Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Confessions of a Food Writer

Here follows the introduction for GUT CHECK. And it includes one bombshell revelation about my former life (after the jump):

I’m a lucky guy. I get paid to write stories about eating food. It’s a pretty good scam. And if I could somehow figure out a way to get paid for, say, breathing air or getting dressed in the morning, I’d jump all over that, too.
            Come to think of it, I have gotten paid to write about breathing air and getting dressed in the morning, but that’s a whole ‘nother book. This one is about food. It’s also about love and loss and hopes and dreams and life in far-flung places. It’s about people I’ve known and people I admire and people who bug the bejesus out of me. It’s about food I like and food I don’t like (a very short list) and food that makes my skin crawl just to think about (and I mean that in a good way.)
           One of my other scams is that I teach a course at Rollins College in which the students get actual credits for writing about food. The first time I taught this class it was not specifically promoted in the curriculum lineup as a food-writing course. It just said “English 367: Creative Writing.” So the students had no idea what they were getting into. On the evening of the first class, after I told them they would spend the next 14 weeks writing stories about food, there was a very long silence. And then there was a whole lot of whining along the lines of “I know nothing about food,” and “You mean, like writing recipes?” and “How do I drop this class?” One young woman said: “I don’t even like food. How can you expect me to write about it?”
            Somehow I convinced them all to stick around. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that for the first class I hauled in my trusty portable butane stove, set it up on the conference table and cooked them a batch of the Best Conch Fritters in the Universe (of which you’ll read about in the pages that follow.) They came back thinking they would keep getting fed and, more often than not, I came through with a little something. I’m pretty sure I spent more on feeding the class that term than Rollins paid me for teaching.
            What I taught them was this: Food is just a starting point for writing about everything else. And sometimes writing about food allows us to back into topics that we might otherwise have trouble writing about.
            For instance, my father died a few years back and hardly a day goes by that I don’t think about him. I came across his old high school annual not long ago (Leesburg High School, Class of 1941) and under my father’s photo there was a list of his high school accomplishments, along with his likes and dislikes. Under favorite food it said: Fried eggplant. As it turns out, I don’t know if it’s genetic or what, fried eggplant is one my favorite foods, too. So I am pretty sure that sometime in the not-so distant future I will write a story about fried eggplant. For me, fried eggplant is comfort food. But that story will really be about missing my father. And I’ll take some comfort in writing it.
          A lot of really wonderful stories came out of that first food-writing course I taught at Rollins. There was a story about a quest for the best noodle joint in Manhattan and one about eating dog in the Philippines (despite the topic, it really was quite wonderful, trust me) and another about a meal at a Chinese restaurant that ultimately led to marriage. There were also a substantial number of stories along the lines of how “one night me and some buddies we smoked some really good weed and then we went to this Thai restaurant and before we knew it we had ordered like $200 worth of food and then we drank some beer and we had to take a cab, only we all got sick and…” Even those were good stories.
But the story I’ll remember most was the one turned in by the student who said she didn’t even like food. It was called “Crazy Soup.” The student’s brother had gone through a rough time and was confined to a psychiatric center. Once a week, on Thursdays, she would visit her brother and that was the day the center’s cafeteria served alphabet soup. She and her brother would sit at a table, over bowls of soup, trying hard to find words to say to each other. She wrote: “I stir the soup with my plastic spoon making a tornado swirl. The letters resurface as a jumbled alpha-mess. I’m Andy Warhol making art with soup. I’m also hoping that God will spell out a phrase in the bowl for me to pass onto him. Nothing. I’ve got nothing for him except lots of hope and faith that he can get better.”
Just another story about more, much more, than food.

