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Nashville Scene Eating Words

Two books the foodie will devour

By Kay West

JANUARY 25, 1999:  Imagine a cocktail party. In the room are a scientist, a surgeon, a teacher, a priest, and a restaurant critic. Around whom do you suppose the other guests will cluster, eager to ask questions about their profession?

From personal, and somewhat embarrassed, experience I can tell you that it is the restaurant critic upon whom the spotlight shines. A new book, Dining Out Secrets From America's Leading Critics, Chefs, and Restaurateurs capitalizes on America's national obsession with food, on chefs' increased celebrity cache, and on the fascination harbored for how food critics do what they do.

Dining Out is Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page's third volume in the trilogy that also includes Becoming A Chef and Culinary Artistry. Their new book is a fast-paced and fascinating study of the dining industry, with a primary focus on those who critique it--people who, in some cases, have become nearly as famous as those who cook it. Within foodie circles, New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl is so well-known and avidly followed that people who live in Boise, Idaho, pick up the Times every Wednesday to read her verdict on New York City's newest restaurants, places most of her devoted readers will never have the opportunity to sample.

The book piles quote upon quote, observation upon observation, opinion upon opinion and anecdote upon anectdote from some of the nation's most authoritative food critics, among them Queen Reichl; Gael Green of New York magazine; David Rosengarten of Gourmet; John Mariani of Esquire; Jonathan Gold of L.A.Weekly; Corby Kummer of Boston; and Phyllis Richman, The Washington Post's restaurant critic for more than 20 years, who has been cited as one of the 100 most influential people in the capital city.

In chapter one, the book offers a timeline of restaurants and guides. The first restaurant as we know it today--one with regular hours and a set menu--was opened in Paris, of course, in 1782. In 1803, the Almanach des Gourmands, the first restaurant guide, was published, also in France. By then, there were 500 restaurants in Paris alone (196 years later, Nashville is still woefully behind).

Craig Claiborne began The New York Times tradition of weekly reviews in 1963; today, there is hardly a daily, alternative weekly, or city magazine that does not have a food writer on its staff. The book reveals tricks of the trade and confessions of the profession, such as how critics maintain--or at least attempt to maintain--anonymity; taking notes; the weirdest food ever eaten; what a review is based upon; how stars are assigned; and personal favorite restaurants. I was green with envy to find that most of these critics visit a restaurant three to five times before offering their assessment; Ruth Reichl ate at Jeans George seven times before finally writing her four-star review.

I am often asked what takes me "so long" to review a new restaurant--my policy is to wait at least six weeks--so I felt vindicated that not one of the above named critics would dream of beginning the review process until a restaurant is open at least two months. Doing so before then is not only unfair to the restaurant, but irresponsible to your readers. And I was sympathetic to their acknowledged demands of the job: the logistical headaches of arranging large parties of people to go out dining a few times a week; eating lots of bad food in between the good; never having the time to go back to a favorite experience; becoming a public figure who elicits very heated response; and the reluctance one feels to write a bad review (though readers seem to enjoy reading them more, critics do not enjoy publishing a negative review).

And I found myself agreeing with their assessment that, in spite of its drawbacks, being paid to eat food and write about it is probably one of the greatest jobs in the world.

Another book I added to my library over the holidays that will be of interest to foodies is Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses, a more carnal look at food and eating. A lot more carnal. This is not the book to take on a plane, as I discovered flying from Nashville to Dallas. You will either make your seatmate very nervous, or end up a member of the Mile High Club. I suggest keeping Isabel Allende's gorgeously--and erotically--illustrated book on your bedside table, or in the kitchen, where it may provoke an exploration of alternative uses for the kitchen table. Among the topics she explores are aphrodisiacs, forbidden fruits, aromas, sauces, and sins of the flesh. There are also a good number of fairly simple recipes. To whet your appetite, I offer this 12th-century poem from the book:

Her breath is like honey spiced with cloves,/Her mouth delicious as a ripened mango./To press kisses on her skin is to taste the lotus,/The deep cave of her navel hides a store of spices/What pleasure lies beyond, the tongue knows,/But cannot speak of it.

Pretty hot stuff.

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