People say great food is like great sex. But after two years of reviewing trendy restaurants, chatting with charming chefs, and indulging in fatted duck breast, I've lost my appetite.
There’s a scene in the 1971 film “Klute” in which Jane Fonda, playing an aspiring actress who supports herself as a prostitute, is in bed with a client, pumping away, moaning, calling him “baby,” and then for one second her face changes, becoming ordinary and harried and mid-afternoonish, as she checks her watch behind the guy’s head. Fonda was heralded for her performance, for showing with a single gesture how the high-class call girl must engage simultaneously in two activities. How her mind and body could be entirely divorced from each other. How sex becomes work.
I get it.
I’m a novelist, supporting my family as a food writer. A restaurant slut, purveyor of food porn, author of articles that liken sea scallops to blossoming roses and lamb tartare to velvet and tiny chocolate truffles to explosions that move in waves of flavor over the tongue. I’ve written at length about the briney, dark quality of raw oysters, the way they wriggle down the tunnel of the throat as if entering with intent. I’ve advised my readers to close their eyes and let the silken heft of whipped cream and mascarpone drizzled with banyuls fill their mouths. But even as I set down the words, I’m checking my watch.
I started in this business a little over two years ago. I’d just moved to Minneapolis from the East Coast, turned my first novel over to my publisher, and blown my entire advance on the down payment for a three-bedroom house. I needed a job. The local public radio-affiliated magazine needed a restaurant critic. It just happened.
And at first, it was great fun. I was coming out of a long quiet period: writing alone for hours each day. Now, I was going out three and four times a week, taking my friends, visiting places none of us could afford, ordering things I’d never heard of.
I schooled myself in wine basics and learned how to taste things — analyzing flavors rather than swallowing them whole, picking apart the elements of a dish like one of those forensic computers can sort the strands of a substance into its component parts. I read everything I could find by Calvin Trillin and took a subscription to Saveur, a magazine that ran 10-page stories about topics like the origin of coffee.
Truth be told, food alone didn’t rivet me. And I certainly was no chef. On nights when I wasn’t dining out, I could be found in my kitchen dumping a block of frozen hamburger into a pan, turning the burner to high, and hacking at the meat until it was loose enough for me to mix with a couple of jars of spaghetti sauce. But food is linked to religion, history and culture. It defines ethnic groups, brings families together, and plays a role in the rituals around everything from holidays to executions. Jesus had his Last Supper, condemned men have theirs. For a novelist, this was rich stuff.
So I wrote stories about how fresh fish is sourced and shipped to the Midwest. About a slow-food chef who used only organic ingredients found within a 250-mile radius and a southern Minnesota farm that raised ducks humanely. A restaurateur whose caustic ad campaign caused picket lines to form. And a local line cook with bipolar disorder who burned through a dozen fine dining jobs before opening a Gothic-themed breakfast spot downtown.
But my signature was to interview people over dinner. It proved my theory that food is a platform upon which we build relationships and share confidences. Sitting knee-to-knee at a candlelit table, people would tell things they’d never revealed. Not shocking behind-bedroom-doors sorts of things, but facets of their stories no one had ever before heard. A famous conductor told me how his faith in God had shaped his music. A National Book Award winner admitted that she’d been surprised and frightened by her last pregnancy, at age 47.
I wrote traditional reviews, too, but I tended to avoid the places so hot only people who knew someone could get in. Restaurants opened to great fanfare, but I waited. Sometimes up to six months. And when I did visit I went casually, often without a reservation, sussing out the attitude of the wait staff toward unknown customers, pretending all the time it was my own money that was on the line. How would I feel if I’d hired a baby sitter, put on high heels for the first time in a month, and blown $200 on this meal?
Then Wolfgang Puck announced he was opening a restaurant at the newly expanded Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. So I flew out to California to interview him. It was the first week of January; back home, the temperature was below zero. But I was sitting in the courtyard at Spago in Beverly Hills. Over three utterly hedonistic hours, I was served a “taste” of everything Puck and his chefs could dream up: tiny pumpernickel blini with smoked salmon and caviar; French prawns in a fiery red-and-yellow curry; fatted duck breast studded with bacon, black truffle and dates.
A nomadic Midwestern girl might sell her soul for that evening — and it’s very possible I did. Because once home, it became easier for me to accept the Hollywood treatment. In my hometown, I was, suddenly, a name … and a face.
