Gastronomic adventures

April 14, 1991|By Lynn Williams

GLUTTON FOR PUNISHMENT:

CONFESSIONS OF A

MERCENARY EATER.

Jay Jacobs.

Atlantic Monthly.

314 pages. $21.95.

People have been asking Jay Jacobs the wrong questions althese years.

Learning that Mr. Jacobs was a restaurant critic, they predictably lobbed him the three questions any "hired belly" is heir to: What's your favorite restaurant? How do you stay thin? How can I get your job?

They really should have been asking him about the good stuff. They should have asked him about hiking through headhunter territory in the Himalayan foothills in search of fried chicken. Or about the time he taught some good ol' boys in rural Michigan the joys of eating crawfish. Or maybe about the evening he shared Irish stew with a bigamist bargeman and his two wives on a Hudson River canoe trip. And if they asked "What really happened on that balcony in Malaga, anyway?" they'd be in for quite a tale.

But now they won't have to. With "Glutton for Punishment," the former New York restaurant reviewer for Gourmet magazine has written a riotously entertaining memoir of a food-fixated life, as personal as anything M.F.K. Fisher ever wrote but steamier and more outrageous.

The son of a "dedicated philanderer" and a bohemian artist mom who was such a hopeless cook that she'd buy her potatoes in cans, Jay Jacobs inherited the hedonistic tendencies of the former, but soon outgrew the latter's foundering attempts at gastronomy. At age 10, the family was deposited on a farm in the Poconos by the senior Mr. Jacobs, who was carrying on a dalliance with a red-haired Communist in New York. On the farm, young Jay tasted the "straightforward, uncomplicated" flavors of real food for the first time.

"Glutton for Punishment" is the chronicle of his gastronomic adventures, both professional and non-; even before an ample ++ Gourmet expense account and a lenient attitude toward paid junkets allowed him to travel on his belly in first-class style, he was living to eat rather than the other way around.

The first part of the book largely concentrates on his introduction to both globe-trotting and the culinary arts, and details his experiences as a young free-lance artist living with his wife and four sons in a village in Provence. This is not, we hasten to add, a mere recitation of "I went there, I ate that," but a sweet, funny narrative with a classic cast of French eccentrics.

The post-France, post-divorce Gourmet years were considerably less pastoral, and his tales become more cynical and wide-ranging, as he tackles the pretensions of haute cuisine, autocratic editors and the "grub-crazed cult of feinschmeckers" who made him a love/hate object.

Mr. Jacobs is, admittedly, not the nicest guy around. He has a taste for witty invective, and his vision of the restaurant game as a veritable snake-pit of infighting and one-upmanship might make timid readers nervous about venturing out of their own dining rooms.

His designer vocabulary (a guy who eats a lot has a "cetacean appetency," for example) is an acquired taste, too. But while I'd probably be nervous about actually meeting someone whose tongue and brains are honed to such razor-sharpness, he's a delightful companion between the covers of a book. And, to his credit, he lavishes his most ironic skewering, his most embarrassing anecdotes, on the best of all targets: himself. A world-class raconteur who can ramble so engagingly about a topic so dear to our hearts can be forgiven anything.

Ms. Williams is restaurant critic of The Sun.

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