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Will Butler Knows Where to Find the Good Bread

DATE POSTED:July 5, 2024
Illustration: Adam Mazur

Will Butler says the start of summer has been like emerging from “a portal to a different dimension,” which is to say the run-up to the Tonys for Stereophonic, Butler’s first foray into Broadway. We won, and then it was an instant heat wave, and the whole city shut down, and it was completely summer,” he says. Only recently did life return to normal: rehearsing for a European tour with his band Will Butler + Sister Squares, celebrating his three kids’ final days of school … and starting the earliest stages of putting together a new musical. “I guess I work in theater now?” he says. 

Saturday, June 22
I start the morning — I start most mornings — with a double espresso. My wife, Jenny, got me a Nespresso a couple years ago for my 40th birthday because I wouldn’t stop talking about how tired I was all the time. (It’s partly due to having to get three kids off to school in the mornings.) I didn’t drink coffee much before the pandemic; I mostly started because it felt virtuous to support local places and it was a way to get out of the house. “Jenny, I’m going to go give Bjorn $6,” I’d say and walk to the cafe and walk back drinking a cortado and eating a chocolate-chip cookie.

I will probably make oatmeal for breakfast, but I browse the fridge anyway. We’ve switched to getting our groceries delivered from Costco via Instacart, using Jenny’s mom’s Costco card (she lives in St. Louis). We’ve only been doing this a couple months, and I haven’t totally adapted; opening the fridge has the uncanny feeling of opening a neighbor’s fridge when you’re a kid: How do they live this way? There’s a three-pound tub of Philadelphia cream cheese; a giant bag of zucchini; three half-gallon cartons of Kirkland-brand one percent milk (I would slightly prefer two percent milk, but online you can only get it by the gallon, and the Costco gallons are the modern squat cube-shaped gallons, which feel weirdly inhuman to me).

Nothing calls out to me. I make oatmeal.

I think of breakfast as the first aesthetic experience of my day. Not in an important way, or a beautiful way, or anything — it’s just that there’s a dozen tiny little decisions to make, I tend to think slightly too much about each one, and I’m pleased when it all comes together. I open the freezer, and there’s a giant Costco bag of frozen blueberries. I take that out, and also the little ratty end of a bag of frozen raspberries twisted up in a rubber band. I put the berries into a pan on the stove, I add a splash of water, shake in some cinnamon, add a little salt, and cook it down to mush. As it’s cooking, I make a second cup of coffee. It’s a rare lazy Saturday morning — no baseball games, no dance lessons, no rehearsals — so we can all stay in our pajamas as long as we want.

When the berries are cooked down to a nice slurry, I add a half-cup of oatmeal and water and milk. I’m always tickled at how silly it is to cook a single serving of oatmeal on the stove. It feels wasteful. But over the past couple years, I’ve tricked myself into thinking of it as luxurious; and also, I think it’s kind of dumb that I’ve tricked myself into thinking it’s luxurious, but in a delightful way. Also, it’s just a bowl of oatmeal, jeez — stop thinking about it.

The morning gets lazed away; I poke around tidying up and reading the news on my phone. It feels very summer vacation even though there are technically three days of school left for the kids.

For lunch, I make sandwiches for our 6-year-old twins: PBJ for Billy and Nutella for Bess. I offer to cook scrambled eggs for our 12-year-old, Alvin. We’ve got good salsa from Tortilleria La Malinche out in Sunset Park, so I coat half my eggs in green salsa and half with smokey red. Alvin has his plain with toast. I also slice up a carrot for myself, then splash it with rice vinegar and a little bit of celery salt. My mom would have used Lawry’s salt, but I converted to celery salt when I lived in Chicago.

I split a Schweppes Bitter Lemon soda with Alvin — I picked one up for him at the butcher because he likes sour things and I thought he’d be interested — but it’s too bitter for him. He asks why it’s so bitter, and I tell him I think it’s because they use the lemon pith. We look at the ingredient list but it’s all written in the Cyrillic alphabet because, as it says in the one line in English, this soda was bottled in Macedonia. (We then Google why it’s bitter, and it’s because of pith but also quinine.)

Jenny books Alvin a last-minute baseball hitting lesson and I offer to take him; I can sit in a nearby cafe and read. The lesson is in Red Hook. Every time I go to Red Hook, I hear the voice of the old lady who lived next door to us in our old apartment building: “Red Hook? Why’re you going to Red Hook? You wanna get murdered?” No, ma’am. I’m going for a baseball hitting lesson and to get an iced coffee.

