25 days of reality

I Dared to Eat Like a Real Housewife for a Week

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo: Chelsea Guglielmino/Bravo via Getty Images

Bravo franchises are like dog breeds: Some are simply more food motivated than others. I figure the divide is coastal: The Real Housewives of New Jersey centers around big family dinners, the Potomac Housewives always eat well, and Atlanta established the importance of non-white refrigerators, but the California franchises have had a little bit of a ’Zemped-out disinterest in their diets. When James Kennedy said it wasn’t about the pasta on Vanderpump Rulesa show that might have been far more food focused if it were set anywhere but WeHo — he meant it in more ways than one. (Househusband Harry Hamlin is a notable exception to this rule, because when he pops up on Beverly Hills, it’s generally about the pasta.) But when food plays a big role on a Bravo show, it really looms large — 2023 was the Year of the Food Fight on Real Housewives, most notably in the reboot of The Real Housewives of New York, where comestible squabbles were often the center of the drama.

As any reality fan knows, the edit only reveals the story the producers want to tell, so it sometimes felt like we were missing context for these blowups: What’s the big deal about that one market Ubah and Sai wanted to stop at? Why is it such a faux pas to serve cheese at a party? Why did Mary Cosby scoff at the lack of room service at Trixie Motel before turning around and ordering a Filet-O-Fish? And over on TikTok, what ungodly things is Bethenny Frankel doing to bagels and cottage cheese? The TV shows only told half the story, and I wanted to know why all of these matters were so urgent in the final cut.

I figured the best way to truly understand the Housewives, as an almost 4DX intersensory experience, would be to follow their culinary footsteps and see what emotions or gastrointestinal distress it stirred up. I already know that contestants on series like The Bachelor act the way they do because of too much liquor. Maybe this year’s TV drama could be chalked up to too much fine dining. There have to be ground rules, though: I couldn’t do anything that happened too late in the game this year, so no RHOBH weed-infused dinner party from hell. And no factoring in Housewives’ alcohol and drug intake, because I don’t think my body can handle that much Xanax. Even so, would I end up throwing my drinks at friends? Pooping on the floor? All that would be revealed in a week of giving in to the 2023 Housewives Diet.

Monday: The Lisa Barlow Fast-Food Experience

Culinary approach: Real Housewives of Salt Lake City drive-thru cuisine

Signature dishes: Diet Coke with pebble ice and lemon, Taco Bell, Del Taco, Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Slim Jims, KitKats, Vida tequila

Real Housewife of Salt Lake City Lisa Barlow is anaphylactically allergic to flopping. There are not many Jesus-loving, SUV-driving Mormons in the pop-culture pantheon of beloved divas, but Lisa is pretty much unanimously adored by RHOSLC viewers, who can’t help but appreciate her never-ending founts of self-confidence and hilarious turns of phrase spoken in her signature husky drone (“Hi babygorgeouussss”). Who else can go on a vicious mic’d rant like she did against Meredith Marks (“piece of shit garbage whore!”) and still come out on top, with the internet taking her side? Lisa is the sort of charisma powerhouse that doesn’t come along every year on Housewives, full of complexities and contradictions: A Mormon who runs a tequila business! A wealthy, glamorous, rod-thin legend with the diet of a frat boy!

Lisa’s love of junk food is one of the most fun things about her, a running gag with consistently good payoff. She isn’t ashamed of her drive-thru sodas in Styrofoam cups, and she’s shared her fast-food hacks with her adoring fans. Late last year, Wendy’s struck a brand deal with her, which was kind of genius, and led to the beautiful, glamorous image of her descending an escalator with a Frosty at BravoCon this year, like the Eckhaus Latta runway. If I could capture just a fraction of Lisa’s glow, I figure this diet could be life-changing.

So I start the week off eating like Lisa. Her typical breakfast is four KitKats and a Diet Coke by 9 a.m., but I take things easy with just one KitKat to start. I go to the nearest Wendy’s for my DC, because Lisa prefers fountain sodas and I want to support her ambassadorship.

