The Meal that Ended My Career as a Restaurant Critic

Grimod de La Reyniere

Grimod de La Reynière, the father of food criticism

It’s easy to imagine that being a restaurant critic would be one of the best jobs on Earth — particularly when millions of people are eager to churn out lengthy reviews for free on sites like Yelp and Chowhound.

As someone who was the food critic for a glossy magazine in San Francisco in the 1980s and quit, however, I can tell you that being a roving palate-for-hire is a mixed blessing. While dining out is one of life’s most enduring pleasures (and is certainly a rare privilege on a planet where one in six people are starving), having to eat in restaurants several nights a week, while manufacturing an opinion about every bite, can get to be a drag.

Of course, at first, being a critic in one of the great restaurant cities on Earth felt like getting paid to have sex with someone you love.

The Quest for the Platonic Cheesecake

It would not be an overstatement to say that I have a complicated relationship with food. Some of my fondest memories of growing up in New York are of crossing the street from my elementary school (P.S. 26 in Queens) to a store called Sweets ‘N’ Treats. There, mesmerized before a rack of Sugar Daddies, BB Bats, Atomic Fireballs, and Bonomo Turkish Taffy, I would ponder the virtues of a Mounds (twin ovals of waxy chocolate stuffed with coconut goo) versus those of an Almond Joy — which was the same thing, but topped with whole almonds. I’d often buy both to see which I liked better that day, and generations of future gym coaches wept.

In fifth grade, I became obsessed with the idea of finding the best cheesecake in the world, or at least the New York metropolitan area. Because cheesecake is a staple in Greek diners — displayed in acrylic “hat boxes” with crowns of Chernobyl-scale strawberries in ruby fluorescent glaze, or positioned under angled mirrors in coolers facing the door — my potential data set was enormous.

At the less dense end of the spectrum were fluffy, nearly dry Italian versions that sublimated on the tongue to yield the milky tang of ricotta and a refreshing note of lemon peel. At the heavy end were moist, cream-cheese-laden gut bombs with enough mass to tip the table, armored in forkproof graham-cracker crusts.

Strawberry cheesecake

My teenage search for the Platonic ideal between these extremes foreshadowed more than my foray as a food writer. On my hard drive, I currently have 74 different versions of a haunting melody called “Nardis,” composed but never recorded by Miles Davis, and made famous by pianist Bill Evans and his trios. Micromanaging nerdy quests for perfection became a life-long vocation for me.

In a dialogue called Gorgias, Plato quotes Socrates on the subject of self-control. The philosopher contrasts two men, one temperate and one intemperate. The temperate man, Socrates explains, is like one who carries around secure vessels for storing milk, wine, and honey; these pleasurable things may be hard to find, but once the temperate man fills his vessels, they tend to stay that way. The vessels of the intemperate man, on the other hand, are cracked and constantly leaking. For the intemperate man, Socrates says, pausing in the unceasing labor to keep the vessels full, even for a minute, causes “an agony of pain.”

The winner of my search for the perfect cheesecake was a commercial brand called Baby Watson, which was both light and creamy, and most importantly, widely available in delis and franchises all over the area. I’m a leaky-vessel kind of guy. By the time I was in high school, I was already a Weight Watchers veteran.

Lessons in Simplicity

Luckily, my career as a reviewer for the magazine followed several relatively svelte years as a vegetarian cook in the hippie boot camp of Oberlin College, where refined flour and sugar were treated as industrial toxins. Once I became a professional critic, however, I reverted to my old omnivorous ways.

When in Rome, I would eat like a Caesar. I wouldn’t just fuss and dither about ambiance and décor, as some critics do. I would focus on what was on the plate: the food, its relationship to local culture and regional concerns, and the long-simmering traditions behind every bite.

I had indispensable help in this effort from a true culinary scholar who was also a chef at one of the city’s best restaurants. When he wasn’t sweating over a stove, my former partner John (who has earned a huge following as @SFoodie on Twitter) was thinking about the nexus of botany, anthropology, and place that blogger Nicola Twilley calls “edible geography.”

And John walked the talk. He cultivated plump peas and sweet lettuces in our foggy Haight-Ashbury backyard, and bought a stone mill to grind grain for baking (freshly-milled wheat produces loaves with a ripe, grassy quality that makes bread made of store-bought flour seem chalky and lifeless by comparison). To create an avian version of prosciutto, we suspended a duck carcass from Chinatown on a chain from the ceiling — where it proceeded to dribble a dank, sour-smelling fluid on the floor for weeks.

For fun, we read cookbooks — preferably out-of-print obscurities compiled by home cooks in previous centuries. If we lifted a forkful of pie to our lips, invisible Shaker housewives stepped forward to offer their opinions on the crust.

If this all sounds impossibly twee in an age when penitent KFC addicts seek absolution from the Church of the Food Network, remember that I’m describing a naive time before Emeril kicked it up a notch, before Iron Chef took the first victory lap in Kitchen Stadium, before Martha and Mario were transnational first-name-branding strategies, before Chowhound and Eataly — when Jaime Oliver was still a cherub in short pants dicing onions at his parents’ pub in Essex, and Starbucks was a Pike Place Market storefront in Seattle selling beans for home brewing.

It wasn’t yet hip to be a foodie. The word foodie — which I hate — didn’t exist.

But foodies we were. We emulated the passionate, erudite, tart-tongued scribes whose books we loved to cook from, like Elizabeth David (An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, French Provincial Cooking, English Bread and Yeast Cookery) and Richard Olney (Simple French Food). We learned from critics like Patricia Unterman of the San Francisco Chronicle, R.W. Apple of the Times, and Seymour Britchky, who launched a newsletter in New York City in the ’70s, claiming as his only qualification the fact that he ate three meals a day.