I sit in the Black Flamingo on Van Brunt Street and read my books. I guess I work in the theater now? A little less than a week ago, the play I wrote the music for won five Tony Awards. Very fun! But also very strange! My brain is still fried. It’s the first play I’ve worked on since high school, but it seemed to go well enough, and surely I ought to do it again. I’m reading The Musical As Drama on recommendation from a playwright friend who I will hopefully write a musical with. I’m alternating chapters of that with reading ancient Greek drama, because a fella’s got to start somewhere in this biz. I’m in the middle of Anne Carson’s translation of Elektra, by Sophocles, and, wow, not the first to notice this, but it is a very good play.

Our friends Josh and Hannah text to ask if Jenny and I want to last-minute go with them to the reopened Mission Chinese later for dinner. And, yes please, we very much would! But as it turns out over the next hour, we can’t find a babysitter. Ah, well. When Alvin and I get home, he disappears to his room to play video games. I lie on the couch and plow through more Greek drama. They’re so short, it’s great. Jenny’s with the twins at the playground. I make myself a little snack of a chopped-up Honeycrisp apple and some slices of Cabot cheddar. I love the Costco giant brick of Cabot three-year-aged cheddar; it is unambiguously my favorite addition to our grocery repertoire.

When Jenny gets home with the twins, I offer to freestyle some sort of dinner, or pick up a pizza from Korner pizza — look, I don’t love the spelling either, but it’s very solid — but she says she’s got it covered. She makes “pizza beans,” which is a dinner she triangulated between a Smitten Kitchen recipe and a dish our neighbors used to make for their kids. It’s basically chickpeas cooked in tomato sauce with mozzarella on top. It’s very good! She also puts a dent in that big bag of zucchini by taking some and slicing them down the middle lengthwise to fry them in a pan. Our 12-year-old is vegetarian — he got there on his own somehow — and while we don’t exclusively have vegetarian dinners, we lean that way.

After dinner, we try for a movie night. Jenny pops microwave popcorn and scoops some plain M&Ms into a bowl for everyone and we put on Singin’ in the Rain. Alvin discovers the delight of eating M&Ms and popcorn at the same time. It’s a very successful night! It’s literally the first time we’ve all watched a movie together to the end. Augurs well for the summer.

Sunday, June 23
Again, no schedule; and again, double espresso with milk followed by oatmeal. For today’s oatmeal, I slice up a banana and fry it in butter, add raisins, then oatmeal, etc., and a little scoop of peanut butter at the end. It’s for Jenny and me.

While the kids watch Netflix cartoons, I go for a run through Prospect Park. I love it so much. On a nice weekend day, you get to see every kind of human: old Muslim ladies getting pushed in wheelchairs; giant Mexican birthday parties; orthodox Jewish ladies biking with groceries; Haitian drum circles; all sorts of people going for a walk, or taking a shortcut through the park in a hurry somewhere, or lazing on the grass. Don’t get me wrong: New York is super messed up and I hate our mayor and humanity is awful, yes. But I find the humanity in the park on a weekend honestly moving.

After the run, I eat an apple and a handful of … sorry to just keep talking about Costco all the time, but I guess it sells these Virginia peanuts that are a little bit bigger and tougher than the standard grocery-store peanut that I’m used to? Wow, I love these. They’re great.

For lunch, leftovers. Our neighborhood halal butcher, Koha Brothers, makes cevapi: small, skinless sausages they sell in groups of ten or 20 in little aluminum trays. I’d cooked some Friday night; now I grab those from the fridge and microwave them. I throw them in a pita with some of the pizza beans and zucchini and some tzatziki and spicy pickled Turkish peppers (also from Koha). For Billy I make peanut-butter toast and for Bess I make toast with butter with a big handful of grape tomatoes on the side. Alvin makes his own sandwich.

There’s a big neighborhood stoop sale today — they’re closing one of the streets to traffic — and the whole family lugs a giant pile of our old clothes over to hopefully get rid of some. Alvin is carrying two Fresh Direct bags full of kids’ clothes; Billy is pulling on the handle of a fully loaded Radio Flyer wagon while Bess pushes from behind. It’s very cute! I lug the folding table.

Jenny stays out there most of the afternoon while I drift back and forth with the kids. Someone opens up the fire hydrant and the kids from the block are running around in swim suits and riding their bikes through the spray. It’s one of the heat-wave days; it’s like 90 degrees out. It’s a good vibe.

