent hotel has multiple ballrooms and event spaces. The hotel includes a location of celebrity chef David Burke’s BLT Prime steakhouse. Lobby-level bar Benjamin serves $23 glasses of sangria and $120 seafood towers. Nearby, more affordable pub Harry’s has already seen pro-Trump crowds openly flouting mask requirements and other protocols meant to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. Trump has consistently downplayed the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. After he survived a case, Trump told Americans, “Don’t let it dominate your life.”

On election night four years ago, the recently opened hotel was the site of an impromptu and raucous gathering for supporters watching the numbers roll in on large TVs framing its gold bar. The controversial Pennsylvania Avenue hotel near the White House has been sold out for weeks on and around Election Day at rates going for $1,200 a night, the Associated Press reports.

The fine print in the sweepstakes notes the campaign can move the date of the trip and the location of the hotel stay at its discretion. The prize also includes a photo op with Trump. The supposedly randomly chosen winner, who is subject to a background check, will be responsible for all ground transportation, meals, and all other expenses during the duration of the trip.

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Eater Staffers Pick Their Favorite Instant Pot Recipes

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Now that we are over the sourdough-and-regrowing-scallions part of the pandemic, but in no way over the actual pandemic, we must prepare for The Hunkering. Every winter is a time for stews, roasts, and hearty pasta bakes, but this winter it feels extra important, both because most of us are going to be indoors way more than any previous season, and have completely lost the energy to do anything but throw a bunch of stuff in a pot. Which obviously means it’s time to break out the Instant Pots.

A few years ago it seemed like electric multicookers, especially the Instant Pot, may have just been a fad. But the fact that in one appliance you can cook anything from soup to pudding to bread makes it pretty ideal for cooking during quarantine fatigue. Eater’s staffers rounded up our favorite go-to Instant Pot recipes, perfect for the many nights when you’re in the mood for something delicious, but you know, wanting to do as little as possible to make it happen. And as Eater Dallas and Eater Houston editor Amy McCarthy noted, you could always go with “just some fucking chicken breasts,” and let the machine do the rest.


Beef barley soup: This is the first that comes to mind. It’s basically a textbook version of this classic soup, and perfect for chilly weather. It’s low-lift, reasonably quick to put together, and freezes well. — Missy Frederick, cities director

Dakbokkeumtang: I make this recipe when I’m craving a savory chicken dish with the volume turned up. All that delicious flavor comes from the sauce. It’s a perfect balance of sweet and spicy from gochujang and sugar. Doenjang and oyster sauce adds another layer of depth. Typically to make this Korean comfort dish, you would need to watch over the pot, making sure that the chicken pieces are soaking up the sauce. But everything is done in the Instant Pot, so the result is fall-off-the-bone, tender chicken with potatoes that just break apart with no effort at all. Also, who doesn’t love a dump-everything-and-press-the-button recipe?! — James Park, social media manager

Mac and cheese: I make this one once a week when I’m lazy and cooking sounds hard. I use whatever cheese is in the fridge, add a little brown mustard to the mix, and usually skip the milk or add it at the very end. Would suggest you grate the mozzarella or it becomes a blob. — Brenna Houck, editor at Eater Detroit

Chinese poached whole chicken: Basically, I get a whole chicken every week, and I got tired of roasting it. This recipe is a really easy — not entirely foolproof, but a good enough way to poach a chicken whole in about 40 to 50 minutes, with not too much work on my part. You can use it specifically as white-cut chicken over rice with, say, a ginger scallion sauce, but just as often I pull the meat off the carcass and use it for meals throughout the week. Two caveats: You really do need an instant-read thermometer to tell when it’s done, and I find it’s much better to salt the chicken 24 hours in advance (I use the method in Salt Fat Acid Heat), so it has enough taste. And after poaching the chicken and pulling off the meat, I often toss the carcass right back into its cooking liquid, cook it on manual for another 60 minutes, and end up with a bunch of chicken stock. — Meghan McCarron, special correspondent

Kosha mangsho: This is a traditional Bengali goat or lamb stew in a heavily spiced, yogurt gravy, and it’s intensely rich and comforting. This recipe uses a pressure cooker to save time, but on the offchance you landed on this page and don’t have an Instant Pot or the like, you can still just simmer it in a large pot. — Jaya Saxena, staff writer

Lemongrass coconut chicken: The sauce is unbelievably tasty for just a few ingredients and it comes together so quickly. The labor to flavor ratio makes it one of my go-tos when I get bored with cooking or can’t be bothered to put in much effort. It’s also great over rice or any other grain. — Brittanie Shey, Eater Houston and Eater Dallas associate editor

Basic chicken noodle soup: I make a basic chicken noodle soup in the Instant Pot probably every week in the winter: The base recipe is two chicken breasts, a carton and a half of broth, a few cups (I eyeball it) roughly chopped diced celery, carrot, and onion, and whatever spices you want. Cook everything together on high pressure for 25 mins. You can quick-release the pressure and remove the chicken breasts, and shred them — while you’re shredding, set the pot’s saute function so the broth remains boiling and add egg noodles. Once the noodles are cooked, dump the shredded chicken back in and you’re done! This is perfect because frozen chicken works just as well (and at the same cook time), and you can experiment with any leafy greens at the end (throw them in when you add the noodles) and any noodle types you want. — Erin DeJesus, lead editor, Eater.com

Pork chile verde: This recipe is very good; I found it last year when I had a truckload of tomatillos from my garden. It is a great comfort food and works well as stew or tacos. — Brenna Houck, Editor at Eater Detroit

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