Like John, I also worked in restaurants, both in the kitchen and the “front of the house.” In fact, I once waited on Elizabeth David herself, coming in on my day off to dote on the woman who single-handedly revived British cooking with an infusion of seasonal ingredients and sunny Mediterranean flavors after years of war rationing and the onslaught of convenience foods. (To obtain real olive oil, she dispatched her readers to pharmacies, where it was available as a treatment for ear infections.)

Cook-author Elizabeth David

Elizabeth David, who saved British cooking

The restaurant’s chef-owner, Anne — another David devotee — had been in a frenzy all week trying to come up with dishes worthy of the author whose recipes (never presented as mere lists, always in authoritative prose) launched the careers of James Beard, Alice Waters, Deborah Madison, and a dozen other world-class chefs. David never hesitated to be scathing about overwrought fads touted by other writers (Nathan Myrhvold’s $600-plus Modernist Cuisine, for any home cook willing to invest in a Large Hadron Collider, comes to mind).

“The habit of flambéing everything from prawns to figs has become so prevalent,” she declared in Summer Food, “that one can now scarcely dine out in London without being hemmed in by sheets of flame.”

In the middle of lunch, David’s companion, the legendary wine writer Gerald Asher, waved and indicated that the lady had something to tell me. Whatever it was, I knew chef Anne was likely to be peeking anxiously through a slit in the kitchen doors, preparing to have a heart attack.

“This butter,” said the venerable author, “is marvelous. Where do you get it?”

A Fowl Impostor

My reviewing began with that kind of respect for the integrity of basic ingredients and the desire to be of service to my readers. Unlike some critics who warn the maître d’ of their arrival to ensure service attentive enough to make Kim Jong Il blush, I remained anonymous so I would know what I was getting my readers into — an ethic harder to maintain in an age when every busboy with an iPhone and Facebook feed thinks he’s Ron Galella.

Instead of touting only potential hipster magnets, I was happy to promote underappreciated family-owned joints that deserved more business. We raved about Chinese clay pots filled with anise-scented duck, whole cloves of garlic, and slices of taro root in the Inner Richmond; scarfed down Hangtown Fry — a heady cholesterolic extravaganza of eggs, fried oysters, and bacon — at the oldest restaurant in town, the Tadich Grill, where the quaint dish has been on the menu for 160 years; and prowled the Mission for paletas — popsicles perfumed with ripe cantaloupe, tart lime, and refreshing tamarind — on Indian Summer afternoons.

We made pilgrimages to Chez Panisse, that rustic Berkeley temple of organic, sustainable, locally-grown cuisine that has changed the way that the First World eats. But we were equally enthusiastic about a Salvadoran hangout called El Tazumal, where for less than $10, you could order a snowy-fresh whole Pacific rock cod, fried crisp and smothered in onions, chiles, and cilantro, and wash it down with frosty Mexican beer. In the pre-crowdsourcing era, the livelihoods of people like the cheerful, dapper owner of El Tazumal, who waited on the tables himself, could depend upon a single review in a major magazine.

Occasionally, we found ourselves in a fraudulent establishment that compelled us to lower the boom. The most flagrant offender I recall was a place in North Beach called RAF (that’s Royal Air Force to you, yank) that had been mobbed since day one. The dining room seemed to have been designed by an overambitious Macy’s window-dresser trying to evoke a Medici palazzo on the cheap, with trompe l’oeil statuary, urns, and porticos stenciled on the walls. In this riot of faux opulence, I ordered a dish I’d never seen on a menu before — African pheasant.

One taste of this allegedly exotic delicacy brought back memories, but not those of tucking into roasted game after a particularly grueling safari; instead, they were recollections of dining with plastic cutlery at 30,000 feet. Whatever circumnavigations the poor bird had taken before arriving on the end of my fork, it tasted like Cornish game hen from a supermarket freezer, slathered in a too-sweet sauce. (Not that the junk-bond traders and their mistresses chattering away against the backdrop of phantom porticos and discus-hurlers seemed to care.)

The next day I phoned the restaurant, telling the guy who answered that I had been bowled over by RAF’s legendary African pheasant, and simply had to know where a rare bird like that can be gotten retail. He volunteered that the fowl-in-question was not African pheasant at all, but frozen Cornish game hen.

“But when we call it game hen on the menu,” he added brightly, “no one orders it.” RAF and its trompe l’oeil cuisine went out of business a few months after the review came out.

Exit, Pursued by a Mob of Angry Chefs

Though Paris often gets credit for inventing the concept of restaurants, the practice of dining out was probably born in Kaifeng, the capital city of old China, where thousands of bustling public houses proffering regional specialties sprang up in the 11th Century. By 1275, proto-foodies were already terrorizing waiters: “The people of Hangchow are very difficult to please,” scholar Nicholas Kiefer quotes from a historical account. “Hundreds of orders are given on all sides: this person wants something hot, another something cold, a third something tepid, a fourth something chilled; one wants cooked food, another raw, another chooses roast, another grill…”

But it was in 18th century Paris that an entrepreneur named Grimod de La Reynière, the son of an aristocrat, built an empire out of telling choosy Parisians where to chow down.

Born with birth defects in both hands, de La Reynière was raised by his cruel, status-conscious mother in darkened apartments so that his fingers wouldn’t be seen by outsiders. This experience left him eager to display his wit and intelligence, and starved for sensual pleasures. Lawyer by day, he became the discerning epicure’s best friend at night, sampling the menus of the city’s restaurants with custom metal prostheses he concealed in leather gloves.

It was de La Reynière who advocated the notion that dining out well is an art, and declared himself its first critic. In 1803, he published his landmark L’Almanach des gourmands, which chronicled the birth of the bistro and rise of haute cuisine from the ashes of the Ancien régime. The innovative book featured street maps of recommended destination for foodies, with chapter titles like “On the Consequences of Dishonesty in Pastry.”