Jenny’s sister, Julie, and her husband, Sam, live two blocks away — it’s in front of their building where we’ve been hanging out all day — and we’re going to their apartment for dinner for a homemade pasta night. Jenny and Julie are both in my band, and Sam mixes our records (and also mixed the Stereophonic cast recording). They live two blocks from us and are always watching the kids. It’s a good life! Normally they just do pasta night as an aunt and uncle night with Alvin, but slowly, Jenny and I have been inviting ourselves over so that we don’t miss out.

Sam puts a soccer game on TV while we snack on veggies in a tasty black-bean dip that Jenny and Julie have made. It was supposed to be hummus, but we accidentally brought over a can of the wrong beans. Julie’s made most of the pasta, and it’s hanging in the kitchen on plastic clothes hangers, but the kids take turns helping make the rest, running the sheets of pasta through the rollers again and again, laying the sheets out and cutting them into wide noodles with a roller. Alvin’s actually pretty good at it; you can tell by his posture and how he handles the dough that he’s done this a bunch. Bess and Billy aren’t too bad, either. Jenny and Julie cook the noodles up, leaving some of them plain but finish most of them in a sauce made with morel mushrooms. None of the kids love the mushrooms, so they mostly eat the plain with parmesan, which is pretty great on its own, but it’s transcendently good with the morels.

Julie made nectarine-and-apricot pie bars for dessert. I take Bess and Billy to the corner to buy Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream to go with it. I let them each get one of those little single-serving ice creams in chocolate and strawberry because it’s summer, and why not let them pick out their own ice-cream flavor? The pie bars and ice cream are very good, and I am very full.

Monday, June 24
A school day! And even rarer, a school day where I sleep in. By the time I wake up, everyone has left the house. I’m normally up at seven with Alvin, but during the night Billy woke up screaming with an earache, and I stayed up with him and got him back to sleep. But then I must have slept through my alarm? And Jenny must have let me, knowing I was up in the night (I mean, she was woken up, too). And Billy must have been fine by the morning? I guess so; he’s off to school at least.

Coffee and blueberry oatmeal again. When Jenny gets back from walking the kids to school, I drink another cup of coffee with her and then decide to go to the gym.

This is truly a vacation day: kids at school, and nothing on the calendar. My band is leaving for a tour in Europe in mid-July, but there’s not a ton of work to do for that besides a few practices. The play was in a mad dash before the Tonys, but as soon as the Tonys happened, our publicist went on vacation — mission accomplished! I’m tempted to go to Film Forum and catch a matinee or something, but can’t bring myself to even walk as far as the subway. I read my Greek dramas, and the news on my phone, and watch a bit of Guys and Dolls on the TV for research. What is the nature of a musical, anyway?

For lunch I make a tuna melt on rye. I spread horseradish on two dark little slices of Borodinsky rye and drain a can of Genova tuna in oil. We only have grape tomatoes. There’s something really funny and enjoyable to me about slicing up a grape tomato to put on a sandwich; it feels like part of a Mel Brooks gag or something. I put a big pile of tuna on top of the tomatoes and a slice of Cabot cheddar on top and pop everything in the toaster oven. I was raised with a toaster oven; it’s the only way I know how to live. When the toaster dings and the cheddar is melted, I put a little cornichon on each little sandwich.

I have to pick the twins up from school at 2:30; before I leave, I have a cup of coffee with two Oreos on the side.

Alvin has a doctor’s appointment that Jenny takes him to. I take the twins to meet them for dinner at Sottocasa on Atlantic. It’s a Neapolitan pizza place that Alvin really likes. He self-identifies as a kid with very strong opinions about pizza.

We keep things simple for the kids: two Margherita pizzas and one white pie, a simple green salad with tomatoes, and an order of the focaccia with rosemary. I try not to completely feast, but the food is good enough that I have to consciously hold back.

When we get back home, Bess throws up; I’m hoping that it’s car sickness, but it’s probably a stomach bug. Dang it. I’m worried, but it doesn’t stop me from having a leftover pie bar after everyone goes to sleep.

Tuesday, June 25
It’s the second-to-last day of school and Bess really wants to go because they’re gonna be doing arts and crafts, but she’s pretty clearly sick. Low energy and gray-faced. I drink my coffee and walk Billy to school; Jenny stays with Bess. Alvin takes the city bus to school every morning by himself.

When I get home, Bess is watching Paw Patrol on the TV and I make blueberry oatmeal again. I putter around the downstairs tidying things up, but then decide to go for a run. We don’t need both parents home all day the whole time mildly worrying and not quite doing anything else.