This is my first mistake. The Wendy’s in Fidi is falling apart in the morning: The self-serve touchscreens are broken and there’s no one manning the cash register because the screens displaying the menu are out and the store manager is standing on a ladder trying to fix them. If only Lisa knew this is what her name was attached to she’d be rolling in her tanning bed. The Diet Coke eventually comes and is passable.

Lunch is Slim Jims, another Lisa-approved snack. They’re as salty as Monica’s narcissistic mother and leave me as thirsty as Angie K. is to be a full-fledged member of the group. I survey the spread across my desk: half a Kit-Kat bar, a box of 20 mini Slim Jims, the world’s biggest Diet Coke. When Lisa eats this stuff, it’s empowering: She’s marching to the beat of her own drum and bucking “wellness” trends that place orthorexia and spending money over listening to your body’s simple cravings. When I do it, it looks like a depression meal worse than any sad desk salad.

What’s sadder than sad desk salad? Photo: Rebecca Alter

For dinner, I want to channel Lisa’s well-documented love of Del Taco’s fish tacos and go for ones that seem close enough in the pictures on Google Maps. The biting cold outside feels very Utah; the walking 12 minutes home not so much. And maybe therein lies the magic of Lisa’s lifestyle: She’s eating the same junk as the rest of us, yes, but she’s doing so via drive-thru windows delivered into her Land Rover and Porsche. I eat them on the floor of my bedroom while watching The Gilded Age, which I really think these women would appreciate. Women of means, old money and new, insulting each other through elaborate social grapevines, planning opulent themed events, being varying degrees of rude to the help, and spinning up convoluted dramas with one another to pass their time on earth? It’s just too apt. Angie K. is Mrs. Winterton, Jen Shah is George Russell, and so forth. On this episode, they’re fighting about soup.

My non-Del Taco fish tacos. Photo: Rebecca Alter

Takeaway: A carton of 20 mini Slim Jims both resembles a pack of cigarettes and is probably equally lethal. Are they what give Lisa her smoker’s voice? Maybe so.

Tuesday: Erin Lichy’s Problematic Shakshuka and a Mormon Pioneer Activity

Culinary approach: Sag Harbor by way of Real Housewives of New York by way of the Middle East; the rugged plains of 1800s Utah

Signature dishes: Shakshuka, butter

Brynn avoiding her shakshuka with Ubah Hot placed with label prominently towards cam. Photo: Bravo

I start Tuesday with the most controversial breakfast on TV in 2023: Erin Lichy’s shakshuka. Erin, an interior designer and Donald Trump voter, had the great honor of hosting the new cast early in the season for their very first off-site, a girls trip to her chilly six-bedroom Sag Harbor home, only for them to criticize everything she offered them all weekend — and a shakshuka breakfast proved to be the most controversial, and not for the reasons you’d think. These ladies just don’t want tomato sauce in the a.m. Jenna Lyons thought eating it before a workout would make her vomit.

I try to follow Erin’s recipe to the letter. It makes the house smell delicious, all maillard reaction and onions. I can imagine Sai being a grouch about the smell of allium in the a.m., though. I want to add Ubah’s hot sauce, Ubah Hot, to the mix, but it is sold out on her website, which is the only place you can get it. Her website has a blog section called “Ubah Eats,” though, which is honestly pretty funny.

Per Erin’s instruction, I top it off with feta and parsley, and I serve it to the closest thing I have to houseguests, which is my roommate. Her review comes in text form alongside a heart emoji and happy-teary-eyes emoji: “Sooo yummy! Thank you for sharing.” I have failed to stir the pot Erin style but have successfully stirred the pot literal style. Good enough.

