BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Observing culinary history ...

This was another delightful, if surprising, dollar store find. Surprising in that this is relatively new (it's only been out for three years at this point), and the on-line big boys have it at full cover … which means that I was very lucky to have run into it for a buck as it must have just have made that strange journey off of the Walmart shelves.

As my previous life had been in food publicity, I knew of the author (although I don't recall if I'd ever met him), and he's certainly only a one-degree-of-separation connection, having name-checked an old family friend in passing here (as somebody he'd assumed was getting the New York Times job instead of him). But, I'm getting ahead of myself. The book in question is Steal the Menu: A Memoir of Forty Years in Food by Raymond Sokolov, who I think I know best from his magazine work.

To start off, I want to say this was a delightful and engaging read, but with the caveat that, having spent much of my early career in the PR outlands of the food biz, this could well be more appealing to me as a “trip down memory lane” than it might be for a random reader picking up the book.

As one would gather from the subtitle, this is a memoir, and not some high-concept treatise on the food/restaurant/media world. It's about where Sokolov was, what he was doing, and how it effected him. The book's set up in five sections, which largely walk through his life and experiences. To be deeply presumptive when commenting on a book by somebody with the sort of C.V. he has, I really think this would have been significantly improved if it had been broken up a bit … as the five chapters tend to carry a lot of material each, and having those broken up into 3-5 thematic sections would have made this “tighter”, not that it particularly rambles or anything, it's just that there are narratives in here which sort of meander from one into the next, where they might have been more definitive were they to stop, summarize, and then move into the next topic. Again, who am I to kibitz on his (or his editors at Knopf's) decisions? But there it is, all the same.

The book starts with a recollection of a lunch that he had with the legendary Craig Clairborne and his managing editor in 1971, in the cafeteria of the New York Times, when Sokolov was preparing to transition into Clairborne's role at the newspaper. The book's title comes from the advice that the legend gave his woefully unprepared successor (“In Craig's world, I was indeed a nobody. I'd never taken a cooking class, published a restaurant review or written a recipe … in the kitchen, I was a cipher … I had no business at this table ...”) during lunch … because if you ask for a copy of the menu, you might well not get it (and, of course, restaurant reviewers are ideally incognito when doing their forkwork, so there's no good reason for the staff to agree to let a random person have a menu).

The initial section, “First Bites”, does what one would expect in a memoir, tracing his life from his birth in Detroit a few months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. His family was more interested in food and eating out than the average, and so he ended up getting a varied basis in assorted cuisines. A bit of a child prodigy (at least in spelling), he ended up at Harvard, and then Oxford, and was working towards a doctorate in the Classics (his proposed thesis topic focused on “rare Homeric vocabulary in Theocritus”). In the early 60's he was one of multitudinous American youth who took advantage of the post-war exchange rate to bum around Europe, which not only allowed Sokolov the ability to deepen his connection with the classics, but also get a very good grounding in food – if mainly in the lower-end eateries affordable to the traveling college student. He passed his PhD orals at Harvard in 1965, and took a job as a correspondent in the Newsweek Paris office, where he frequently found himself with “almost nothing to do”, and an expense account …
… I busied myself with entertaining “sources” … at restaurants of high gastronomic quality. No one in the office minded. In fact, the bureau chief seemed glad to not have me nagging him for work, and it amused my colleagues that I was putting so much energy into establishing contacts in corners of French life they had no time to investigate.
His timing proved to be excellent, as it was in these years that “the nouvelle cuisine revolution had already begun simmering in the provinces”, and he had his first food piece published (anonymously) in Newsweek in 1967 based on an assignment he'd been given to check out the awarding of a third Michelin star to an Alsace restaurant, L'Auberge de l'Ill, which was a replacement for an initial pitch for a story about an up-and-coming chef by the name of Paul Bocuse.

