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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The great composer Virgil Thompson did not believe in coffee filters. He brewed his coffee in a sauce pan and strained the grounds through a sock. That tasty story is one of many in a new book that is veritable banquet of food and personality anecdotes. It seemed like a good idea at the time, is written by the long-time restaurant critic of the New York Observer newspaper, Moira Hodgson. Hodgson is in our New York bureau to tell us more about her adventures in life and food. Welcome to the program.

Ms. MOIRA HODGSON (New York Observer Restaurant Critic): Thank you. I'm delighted to be here.

HANSEN: I hope Virgil Thompson used a clean sock.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HODGSON: I assume he did. He had very strong ideas about food.

HANSEN: He did. You include one of his recipes in your book.

Ms. HODGSON: Yes. He made Jeff Davis pies, the one that's in the book. He used to make wonderful roast lamb. You'd take all the fat off, he said. And I remember him making a roast turkey. He would always take the best part of the turkey for himself, when he carved it. He had learned how to cook in France. And when he came back to New York, when he lived in the Chelsea Hotel he used to give wonderful dinner parties.

HANSEN: Was he a good dinner party guest?

Ms. HODGSON: Well, he always would fall asleep at the table at least once. And then people would sort of relax and start talking away, thinking he was asleep, and he would suddenly wake up out of the blue and snap at whoever was speaking - saying, absolutely wrong, absolute rubbish. And back he was in the swing of things.

HANSEN: What do you think is the most exotic thing you've ever eaten?

Ms. HODGSON: Well, it's hard to say. I remember the first time I had snails. And it was in Berlin. And we were having lunch at the French Officers Club - now, The Family. And I'll never forget it. The French children were always given a half a glass of wine that was filled to the brim with water. When it came to my turn I just wanted the glass of wine.

And, at the same time, snails were put down on the table, and I couldn't believe it. I had never seen anything like that. I mean, snails were, for me, was something that my grandfather used to pick off the vegetables in the garden and throw in the garbage.

And so I'll never forget looking at that snail and thinking, now, how am I going to do this? And then putting the snail in my mouth with as much bread as I possibly could and at that precise moment, this little six-year-old French boy shouted to his mother, look. And so, all the grownups looked over to our table, and I thought they were looking at me. And he said, she's drinking her wine without water.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: And you're here - there's your mouth filled with bread and…

Ms. HODGSON: Oh, god. I thought I was going to be sick. But, then, of course, I loved snails. Now, I absolutely adore snails.

HANSEN: Am I correct in remembering that you were once a waitress, and someone found a slug in their salad, and you once called it - oh, well, those are American snails.

Ms. HODGSON: Oh, I said, those are French snails. I was trying to pretend this was a special delicacy that the British were putting on. It was a French bistro in London. It was a pretty terrible place. But it was twice. These four Frenchman, and they weren't very friendly, received salads with slugs on them. And, of course, you know, second time around I could barely contain myself from laughing, but they left without leaving a tip, even though they got a free meal.

HANSEN: Yeah. You've had an amazing career. I mean, I know you paint, you were taking ballet, you love dance, you wanted to write. And you got to the point where you were a food writer for The New York Times. And you had to test recipes in a cookbook that was being written by the writer Lillian Hellman.

Ms. HODGSON: Yes.

HANSEN: What did you have to make?

Ms. HODGSON: Well, I had to make various dishes, but one of them was to cook six pounds of tripe in a bottle of bourbon. It was my first or second day on the job, and I was terrified, because all the editors of the section were going to come up and see what I'd done. And I remember - as I was cooking this greasy mess of tripe - thinking of Mary McCarthy when she said about Lillian Hellman that everything she said were lies including, the, and, and. The recipe did not make its way into the paper, I have to add.

HANSEN: Right, didn't the editor say the word, disgusting, does not appear in the living sections?

Ms. HODGSON: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: At the time, Mimi Sheridan was the restaurant critic for The Times. And you were actually asked to fill in for her during a leave of absence.

Ms. HODGSON: Right.

HANSEN: What was the most daunting part of that task for you?

Ms. HODGSON: It was absolutely nerve-racking. You know, I lived downtown in the village. I used to go to local bistros. And, all of a sudden, I was being sent out to write - for what they told me then - was the most widely read part of the paper, which I was astonished by. And I had to do two restaurants a week. And I was so careful. I went to restaurants, you know, sometimes five or six times just to be sure that I was getting it right.

And it was funny, because I was so nervous most of the time, I actually lost 10 pounds while I was doing it - six months.

HANSEN: You didn't get to eat very much, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HODGSON: I just tasted and wrote and tasted and wrote.

HANSEN: Your father was a British diplomat.

Ms. HODGSON: Yes.

HANSEN: And, actually, later you discovered that he was a spy.

Ms. HODGSON: Yes.

HANSEN: And you make a comparison between what he did and what you do as a restaurant critic. Can you elaborate on that?

Ms. HODGSON: Yes, I mean, in a way you're undercover. You're sneaking in. You're observing, and nobody knows that you're really observing. And you're taking notes. And there's a kind of stealthiness about it, as well.

HANSEN: You've seen so many changes come and go in the food world. And you have a son, Alexander, and one of the questions you pose in the book is what kind of food will he be eating in the future? Have you found an answer to that?

Ms. HODGSON: Well, no, the thing is that we were at a restaurant called, Alinea, in Chicago, which is the most cutting-edge place I've ever been. It's, you know, like El Bulli in Spain. I mean, it was just food that was unrecognizable. And it was magnificent, sort of, brightly-colored works of edible art. I mean, they even served stuff on a linen pillow that deflated under the plate so that it filled the air with a scent of lavender.

But, you know, the restaurant equipment nowadays is so different. I mean, they have things, like, for example, an anti-griddle, which freezes food within seconds, a dehydrator and laser torch are all these new things that were not in existence when I first started to eat food.

HANSEN: Are you surprised at all by the proliferation of things like the food channel, "Top Chef" and that groaning board of food magazines you see at the newsstand?

Ms. HODGSON: Yeah, it's so - when I first came to America in the '60s, there was red and white Italian food. There was continental cuisine, which Calvin Trillin once described as a sort of thing you expect to find on Continental Trailways.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HODGSON: And there was barbecue and steakhouses. And when you traveled across the country and if I went to a supermarket, you know, there was just steak, and chicken and not very nice-looking vegetables. It was amazing. Now the whole thing has totally changed. In fact, it's worldwide. I was in Ireland not long ago, and I went into a little village shop, and it was packed with Asian things, you know, Indian condiments, all - and I was thinking, who?

But this is a tiny little village in Ireland, who is eating all this stuff? But people are. And I think television has made this change possible. People watch food shows, and they get ideas and they want to go out and try them.

HANSEN: Moira Hodgson is the restaurant critic for The New York Observer newspaper. Her new book is called, "It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: My Adventures in Life and Food." She joins us from our New York bureau. Thank you so much.

Ms. HODGSON: Thank you, Liane.

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