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Fork It OverThe Intrepid Adventures of a Professional Eater
By Alan Richman
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Alan Richman
All right reserved.
The Eating Life
I am a restaurant critic. I eat for a living.
Chefs complain about people like me. They argue that we are not qualified to do our jobs because we do not know how to cook. I tell them 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 best restaurants of the world, and they have not. I believe I know how to eat as well as any man alive.
I dine out constantly, but there is a great deal I do in restaurants that people who eat purely for pleasure would not consider part of a normal 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 in order to check out my surroundings. I drift around, and the meandering invariably ends when a well-meaning captain taps me on the shoulder and points me in the direction of the men's room, wrongly assuming that is where I wish to go. I rarely talk to the people dining with me, but I love to chat with waiters and busboys. They know the secrets lurking behind the swinging kitchen doors.
Friends who accompany me to meals are bored by the absence of conversation. They are unhappy with the dishes I choose for them -- they have their hearts set on a lovely salad of poached Maine lobster and become cranky when I tell them they must sample the seared calf's brain. The warm mandarin souffle they've been anticipating all evening is finally set before them, and I stick my spoon in it before they have a taste.
Yet everybody envies what I do. They think it's the gastronomic counterpart of test-driving Mercedes sports coupes or helping Las Vegas chorus girls dress. They believe it involves little more than eating unceasingly and being reimbursed for the privilege. There's some truth 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. I generally receive little sympathy when I make that point.
A critic has to understand when food is correct, which is to be admired, and when it is inspired, which we would call a miracle. The job is part analysis (Is this good?), part self-analysis (It's good, but am I the only person who likes it?), and part gluttony (Have I tried everything on the menu?).
I've never been a victim of culinary fatigue, because I can reverse direction and concentrate on the humble whenever I weary of the haute. A natural-casing hot dog off the grill can be as thrilling as Charlie Trotter's terrine of asparagus with goat cheese, beet juice, and hundred-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 was having lunch with my mother at the Chuckwagon, in our little Philadelphia suburb of Elkins Park. She told me I should have the pastrami instead of corned beef.
My streak was over. For years, my standard lunch had been hot corned beef on seeded rye with a cream soda. This was before animal fats were considered fattening. (The milkman usually dropped off "extra rich" milk at our house.) I so liked corned beef that I hadn't come up with a compelling reason to gamble on anything else. I considered myself 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 others would 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 and intensely alert. She was like a mother robin watching her young swallowing worms. 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 pigtailed skinny blonde I worshiped, aware that she accepted me as an occasional partner at Friday-night dances only because I came with a Pez 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 with a five-cent box of nonpareils or a six-cent cherry Coke. Although I would not embrace eating as a profession for decades (and never touched Olivia Biggs), I sensed that food offered delights that could not be equaled, not even by the attractions found in the pages of the Playboy magazines I accidentally flipped open while perusing comic books at the drugstore.
Despite its seminal gastronomic importance in my life, I was never that enchanted by the Chuckwagon, only by the pastrami. My first meaningful restaurant experience occurred a few months later, on a family 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 national chain. There I learned that dining out represented an entirely different experience from dinner at home. My mother's consistently excellent recipes offered whatever a guest at her table might desire, except for the unexpected. She could cook, but she could not surprise.
I had eaten full-course dinners in restaurants before, but my parents tended to take my sister and me to places that mimicked my mother's cooking, whereas Tad's offered mysterious forms of nourishment -- fatty steaks reeking with charred goodness, baked potatoes as big as footballs, an unhealthy breadstuff of indescribable appeal ...
Excerpted from Fork It Over by Alan Richman Copyright © 2005 by Alan Richman. Excerpted by permission.
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