Soon after, he was offered a spot back at the New York offices of Newsweek, and he (with his young family) landed back in the US on his 26th birthday, in August of 1967. His main responsibility in his new position was doing book reviews, which included a number of cookbooks. He had tried to angle some freelance work with magazines such as New York, but that hadn't gone anywhere. However, in 1971, an associate had suggested that he apply for the New York Times food job, who additionally mentioned the idea to another associate, who ended up speaking with Claibourne's editor, resulting in a lunch appointment. On the way back from that lunch, he was told that because he didn't have much of a food track record, they'd want to get “some tryout pieces” from him, which they'd pay for, and cover his expenses. They liked these and he was hired.

The next section “The Ungatronomical Me” starts out with a note (much like his impression on Craig Clairborne) about his wife's belief that he “was radically, hopelessly unqualified for the job” and his reflection that:
If you had told me then that I would spend the rest of my life writing and reporting on food in major publications and in many books, I would have laughed at you.
He goes into a long-ish side track here to describe his youthful spelling bee fame (at 10 he was the youngest contestant ever in the National Spelling Bee). While this does seem a bit self-indulgent, it serves as a key turning point – amid all the press attention he experienced, he got “fatally interested in journalism”. which led him to working (doing movie reviews) on the Harvard Crimson, which in turn opened the door for his getting that Newsweek position, without which he suspects that he'd have ended up “a disappointed retired professor of Greek at some provincial university”.

This leads into the meat of the story, the “Food News” section, which starts with a humorous reminiscence of his first week at the Times, and his introductory interview with the HR department – which had evidently not been clued in that he was the new food editor – when asked what he had been hired for, he said he would be “handling food”, and they ended up putting through the paperwork for him being an assistant salad handler in the cafeteria … the error being first discovered by the rather substantial discrepancy on his first paycheck between what he was expecting and what showed up!

There is a vast lot of material in this section, and quite varied – making it somewhat difficult to cull out specifics for highlighting here. He starts with a bit of reflection of just how Clairborne had changed the “food editor” gig in his 13 years at the Times (including discarding “the old food-page model of recipes handed out by food-product companies”, a trend which would eventually doom my family's PR firm a couple of decades later), how their operation functioned (including minutia such as who answered phones in what order – he was the fourth option if everybody else was already on a call), and a look at the early growth of Chinese regional cuisine in the New York market (originating with one of those “tryout pieces” that he rushed into print when Clairborne opted to not do his last week's projects). From there he wanders off into politics (sort of – it starts with a rambling recall of a story based on presidential offspring Tricia Nixon's wedding cake, but circles back to his spelling bee days and then fast-forwards to the opening of the LBJ library, all of which anchored in the author's animosity towards Richard Nixon). He gets back to the Times job, and mentions that he “was not happy with the mediocre gastronomic outback I found myself in” (New York???) and describes how he took a rather “activist” stance in knocking down some restaurants and building up others that “reminded me of my time in … Paris”, including taking credit for launching Lutèce into its run “for the next thirty years as the top restaurant in the United States”. He follows this with a return to France, and this time succeeding in connecting with Paul Bocuse. Then he's back talking about Chinese food, which leads (in a vague way) to his dismissal from the Times.

However, before he got canned, he was still connected with the paper, in the form of an (embarrassingly to all involved) at-that-point still upcoming cookbook. This is the lead story in the “Upstairs In Front” section (named for what he'd put down for “where he worked” on forms – being a description of where his desk was in their house), which covers his freelancing years. He wrote for Time, the Sunday magazine at the time of the Chicago Sun-Times called Midwest, he still did book reviews for the Sunday New York Times, and magazines like Travel & Leisure. Also, notably, he began writing for Natural History magazine, a monthly from the American Museum of Natural History (which I used to subscribe to, and so best know Sokolov's writing from), where he wrote a food column for 20 years.

