For foodies in Manhattan, last week's biggest news arrived in the form of a Page 1 headline in the New York Post: "ZAGAT SURVEY SHOCKER: 'Soup Nazi' beats posh Le Cirque."
The Post, bless its sooty heart, had plucked an advance copy of Zagat's 1998 New York City restaurant survey from the assembly line and promptly zeroed in on the volume's spiciest revelation: Al Yeganeh's tiny Soup Kitchen International -- satirized on "Seinfeld" for its notoriously brusque service -- had scored 27 points (out of a possible 30) for its food, while Sirio Maccioni's renovated Le Cirque 2000 pulled in a mere 25 points. (In Zagat-speak, 27 points is in the "extraordinary to perfection" range, while 25 denotes merely "very good to excellent.")
Overnight, Soup Kitchen International had rocketed to the No. 14 slot among Zagat's highest-ranked New York restaurants, while Le Cirque 2000 -- where former celebrities like Henry Kissinger and Joan Rivers go to rub padded shoulders -- was pounded down to No. 32. In a city where people follow the rankings in the slim, crimson-hued Zagat guidebooks as closely as residents of other cities eyeball the college football polls, this news is anything but small potatoes. "Soup is holy," Yeganeh told the Post. "I'm like a heart surgeon. I'm a pilot." The funny thing is, the man's not kidding -- as anyone who has stood in line for a pint of his ethereal lobster bisque will attest.
The Soup Nazi's triumph eclipsed the week's other big food event -- the publication of an "all-new" edition of "The Joy of Cooking," updated for the first time since 1974. The radically revised, multiethnic "Joy" was feted in a lengthy Times piece by Molly O'Neill, and later at a panel discussion among the eaterati that was moderated by Jeffrey Steingarten, who writes about his outsize appetites in Vogue and Slate.
About 100 people turned out at an uptown Barnes & Noble last Wednesday evening to hear Steingarten and six other foodies -- including the Atlantic Monthly's Corby Kummer, Union Square Cafe owner Danny Meyer and Newsweek's Laura Shapiro -- debate the future of home cooking. It looked like a moderately impressive turnout until you squinted your eyes and scanned the room more closely: More than half of those in attendance were themselves in the food or publishing business. Once again, the media was talking to itself.
It shouldn't be a surprise, really, that the reissued "Joy" has been met here with a barely stifled yawn. New Yorkers have long scorned kitchen drudgery in favor of stalking the sidewalks, looking for someplace new to dine. In fact, it's usually hard to scare up any edibles at all in a Manhattan apartment. As novelist Bob Shacochis testified in his discursive cookbook "Domesticity" (1994), he has never once opened a New Yorker's refrigerator and observed "actual, verifiable food in the box." What's usually to be found, he writes, is a "frosty bottle of vodka" -- and maybe a lonely jar of Dijon mustard.
Whatever irony is contained in the fact that "The Joy of Cooking" was being relaunched in the city that hates to cook seemed lost on Steingarten's panel. After a few preliminary remarks by Ethan Becker -- the tall, bearded son of Marion Rombauer Becker and the grandson of Irma S. Rombauer, the original author of "The Joy of Cooking" -- Steingarten took the podium. If home cooking is indeed in peril, he intoned, there are probably several causes, notably "too much time spent at the gym," the fact that so many women now have office jobs and an "increase in food phobias" and "imagined allergies." What Steingarten didn't say -- although others later did -- is that take-out shops like Soup Kitchen International are another factor in home cooking's decline. More and more people are willing to pick up some soup, concoct a salad and toss a baguette on the table and call it a home-cooked meal. As another speaker put it, we've entered the era of "home meal replacement."
Steingarten is among America's most acid and engaging food writers, as his new collection, "The Man Who Ate Everything" (Knopf) attests. Whether he's trashing our national salad mania ("Adults who require a salad at every meal are like obsessed little children who will eat nothing but frozen pizza or canned ravioli for months on end") or outlining his methods of finding a good restaurant ("I do not, as a rule, seek advice about food from thin people"), he's generally a pleasure to read. In person, though, Steingarten is a somewhat different animal. With his thatch of gray hair and his bored-but-haughty demeanor, he often seemed like Jack Kemp trying to channel the droning comedian Ben Stein. He neglected to connect with either the audience or the panelists.
A few of the other speakers upped the energy level. Tanya Steel, a senior editor at Bon Appetit, painted a just-the-facts picture of America's current eating habits. (Among her factoids: The average American "cooks" dinner three to four times a week; sales of packaged salads are up 300 percent; males aged 18 to 24 tend to eat out more than anyone else, usually at fast-food restaurants.) Newsweek's Shapiro teased out the multiple meanings in our need to putter around in the kitchen, noting the "visceral memories" the activity dredges up. Shapiro also linked the changing definition of home cooking to the introduction, several decades ago, of cake mixes. Women originally rejected the entirely powdered mixes, she said, because they weren't involved enough in the baking process. When the manufacturers changed the ingredients so that women had to add eggs themselves, sales skyrocketed. Shapiro's conclusion: "If it satisfies your need to cook, it is probably home cooking."
Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine, argued that sheer guilt may be the reason Americans are entertaining more. ("You might not cook for weeks," she said. "But when you entertain, you've cooked 10 meals in one night.") The Union Square Cafe's Meyer noted the way that homey, old-fashioned recipes (pot pies, macaroni and cheese) are being updated in many restaurants. Meyer also thinks the boom in wine sales is helping boost home cooking. You've got to eat something while you're downing that $20 zinfandel.
The evening's final speaker was Maria Guarnaschelli, the spitfire Scribner editor behind the revised "Joy of Cooking." Guarnaschelli made it clear that, when it comes to home cooking, love isn't all you need. She described how she and her husband avoided an invitation to a home-cooked meal they knew would be concocted from various cans and packages. "We would not have enjoyed the meal," she said, "even if they loved us."
Whither home cooking? The evening neatly skirted the question. The good news is that, for serious kitchen dilettantes, the new "Joy" is indeed a splendid thing to behold. It is crammed with recipes and prose from some of the best food writers around (Betty Fussell, Rick Bayless), and radical surgery has been performed nearly everywhere. You'll still find recipes for meat loaf and pot roast, but the book is shot through with fresh and exotic tastes. I went looking for a hollandaise sauce the other morning, for example, and found not just a recipe for a classic version, but also a "Three-citrus Hollandaise" and an "Ancho Chile Hollandaise." This is not your Aunt Masie's "Joy of Cooking."
Whether the new "Joy" will rekindle America's interest in home cooking is another question. While flipping through the multicultural soup recipes in the new edition -- "Tuscan Bread and Tomato Soup (Pappa al Pomodoro)," "Portuguese Greens Soup (Caldo Verde)" -- I didn't necessarily want to race to the market to start buying ingredients.
Instead, salivating, I began planning a late-afternoon trek to see the Soup Nazi. Hell, who has the time to cook?