L’almanach caused a sensation, selling out all seven editions. To generate updates for subscribers, de La Reynière convened a jury of master tasters who struck fear into the hearts of chefs all over the city. Then, however, rumors circulated that the jury’s opinion could be swayed with un pot de vin (“a pot of wine,” the generic French term for bribery), and an angry mob of chefs and restaurateurs chased de La Reynière out of town. His typically grandiose response was to send out invitations to his own wake, inviting mourners to a banquet amid coffins and skulls, as a band played funeral marches. But de La Reynière’s 15 minutes de gloire were over, and few people showed up.

Even if you’re never forced to exit stage left by toque-wearing hordes, one of the downsides of inheriting the vocation that de La Reynière invented is that it makes your friends hesitate before inviting you over for dinner. ”Well,” they sigh with a mixture of apology and exasperation, “it’s not like the food you’re used to.”

Little do they know that after the second goat-cheese crème brulée, the third ahi-shiso tuna tower with wasabi foam, the fourth porcini-dusted scallop with padron-pepper beurre blanc, and the fifth “deconstructed” s’more, a baked potato with a little butter and salt can seem like one of humanity’s most ingenious inventions.

You eventually realize that the only secret ingredient that matters is paying attention to what you’re eating — and a dash of gratitude.

Blood at Noon

Even 25 years later, I can still recall every detail of the lunch that ended my career as a restaurant critic.

Arriving by elevator rarely bodes well for a meal. The only time that reservations were available at this particular altitude in one of San Francisco’s swankiest hotel towers was 11:30 am. That seemed a little early to be plowing through several courses in a room “influenced by the journey of Marco Polo to the court of Kublai Khan,” as the menu described it. But the word-of-mouth network was already abuzz about the place.

The first dish out of the kitchen was an amuse-bouche of puff pastry, adrift like a little raft on a greenish-yellow sea. So much excess butter had been worked into the pastry (O Monsieur de La Reynière, we need you at this hour!), the butterfat was weeping out in amber tears, mingling with whatever was leaking from the raft to congeal in an oleaginous pool that was spreading ominously across the plate.

The source of the greenish leak turned out to be an abundance of pesto sealed inadequately in its pastry pouch. One bite revealed that this verdant filling — which stung our tongues with oxidized garlic — concealed yet another surprise: escargots.

Escargot anatomy

Consider the snail

Now, I have nothing against snails, or even against eating them. (My neighbor, Barry Roth, happens to be one of the world’s leading authorities on them.) But I must say, if the intention of a chef in sending out a complimentary appetizer is to whet the appetite, an oily croissant crammed with snails swimming in pesto fails miserably. It didn’t help that the gastropods had the texture of something you’d desperately try to hock out when getting over the flu.

Then my first course arrived: a plate of lobster fettuccine in garlic cream sauce. Freshly-made noodles are one of the humble triumphs of civilization. (I’m thinking of goose-liver ravioli in reduced balsamic vinegar at Babbo in New York, and bowls of homemade ramen in ivory miso broth with shochu-braised pork at Suzeran in Tokyo.) But these noodles were anything but toothsome and delicate. They had been rolled and cut unevenly, so some strands were slimy and overcooked, while others were raw, with pockets of uncooked flour. Meanwhile, the cream had been over-reduced to a gummy white paste, which made the noodles clump up, like petrified fat clogging some crucial capillary network in the heart.

As for the poor lobster — it was a long, long way from its home in the chilly Atlantic. The creature had been boiled so mercilessly that the pale chunks of its flesh resembled disemboweled mattress stuffing: straw-like, fibrous, and impossible to cut even with a knife.

This was going to be a very long lunch. I had to take a breather in the men’s room to gather my strength.

I returned just as the chirpy waiter brought the coup de grâce, which looked like evidence from a crime scene: a dish of angry red flesh with a knob of pale bone jutting out of it. This, apparently, was my “grilled veal chop with wild forest mushrooms.”

I had ordered the chop medium-rare, but it arrived bleu, as the French say; ultra-rare, chilly in the center (calf sashimi, if you will), with crimson blood pooling on top, drowning the chanterelles, porcini, Hen O’ The Woods or whatever they were in the taste of pennies. This was like veal à la Dexter.

Having only recently re-embraced meat-eating, it was as if all the gluttonous karma of the West took its revenge on a lapsed vegetarian in a single meal. I feared that if I tried to choke down all that raw meat, I’d end up strangling — spewing bloody chunks of calf, clots of cream, and skeins of raw fettuccine across the starched tablecloth as a horrified busboy tried to administer the Heimlich maneuver.

Enough! Check, please.

Not long after that, the poet Allen Ginsberg, whom I had studied with years earlier, asked me to become his teaching assistant at Naropa University in Colorado. It was just a summer gig, but it gave me a way to extricate myself from the trap formerly known as the best job on Earth. I gave notice at the magazine and haven’t written about food for publication since the ’80s, with the exception of this post.

Arriving at Ginsberg’s apartment in Boulder, the first thing I noticed was that the author of “Howl” didn’t own a proper kitchen knife. I ran out and bought him one, and soon found myself in charge of preparing macrobiotically-correct dishes that the poet was trying to talk himself into liking after a lifetime of borscht, pastrami, and spaghetti alla vongole. Breakfast, for example, was often a bowl of oatmeal with soy sauce and kelp flakes.

All things considered, it was a relief.

[Update: The description of my last meal as a critic originally contained the phrase "copper-laden hemoglobin," but helpful commenters at Boing Boing pointed out that the element in question is actually iron -- d'oh! Thanks for the correction.]

