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 his new memoir, 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.