Fork It OverThe Intrepid Adventures of a Professional Eater
HarperCollins PublishersISBN: 006058629X
The Eating Life
I am a restaurant critic. I eat for a living.
Chefs complain about people like me. They argue that we are notqualified to do our jobs because we do not know how to cook. I tellthem I'm not entirely pleased with the way they do their jobs, either,because they do not know how to eat. I have visited most of the bestrestaurants of the world, and they have not. I believe I know how toeat as well as any man alive.
I dine out constantly, but there is a great deal I do in restaurantsthat people who eat purely for pleasure would not consider part of anormal meal. You would not enjoy having dinner with me.
I lie — make a reservation under a false name. I steal — the menu,not the silverware. I wander. I am always getting up from my table inorder to check out my surroundings. I drift around, and the meanderinginvariably ends when a well-meaning captain taps me on the shoulderand points me in the direction of the men's room, wrongly assumingthat is where I wish to go. I rarely talk to the people dining with me, butI love to chat with waiters and busboys. They know the secrets lurkingbehind the swinging kitchen doors.
Friends who accompany me to meals are bored by the absence ofconversation. They are unhappy with the dishes I choose for them — they have their hearts set on a lovely salad of poached Maine lobsterand become cranky when I tell them they must sample the seared calf 'sbrain. The warm mandarin soufflé they've been anticipating all evening is finally set before them, and I stick my spoon in it before they havea taste.
Yet everybody envies what I do. They think it's the gastronomiccounterpart of test-driving Mercedes sports coupes or helping LasVegas chorus girls dress. They believe it involves little more than eatingunceasingly and being reimbursed for the privilege. There's sometruth to that, but sometimes I am obligated to eat three full meals a day,day after day, which is not always easy, even on an expense account. Igenerally receive little sympathy when I make that point.
A critic has to understand when food is correct, which is to beadmired, and when it is inspired, which we would call a miracle. Thejob is part analysis (Is this good?), part self-analysis (It's good, but am Ithe only person who likes it?), and part gluttony (Have I tried everythingon the menu?).
I've never been a victim of culinary fatigue, because I can reversedirection and concentrate on the humble whenever I weary of thehaute. A natural-casing hot dog off the grill can be as thrilling asCharlie Trotter's terrine of asparagus with goat cheese, beet juice, andhundred-year-old balsamic vinegar.
I often make that point when it's my turn to pay.
I knew I had found my calling one day in the mid-fifties when I washaving lunch with my mother at the Chuckwagon, in our little Philadelphiasuburb of Elkins Park. She told me I should have the pastramiinstead of corned beef.
My streak was over. For years, my standard lunch had been hotcorned beef on seeded rye with a cream soda. This was before animalfats were considered fattening. (The milkman usually dropped off"extra rich" milk at our house.) I so liked corned beef that I hadn't comeup with a compelling reason to gamble on anything else. I consideredmyself set for life.
I expected nothing to come of this unsolicited pastrami sandwich,but the first bite was so profound I recall the moment the way otherswould remember a first date — years away in my case. I see myself at one of the Chuckwagon's lacquered tables, my mother seated to my left andintensely alert. She was like a mother robin watching her young swallowingworms. All was still. When I tasted the fatty-smoky-tender meatiness,I realized that I would never again have to accept the mundane.
All else was forgotten, even the unobtainable Olivia Biggs, a pigtailedskinny blonde I worshiped, aware that she accepted me as anoccasional partner at Friday-night dances only because I came with aPez dispenser and shamelessly doled out all the candy she desired.
The pastrami taught me to understand life's infinite possibilities.Eating was no longer a mildly pleasurable undertaking that peaked witha five-cent box of nonpareils or a six-cent cherry Coke. Although I wouldnot embrace eating as a profession for decades (and never touchedOlivia Biggs), I sensed that food offered delights that could not beequaled, not even by the attractions found in the pages of the Playboymagazines I accidentally flipped open while perusing comic books atthe drugstore.
Despite its seminal gastronomic importance in my life, I was neverthat enchanted by the Chuckwagon, only by the pastrami. My firstmeaningful restaurant experience occurred a few months later, on afamily trip across the country. As we drove through downtown Chicago,my father pointed to a sign and said, "We'll eat there."
I remember the lure, a steak dinner for $1.09, spelled out in neon.The restaurant was Tad's, the brand-new flagship of a future nationalchain. There I learned that dining out represented an entirely differentexperience from dinner at home. My mother's consistently excellentrecipes offered whatever a guest at her table might desire, exceptfor the unexpected. She could cook, but she could not surprise.
I had eaten full-course dinners in restaurants before, but my parentstended to take my sister and me to places that mimicked mymother's cooking, whereas Tad's offered mysterious forms of nourishment-- fatty steaks reeking with charred goodness, baked potatoes asbig as footballs, an unhealthy breadstuff of indescribable appeal ...Continues...