[Note: This post was solicited by Nicola Twilley, food editor of GOOD magazine and creator of Edible Geography, as part of a week-long online event called Food for Thinkers to celebrate the launch of the newly relaunched GOOD Food Hub. Please visit the Hub to read the other posts in this wonderful series, and follow the hashtag #foodforthinkers on Twitter. Thanks, Nicky!]

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111 Responses to The Meal that Ended My Career as a Restaurant Critic

  1. Pingback: As the time bell rings… | Take As Directed

  2. S Lloyd says:

    Great read. Reminds me of why , although I was not interested to write about restaurant meals in the first place, I still went ahead and occasionally scribbled some dispatches on the matter.
    My article related to the subject:
    -”At first I did not want to write about food’ can be found at http://tinyurl.com/2g2fo6e

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  6. Pingback: Another delightful read – if you like food « ideadigest

  7. Pingback: The Meal that Ended My Career as a Restaurant Critic | NeuroTribes | Food Critics

  8. Jeez Steve, you have over a hundred responses, less than half from you…

    Is this truly the dawning of the cage of St. Various?

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  9. Ross M. Kaplan says:

    I was moved to tears from laughing so hard about your last meal before you decided to throw in the towel. I have eaten at many grand places in my career (45 years and still going strong) and can empathize with your eloquently worded thoughts on what other Chefs consider Haute Cuisine. The fact of the matter is that through out my years I have come to find that food is so subjective that what I consider vile swill can be enjoyed by the masses as being delicious and wonderful. At present I work as a private Chef for a cantankerous old anal retentive trout couple who, like yourself have eaten at restaurants all over the globe. Getting a compliment from them is as close to heaven as I’ll ever get, and being consistently critiqued can be a drag, but I march on. I enjoyed reading your article and wish you well.

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  10. I, too, frequented the candy store, only across the street from Penn Avenue Elementary School, in Minneapolis. The old couple made their candy in the back of the store. No brand name anything, except Duncan Yo-Yos (the wooden toys, not a pastry). My mom used to make beef liver and onions and then make gravy in the cast iron skillet, starting it with butter and flour. My pa and I would have pumpernickel bread and liver gravy, after supper! I was always a skinny kid, but, that had nothing to do with my mom’s cooking. Pa stayed slim. I chunked up around forty. I ruined thousands of meals before I ever enjoyed my own cooking, and hundreds more before anyone else did. Food can be a joy. Writers try, you know? But, words only rarely seem to have much flavor. You do very well. I once made calves liver, using Julia’s boef bourguinon recipe in her paperback cookbook. It was really pretty good, but, nothing like my mom’s. Smart people eat at good restaurants. Their idiot rich kids eat at expensive restaurants. Food critics will try and eat anything. You survived. Feel lucky. We are. Thanks for a pleasant read. I have to go cook, now!

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  11. Mikee says:

    It’s a shame you’re no longer a writing foodie, cause I’d love to hear what you have to say about the current offerings in the world. Thanks for the great read!

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  12. Chef Pierre says:

    For heavens’s sake come back and save us from Michael Bauer!

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  13. Xenith says:

    Ah — the Oberlin food memories: casseroles made with brewer’s yeast; electric and acoustic stuffing at Thanksgiving; competitive election of granola makers.

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    • Steve Silberman says:

      Indeed! Your memories sound frightfully close to mine. Do we know one another?

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  14. Hannah Lowe says:

    A shaker housewife? Don’t think so. They were didn’t marry. But I enjoyed the article.

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  15. Mike Kimball says:

    Great Post! It reminds me of many o’ dining experience I’ve been *ahem* fortunate to have, shining example of which was a desert that would have changed the conundrum you faced as a nine year old:

    Snickers Salad, as presented by Al’s Oasis in Oacoma SD
    http://www.cooks.com/rec/view/0,1943,146166-224201,00.html
    …except that someone went to extraordinary measure to accidentally disguise it as that which it patently wasn’t!
    Scene, late-night, closing of a Steak-house salad bar on a road trip. My g/f placed a healthy spoonful of what looked like a standard-and-rather-pedestrian salad-bar Potato Salad into her mouth… and then I cannot even begin to describe the confused look on her face. Suffice to say that she asked me to be the postmortem deconstructionist of this “salad”.
    The Salad: It had the yellowish tinge of an egged salad, what appeared to be the white-meaty red-skinned chunks of potato and an auxiliary pastiche of what looked like a combination of stuffs usually found in a Waldorf.
    I can’t describe the flavor at all – because it seems that constrained laughing (you know, the don’t laugh at your s/o if you want pleasant company on a long drive kind of laughing) destroys any hope your taste buds have at unraveling mystery. what I can tell of it is that the waiter said “folks ’round here just love It” – I’m wondering if he’s still confused by the resultant peals of laughter.

    Anyhow – if you’d had that when you were nine you’d probably not be here writing a wonderful tale that as else’ has said, tells of a final meal that is that such as we, the average gastronomes, are subjected to every time we choose to eat out.

    Thanks!
    ~mike~

    (I had meant to post that as how that as a child of moderate foodies we have been mortified to find that the best food in Sacramento is at chafing-dish Buffets, but that is another tale)

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  16. Lizzie B. says:

    I loved this article. Your metaphors and great sense of humor shine through in every sentence. I was laughing out loud at your description of that last, fateful lunch, too, as I think many of us who truly love food with integrity have had similar experiences where pretentious, ego-oriented chefs go over the top (and in a bad way). Like you, my husband and I avidly seek out small, mom ‘n pop places where locally-sourced ingredients are put together to provide honest and delicious meals.

    To those who posted snarky comments about spelling – please, it’s one little word, and so easily misspelled (I often have to look it up, too, along with several others that are easy to misspell). To the person who challenged your observation that being a food critic ” is certainly a rare privilege ” when so many on this planet are starving, read the lines again, a little more closely. It was an elegant way to provide a rueful observation about a situation no one person can fix, and to remind readers that each of us should be truly grateful for each and every meal we enjoy.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences – I really enjoyed it.