Local “foodies” drew me into their circle, inviting me to parties and fundraisers. The activities of my old life started slipping away: I rarely went to the theater anymore, or to concerts, or readings. I’d been dating when I started the job, but soon that changed, too. It was hard to find a man who fit into this quasi-public life, easier to be absorbed by a group of people whose standard greeting included kissing: no matter where I went, someone parked my car, took my coat, brought me a glass of wine.
But after only a few months, all this began to feel profoundly empty. Something else about the epicurean culture nagged at me, the way a dull headache will.
The foodies’ conversation was interesting, at first: insider details on just about every restaurant in town. But after only a few events, I had the script down pat. There was always someone opening a new place or moving from one prestigious kitchen to another. Then talk about the specific chef at hand. Had I met him? What did I think of him? Wasn’t he darling? So talented! And recently married. Speaking of which, what was Wolfgang Puck really like? Had I met his ex-wife?
Once, a woman told me the chefs and hosts she and her husband knew were like family to her. And I could see that it was true. Whether she had anyone else to call family, I couldn’t say. She’d never mentioned a sibling, a parent, or a child.
After dinner arrived, the conversation would switch from food people to food itself. There’d be groans and exclamations as each dish was set down. Reminiscences about other evenings and other meals. “What did you eat at Levain last time?” someone would ask, just as I’d taken a mouthful. And I would pause, feeling the same confusion you do when you’re listening to one piece of music and trying to recall another. But it didn’t matter. “Well, I had…” someone else would jump in. Then everyone would talk in turn about a meal he or she had eaten recently.
Only here’s the odd thing: They didn’t really eat.
Occasionally, one of the men would dig in. But the women, most of them, only picked — lifting their meat with the tines of a fork to snare a tiny fat-soaked shred, dipping a teaspoon into the sauce and touching it with the snakelike tip of a tongue. Plate after plate of food went back to the kitchen 85 percent uneaten, to be scraped into the garbage and thrown away.
This, of course, explained the fact that they ranged from willowy to preternaturally thin. I began searching the crowds for just one warm, sensual, zaftig creature. But most nights, there was none. Only long-necked people in beautiful clothes, talking ceaselessly about food, greeting the chefs and servers as if they were long-lost relatives, carrying $20 glasses of wine. Starving, it seemed to me, for something else.
I felt sorry for these people. And yet, I was becoming more and more like them. When I counted up the people I knew or reviewed my e-mail hot list, it was full of food names. I began thinking of various chefs as my friends; once, when a movie came to town that I wanted to see, no one was available to go with me because everyone I knew worked nights. I quit reading as much and nearly forgot how to make coffee at home. When my French Press broke, I didn’t replace it for weeks — there was no need, all I had to do was stop at a different bakery or restaurant each morning and someone would fill my cup.
Then I quit eating. I sampled … because I told myself it was impossible to review accurately if I were to eat a sizable portion of any one thing. I needed to make my scientific judgments unmoved by hunger, or lust. Discipline became its own art. I would go to my mother’s house for Sunday dinner and eat a couple bites of salad, a tongue of pot roast, a smidgen of twice-baked potato the size and shape of the bowl of a spoon.
In fact, food no longer had a place in my personal life at all. After an entire day spent poring over menus and vetting photos of dripping meat, I’d often go home a little queasy. For 15 years, I’d been making the sort of workaday meals mothers do. But now, I could no longer figure out how to cook. Where was my rendered duck fat? Jar of imported capers? Volcanic sea salt? And it wasn’t that I expected my children to wait on me, exactly, but I grew irritable about the fact that I could sit at the table for 15 minutes, reading the mail, and no one would bring me a drink. Most nights when I was home, dinner would consist of a bowl of popcorn and an orange.
And then there was this strange loneliness. Once the kids had settled down to do their homework and the evening’s work was done, I would wander the house, wondering what regular people did when they weren’t studying menus and taking furtive notes. What did I used to do? I couldn’t remember.
For that matter, who did I used to be? Introducing myself as a food critic had a dazzling effect and I’d started to lean on it in social situations. After all, everyone has a favorite restaurant or at least an opinion when it comes to food. People weren’t overly impressed that I’d interviewed statesmen or written a book. But the fact that I’d surfed through all the best restaurants in town commanded instant respect.
Meantime, the work itself was losing luster. I wrote a blowout cover story on glitzy new restaurants with copious details about design, glassware and “vertical entries.” Newsstand sales soared. I was still looking for new angles on food, pitching stories about a family-owned organic pork farm, the resurgence of beets, and upscale restaurants that fed the homeless out of their back doors. But none of these was deemed quite right.