Photo: Rebecca Alter

For lunch, I make like the Housewives on a recent episode of SLC, in which Heather Gay arranged a day of Mormon-pioneer activities for the women, reclaiming and reliving the traumas of her Mormon upbringing as she so often does. One of these — an elementary-school classic — is churning butter. In the episode, Meredith Marks makes a whole stink about “once you start something you have to finish it,” then spends the rest of the episode shaking her jar of cream in the background of almost every scene. To achieve this effect and demonstrate that I appreciate the value of hard work just like our Mormon forefathers and Meredith Marks, my Jewish foremother, I bring a mason jar of cream to work and shake it at my desk during Zoom meetings and walking around the office. I had judged the Housewives for not being able to more efficiently turn their cream to butter despite their various personal trainers and Pilates regimens, but after an hour of heavy ShakeWeight activity, my butter still has yet to churn. I hand it over to my colleague Jackson McHenry, who — after a couple of minutes of light shaking — makes butter. It tastes good but not worth the labor cost. I don’t have anything to spread it on, so I try it on a chip, and I learn there’s a reason why we don’t eat buttered chips. I put it in the office fridge unlabeled and nobody eats it.

Takeaway: I did not learn the value of hard work, but I did learn the value of having a secretly jacked friend. I wonder if he would have accepted a pre-workout shakshuka.

Wednesday: [REDACTED]

Culinary approach: Period piece (early 2010s)

Signature dishes: Seafood fusion, small shareable plates, social ostracism

Photo: Bravo

Wednesday’s Housewife meal is the entire raison d’être for this experiment: dinner at Catch. It’s damning of the show’s overall intrigue to say it, but the biggest controversy of this first season of new RHONY happened in its first episode, when Brynn Whitfield went on a rant besmirching the restaurant and Bravo bleeped out her and Sai’s smack talk, right down to blurring their mouths. Catchgate began when Brynn and Sai skipped a dinner for them planned by — and it pains me to say this — Erin. Frigging Erin. She just can’t CATCH(!!) a break. “I wouldn’t be caught dead at bleep,” says Brynn. It’s fine if you’re trying to impress visitors from Florida, says Brynn, or teenagers, says Sai. To find out if Catch is absolute social suicide or if, gasp!, reality-TV stars were being overly dramatic, I suggest it for dinner to a friend without giving them any context, and they automatically text back, “Is this for a Bravo-related story?” This shall be Catch’s legacy.

Photo: Rebecca Alter

It’s very easy to walk in without a reservation, which was Erin’s alibi, but the Housewives aren’t wrong that it’s showing its age. The elevator to the second-floor restaurant is broken and brings us straight to the rooftop event space, which has 200 folding chairs laid out in neat rows and a barback telling us we’ve gone the wrong way. We head down to the restaurant. The place is huge and we’re on the earlier side, but it slowly starts to fill up with the after-work crowd. No teenagers, Floridians, or Housewives in sight. When I get up to pee, I do see a kindergartner having dinner in the bar area with her parents, though.

The cocktail prices are on par with the Manhattan S&P Cocktail Index, which inflation puts at $16 or $17, and the server tries to sell us on that “if you’ve never been here before, I’d suggest four sharing plates and one main per person” act, but we settle on a few items that feel very 2000s old-trendy: lobster macaroni and cheese, black miso cod lettuce cups, and “sushi pizza” with truffles. My dining companion loves the lobster mac and cheese and hates the sushi pizza; we both like our drinks; and most important, we’re buzzing with excitement. We feel like we’re part of the drama of current RHONY, defiantly eating at Catch and deciding there’s nothing that bad about it. “I can imagine Erin sitting in that corner booth, furious,” says my friend.

This was like $38. Photo: Rebecca Alter

On our way out, we notice the restaurant has filled up, especially at the bar area, where a huge group of people stand and chat. Everyone seems like they work in tech, and that’s when I realize that this part of Chelsea is basically one big Google campus. It’s not exactly the sort of glamour Brynn and Sai are going for, but the money is definitely there. Still, the bleeped-out RHONY controversy might have done something for Catch, which is currently operating on a junior-Google-employee-based economy.

Takeaway: This is a cafeteria for Google employees, but I do think Catch maybe still has more cachet in other parts of the country. At a fancy Beverly Hills luxury consignment shop last month, I asked where to go for dinner on a Monday. The guy manning the store said, “Catch — you see everybody there!” So who knows if I had entered a time portal or what.