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  17. John says:

    That Baby Watson Cheeseake of your youth: was it similiar to that of the same name today from D’Aiuto’s Pastry Corporation across from Penn Station ? Amazing stuff. Also makes good spackle in a pinch.

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  18. Frank shifreen says:

    Great story. I can identify with you as a kid from Queens who besides everything else, was enamored with the Beats, an older generation who , while we were young, were accessible in ways other cultural legends were not. Those were the days of Macrobiotics. Oshowa, Other food obsessions that ran counter to those who loved food for itself. In regard to that last meal, could you not have turned them in and re-ordered, or is that a no-no for food critics?

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    • Steve Silberman says:

      Could have, sure, but the way the dishes came out of the kitchen reflected the experience of a diner/reader who might not send dishes back; plus, having to do so destroys the timing of a meal unless you’re eating alone (and with a book or Kindle).

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  19. Chico says:

    What, exactly, do you do for the 1-in-6 people that are starving other than throwing in lines about it?

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    • Steve Silberman says:

      Good question! Because I’m a writer, I “throw in lines about it.” Though world hunger is not a subject I’ve covered yet, I also throw in lines about autism in high-tech communities, antibiotic resistance among soldiers returning from Iraq, marriage equality, and other subjects you might find of more social-justice value than restaurant reviews and this post. My articles are easily findable on Google. And Chico, what do you do for the one billion starving folks on Earth other than leave comments on websites?

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  20. Stephen says:

    Thanks for a great article. I can appreciate your position as ‘foodie’ long before it took off, became cool, and then was buried by reality shows and hype. I have a life-long love of food and cooking, but tempered by reality. Whenever someone suggests I should become a chef or food critic, I point out I love food because I enjoy it, and to do either would threaten to reduce it to a job – and I get too much R&R out of it to allow that to happen.

    I have only cooked for a food critic once, and that by accident. It was in SF (early to mid- 80s, perhaps?), and luckily I didn’t even know the little group coalescing for dinner included one until after the meal. I survived. ;-) Their major comment to me? “Was that Lands O’ Lake butter?”

    And my wife and I go out of our way to find, enjoy, and spread the word about small, mom-and-pop restaurants that are, in their own rights, as good if not better than the current ‘Top Ten Rising Stars’ locally. The former are concerned about delivering good food and good service to their customers; the latter are, IMHO, far too often more concerned with what is trendy and flashy whether it’s edible or hospitable. Luckily, we live in a city blessed with many such establishments (although you’d never know it from the cloud of chains that must be waded through to find the gems).

    Thanks again for the post.

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  21. Tommy Thunderball says:

    Silberman’s descriptive “last supper” is the meal from hell we average dining Joe’s have all experienced from time to time. Thanks Mr. Silberman for exposing the pompous snake oil chefs who peddle high priced crappy food.

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  22. Jean-Pierre Cauvin says:

    You are a true disciple of Grimod de la Reynière, a very entertaining gastronome who deserves recognition as a writer in his own right and whose ruminations continue to delight.

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  23. Jana Chicoine says:

    Enjoyed the piece. So right about the baked potatoe & friends.

    Reading about SF reminds me of the day when, working & chatting in a frame shop in the Panhandle, my boss had to break it to me that ‘Al Dente’ was a pseudonym. I guess I was pretty young…

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  24. David Poppe says:

    Steve

    AMAZING writing!! I would enjoy meeting and talking with you…but I am sure yor dance card is full and I would have quite a wait. You would make a wonderful addition to the crew of TopDog’s SpaceShip Fashion Forward Freedom Fighters on NBC Jimmy Fallon Board wher my nom de plume is Harlequin DeBois.
    http://boards.nbc.com/nbc/index.php?showtopic=810499&pid=4542318&st=240&#entry4542318

    Ars longa, vita brevis
    David Poppe

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  25. Mary Beth says:

    Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t! Wonderful story- enjoyed it very much!

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  27. angie h says:

    I am not a foodie or a chef, but this was an excellent piece. I prefer the obscure little places rather than the “now” places and your article reminds me of all those that I’ve been to that put their heart into the food rather than just ingredients.

    Thank you!

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  28. Eric Bierker says:

    Thanks for the interesting and truly amusingly informative piece.

    My wife was the food critic for the local newspaper here in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for a spell. It was a cool gig but did have some downsides similar to yours, albeit on a much smaller and less sophisticated scale. Now she just blogs as the “Traveling Food Critic.” When my name is clicked above, her blog comes up. I blog about theology and everyday life, not the topic of this thread of course.

    Since she travels internationally for her work–the very company the makes those Mounds and Almond Joys that you write of–she blogs randomly but well.

    When she had her official gig as a food critic at-large, I often accompanied her. It was always fun to give kudos to a good place in need of some attention and P.R. It was also fun to skewer those places that were terribly over-rated. Both tasks–like you pointed out–tend to be very useful duties for a food critic.

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  29. SoCalBeachDude says:

    Steve,

    This is one of the best written and funniest pieces I have read in a very long time and wonderfully informative. Kudos!

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  30. C says:

    you are quite poetic…people should not be so critical of your spelling and your prose…James Joyce is nearly indecipherable at times and everyone just calls him a genius and puts the explanations in foot notes.

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  31. Alex Grossberg says:

    I loved your piece. I was never a “foodie” but your writing, for inexplicable reason, triggered memories of Mom fixing meals for me 50+ years ago in a small Ukrainian shtetl. I recall her making varenniki either with blueberries or cherries depending on what she was able to obtain in her daily shlep to a farmers’ market. How about those onion pletzels…a halodetz made from chicken or turkey “whatevers?”…a large bowls of hot borsht alternated with cold schav. Yum, yum, yum. Thanks, Steve!

