Remembering Apple and stories of his adventures

December 13, 2006|By ROB KASPER

Of all the stories swirling around R.W. "Johnny" Apple, the late New York Times scribe who wrote with Olympian style about politics and food, the tale that intrigued me was how the great gourmand came close to being wrong about Baltimore.

The story goes that in preparation for a gastronomic write-up of the town in February 2003, Apple outlined the establishments he planned to visit. Marty Katz, a local photographer who strings for the Times and is the Baltimore editor of the Zagat restaurant guide, says he saw the list and objected. Katz sent an e-mail to Apple saying the list was filled with places tourists, not locals, frequent. Katz offered a counter-list of joints that he felt reflected the true, quirky flavor of the community.

Apple was not amused. "He said I was obnoxious and out of line, and reminded me that his wife, Betsey, went to school [St. Timothy's School] in Baltimore County," Katz told me.

Katz replied that he would wager that one bite of his favorite crab cake would convince Apple that Katz was right. And so it came to pass that Apple became acquainted with the jumbo lump crab cake at Faidley's Seafood, subsequently declaring it as "perhaps the best crab dish in the Western Hemisphere."

From there Apple, with Katz in tow, went on to visit and praise in print the dishes at Costas Inn, Duda's, Henninger's, the Hollywood Diner, City Cafe, Blue Moon, Helmand, Attman's, Samos, the Black Olive, Charleston and Pierpoint. "He got the real Baltimore," Katz said. His profile of Baltimore and 39 other American cities appeared in a 2005 book, Apple's America. Like many stories regarding Apple's career, this one might fall into the category of "too good to check." That is pretty much what author Calvin Trillin told me. Trillin accompanied Apple on the tour of Baltimore and subsequently wrote a profile of the legendary reporter that appeared in the New Yorker. In a telephone interview, Trillin said that he had never heard about the crab-cake bet, but knew that Apple regarded Katz as a good source.

Apple's writing, Trillin said, "went way beyond giving a couple of food tips." He could discourse on "the only three kinds of zinfandel worth drinking, and on church architecture," Trillin said. "He covered food with the same sort of energy he covered politics." Trillin said that Apple also prepared as rigorously for his food writing, and that he reread works of Russell Baker and H.L. Mencken before journeying to Baltimore.

Trillin was one of the string of luminaries who spoke at a rollicking memorial service for Apple that drew close to 1,000 people last week to the Kennedy Center in Washington. Apple died in October of complications from cancer at the age of 71.

There were plenty of politicians and pundits at the Kennedy Center. I saw Sens. John McCain and Paul Sarbanes, Charlie Rose and Art Buchwald. But as I ate and drank my way around the reception that followed the service, I was captivated by stories of Apple's food adventures.

Tim and Nina Zagat of restaurant-guide fame, said that when they had traveled with Apple, they had a hard time keeping up with his bacchanalian pace.

"Those three lunches a day, then three dinners ... and all the wine, I was wiped out," Tim Zagat said.

Bob Kinkead, one of the 20-plus Washington-area restaurateurs who donated lunch for the crowd, said Apple, who at his zenith weighed 285 pounds, had an amazing capacity to enjoy life. "He was a character; you meet maybe 10 people in your life who are like that," Kinkead said.

Apple's girth was a source of some merriment, Trillin said, as family members gave his ample midsection the nickname "Eugene Maximus."

Amid the guests sipping glasses of 2004-vintage Louis Martini chardonnay and Robert Mondavi cabernet sauvignon - some of the 20 fine wines donated to the lunch by California vintners - Patrick O'Connell of the Inn at Little Washington handed out raw Massachusetts oysters dotted with California caviar. O'Connell told me of a recent exchange he had during the Apples' stay at the plush Virginia inn.

Compliments from Apple were rare, said O'Connell, so he was surprised when Apple praised not only the chef's cooking but also his writing.

"He had been up in his room reading an introduction I had written to one of my cookbooks," O'Connell said. "He came down and told me, `You're a good writer, and I am letting you know that I like one phrase so much - something about food storing memories in the cupboard of the mind - that I am going to steal it.' " He was mellowing, O'Connell surmised.

Back in Baltimore after the memorial, I received several messages from journalists who had read news accounts of the event and wanted to pass along more tales of gustatory outings with Apple.

"Johnny was ever the man to ensure that he had the finer things in life, even in situations where only the basics were available," former Sun foreign correspondent Bob Erlandson said in an e-mail. He had met Apple in 1967 in Vietnam. "He used to carry canned beaujolais in his pack. Something to wash down the C-rations. It was pretty good wine, too."

Katz, the Baltimore list maker, reported that Apple had subsequently returned that favor from 2003. The two had teamed up again when Apple was working on an article about the Eastern Shore.

Katz told Apple he was off to Argentina. Apple promised Katz a list of places worth visiting there. Sure enough, when Katz arrived in Buenos Aires, there was a long list of Apple recommendations that Katz followed - resulting, he said, in "some of the best beef I have eaten in my life."

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

Podcasts featuring Rob Kasper are available at baltimoresun.com/kasper.

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