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The primary requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite.
-- A.J. Liebling
Easy for him to say: He was independently wealthy. Personally, I found the primary requisite for writing about food to be a credit card.
And that was a problem. I pictured myself sweeping into fabulous restaurants to dine upon caviar and champagne. Maître d’s would cower before the great Restaurant Critic. Chefs would stand behind the kitchen door, trembling. “What is she saying?” they would whisper to my waiter. “Does she like it?” I would not betray, by word or gesture, my opinion of the meal. And when it was all over, I would throw down my card and cry “Charge it please!,” then gather my retinue and float regally out the door.
Unfortunately, the first time I tried this I hit a few snags.
In 1978, San Francisco’s fanciest French restaurant belonged to a chef who had cooked for the Kennedys. The valet stared at my beat-up Volvo and shook his head. He could not, he insisted, accept a car that used a screwdriver in place of a key. The maître d’hôtel was equally overjoyed by my arrival; he looked me up and down, took in my thrift-store clothing, and led me straight to the worst table, the one that shook each time a waiter came out the kitchen door. The sommelier appeared worried when I ordered the ’61 Lascombes. He had, he was sorry to inform me, sold the last bottle. He was certain that a nice little Beaujolais would make me very happy. And when the captain announced that the special of the evening was freshly made terrine de foie gras, he pointedly told me the price.
The biggest humiliation, however, was yet to come. “Your credit card, madam,” said the maître d’hôtel frostily, “has been rejected.” He stood over me looking more smug than sorrowful; clearly he had been expecting this all along.
“It couldn’t be!” I insisted. “I just got it yesterday.”
“It says, madam,” the maître d’hôtel went on, “that you are over your limit.” He leaned down and hissed menacingly. “Do you know what your limit is?”
Unfortunately, I did. After years of righteous poverty I was prepared to sacrifice my principles and leap back into middle-class life. The middle class, however, had its doubts about me. Although I was now a bona fide restaurant critic, the banks were not impressed. Where, they wanted to know, were my debts? How had I managed to live thirty years without owing anything to anyone? Were there no college loans, no car payments, no mortgages, no revolving lines of credit? How could I possibly be trusted with a credit card?
In desperation I had put on my very best dress and arranged for an appointment with the bank manager. After making me wait a suitable length of time, he graciously permitted me to show him the masthead of New West magazine. I was hoping that my association with New York magazine’s West Coast sibling would impress this man, that he would recognize it as Northern California’s most important regional publication. But the manager merely looked bored. As he unhurriedly put on his half-glasses, I wished that I had tamed my hair out of its usual wildness. I patted, vainly, at it and tried pulling the most excitable curls behind my ears. They popped willfully forward. He snorted.
He scanned the list of contributing editors. He noted my name. He grunted. “Meaningless,” he said at last. “What we are looking for is something to show that you will pay your bills. Can you show me a pay stub?”
“I’m freelance,” I stammered. “I don’t get a paycheck. They pay me by the article.”
He drew visibly back from me. He looked sorrowful. “Unreliable,” he sighed at last, staring at my ringless fingers. “It says here,” he said, peering skeptically at the papers in his hand, “that you are married? To a Mr. Douglas Hollis?” The tone of his voice implied that he wondered what someone who looked like me might be doing with someone who sounded like that.
“Yes,” I replied. “I am.”
“And what does Mr. Hollis do for a living?” he inquired. “His income does not seem to be represented here.” I considered giving him my feminist line, but one look at his sour face decided me against it.
“He’s an artist,” I said. “He does site sculpture. He actually hasn’t had much income in the past couple of years, but that’s about to change-”
“I understand,” he said firmly, and made a mark on the paper. Despite his name, Mr. Hollis was clearly no more trustworthy than myself.
After months of pleading, the bank was finally persuaded to part with a Visa card. If I proved conscientious and faithful in my payments, the manager suggested, I might, in due time, be permitted a bit more credit. We would have to see. In the meantime, he was prepared to go out on a $250 limb.
It was not enough. I was not surprised. I had known from the start that this job would be trouble. I had been writing short magazine articles for a couple of years, but nobody I knew took them seriously. They were considered, like my restaurant job, just a sideline to support my real work as a novelist. Fixing the money part turned out to be easy; I wrote the fancy French restaurant a check and asked my editor for an advance. The rest would be more complicated.
On the day I became a restaurant critic, my primary emotion was fear. As I drove home from the magazine, I practiced breaking the news to the people I loved best. I found the prospect so terrifying that I forgot to be frightened of the bridge and I reached the far side of the Bay before realizing that I had crossed the entire span without my usual panic. I turned off the freeway, and as my ancient car bumped through the Berkeley flatlands, past the small old cottages with their softly fading paint, I tried to find the perfect way to put it.
“I’ve just gotten the best job in the world!” As I heard myself say the words, I knew they wouldn’t do. They would be fine in San Francisco or New York, but this was the People’s Republic of Berkeley. This was the heart of the counterculture. Every single person I knew was going to disapprove.
I walked into the hallway of the peeling Victorian house I shared with my husband and five other people and waited for their reactions.
Nick, our household patriarch, was sitting in the shabby, crowded living room. He stroked the bushy beard that gave him the air of a prophet and said, “Let me get this straight.” He plunked himself into one of the tattered armchairs we had found at the flea market and began pushing the stuffing back into the arm. “You’re going to spend your life telling spoiled, rich people where to eat too much obscene food?”