Thursday: Sai vs. Erin Rumbly in the Tumbly Round 3, Gloves Off

Culinary approach: High-low, hostess with the least-est

Signature dishes: Pringles and caviar

Photo: Bravo
Ubah, Jessel, and Sai having the time of their lives here and honestly good for them. Photo: Bravo

I invite a friend over after a musical-comedy show (very cabaret) and ambush her with yet another controversial Lichy-ssoise menu item: caviar served on Pringles. On the show, Erin kicks off the Hamptons trip by greeting her guests with caviar and Pringles and nothing else, and this has them steamed. Nothing encapsulates the glamorous yet inane specialty niche of First World Problems that Housewives create for themselves quite like these women complaining about not wanting to eat all of the caviar presented to them, like some sort of photo-negative Oliver Twists. Truly an episode of TV that would kill a small Victorian orphan.

I just don’t think caviar should look like that, and that’s on me. Photo: Rebecca Alter

I assemble six Pringles with dollops of labneh (didn’t have crème fraîche) and little piles of the cheapest caviar they had at Whole Foods: tiny, gloopy off-white granules laid by lake whitefish. It was $11 and tastes vaguely like the way a raw pumpkin smells when you’re carving it: sickly and unpleasant. My friend says that she gets an allergic reaction to caviar, which is far chicer a statement than anything uttered by the new RHONY cast, Jenna Lyons and sometimes Jessel excluded. The weird caviar is improved slightly by the trappings of Pringles and labneh, but this snack disappoints.

Takeaway: Don’t buy $11 caviar. Just get cast on a reality show, host a caviar tasting on camera, and have the production team reimburse you later.

Friday: Peacock Day

Culinary approach: The cuisines of Housewives ancillary series Crappie Lake and Ultimate Girls Trip: Thailand

Signature dishes: Cow testicles, scorpion

Photo: Peacock

I briefly consider devoting Friday to this year’s Real Housewives spinoffs on Peacock: Ultimate Girls Trip season three, in which they visit Thailand, and the far more exotic Luann and Sonja: Welcome to Crappie Lake, in which Luann DeLesseps and Sonja Morgan visit Illinois. I love these Housewives travelogue series because we get to see fun crossovers between franchises, like The Avengers for people who don’t have healthy relationships with wine or their children. On Ultimate Girls Trip, cast members from Atlanta, Potomac, New York, Miami, and Salt Lake City had to play Truth or Dare, the dare being eating a scorpion. And on Crappie Lake, which is like The Simple Life aged up a few decades, Lu and Sonjarita participated in the town’s annual Testicle Festival, sampling deep-fried bull testes and making all of the expected jokes about eating balls. My challenge is to try these by the end of my week eating like a Housewife. 

Chic c’est la vie, c’est balls, c’est balls Photo: Peacock

I find a restaurant in the East Village that serves some close-enough stuff — bull penis and chicken testicles — but I have to go to a birthday party after work, and I imagine this stuff carries out terribly. Plus, if I were to bring them with me to go, I figure these dishes won’t be as appreciated as, say, cupcakes. All of the Google reviews of the exotic meats were some variation of “Don’t do it!” I don’t even bother finding a place serving scorpions. This means I’ve failed the dare, and I have to tell a truth. So here it is: I’ve still never seen Real Housewives of Atlanta or Miami, and I only watched Orange County a tiny bit with my mom way back in the day and remember zero of it. I know! I’m sorry! I don’t know how people keep up with all of these franchises when there’s so much Gilded Age to watch!

Ultimate takeaway: As much as food is a cultural glue that can bring people together, reinforcing family bonds or forging newfound ones, it can also be cultural lighter fluid, fueling conflict by giving everyone something in common to talk about, ergo someone in common to be mad at for some reason. None of this makes sense solo; the beauty of Real Housewives is that it doesn’t reinforce our nuclear family-coded imagined ideal of the “real” housewife, sequestered in her home with her family unit. These women are defined by their relationships to each other and the cities they’re in, and none of that would be possible without countless dinner parties, hors d’oeuvres, and skipped reservations at D-tier restaurants. This is rambling and making no sense. Probably because I’m hungry. I’m gonna go find me four KitKats and a pack of Slim Jims.

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I Dared to Eat Like a Real Housewife for a Week