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  32. Like “John,” I am not a food aficionado (at least in the sense that he seems to mean the term — I do like food, and even spend some time thinking about it, but not in precisely the same way you seem to).

    I am, however, an aficionado of good story. Thank you for telling one.

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  33. Tom says:

    Can anyone interpret the last sentence of the following quotation:

    “I would ponder the virtues of a Mounds (twin ovals of waxy chocolate stuffed with coconut goo) versus those of an Almond Joy — which was the same thing, but topped with whole almonds. I’d often buy both to see which I liked better that day, and generations of future gym coaches wept.”

    I just don’t understand. What does it mean, future gym coaches? I can’t figure it out for the life of me. Too much candy?

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    • Steve Silberman says:

      Yes, I was making a joke about being fat. It didn’t seem that obscure to me.

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      • Tom says:

        Right, sorry. But I don’t know if the gym coaches are still fulfilling their old roles as fat police

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  34. harvey twig says:

    You were just a little off with hemoglobin. Hemocyanin is the copper blood oxygenating component of your snail.

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    • Steve Silberman says:

      Right, but I was talking about veal. But it doesn’t matter, that phrase has been removed.

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      • Ben Lujin says:

        There becomes a point where a point can be argued into meaninglessness.
        Am I right?

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  35. risa b says:

    >copper-laden hemoglobin

    Did anyone mention, though, that this is correct for a Vulcan?

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  36. Ben Lujin says:

    What a journey! What an adventure! What kind of nut am I to have read this?

    The french was lost on me. As I am but only a simple American boy that could never have dreamt of aspiring to an Oberlin College educational privilege. But so were all those peoples’ names that you tossed out there. And yet I kept reading, glossing over those points, prose, or whatever you wanna call it.

    I must be a novice, at best.

    The idea of a restaurant at the top of a large building brings visions of a captive audience to mind. Like the evil chef can now subject you to whatever tortures he wills because you cannot escape fast enough. The elevator is still 33 floors away and stopping at every level because some inattentive parent has loosed their miscreant and reprobate fruit of their loins, to press EVERY button! And you paid how much for this??

    Nonetheless, I can see why you had a career as a food critic.

    Because not only is it your duty to sample and advise on the fare.

    But the best at what they do usually got there by their ability to also captivate and often entertain those whom would peruse such wordplay.

    As the tongue doth taste. So doth it lasso the ingredients of words, to entice the minds palate.

    I must say, that the only appropriate dessert to go with your career-ending meal. Would have been to ask for a “doggie-bag” for your untouched dish. But then, that sort of thing would be uproariously funny to me.

    All-in-all, yours was a very entertaining read and I’m glad to have pulled up a chair to your table.

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  37. Nick says:

    I read it, and enjoyed it. I also really enjoyed the comments since they turned into a ‘does blood taste more like iron or copper discussion’ (iron ftw) and it’s a pleasant surprise when google suggests an article that doesn’t end with 1400 comments of comparing the other side to nazis.

    That said, I clicked on the story because of the title, and it felt a little anti climatic for me. What happened after the meal, and in between your job offer? I don’t mean to be daft, but in the US there are about 10 different ways you could have handled the aftermath of that meal, because we have a lot of crazies. Did you tell them how terrible the meal was? Did you write a scathing review like with the RAF? Take a bribe? Did the place last?

    Basically, I am not that interested in ‘food critique’ as a general topic, but really enjoyed your writing as a protagonist, and am wanting to hear that you got the last laugh!

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  38. Kathy says:

    A wonderfully written, totally enjoyable post. You’ve got a new fan!

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  39. imominous says:

    “To create an avian version of prosciutto, we suspended a duck carcass from Chinatown on a chain from the ceiling — where it proceeded to dribble a dank, sour-smelling fluid on the floor for weeks.”

    I was hoping to hear how long it takes to turn a hanging duck into prosciutto…thing’s kinda stinkin up the carpet here!

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  40. Jennifer Poodle says:

    I was laughing so hard my husband thought I’d hurt myself. I’m glad I found your post. I also had a near death pesto pastry experience, but alas, it would have been death at my own hand. An experiment gone awry, blessedly I tasted it before the meal, and had time to bury it in the backyard before my guests arrived. The grass still has not grown back in that spot. Yours was a delightful read, I appreciate your cheerful banter in a cranky world. I was raised in SF, and you brought back so many memories. Many all your baked potatoes be stuffed. Jen in TX

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  41. Steve,
    As an occasional food writer in a fresh-produce-rich county in PA, I am in awe of your skill in finding the core of a subject that is clearly emotional for you. It is not an easy thing to do when you’re so far inside a topic. A great piece, and thank you for sharing Alice Waters and Deborah Madison with us. Alice and Michael Pollan are my food heroes, and I can only hope to be worthy of their (and clearly, your) ethos.
    JT in Lancaster, PA

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  42. Lola Heatherton says:

    I’m as backward redneck as you can get and I know this statement is not true when referring to Mounds and Almond Joy

    “versus those of an Almond Joy — which was the same thing, but topped with whole almonds. ”

    How wrong you are Mr. Food Critic. Mounds has dark chocolate/ Almond Joy has milk chocolate and the almond.

    How could you miss such a big difference?

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    • Steve Silberman says:

      Lola, did you skim past the fact that I was about 9 at that point in the story? And have you tasted them side-by-side? We’re not talking about Valrhona Le Noir Amer vs. Cluizel Grand Lait here — we’re talking about 1mm thick layers of super-sweet commodity chocolate.

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      • Lola Heatherton says:

        At nine years old it’s sad to say I knew the difference. I’ve never heard of the other chocolate confections.
        I’m sure future pagent officials wept when at age 5 after trick or treating on Halloween I learned the difference – while future Lane Bryant executives rejoiced.
        I am a fan. I loved the story, your rich culinary descriptions.