“Something like that,” I murmured, too embarrassed to defend myself.
He shook his head in disappointment. A devotee of millet and Dr. Bronner’s balanced mineral bouillon, Nick had done his Berkeley best to turn our household into a model of politically correct consumption. We had, at various times, been ovolactovegetarians and vegans, and we were, at all times, vigilant about the excesses of agribusiness. For a long while we grew our own food, and we even, for a short while, depended upon dumpsters for our raw ingredients. Nick had valiantly tried to overlook my forays into the world of fancy food, but this was going too far. For the first time in the many years I had known him, he became speechless.
Jules, the most sympathetic member of our household, tried to be optimistic. He poured himself a glass of wine from the gallon jug on the table and said, “Free meals!” He turned to Nick and said, “Think how our food bills will go down.”
Nick shook his head. “Not mine,” he said. “You couldn’t pay me to set foot in one of those decadent, bourgeois institutions. Have you told Doug?”
“Not yet,” I admitted, going out to the garage, where my husband was working on the band saw. He had sawdust in his straight brown hair, and he smiled when he saw me, as if just the sight of me had improved his day. He turned off the saw, leaned against it, shook a Camel out of the pack that was always in his shirt pocket and lit it.
“The magazine’s asked me to be their restaurant critic,” I blurted out.
“Of course they have,” he said, putting his arms around me. Doug was my biggest fan and greatest supporter. I buried my head in his faded blue work shirt and inhaled his scent, a mixture of clean laundry, cut wood, and tobacco. “Why wouldn’t they? You’re a great cook and a great writer. But you don’t have to say yes.”
I stood back so I could see him. He has one of those hand- some, all-American faces that get better as they age, and in our ten years together his cheeks had slimmed down, become angular. His youthful rosiness had disappeared, leaving him looking chiseled, intelligent, and kind. Now he said earnestly, “Why don’t you stop working? I’m making enough money now. You could quit the restaurant, give up magazine work, and stay home and write.”
“That would be great,” I hedged. “But you don’t understand. I really want to do this.”
“Why?” he asked. “You’re wasting your talent.”
“I don’t have to do it forever,” I replied. “But I think it will be good experience.”
“You’ll be stuck here!” he said with such vehemence that I understood there was something more on his mind. “Look, I’m getting commissions all over the country, and I thought you’d bring your typewriter and come with me. We’d be together.”
“I was never very good at playing the great artist’s wife, remember?” I reminded him. “After the third art patron chucks me under the chin and says condescendingly, ‘And what do you do, dear?’ I always get mad. Even if I didn’t have this new job, I probably wouldn’t come with you that often.”
“So don’t come,” he said in his soft, reasonable voice. “Stay here if you want. But you should be writing your novel, doing something important.”
“But don’t you see,” I said, surprising myself with my own passion, “writing about restaurants doesn’t have to be different from writing a novel. It can be important. The point is just to do it really well. I have this idea that I could write reviews that were like short stories-mysteries, romances, even science fiction.”
Doug did not seem convinced; in those days we all considered art and commerce to be in opposition, and Doug thought I was willfully choosing the wrong one.
“Just think about it before you say yes,” said Doug, turning on the band saw. I left the shop, got into my car, and went to see what my colleagues at The Swallow, the collectively owned restaurant where I cooked, would think about this new development. The reaction there was almost violent. “You’re giving up good honest work to be a parasite” was how one of my fellow workers put it. “I’ll be embarrassed to have known you.” He turned his back on me and said, “In fact, I’m embarrassed now.”
I had counted on my parents, at least, for a little support. But when I called New York to break the news, expecting jubilation over the fact that I was about to make more than the minimum wage, they were unenthusiastic.
“A restaurant critic?” said my father, repeating the words as if I had said “undertaker” or “garbage collector.” I imagined him standing by the cluttered table in the hall of their Greenwich Village apartment, folding his tall frame down until he could see himself in the mirror hanging above it, patting the long strand of hair over the bald spot at the top of his head. His German accent became stronger when he was upset, and now, as he said, “You’re going to spend your time writing about food? When are you going to do something worthwhile with your life?” all the w’s turned into v’s.
“And what about children?” cried my mother. She was probably sitting on the bed, newspapers and books scattered around her as she ran chipped red fingernails through her short gray hair. “Now that Doug is finally making some money, you could move out of that ridiculous commune, settle down, and have a family.”
At any other time of my life I would have bowed to this pressure. To be honest, I was astonished that I did not. I had always been the ultimate good girl. I was thirty years old and I had spent my whole life pleasing other people. Although I lived in a commune, I was married to a man my parents loved, called my mother every day, and spent most of my time cooking the meals and cleaning the house. At The Swallow, I worked hard and never showed up late. I had never before faced universal disapproval.
But I had finally found my true calling, and I was not prepared to turn it down. “You were born to be a restaurant critic,” said the editor who gave me the job, and I felt that she was right. Food was my major passion; I had been feeding people since I was small. I had been a cook, a waitress, a kitchen manager; I had even written a cookbook. Now I understood that all along I had been training myself to be a restaurant critic.
But Liebling was wrong. Appetite is not enough. And knowledge is not sufficient. You can be a decent critic if you know about food, but to be a really good one you need to know about life. It took the next few years to teach me that.
Excerpted from Comfort Me with Apples by Ruth Reichl Copyright © 2001 by Ruth Reichl. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.