Many of Large's fans don't want the mask lowered

Loyal readers have their own visions of Sun's restaurant critic

February 21, 2010|By Jill Rosen

In "Garlic and Sapphires," her memoir about being The New York Times' restaurant critic, Ruth Reichl described the elaborate, nearly obsessive measures she took to keep restaurateurs and diners from recognizing her. Fake names. Wigs. Costumes. Entire contrived personas.

To be "Molly Hollis," Reichl squashed her curly brown hair under a blond wig and wore an Armani suit, three sizes too large, padded with two skirts underneath.

Elizabeth Large never went anywhere near that far in the name of anonymity. A credit card with an assumed name began and ended her disguise arsenal.

Yet for 30 years, she slipped into restaurant after restaurant, quietly sampling shrimp ceviche and osso buco, cheeseburgers and hot fudge sundaes, essentially keeping her cover even as her readers wondered: Who exactly is this Elizabeth Large?

That question was renewed when she started the Dining@Large blog in 2007. The more personal forum allowed folks to exchange e-mails with her, joking and sharing at night and on weekends to the point where many of them began to feel as if they knew her.

They knew her and they could see her quite vividly, at least in their imaginations.

For Joyce Weinstock, Elizabeth Large is a character lured from an Anne Tyler book to taste the duck-fat fries at Salt - keeping a spotless home in some Baltimore neighborhood where lawns sprawl seductively before gracious homes.

For Robert Sandlass ("Robert of Cross Keys" to the blog world), Elizabeth Large is a Southern belle, preppy and polite, with a trace of an accent that a trained ear might pick up on when she says, "Just the check, please."

For Janice Pesyna, known on the blog as "Yum Porchetta," Elizabeth Large is kind of like Doris Day, smooth-haired in pearls and pastels, falling into Rock Hudson's embrace after a hard day of reviewing.

As Dining@Large loyalists, these regulars built images of Elizabeth from crumbs of detail that she dropped into her posts. That she has family in the South. That she plays tennis. That she travels often and favors the egg ramen at the lunch spot across Calvert Street from the paper.

They topped off these bits of truth with heavy dollops of creative license.

"I really have no idea," says Weinstock, who's a hospital clerk, "but I picture her as being very petite because I know about the tennis and that she works out. ... I think she probably dresses very well, like a lady who lunches. ... I think she probably lives in a beautiful home. ... She's probably an immaculate housekeeper and a great cook. ...

"I had the idea that she's in a single-family home. I think she mentioned that she has a driveway before."

Sandlass, a government finance officer who's been reading Elizabeth's reviews for years, sifted through the material, picking up and filing away clues.

Judging from the grocery stores and coffee shops she frequents, he figures he has bumped into her at Donna's, maybe waited behind her in the Graul's checkout line.

"You just start piecing some things together," he says.

Pesyna, a lawyer and part-time sommelier, turned to Elizabeth for guidance on the restaurant scene when she moved to Baltimore in 1984.

All this time, she imagined that advice coming from an elegant woman with silvery-blond hair, someone of the country club set, sipping iced tea in tennis whites or lounging in the garden on a chaise with a book and a big hat to block the sun.

And yet, she'd like nothing more than to meet up with that white-gloved lady for a trip to Highlandtown's Chicken Rico, where together they'd tear into some Peruvian rotisserie action, licking their fingers anything but delicately.

She's pretty sure Elizabeth would like that, too.

Through the years, plenty of people have, of course, managed to put two and two together. Baltimore is, after all, a small town in certain ways - the restaurant world being one of them.

More remarkable than some folks figuring out the secret, however, is that despite figuring it out, hardly anyone let the cat entirely out of the bag.

Early one Sunday morning Courtney Carter, a Baltimore grad student who's a regular Dining@Large reader, was shopping at the farmers' market under the Jones Falls Expressway when she noticed a woman taking a picture of the market coming to life. Later that morning, a shot, clearly the one that woman had been shooting, appeared on the blog.

Carter mentioned it to her husband, but otherwise held her tongue.

And last summer, when Hal Laurent, who plays the bass, was looking for some people to jam with, he ended up at a Labor Day gathering with Elizabeth's husband, who plays guitar. Laurent, a die-hard fan of Elizabeth's blog, met her but didn't tell anyone what she looked like.

"I wouldn't have dreamed of doing that," he says. "It would be rather like betraying a trust."

If ever there was a time to pull off the mask, it's now, as Elizabeth Large hangs up her napkin. Yet despite their years-long "Who's the critic?" parlor game, Elizabeth's fans are, for the most part, not demanding the big reveal.

Some would love to know. But plenty of them would just as soon not - particularly if Elizabeth would rather walk away from The Baltimore Sun with at least that mystery.

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