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  43. john says:

    I am not a food affectionado so I found your blog entry to be incredibly boring and full of french phrases while I’m sure hold real meaning to a cook but in your entry appears pretentious and oh so marvelously resplendent on thy lips.

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    • Steve Silberman says:

      A tip, John: Avoid Europe. You won’t like it either.

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    • Pere says:

      Then why read it? You are a fool stepping on rusty nails of your own accord, next time just go around. And Steve is right- I might add that Europe won’t like you, either.

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      • David Poppe says:

        Dear John

        I believe you will enjoy the food served in movie theaters. Don’t skimp on the artificial butter on your popcorn or extra synthetic cheese on your Nachos!!

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  44. Ryan Supak says:

    A great abridged autobiography.

    One very tiny thing: Shakers take a vow of abstinence and solitude, so a Shaker can’t be a housewife. I only mention it, because you mention you have a meticulous nature.

    rs

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    • Steve Silberman says:

      I appreciate that, Ryan — and yet we certainly did read Shaker cookbooks, and it’s certainly true that Shaker cooking and cookbooks are renowned for being great. (Try Googling “Shaker cooking” and you’ll see what I mean.) So who was cooking and eating all that marvelous Shaker food?

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      • Ryan Supak says:

        I guess the ones doing the cooking and book writing were the Shaker men and women (one of their core tenets was gender equality), and adopted orphans (that’s how they got new members.)

        Bye!
        rs

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  45. sgreco says:

    I have to say, I didn’t expect much when a news server pointed me to this article. I assumed it would be some short snippet about one of the many critics outed recently by iPhone wielding malcontents. What I got instead was a delightful read that had me laughing out loud. You may no longer be a restaurant critic but you have blossomed into a very entertaining writer. Well done! (as for the readers whose comments focused on minutae, the only food-related item I can give them… are raspberries.)

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  46. Richard says:

    One of my best friends sent me the link to this entry, probably because of the name, and I am so glad he did. I thoroughly enjoyed the read, and laughed out
    loud more than once.
    I am a culinary school grad and former journalist; with more than a passing
    interest in history. As the current economic trend has cut me back from full
    to part time, I vacillate between the job search to reading thought provoking
    articles such as yours.
    It was only recently that I decided to begin crafting pieces with the intent to
    publish on-line. If there was one article I could think of that served as an
    inspiration for me to spend a couple of hours emulating it, this was it. Thank
    you for sharing your talent.

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  47. Deborah Blum says:

    This is so amazingly fun to read, Steve, and so beautifully written. I was laughing out loud over your description of the final meal. Brought back memories of when we lived in California. We’d occasionally drive hours to eat dinner at the restaurant of the moment. Still love great food but home-made soup in the kitchen makes me just as happy.

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  48. deia says:

    Hemingway likens the taste of blood to pennies in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.
    Sublimation is also a Freudian term that is loosely appropriate to the use here.

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    • deia says:

      That was a response to the science pedants, more than anything else.
      (I love science, but sometimes it is like listening to those cats on the “Skeptics Guide to the Universe” dismiss Nietzsche because he’s not some hackneyed positivist).

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  49. Pingback: The Meal that Ended My Career as a Restaurant Critic | FastChoose

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  51. Scott says:

    Since the Update notes that hemoglobin is laden with iron, not copper, is it at all proper to liken the taste to pennies (which are copper-plated zinc)?

    … and isn’t “iron-laden hemoglobin” redundant? What else would hemoglobin be laden with?

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    • Steve Silberman says:

      Yes, it is proper, because a Google search will confirm that I am not the first person to liken the taste of blood to pennies. It’s a common trope because it’s accurate to the flavor, if not the formula. And for non-science readers, it is not at all intuitive that hemoglobin contains iron. But I took it out on your advisement and for simplicity’s sake.

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      • Scott says:

        Google “enormity” and you’ll see plenty of people using it the wrong way. That’s one of the dangers of Google: it can help reinforce misconceptions.

        On the other hand, if you looked at one of those first Google results (from answers.yahoo.com), you’d have read:
        “Question: Why does blood taste like copper?
        Answer: It tastes like Iron actually, because of the haemoglobin (which contains Iron) in your blood.

        Your books probably say copper because presumably copper and iron taste alike, and more people are likely to have tasted copper due to copper pipes being used for drinking water, so they know what copper tastes like.”

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        • Steve Silberman says:

          Sure, Scott. But I didn’t use Google to come up with that image. I used my tongue, as many other people have done over the years, coming up with the same result. Since we’re talking about sense impressions here, it doesn’t rise to the level of a “misconception.” I understand that as a science reader of a science blog, you might find this kind of subjectivity offensive.

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          • Nicole says:

            I am surprised you are being taken to task for this. Being the unfortunate owner of hereditary gum disease I can definitely say that blood tastes very much like pennies, and smells like it too.

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            • Tim Tucker says:

              To say that something tastes “like” another thing is subjective and therefore you are correct based on your own experience regardless of the actual ingredient. Using the same argument you would never be able to describe food as tasting anything other than what is made from. That would be useless indeed.
              Wonderful article, thank you.

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  52. Koraljka Lockhart says:

    Great piece! Wondering how you managed to get through the early paragraphs without ever mentioning Julia Child. Or Jeremiah Tower. Or how, in spite of your obvious international erudition, you never learned how to spell fettuccine. Thanks for the read.
    KL

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    • Steve Silberman says:

      Thanks! I will correct the spelling of fettuccine. It’s so often misspelled that I’ve had it wrong in my head all these years, I’m ashamed to admit.

