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“Peppered with reflections on culinary history and tales of extraordinary journalistic adventures . . . a thought-provoking and delightful read.”
—Fuchsia Dunlop, author of Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking
“Mouthwatering. . . . [Sokolov] gives the food scene an often fascinating historical context.” —Daily Beast
“[A] ranging history of American food, and the sociopolitical events that shaped it. . . . [Sokolov is] a down-home guy at heart, happiest when correcting assumptions about everyday foods . . . and remembering treks through the heartland in search of the country’s best barbecue. . . . A pleasure.” —New York Observer
“As gastronomic guides go, you can’t do much better than former New York Times and Wall Street Journal restaurant critic Raymond Sokolov, whose jaunty prose in Steal the Menu gets you a tableside seat everywhere from Tennessee barbeque pits to French haute cuisine temples.”
“A knowledgeable look at the transformation of fine dining over the past half-century, viewed through the prism of the author’s personal history…foodies will find this book refreshingly different.”
“Reading Raymond Sokolov’s wonderful Steal the Menu is like having dinner with one’s wittiest, most erudite and charming friend, someone who knows everything worth knowing about food, its history and culture, about chefs and restaurants, about how our cuisine and our kitchens have changed over forty years—and about how to tell an authentic key lime pie from an imitation. Bon appétit!”
“Steal the Menu is a lively insider’s account of goings-on in the American food scene over the last forty years. And who better to tell this story than Raymond Sokolov, one of America’s best food writers? With his keen ear for language, Sokolov is by turns authoritative and funny, deeply informed and irreverent. This book offers up a feast for the senses as well as the mind!”
—Darra Goldstein, founding editor, Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture
“Ray Sokolov dines out delightfully on a life of dining out in the Western world’s most ambitious restaurants. His wit seasons his learning, which is considerable on a vast array of subjects, from classical French cuisine, to where to find the best hamburger in the Midwest, to barbecue in Texas. The result is a zesty stew, a chronicle of movements in cuisine across the decades and oceans. As an entertainment, Steal the Menu rates a full complement of stars.”
—Joseph Lelyveld, author of Great Soul
“I read Steal the Menu straight through with pleasure. The writing is stylish, sometimes provocative, always informative, with a balanced perspective on the tumultuous changes at the table we’ve all lived through.”
—Dr. Andrew Weil, coauthor of The Healthy Kitchen
“Raymond Sokolov is very good company on the page. Steal the Menu is proof of that. His writing is witty and engaging, but what sets this book apart is its appreciativeness: food is food for thought, something to be curious about, as well as a huge pleasure.”
—Naomi Duguid, author of Burma: Rivers of Flavor
“This is an indispensable book for anyone and everyone who takes cooking seriously.”
—Jason Epstein, author of Eating
“[Sokolov] is a good traveling companion. Reading his writing is like being driven in an old, comfortable roadster, top down, evening falling, balmy…with the promise—because Sokolov always does his homework—of something really good to eat just down the road.”
—The Christian Science Monitor
I'm surrounded by serious, professional, and, I don't think it is too much to say, influential food people. (Send me an SASE and I will divulge their names; they hold fast to their privacy, but I'll sell them out if you include a $5 bill.) They daunt me, they delight me by the way they quarry into food's elementals. It seems trite now — local, fresh, seasonal, humane, yes yes — all good. But delicious? Not necessarily; the promise is in the cook. These people show me the flavor. They know their foodstuffs, are respectful and aware of how to coax the best from that life, whether watercress or leg of lamb. And their single-mindedness in that pursuit makes many of them memorable characters, charmingly eccentric or as challenging to the social palate as fermented yak milk.
Raymond Sokolov is not an easy character. He is pontifical. He went to Harvard, and you will be reminded in Steal the Menu that he went to Harvard, about 539 times in 256 pages. Back in 1976, he published a book titled The Saucier's Apprentice. It, too, is pontifical, but The Saucier's Apprentice was and is a revolutionary tract for the home cook, one that will guide the enthusiastic but inept cook to something they can make, with a bit of attention, that tastes great — delicious — for everything tastes better when ladled with a luscious and lubricating sauce, bath, or dollop: africaine, poivrade, veloutés, béchamels, béarnaise, hollandaise, cheese sauce for the cauliflower, cheese sauce for the macaroni, and, god's gift, mayonnaise.
Steal the Menu is a fun memoir of self-regard — "If you graduate first in your class at high school and continue on to get a summa in classics from Harvard (picking up the undergraduate thesis prize and a junior year Phi Beta Kappa key along the way), you can be pardoned for thinking your brain is in good working order" — that can be a little stiff but never defensive, for Sokolov, he reminds you, is most always right. He provides an engaging look at how a classics student became an important voice in the volatile world of food in the 1970s and 1980s, because he has a hungry curiosity and he likes to eat. And luck. One great formative story concerns his doctor father curing a raffish member of the nightlife scene in Juárez of the clap — and then father and son, who for Dios alone knows what reason attended his father on this visit, are taken on a grand tour of the glories of primo Mexican restaurant food. Sokolov spins on, about eating his way through Europe in his college days, then stints at Newsweek, The New York Times (short- lived), Time, and Natural History, and his nice long sojourn at The Wall Street Journal, a classicist scholar turned chowhound with an expense account. He ate all over and everywhere; he thought about what he ate, and he wrote about it with clarity and bonhomie. He loves well-made classical French food, he was entranced by the introduction of Szechuan food to the West, he loved the simple provocations of nouvelle cuisine — "Nouvelle cuisine looks at Escoffier through the wrong end of the telescope. It puts quotation marks around Carême and sets the old code in italics so that the old words all mean something else" — he is a true philologist. Put a word from a menu in front of him that he doesn't recognize — momofuku, you lucky peach — and he wants to eat it.
Sokolov loves the bedrock of food, but he also wants to taste all the sedimentation that has come to rest atop, and he is a good traveling companion. Reading his writing is like being driven in an old, comfortable roadster, top down, evening falling, balmy, him in houndstooth and brogues, pontificating, but with the promise — because Sokolov always does his homework — of something really good to eat just down the road.
Peter Lewis is the director of the American Geographical Society in New York City. A selection of his work can be found at writesformoney.com.
Reviewer: Peter Lewis
Posted June 9, 2013