My new novel, “The Middlesteins,” follows the lives of the titular suburban Chicago Jewish family, whose matriarch is obsessed with food, a thing with which I am also very much interested in myself. Your relationship with food is often informed by a parent’s relationship with it, so I decided to go to one of the sources, my father, Steve Attenberg, retired sales executive and appreciator of food (even if he eats a lot of salad these days). On a sunny fall day in Brooklyn I called him in our family home in Buffalo Grove, Ill., where he and my mother still live. We had a chat about the magic of the delicatessen, and I ended up finding out a little bit of his past — and my own — in the process.
Jami ATTENBERG: Hello. How is the dog?
Steve ATTENBERG: How is the dog? (Laughs.) She got up at 6:17 this morning and went through her usual routine, which is to get over to the bed and start breathing really heavy, like, hah-hah-hah. Which means, “I’ve gotta go out.”
So I let her out downstairs, where she proceeded to do her thing, and then she came back to the bedroom, jumped up on the bed, on top of your mother’s legs, and went to sleep.
She’s a cutie. And very smart.
So, originally you grew up in Boston.
I grew up in — not in Boston proper. (The dog barks in the background.) Hang on one second. Charli, what’s up? No bark. (Gets back on phone.) Anyhow, I grew up in Chelsea — you know where Chelsea is?
Okay, well, we grew up on a side of a hill in Chelsea. I lived at 113 Willow Street. That’s just a number that’s in my brain forever. In that house were my grandparents, and my mother and father, and we all lived together in one house, and I think it was a three-story with a flat roof. My father owned a furniture store in Randolph, Mass., called the Wayside Furniture store. And he used to bring home living rooms — about every couple of weeks we’d have a new living room, because he would then sell the furniture out of our house.