| “First let me introduce myself. I’m Craig Claiborne, and this is Julia Child.” Photo: Scanned from A Feast Made for Laughter
“And to tell the truth, I was bored with restaurant criticism. At times I didn’t give a damn if all the restaurants in Manhattan were shoved into the East River and perished. Had they all served nightingale tongues on toast and heavenly manna and mead, there is just so much that the tongue can savor, so much that the human body (and spirit) can accept, and then it resists. Toward the end of my days as restaurant critic, I found myself increasingly indulging in drink, the better to endure another evening of dining out. I had become a desperate man with a frustrating job to perform.” — from ‘A Feast Made for Laughter’ by Craig Claiborne, New York Times Dining editor and restaurant critic, 1982
While there have thus far been no reports of departing New York Times restaurant critic and newly-minted memoirist Frank Bruni tipsily pressing ham against the windows of the Second Avenue Deli, rolling members of the Cipriani family for spare change and Bellini drippings, or skulking through the catacombs at Ninja New York, randomly alarming the goofily hooded servers, it’s not as if he’s going silently into that last bite.
They rarely do.
| 1974 New York Time publicity photo heralding Claiborne’s return to the paper. Photo: Scanned from A Feast Made for Laughter
It is also true that the restaurant column of The Times had become for me an intolerable burden on several counts. The public concept of that assignment is that it would be one of the sweetest of pleasures to dine day after day, night after night, in the greatest restaurant city in America. And all of it on expense account. Not only that, but the added perquisite of traveling around the world feasting on glorious tidbits. — from ‘A Feast Made for Laughter’ by Craig Claiborne
By “they,” I mean New York Times restaurant critics who, save for Bryan Miller, have all written memoirs of their tenure at the trough. Perhaps Craig Claiborne’s 1982 “A Feast Made for Laughter” — with its page 20 amuse bleaugh, graphically outlining ongoing adolescent sexual encounters between him and his supposedly sleeping father and enticing few readers to soldier on to the food world dish — set the table for over-sharing. While Mimi Sheraton (thankfully) stuck strictly to the mechanics of the gig in “Eating My Words: An Appetite for Life” and William “Biff” Grimes’ “My Fine Feathered Friend” furthered his column’s tales of the mysterious black chicken that alighted in his Queens, NY backyard, Claiborne, Ruth Reichl and as of recently, Frank Bruni all opted for infinitely less discreet digestifs upon leaving the post.
Claiborne, in addition to the incest revelation, only semi-flinchingly chronicled his descent into the alcoholism that led to his multiple arrests for drunk driving — and bailouts courtesy of the New York Times. Reichl, a prolific memoirist, laid bare her conflicted relationship with the emotionally ill mother whom she occasionally channeled as a critic’s disguise in “Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise“. And Bruni? Well, he barfed. A lot. On purpose.
Perhaps the job’s requisite nightly gorging necessitates a metaphorical purging in print form. There’s the inevitable identity quashing crisis brought on by the mandatory anonymity, the feedlot-style calorie intake in service of journalistic rigor, and, perhaps most stomach-knotting of all, the charge to lay benediction or condemnation upon a restaurateur’s livelihood.
The awful truth is that, to my mind, at least restaurant criticism under the best of circumstances is by no means cake and ale, Champagne, truffles and caviar. I disliked the power. It burdened my conscience to know that the existence or demise of an establishment might depend on the praise or damnation to be found in The Times. — from ‘A Feast Made for Laughter’ by Craig Claiborne
Yes, heavy lays the head that straps on the feedbag, but is there something more at play? Are these writers signing on for the gig, knowing that it builds a platform upon which they can ascend as a memoirist after the last bite has been digested, does the position whet an irresistible appetite for disclosure of the details, or is the public’s hunger for the inside dish just that insatiable?
We’ll ask Sam Sifton once he’s bellied up to a few dozen bar ‘n grills, but until then, let us know in the comments — are you that interested in the behind-the-scenes view of the review biz, do you think that level of responsibility is too much for one palate to bear, or would you snap up the gig in a heartbeat — calories and sanity be damned?
Originally published at Slashfood