THIS BOOK IS ALSO ABOUT DRINKING. I like to drink. I like to drink almost as much as I like eating food and breathing air. Which sometimes makes me feel like I don’t want to get dressed in the morning. I’ve written about that, too.
            On balance, there are far more stories about food in this book than there are about drinking. And of the food stories there are far more about seafood (conch, fish, oysters) than anything else. I can’t explain that except to say it must be a function of living in Florida and being near the water and how all that goes really well with drinking.
            Full disclosure: When it comes to being a food writer, I bring no real credentials to the table. I haven’t been to culinary school. I haven’t studied nutrition. I haven’t achieved expert status in any food-related field, except the consumption of it.
            I will admit to having served time as a restaurant critic. This was way back in the late 1970s when I was a columnist at the Fort Myers News-Press. An underpaid columnist, I might add, and one who had recently gotten married. I scammed my editor into believing that if the paper wanted to be taken seriously in journalistic circles what it really needed was a restaurant critic. I also offered to write the restaurant column without an increase in salary if the paper would pick up the tab for a couple-three meals each week. That way I could afford to take my lovely wife out to eat every now and then.
            To uphold journalistic integrity and remain anonymous, I wrote the column under a fake name: Jean LeBoeuf. I picked that name because those who read the column wouldn’t be able to tell if it had been written by a man or a woman. Plus, I liked the idea of a restaurant critic having a name that translated into English as “Jean the Beef.”
            I was Jean LeBoeuf for two years and I can tell you without equivocation that it was one of the worst experiences of my newspaper career, worse even than covering the meetings of the Cape Coral sewage assessment district or getting hugged by evangelist Pat Robertson while covering the Republican National Convention. I quickly discovered that being a restaurant critic took all the pleasure out of eating. I scanned menus with an eye on what I thought I should eat (the escargot, perhaps, or the veal Milanese?) rather than what I wanted to eat (usually the cheeseburger.)
There was also the matter of how to report accurately on all the menu offerings and prices. This was long before the Internet and restaurants posting menus online. I couldn’t possibly remember everything on the menus. And since I wanted to maintain anonymity, I couldn’t very well take notes at the table. So my wife and I—and mostly my wife, poor thing, because she had a purse—were reduced to stealing menus. It was pretty humbling, especially when we got caught at it, which was way too often and always by waiters who were already a little too full of themselves.
But the worst part of being a restaurant critic was learning how much people hated me. Well, not me, but Jean LeBoeuf, that snooty, Frenchified bastard. Ah, the venom that poured in to the paper about its (insert vile word here) restaurant critic. It wasn’t as if I had thin skin or anything. After all, I was writing another column under my real name and was well-accustomed to people disagreeing with me, often heatedly and to my face. But never with the downright hostility they reserved for Jean LeBoeuf. I could write a column under my real name calling for a luxury tax on fat babies and I might get called a few choice names, but write a column as Jean LeBoeuf saying the steak teriyaki at Smitty’s was a little on the bland side and I’d get some yahoo offering to remove my lungs through my nostrils.
            The restaurant column ran in Friday’s paper, meaning I had to turn it in on Thursday, meaning it got to the point that every Wednesday my wife and I would look at each other and groan: “Oh, no. We have to go out to eat tonight.” I’m telling you, it was no fun, no fun at all.
            Despite all that, I am proud to say that Jean LeBoeuf lives on. The last time I looked, the Fort Myers News-Press still had a restaurant critic and he/she was still writing under the pseudonym I gave birth to, let’s see, more than 30 years. It makes me feel almost as if I have a third child, in a really creepy kind of way.

MY ONLY OTHER SO-CALLED CREDENTIAL AS A FOOD WRITER: While I have worked in restaurants, it was only as a waiter and I was pretty bad at it. I was one of those waiters who would argue with you if you said you didn’t like a particular dish, especially if I thought you were being excessively finicky or were trying to get a meal comped or were a total asshole. Some of the people I served were all three of those things. And more. I was not the kind of waiter who believed the customer was always right. I was not the kind of waiter who would really give a shit if you stole a menu. But I was the kind of waiter that not even I would tip.
It has just occurred to me that, in putting this book together and serving it to you, I am once again thrust into a role that is somewhat like being a waiter. Only, in this instance, it is more like being a chef/waiter since I’m also the guy who has whipped up the words that you are munching on. But that’s a lousy metaphor, I apologize for it, and I’m not going to stretch it any more than it has already been stretched.
Get on with the book. Hope you enjoy it. Bon appetit …


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