Steal the Menu: A Memoir of Forty Years in Food
By Raymond Sokolov
(Knopf, 242 pages, $25.95)
LET US BEGIN with a happy ending. On the last page of his engaging and appetizing food memoir, author Raymond Sokolov sounds a note of culinary optimism. Having noted that 40 years ago there was “no first-rate American cheese, no radicchio, no world-class restaurant, no fresh foie gras, no Sichuan food and no top chef of native birth,” he concludes:
At the beginning of my eighth decade, I take comfort from two great leaps forward in human life. As a passionate reader and writer, I exult in the scientific advances that have given me the computer and the Internet. As a physical creature chained to a wasting body, I look back with pride on the progress we have made in feeding ourselves and rejoice to think of the even better meals that lie ahead.
Never mind that 40 years ago, first-rate cheeses—the best Vermont cheddar and Wisconsin blue come to mind—had long been produced in the U.S., and that radicchio was no more than a minor if trendy addition to the salad chef’s already bulging arsenal; it is still true that Americans with a serious interest in food have more and better choices available to them today, both at home and at restaurants, than ever before. And while most of the food writers who were present at the creation of the modern American food scene have long since gone the way of all compost, Mr. Sokolov is both a living and a lively witness to it all.
Too many of the best chef-authors can’t write and too many celebrated food writers can’t really cook. Mr. Sokolov is that precious rarity, a gifted writer who also knows his way around the kitchen. I had always admired his work in newspapers and magazines, but it was not until 10 years ago, when I was asked to review his book The Cook’s Canon: 101 Classic Recipes Everyone Should Know for the Wall Street Journal, that I came to appreciate fully both his hands-on mastery of cooking and his engaging writing style. His perfectly balanced, easy-to-follow recipe for gravlax was so tempting that, as soon as I finished reading it, I put down my review copy, dashed to the nearest supermarket with a good seafood counter, bought a filet of salmon and some fresh dill, and whipped up a batch with excellent results.
He also included a quite serviceable recipe for Peking Duck courtesy of his late aunt Zipporah, a rather feisty old girl who had washed up in Shanghai after fleeing both the Nazis and the Soviets. “Aunt Tzipi” learned how to cook it from her opium-smoking, Marx-spouting Chinese lover and had jotted down the procedure—in Yiddish—in her diary. Aunt Tzipi’s recipe must be the only one in the annals of North Chinese cookery that had to be translated from Yiddish into English, which Mr. Sokolov did with great flair.
If The Cook’s Canon was a cookbook brightened by the occasional anecdote or witticism, Steal the Menu is a long series of anecdotes and witticisms whose leitmotif is food, all from the perspective of an intelligent journalist with few if any illusions—and an occasionally surfacing mean streak. Thus he is pleased to recall his coverage of the 1973 dedication of the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, at which one of the honored guests was then-President Richard Nixon, who was wearing, Mr. Sokolov tells us, “a hideous aqua sharkskin suit.” Looking back, Mr. Sokolov smugly recalls that he “worked some anti-Nixon potshots into my otherwise quite neutral piece.” He also goes into excruciating, but also excruciatingly funny, detail about a comedy of errors involving the botched White House release of the recipe for Tricia Nixon’s wedding cake. When tried in the New York Times’s test kitchen, the recipe “erupted” from its pan all over the oven and was duly reported as the bomb it had proved to be. Not that the Times’s reporting on the cake was free of errors either. Early editions of one story, which should have described the cake as having “the initials of the President’s daughter and her bridegroom, Edward Finch Cox…iced in white decorated with blown sugar orchids,” came out—accidentally or otherwise—as having “the initials of the President’s daughter and her bridegroom, Edward Finch white, decorated with blown Cox…” All the news that’s fit to print?
Richard Nixon isn’t the only one Mr. Sokolov singles out for sartorial attack. Here is how he describes the man who later fired him from his cushy perch as restaurant critic, legendary Times Executive Editor A.M. (Abe) Rosenthal:
There he was, a caricature of all the descriptions you may have read or photographs you may have seen of Abe: small and pudgy, bad skin, shirttails working their way out of his pants, an endearingly failed stab at a preppy look—bow tie blue oxford-cloth shirt.
Interestingly, Mr. Sokolov would find a generally more tolerant working environment at the supposedly uptight Wall Street Journal than he had experienced at the supposedly open-minded New York Times. Commenting on his initial stint as culture editor at the Journal—which he likens to being the medical correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor—Mr. Sokolov has a (rare) kind word for the late Robert L. Bartley, “the neoconservative editor of the Journal, who ran the paper’s three opinion pages (the editorial page, the op-ed page, and my page), [who] never complained about my outside food column or the cookbooks I wrote while working for him. In fact, I think it increased my value in his eyes that I had a separate identity outside his world.”
Mr. Sokolov came to the Journal by way of another, considerably less prestigious Dow Jones publication, Book Digest. His fairly accurate characterization of Book Digest, now long-defunct, as doing “its tacky best to copy the Reader’s Digest formula in the world of books,” would go down more easily if he hadn’t quite happily collected a fat paycheck for editing the “tacky” magazine until Dow Jones pulled the plug on it. Still, it’s an accurate characterization, and Mr. Sokolov is just as candid when it comes to tacky episodes in his own family’s past, including the unsavory history of a Detroit fish market owned by his grandfather:
The fish market was equally uninspiring. And it came to a tragicomic end. Grandma Mary inherited the building and, guided by my father, rented it out, first as a doctor’s office, then as a bookstore. Or so everybody thought. Yes, the tenants did sell books, but naughty ones, and there were girls upstairs. Police eventually raided the place, and Grandma Mary, a sheltered homebody, barely Anglophone, was cited for running a cathouse.
READERS WILL FIND Mr. Sokolov equally amusing—and unsparing—in his critiques of restaurants, chefs, editors, and authors, high and low. His criticisms are almost always fair, crisply stated, and to the point. It is only when he starts doling out praise that he sometimes goes astray. Mr. Sokolov, like so many “serious” contemporary gastronomy writers, sometimes mistakes showmanship for good cooking, engaging in the intellectual equivalent of playing with his food. Thus he is impressed with a dubious creation of modernist chef Heston Blumenthal that “combined snails and oatmeal, with all the traditional ingredients of classic escargots de Bourgogne: garlic, butter and parsley, lots of parsley, for a very green presentation of snails on an oat risotto with the texture of rice pudding.” At the same meal, “seeking the perfect palate cleanser…Blumenthal started with toothpaste and ended up with a masterpiece of scientific manipulation of flavors that really did cleanse the palate and wake up the diner’s taste buds.”
Perhaps, but in what, if any, way was either “manipulation” an improvement on a real sorbet palate cleanser or genuine escargots de Bourgogne minus all the showy superfluities? We are never given the answer, perhaps because there isn’t one.
Occasional quirks and fads aside, however, Steal the Menu is a sparkling celebration of the life of a man blessed with a great talent, a great appetite, and a magnificent ability to share both with his readers.