Friday, February 23, 2007

Reading. Richman.

I'm not sure how I found Alan Richman, but I probably came across Fork It Over while browsing around Barnes and Noble, hoping some Ruth Reichl memoir had finally made its way into paperback, glanced through it, tossed into the pile. I saw that he wrote for GQ, and I knew from experience that food writers that write for men's magazines are unfailingly amusing (Peter Mayle also wrote for GQ, as well as Esquire, if I remember correctly, and I had first encountered him in the pages of those magazines, which I always read on international flights when I had exhausted all the books in my luggage, and was down to GQ or Golf, and I would watch Waterworld before I read Golf).

Richman is not a food writer the way Jeffrey Steingarten is a food writer - the latter may review various restaurants occasionally, but he is as much interested in the cooking - and how many different ingredients his assistant can compile from the far reaches of Manhattan - as he is in the eating. Whereas Richman is a food critic, a restaurant critic who, it seems, rarely boils an egg let alone spends hours deboning various types of poultry in an ultimately successful attempt to make Turkducken. His life as a restaurant critic came after a childhood of his mother's Jewish home cooking, college years spent in Philadelphia in the 60's eating cheese steaks, a stint in the army stationed in the Domican Republic and Vietnam, and then the years spent as a sportswriter in Montreal and Boston before joining GQ, and later, being asked to write a food column for the magazine.

I find hard to explain what it is I love about Alan Richman and his food writing. He is funny, and he loves food as only someone whose mother cooked well and often can. He writes about his parents, his mother, who at 94 can no longer cook but who "spent her adult life cooking for her family...all Jewish mothers are expected to be kitchen enthusiasts, but [she] was defined by her cooking...the people in her building greet her warmly, the sort of recognition André Soltner must get when he walks down Fiftieth Street near Lutéce." The head of the team overseeing his parents' care tells Richman that his mother "remains a luminary among residents, acclaimed for her beef brisket and her rolled cabbage...[they] remember the taste of her food, and they still talk about it."

This beginning chapter colors everything that comes afterward, makes it possible to understand how Richman writes about a coffe-shop breakfast in Montréal of a mishmash omelette and a smoked-salmon-and-cream-cheese sandwich made with a toasted sesame-seed bagel with the same fervor as he describes eating at the Hôtel de Paris, home of Alain Ducasse's Le Louis XV, where he is served sea scallops smothered in black truffles and a selection of thirty-five petit fours (after a dessert of baba au rhum, which is served with your choice of vintage rum). Perhaps is this what I love about him, how between the extremes what is clear is the desire of good food in all its myriad forms, whether served on a paper plate with plastic forks or on gold-painted Limoges china.

Food is life, writes Richman. The rest is parsley.

Richman, Alan. Fork It Over. HarperPerennial, 2005. pp 18-19, 9.

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