      It would have been nice to mention Julia Child, because I loved her approach to cooking and her wit and gusto, and met her once. Jeremiah’s scene at Stars didn’t really speak to us, I’m afraid, though I know he’s a serious cook who was hugely influential in shaping the culture of the celebrity chef. We just preferred other people’s food and sensibility.

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      • Steve Silberman says:

        One of the Alice Waters-trained chefs we adored was Deborah Madison, who we both worked with at Greens. With access to picked-this-morning produce from Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm, Deborah made magic — every flavor sang. Her “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone” is a cookbook anyone should own.

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        • janeeyre316 says:

          I own her “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone” and her “This Can’t be Tofu!” books. There’s a place near where I go to church that makes their own tofu, and her recipes make it fun to cook and sublime to eat. Glad to know I picked well when I was randomly surfing Amazon!

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  53. Thanks for the trip down memory lane and beyond. Having known you during those tormented times is part of what led me away from reviewing, opting instead for a career in cookbooks. Long live Tank Co-op, where you once stood on a chair and confessed to a roomful of student diners that you’d bled your soul into the dinner they were about to eat. For those who don’t have the pleasure of knowing Steve personally, his sensibility at the stove is every bit as delicious as his ink (or whatever you call it now) on the page.

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  54. Roddy Graham says:

    Have you tasted copper and iron alongside each other? I think they are quite different – copper is more bitter, iron is earthier

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    • Steve Silberman says:

      I have not, but keep in mind that this wasn’t a metal tasting, it was a lunch. :)

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  55. Excellent post, Steve! I am always envious of your superb ability to paint such wonderful scenes with words. I was drooling while reading this post – thank goodness dinner is on the stove:)

    It was an absolute pleasure to meet you in person last weekend – so proud to be blogging in your company.

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    • Steve Silberman says:

      Peter, it was wonderful to meet you too! And I’m very proud to be blogging beside you guys. I told Travis that this post must be like “Apocalypse Now” for obesity researchers like you guys [grin].

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  56. Enjoyed and understand your sentiments about the food scene, professional restaurant reviewing, etc. Why I didnt become a restaurant critic in 1990 (when I was poised to do so) is explained in my book, Foodoodles: From the Museum of Culinary History. My reasons then were about what I felt were the sometimes shaky credentials and ethics of restaurant reviewing and the lopsided impact on restaurants (putting them out of business on occassion) by reviewers who seemed to be enjoying a bit too much the power trip of their devastating reviews–not you of course. I decided that I did not want to join the ranks, preferring other avenues of culinary expression (like my Foodoodle cartoons). Thanks again for the fine piece. L. John Harris

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  57. Milica says:

    Your prose so perfectly captures the cuisine you describe. I too was carried away. Thanks for the journey.

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  58. Pingback: Miscellaneous thoughts for today « Ketherian's Blog

  59. Nate MC says:

    I’m sorry fancy word user, but the cake did not sublimate on your tongue. Sublimation is a change directly from solid to a gas without becoming liquid. It melted on your tongue, not sublimated.

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    • Steve Silberman says:

      Blog reader, it’s called a “metaphor.” I’m married to a science teacher and was well aware of the strict meaning of the term, thanks.

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  60. Pingback: The Meal that Ended My Career as a Restaurant Critic | B12 Solipsism

  61. Am I the only one who’s now seriously stuck with the gruesome image of a snail, stuck in green goo, stuck in greesey pastry?!:)

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  62. Just to let you know that there is a new, revised, e-book edition of “Lunch with Elizabeth David”. The novel involving David and her mentor, Norman Douglas, originally published by Little Brown, is available in all e-book formats and can be sampled at http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/29680
    It is also in the Amazon Kindle store.

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  63. Tideliar says:

    Steve, this is a wonderful post! You’re so talented with your words. Damn I’m hungry now…

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  64. Mahesh CR says:

    Sublime piece of writing..it was like watching a play with a full orchestra to accompany it.

    I liked the sentence pointed to by Dan the best. The second best has to be, “I’d often buy both to see which I liked better that day, and generations of future gym coaches wept.”

    You have won a fan today, however obscure ;)

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  65. Pingback: Being a Food Critic Isn't All Fun - Multi-City Restaurant Buzz - Zagat

  66. Dan Weston says:

    I loved the line “You eventually realize that the only secret ingredient that matters is paying attention to what you’re eating — and a dash of gratitude.”

    Thank you for another great article.

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  67. Ed Ward says:

    El Taz! Boy, that brought back memories. Their guacamole had hard-boiled eggs in it, and thinly-sliced serrano chiles. I made it like that until I moved to Texas and the horrified traditionalists refused to touch it. Hell with ‘em: that’s the way it’s made, in my mind.

    And yes, this is a parallel to the “wow, it must be great getting all those books/records” I’ve had to deal with over the years.

    “Best Food Writing 2011″? Gotcher winner here.

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  68. PalMD says:

    Brilliant.
    I felt transported in so many ways reading this, esp. to 1990s SF, with my usual Inner Richmond haunts. I’d eat at a little vietnamese place at third and clement a few times a week. I’d stop for fresh bao at the bakery full of old, smoking men laughing and shouting in Cantonese.

    And my girlfriend’s dad was a foodie and wine nut who would come to visit and take us to all of the “best” restaurants in town. Oy.

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    • Steve Silberman says:

      Wonderful! I love those pho places in the Richmond. Thanks for stopping in.

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  69. David Gans says:

    Wonderful piece, Steve, as usual.

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  70. John Rennie says:

    Surely you’re sick of hearing that you’re a spectacular writer by now, Steve, so I’ll just say, “Hmph. Adequate,” and move on.

    —Actually, your post offers a splendid example of how memoir can and usually should be about far more than a personal reminiscence. Just wonderful.

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    • Steve Silberman says:

      Coming from a brilliant editor (and great guy) like you, I really appreciate it!

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