When I get back, I eat another apple and another handful of those very good peanuts and decide to kill time by making soup. There’s a big bag of carrots in the fridge, and I wash and chop them into rounds and put them in a pot with some oil to brown. I Google “carrot soup” and scroll through the results without clicking anything. Oh, right, carrot-ginger soup is a thing. I dig in our veggie drawer in the fridge and find an old nub of ginger that I peel. I take out a giant jar of Better Than Bullion — I didn’t even know they made a jar this big — and add a big spoonful to the pot with water. I dig in the fridge again to see if we have any onions we’ve already sliced into and there’s half an old onion I chop up and add. I add a couple cloves of garlic. I want to put some sort of herb on top, but we don’t have anything, just some wilting scallions.

I pop upstairs and ask Jenny if she wants anything from the corner store. Does she want an elote from the elote guy with her lunch? “Sure,” she says. I turn the stove off, check in on Bess on the couch, and then head to our corner store, Carnival.

Do people in New York call this kind of place a greengrocer? In Montreal, where I lived for ten years, we called it a “fruiterie,” which is what I still call these places in my head. Carnival is a particularly beautiful example. The store takes up the whole little block, so there are awnings on all four sides of the building with beautiful fruits and vegetables piled up everywhere. They try to cater to everyone in the whole neighborhood, so they have an insane variety of everything: seven or eight different kinds of eggplant; any kind of potato or yam or cassava you could want; tomatillios; nopales; various hot peppers; all the subtly different Central American sour creams; every kind of Eastern European white cheese; fresh dates when in season. I see raspberries for $1.49 and I put them in my basket. If they’re $1 a pack, that means they will be moldy by the time you get home. If they’re $1.49, you have a couple days. If they’re $3 or $4 or $5, just wait a couple days and they’ll get cheaper. I grab cilantro for the soup; I get a bag of tortilla chips to finish off that good salsa at home. I grab a dark-chocolate-pretzel Tony’s Chocolonely in the checkout lane.

There’s a very good taco truck that sets up outside of Carnival, Tacos El Chicken. And next to the truck there’s an elote stand most days where you can get grilled corn covered in mayo and cotija cheese and chile powder; I was hoping to grab some but I’ve mistimed things. The guy is still setting up. He’s hauling coolers full of cooked corn and aguas frescas and other beautiful things from an apartment nearby to his folding table, and I think it will take a while. Oh, well. I take my groceries home to finish my soup.

Bess is bored of TV when I get home and she asks if she can make arts and crafts on her own, and of course she can. I get her some scissors and construction paper and tape and set her up on the dining table. I turn the stove back on, and while everything is simmering, I get the blender. The soup is a little bitter and gingery; I add some milk and a little more salt and put it back in the pan and let it cook some more. It’s still a little bitter and a little too gingery, but it’s good! I make a bowl each for Jenny and me; I put a little dollop of yogurt and a big spoonful of chile cruch and lots of cilantro. I put out the salsa and the bag of chips. Bess says she isn’t hungry, but by the time we’re finished eating she asks if she can have some chips, which is a good sign.

Alvin gets home around four; Billy (and Bess, normally) has an after-school program that ends at five. Jenny proposes Chicago dogs for dinner. The canonical Chicago hot-dog toppings are mustard, neon-green sweet relish, sport peppers, onion, pickle, tomato, and celery salt. We mostly use “Chicago dog” to mean “lots of things on a hot dog, definitely tomato and pickle, and whatever else is around, and the kids can have just ketchup if they want.”

Jenny asks if I’ll go grab a watermelon and if I’m still jonesing for elotes. I propose just getting corn to cook because it will be cheaper. I invite Alvin to come because he’s got an end-of-year class party and he’s supposed to take chips. I say we’re going to Carnival, but he asks if we can walk to the Met, which is the pretty good grocery store that opened near us a couple weeks ago. He’s probably right that it’ll have a better selection of chips for 12-year-olds.

We settle on a trio of Lays BBQ, Nacho Cheese Doritos, and Cool Ranch Doritos. He asks if he can pick out chips for dinner, too, and you know what, kid? Go for it. He picks a hippie brand of jalapeño chips cooked in avocado oil; he says they just look good to him.

Bess eats very little hot dog and only a bite of corn, but she’s chipper and eats lots of watermelon, so Jenny and I are happy. Billy says he doesn’t like corn anymore, which I don’t think is true, but we’re gonna roll with it tonight. Alvin has a veggie dog with all the fixin’s. The chips he picked are tasty. A+, no notes.

Wednesday, June 26
Last day of school! And all the kids are healthy! I drink my usual coffee but switch up breakfast. I soft-boil two eggs and have them with the last of the rye, toasted and buttered.

