Sam Sifton Reviews His Late Night Snack

Darryl Campbell uncovers the hunger-inspired contemplations of The New York Times food critic Sam Sifton.

Sam Sifton is the chief restaurant critic for The New York Times. His reviews have been the subject of much debate among New York food writers.

After 1 a.m., the world’s culinary horizons contract sharply. At 4, they extend no farther than your front door: to the phone, where you can order delivery from restaurants of last resort, or to the kitchen, where your last week’s worth of meal choices stare back at you from condensation-covered Tupperware and greaseproofed cardboard take-out boxes. The first is not an option. The second is generally not much better. Insomniacs, despair.

Consider the havoc that the refrigerator wreaks on your leftovers. Pasta, once perfectly toothsome, devolves into a gummy tangle; elegant sauces separate into water and everything else, as if centrifuged. What was pleasingly, shatteringly, crisp — bacon, for instance, or fried chicken — generally retains a certain robust chewiness, which can be depressing if you were hoping for some semblance of the original. Foams and infusions, and most things that come from the rarified world of molecular gastronomy, wilt under prolonged cold storage. Best to eat your highly engineered mac and cheese the day of.

There is no time to overthink things; the cold, unforgiving reality of daytime approaches all too quickly. So begin with dessert first: a soft, gently sweetened panna cotta, a last surviving mini cannolo that may as well have been airlifted from Sicily itself. A slice of lemon meringue pie, the meringue a delicate cloud, the lemon curd unctuous and bright. This will satisfy your initial craving for something, anything, but only just.

Fortunately, the night is young, and your fridge is full. Of the slices of jamon serrano that were the only highlight from Tuesday’s mediocre Spanish restaurant. Of half a loaf of cornbread whose best feature is its ability to absorb vast quantities of butter and honey. Of the cubes of safety-vest-orange Pasteurized Cheese Product, refreshingly unpretentious after a day of restaurant food with too much aspiration and not enough consistency.

Rely next on those classic American staples: large quantities of red meat and potatoes, whether baked, boiled, or fried. Leave them cold, warm them up, dress them with lashings of hot sauce or ranch dressing (spare the gravy glop, though), but eat them, eat them! Marvel at how the combination of starch, salt, and fat keeps the night’s chill, real or imagined, at bay.

And yes, Virginia, some things do in fact improve with cold storage. A bowl of fiery pozole takes on a pleasing brininess when eaten straight out of the Tupperware. The ruins of a lump crab tower, freed from the tyranny of its clichéd, circle-molded existence on a restaurant plate, tastes better as a mouthful with a uniformly citrusy flavor profile. These are truths that you feel in your gut, though you may never be able to express them as part of your day job.

At this point, your stomach may be protesting, your blood sugar levels rocketing, your eyelids drooping once again. Do not give in to biological imperatives. Move along to the cereal shelf—you do have your 2% handy, don’t you? Revel in the first great triumph of American food science, the manhandling of pulverized grain into all manner of shapes, sizes, and colors, their deceptive branding (“Whole grain! Great source of vitamins and minerals!”) making it easy to justify the jolts of sugary sweetness being delivered to your head (and heart, and pancreas) in bowl-sized doses.

The takeaway here? That three in the morning — or four, if your kitchen raids take as long as mine generally do — is no time for heroics. Yes, stored foods may lose their textural appeal, or end up further toward the shirt-cardboard-and-sawdust end of the flavor spectrum; yes, you may have to do quite a bit of scrounging and shoveling before your reptilian complex (the part that controls hunger, natch) quiets down.

But it is surely better to face the onrushing dawn, and the vast, alienating world of restaurant criticism, fortified by the remnants of meals past. Fret not, for in the wee small hours of the morning, your reputation as a Serious Food Professional can never be sullied, no matter how many clover-shaped marshmallows or tins of potted, preserved meat you consume. These are the assumptions on which one’s thin veneer of sanity often rests.

Darryl Campbell is the managing editor at The Bygone Bureau. He once got called an "elitist young author" by John Stossel, which he considers one of his top-ten lifetime accomplishments so far. Others include writing for The Christian Science Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, paying off his car loan a year early, and getting a Twitter account. Send him an email.