Restaurants opened and restaurants closed. The food people called me to discuss and I put on a bright, hard voice. “Can you believe it? A tragedy, yes!” Suddenly, it was as if I was stuck in some culinary version of the movie “Groundhog Day”: Every meal seemed the same. There was, inevitably, Pinot Noir, and the strange, ubiquitous appearance of a vegetable called salsify. Chefs all over town were serving roasted lamb in a plum or port reduction.
In September, I took a leave to promote my novel. It couldn’t have come at a better time: I needed a break. For five weeks, I traveled and made appearances, reading, signing books, concentrating only on fiction. When I ate, it was easy — an afterthought. I shared a pizza with my son in a hotel room in Madison, stopped at a noodle shop on the way to Iowa City, had a burger with an old friend at a dive bar in Providence.
I returned in early October, determined to resume real food writing and produce articles of substance. I couldn’t have been more out of touch.
“Food porn,” I was told at the Monday editorial meeting. That was key. Enough with the essays about science and art; no more interviews with God-fearing conductors. Starting immediately, the magazine was slashing word counts and doubling the number of photos. Also, we needed more chefs. Cute ones. Funny-looking was fine if they were ethnic; but for the most part, we were looking for young, white, rock star guys.
My editor was apologetic but firm. The job had been turned inside out: Rather than using food as a prism through which to view other issues, I was charged with finding people, events and trends that would lead back to the topic of food. Also, I might be asked to consult on the six or seven times a year our magazine (which covers politics, education, healthcare, business and the arts, as well as fine dining) planned to put food on its cover.
I was perplexed and disgusted, but hardly alone. According to an article I found, written by New York Times food columnist Molly O’Neill, the problem I faced was being echoed nationwide.
“In general, entertainment, rather than news and consumer education, has been the focus of food stories for nearly a decade,” O’Neill wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review. “Food porn has reigned. Food writers have always walked the dangerous lines between journalism, art, and their role as handmaiden to advertising. But we have not wobbled quite so regularly in nearly a half-century as we do today.”
It seemed to speak directly to my magazine’s dilemma, so I showed O’Neill’s eloquently cautionary article to my editor. In pandering to market forces, I argued, we were playing into a culture of sanctified eating disorder, bowing to the lowest common denominator, denying food’s cultural importance and thwarting thousands of years of epicurean tradition. He agreed. Then, still nodding sadly, he sent me out to a stylish, new upscale Mexican eatery filled with women in stilettos who were drinking $12 margaritas with a sexy young chef named Saul.
Two weeks later, my editor called me into a conference room and told me I’d soon be replaced — by one of the very foodies I’d interviewed: a man who ate out five to six nights a week and was willing to work for the privilege of eating alone. It was regrettable, he said; my work was fine. But my salary was needed for a newly graduated associate editor to translate the new reviewer’s exultations into readable prose, plus fees for a food photographer dedicated entirely to the production of porn.
My last assignment took place at a restaurant called La Belle Vie. It was spare and elegant: crystal chandeliers from the 1920s, intricate moldings on the ceilings, a massive oak captain’s table anchoring the middle of the main dining room. It happened to be the evening of a fiercely competitive mayoral election in Minneapolis; everyone was talking politics.
I was there to interview a real estate developer whose bio hadn’t thrilled me: money, money, sale of a company, ah … more money. But when he arrived — this pokey little fireplug of a guy with a stunning blonde, who turned out to be his wife of 40 years — I was charmed. He was co-owner of a professional sports team; she ran a bookstore. They wanted to talk about the global economy, literature and their grandchildren.
Our waiter, a tall, courtly gent with a mane of pure white hair, turned out to be a photographer and day manager of a small art gallery. He pointed out the restaurant’s few, carefully selected pieces and told their stories. He brought a bottle to the table — Pinot Noir, of course — but said, “A glass of wine, dear?” and I felt an odd sort of thrill.
The food slipped in between all of this. Smoked salmon, slick with a lemon-infused cream and studded with salty bursts of lake trout roe; capelletti stuffed with warm shards of pumpkin and lobster, drizzled with parsley oil and a delicate coral sabayon; juicy-sweet roasted quail accompanied by milky sweet corn and a tangle of wild chanterelles.
The flavors danced in my mouth, the way no food had for months. And I leaned back in my soft leather seat, letting the sensation move through me and build. Like a high-priced call girl who finds herself with a client, suddenly and inexplicably turned on.
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