We have band practice scheduled for one today. Having finished the last of the rye with breakfast, I decide I want to run out before then to get more from the Russian grocery store down on Avenue V. It’s that or hang around on the couch reading more Greek drama, and, honestly, I love it, but I feel like it’d be good to get out of the house.

I listen to WFMU with the windows down for the 20-minute drive down Ocean Parkway. I love Netcost Market. What a name! There’s actually one slightly closer to my house than this one down on Avenue V, but this one has a better rye-bread selection. They’ve got like six kinds of Ukrainian rye, not counting the ones that are the same except with sunflower seeds instead of caraway or whatever. They’ve got every kind of dark Russian bread, Lithuanian loaves, Latvian loaves, German varieties. They have a “New York Rye” and the explainer on it says, “This loaf is a staple through the Middle Ages.” I just get the sense that someone somewhere in the chain of command in this bakery really cares about rye bread.

I get a loaf of Ukrainian Zavarnoy with caraway — chosen at random, basically; I don’t know the difference between all these breads— and a dark, heavy “Lithuanian country loaf” because I love bread that surprises you with how heavy it is when you pick it up.

On the way to the checkout, I pass the dumpling freezer and pause. They’ve got pelmeni and vareniki and halal Central Asian dumplings and all sorts of things. In bulk. You use a plastic scoop and fill up a bag. Surely a dumpling soup will go well with this rye bread. So I get a big scoop of halal lamb dumplings. And then if I’m shopping, I might as well shop. They have a little salad bar with egg salads and eggplant salads and … pickled apples? And fish salads. I try a bite of “Baku salad” with a plastic fork: smoked eggplant and tomato and onion. I get a little deli container of it. I walk by a different freezer section and grab frozen sour cherries for oatmeal and also frozen sea buckthorn for … oatmeal? I wonder if it will be good. I grab a bunch of dill for the soup and a fresh bag of carrots because actually, this soup could use a carrot, and I used all of ours in that other carrot soup. I grab a Georgian tarragon soda because I think that maybe Alvin will like it. Okay, time to go home before the dumplings and the sea buckthorn thaw.

I’m making the soup when Sara shows up slightly early for practice. She’s brought her two kids because they’re already out of school. I offer lunch but she’s brought sandwiches. I offer her soup and she says yes. I toast up three slices of Lithuanian rye and spread Baku salad on top, and then I make little bowls of lamb dumpling soup with onion and carrot with lots of dill and a little cilantro on top. Julie comes over, and I offer her soup, but she passes.

We go downstairs to my basement studio and start hashing out a new song that comes out this month that we need to learn for the tour. Miles rolls in to join us, and we plow on until five. We don’t do much more than work on the one song, but it is very satisfying.

Jenny and Julie and Sara and Miles work out the harmonies on the pre-chorus, and when they do, all our troubles are solved. Jenny has to run to get Billy and Bess, and Sara has to take off with her kids, so I ask Julie and Miles if they want to share a Schweppes Bitter Lemon. We sit around the table, and they think it’s pretty good — it’s very refreshing; feels very summery — and we talk about the upcoming shows. Alvin comes home, and they didn’t end up using the chips for the class party, so I ask Julie which chips we should open, and without hesitation she says the Cool Ranch Doritos.

Eventually Julie and Miles take off; Jenny comes home with the twins while I’ve got to drive Alvin to baseball practice. The summer season starts tonight. When I get back, dinner is ready: leftover hot dogs for the kids, and farro salad for Jenny and me. She cooks the farro in apple juice, a trick learned from a neighbor, and tonight mixes it with a bag of greens that I didn’t realize Sara brought from her garden, which is lovely. She chops up the leftover corn, too, and cooks frozen shrimp in the toaster oven, which I had never heard of doing but works really well.

Alvin’s practice ends at eight over in Red Hook. I go to pick him up slightly early and read Libation Bearers, by Aeschylus, on a park bench while listening to the team practice. When he’s done, I offer to take him anywhere in the city. It’s the first night of summer; school’s out. What does he want to eat?

He asks how near we are to Malai, the South Asian ice-cream place in Boerum Hill. I tell him eight minutes. So we go there. He gets a scoop of tulsi chocolate chip and a scoop of sweet milk in a cone. They’re out of pistachio soft serve so I get masala chai and mango and cream scooped in a cone. I propose we walk around the neighborhood and catch the summer vibe, but when we step outside it starts raining. “Maybe we should just go home,” he says. As the last little bit of twilight fades, we head down Smith Street, ducking from awning to awning so our ice cream doesn’t get wet, working our way back to the car.

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