Food writer offers personal morsels

June 28, 2006|By ALETA WATSON | ALETA WATSON,SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS

Julia Child, James Beard and New York Times critic Craig Claiborne may have introduced America to the wonders of great food in the 1960s, but Gael Greene was the hip young writer who chronicled Manhattan's culinary coming of age.

Her breezy, irreverent restaurant reviews in the glossy pages of upstart New York Magazine were a must-read for would-be gourmands who yearned to sup among the rich and powerful.

For nearly four decades, Greene has covered the food revolution from the front lines. She tells all in her new memoir, Insatiable: Tales From a Life of Delicious Excess, liberally spicing her dining memories with stories of sexual encounters with Elvis Presley, Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds, among others. We chatted over breakfast at an Upper West Side cafe last month. Here is an edited version of our conversation.

What prompted your memoir?

I thought maybe I should write the story about how America fell in love with food. I wanted to tell the story of the heroes and the fall guys and the incredible evolution. Because today, people who are wildly obsessed with food have everything on the supermarket shelf - that didn't exist in 1968 when I became a restaurant critic - and take it all for granted. What do you think sparked this intense interest in what we eat in a country that was very puritanical? One just didn't spend much time thinking about food in that era.

Partly, I think the sexual revolution prepared Americans to be ready for the food revolution. The awareness of sensuality shockingly affected very uptight people who came of age in the '50s. Suddenly, people were able to think about dining as not just theater, which was a new concept also, but as a sensuous experience that two consenting adults could have together.

The second factor was travel. It was inexpensive to travel in the '50s and '60s, so people began going to Europe. And in the late '60s and early '70s, a lot of them carried my articles and Craig Claiborne's articles talking about where to eat.

That became part of a trip: You didn't just go to museums and graves of poets, monuments. You went to the greatest restaurants. Or you organized your trip to be sure to include this restaurant or that restaurant.

And they came home cooking. Cooking schools became more prominent, and everybody I knew was going to cooking school. And there was competitive cooking of dinner parties.

Shopping became a little bit more accessible. You could find bread and cheese on the same side of town instead of having to drive to 10 neighborhoods to put together a serious dinner party, as we did in the '60s. Now in the '70s, pasta and cheese came along, and you could have fresh pasta.

How did you become a food writer?

I was very lucky because Clay Felker, when he started New York Magazine in '68 and focused on needing a restaurant critic a few months later, had an idea that I was a food writer even though I didn't think I was. I had written one story for the magazine when it was part of the Herald Tribune. It was for Clay, he remembered it and so he thought I was a food writer.

When Clay called, of course I said I can't afford to work for New York Magazine at the prices you're going to pay. But then, when he said people were begging to do it in order to charge all their meals to New York Magazine, I thought, "Oh, what a concept!" And I said yes.

What do you like to eat when you're eating on your own these days? Or do you never get a chance to eat just for you?

Oh, yes. I'm not the weekly restaurant critic anymore, so I don't really need to go out seven nights. I eat out about five nights a week, and people are beginning to know they can invite us to dinner parties. Sometimes we just go to a movie, and we have a burger afterward. Or we go to Fiorello and we have the antipasto, and my guy has a steak, and we share the antipasto and the steak.

I love Vietnamese food and Le Bernardin - which I think is one of the greatest restaurants of New York - but we don't go very often on our own money. Esca is one of my favorite fish restaurants. Esca is Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich's, but the chef, David Pasternack, really runs it and does such an incredible job. And I love crudo and sushi, sashimi. I love macaroni and cheese. I love complicated food, too, when it's brilliantly done.

We go a lot to Bar Americain, Bobby Flay's restaurant, on our own money. It's his version of American regional food. I wish there were more American regional food well done in New York, but I think it's difficult. People want something different, and they are so fickle.

Aleta Watson writes for the San Jose Mercury News.

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