One of the more significant projects of this period was his work on the book The Saucier's Apprentice, a definitive text on the art and array of classic French sauces, that Julia Child's co-author Simon Beck noted: “no one, not even in France, had written anything like it”. Given that Sokolov had arranged to do the book when he still had a test-kitchen staff, it's especially a remarkable work, as his experience was at the table, and not at the stove. He says:
My idea was to match up the assembly-line efficiency of the old sauce system with the preservation magic of the deep freeze. … giving directions for twenty-five brown sauces, following recipes for their most unremittingly orthodox versions in Larousse gastronomique. These “small or compound” brown sauces fitted neatly into a family tree, ranging from africaine to poivrade, plus two game sauces descended from sauce poivrade, which constituted a third generation, demi-glace's grandchildren.
His description of what he had to go through to get this done in his home kitchen is rather off-putting, yet the thrust of the book is to make these heretofore arcane culinary gems accessible to the home cook, to be poured out into ice cube trays, frozen, and doled out as needed. I need to get a copy of that!

In another veer (one of the points that I think would have been better served with a break into a sub-section), he goes from the efforts for making these old-school French sauces approachable to everyone, to a look at the spread of nouvelle cuisine into the U.S. (and global) markets. Here he name-checks chefs, restaurants, cook books, and gets into quite a lot of technical detail on how the “new cooking” was conceived and composed. Oddly (again, a sub-section split would have been useful here), this leads to his tenure at Natural History, where his column was framed as needing to “reflect the various fields in which the {Museum} intersected with what people ate” … which he discovered was pretty wide-open as “anthropologists had by and large ignored what the people they studied ate”. Needless to say, with two decades of stories to draw from, this part of the book is a bit of a fire-hose of Sokolov trying to put out a wide array of the sorts of things that he covered, from cannibalism myths, the history of Navajo fry bread, Cornish vs. Finnish pasties, to the botany of the Key Lime. This leads to a discussion of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, which then leads off into more info on industry organizations and individuals, and eventually gets around to his work at the Wall Street Journal, initially with the short-lived Book Digest where he would identify books to buy excerpt rights for, and subsequently at the WSJ proper, managing a daily “arts” page.

The last section “With Reservations” starts off on September 11, 2001, with Sokolov taking his dog for a walk in southern Manhattan (“the Journal's offices had look directly at the Twin Towers from across West Street”). He mentions that he'd been hired to do a story on the innovative food-service network that Joe Baum had designed for the World Trade Center, back before it was constructed in the early 70's … so he had a long history with the location … including him having been scheduled to have lunch there in 1993 when the first terrorist attack (with a van full of explosives in the basement garage) happened. The chaos and subsequent difficulties following 9/11 caused a major shift in the WSJ, and he ended up losing the job there in 2002. This led him to starting a new book project, and picked up work at Harvard on his “long-abandoned PhD”. He goes into a discussion of the details of going back to academia after such a long period (unsurprisingly, his extremely obscure thesis topic had not been scooped up by some subsequent Classics student). His subsequent brief foray into academia ends up with a return to the WSJ to write restaurant reviews … which then morphs into his doing “pop-food odysseys” which he compares to some of the “American folk food tradition” stories he did for Natural History. This rambled through searches for “the best hot dog” and different BBQ traditions around the country, the growth of Las Vegas as a culinary hot-spot (especially for insanely expensive experiences that could hardly be sustained elsewhere), the explosion of high-quality cuisine across the country (notably even in small backwaters, of which he details several), and the evolution of cutting-edge work in “molecular gastronomy” and other “modernist” experiments. His later work with the Journal expresses itself in notes on dozens of up-and-coming (in 2013) restaurants and chefs … which is pretty much where the book stops.

Again, because I love the subject matter (and how I ache to have some of those meals he reproduces menus of!), Steal the Menu was a gripping read for me. If you are a fan of fine dining (and perhaps publishing) this should be attractive to you as well. It is certainly still in print, so you could find it at your local brick-and-mortar, especially as the online big boys aren't presently discounting it. However, as it's found its way to the dollar stores, the new/used guys are also offering it, with “very good” copies going for as little as a penny (plus shipping), so it's not going to set you back much to pick this up. I quite enjoyed this (despite my occasional bitchiness in the above), and am pretty sure you'll like it if “it's your thing”.

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Tags: book review
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