Here’s what happened. Mitch Omer — one of my dearest friends in this world — showed up at my house on Thanksgiving with a red-lined version of Andrew Zimmern’s December column, livid about some of the things it contained. Mitch railed. I defended Andrew on many points. We got into a bit of a tiff, which we worked out in about 30 seconds over a nice Cabernet. Then we moved on.
Before leaving my house, Mitch asked if my editors at The Rake might be interested in publishing his thoughts. I said they might, he should send. So he did and they did and Mitch’s funny, blasphemous and hugely popular Ode to a Sycophant was published early on the morning of December 27.
Later that same day — around noon, according to the time stamp — Andrew’s Chow & Again appeared responding not to Mitch but to me, referencing a desultory, down-home Top Ten list I’d posted in large part to make a point about these lists being rather ridiculous: subjective, random, and, in most cases, designed to show off what the reviewer knows or where he’s been.
Bauer is a very good writer, more of a craftsperson than I will ever
be—I am more of a hack. But reading [Breaking Bread] throughout the last
month and finally seeing Bauer’s piece touring us through the
highlights of her year of eating was the biggest buzz kill of my day.
Sample Room? Kinhdo? Coffee News Cafe? Pizza Luce? Atlas Grill? Anne,
you need to get out and eat more!
Now, put aside the fact that he misspelled my name repeatedly [note: most, but not all, of these errors have since been corrected, no doubt by MSP’s fact checkers] as well as the confusion about why Andrew happened to be on our site reading and what he actually was upset about. . . .
There are a few things I’d like to clarify. (Though in truth, I feel as if I’ve been clarifying them for years, and it’s getting pretty damn old.) First off, I AM NOT A FOODIE. I am a food writer who also writes about literature, film, art, culture, history, religion, health, and politics. I often tie these things in, because I believe that food while central to existence should not be central to life. (It’s a fine distinction, I know, but one which I hold strongly.) My 2005 Salon essay "Food Slut" described my position as a food writer — and, by the way, resulted in a truly delightful turn on Zimmern’s now-defunct radio show, Chowhounds — and I posted a blog just a couple weeks ago restating it.
Second, in order to get a rise out of Andrew Zimmern — let’s face it — I’d have to eat great-spotted lizard eggs or suck down the testicles of an endangered wildebeest. This is a man who travels the world and masticates things I believe should be left to evolve in the wild. . . .or, rarely and only for the sake of study, housed happily inside the glass walls of a terrarium. Not my bag, and how it informs an audience of viewers in Indianapolis or Billings about what to eat, I just cannot parse.
This brings up another point: I will never knowingly eat food that involved the torture of animals — or the exploitation of people — in its production. This means no foie gras (which I absolutely love) unless someone can assure me the fowl that donated their livers never had their feet nailed to the floor and grain poured through a tube down their throats. Not even in pursuit of the perfect meal. Never.
Finally, Zimmern suggests The Rake should send me out with more money to dine and runs a list of his own, which includes:
Patricia Quintana week at Masa
Heartland on principle and because I love the ‘everything from scratch’ vibe.
Foie terrine at Cosmos
Sautéed fish with pickled vegetables at The Teahouse
Quail with pineapple at 20.21 . . . and brunch as well—the smoked salmon alone is worth it.
Almost anything at Peninsula
Morton’s for a salad, a steak, and some creamed spinach
Oysters at Oceanaire
Striped bass at Alma
Everything I ever ate at La Belle Vie, and each time I go there, it gets better and better.
Mussels and a wedge of pate at the bar at Vincent
Homestyle tofu at Little Szechuan
Lunch at Que Nha—you can’t go wrong.
Passion fruit and chocolate dessert insanity at Chambers, and its truffle pizza and the ridiculously good galangal dipping sauce
What I find puzzling is this: Why is his pick of Punch Pizza somehow superior to my predilection for Pizza Lucé? And how is that tofu at Little Szechuan hits a higher mark of sophistication than tofu at Kinhdo?
As it happens, I did go to Vincent this past year and I was
disappointed (heartbreakingly so, for the first time ever, in both the food and the service) which is why the restaurant didn’t make my list. I love the food at 20.21, always have, but am so fatigued by the noise level it downgrades the dining experience for me. I’m long on record as loving Oceanaire, but as a former East Coaster I prefer to eat my fresh shellfish, er, fresh and by the sea. I went to the Chambers this year and, to be blunt, the décor there gives me the willies, making it tough for me to enjoy my food. And I have been perplexed by Masa — the brightness, the weird layout, the ersatz Chihuly light fixtures, and the high-priced pedestrian fare — since the day it landed on the Nicollet Mall.
As for Heartland, I adore the restaurant, the wine bar, and the owner, Lenny Russo — with whom I am under contract to write a cookbook about his "everything from scratch" philosophy. I am there often and have written about Russo’s cuisine as recently as December 5.
I am, moreover, a synesthete, which means my senses intertwine. I see sounds in color, I taste emotions and can identify the flavors of wind, thunder, sun, and rain. Along with this heightened sensitivity goes a tendency to evaluate factors other food crtics might not. If there is a scent coming from the kitchen that does not cohere with my meal, I will be unable to separate the experiences. One wine I tasted recently brought to mind the memory of kissing a baby’s sweet, sweaty neck. A dish like the vegetable salad at the Sample Room, which was on my original list, delights me because it is simple and triangulated: cool greens, warm winter gourds, oily dressing. To me, it evokes hay fields and full October moons, lacy, gray clouds scudding across the darkening sky.
In other words, a good, hot black bean burrito with goat cheese and homemade corn salsa in a clean, bright lake-facing room after a long motorcycle ride is going to make me happier than all the pomp and whipped beef foam and jangling table service in the world.
As for Zimmern’s charge that he goes out more and has a bigger expense account: True and true. (So, so true. . . .) My bet is that he dines out 8 to 15 times a week (and is known by the proprietors in 90 percent of these cases), while I go maybe four times and am treated the same way, uh, YOU might be. If there is any limit on Zimmern’s budget — which I doubt — it’s probably still ten times the one I share with Jeremy Iggers to do this blog. One reason for that is that The Rake has less money to throw around because they let us say absolutely anything we think, without regard to how it will affect advertisers, which is what I call journalism.
But we’re not here to debate the flimsy firewalls at Minnesota’s lifestyle magazines.
Here’s the truth. I enjoy Andrew Zimmern — a lot. I think he’s funny and smart and raucous and, for that matter, just darn cute. What other middle-aged man do you know who can get away with wearing a suit and red Converse shoes? But it’s never occurred to me that we were competing for audience share. His show is grand and opulent. He travels the world on someone’s full-service jet. He has been shown in the pages of his own magazine sitting in his huge, perfectly-decorated, and photogenic home.
I, on the other hand, am a woman more like you. A little younger than he and definitely less monied. I live in a little St. Louis Park house that no one is going to feature in a magazine, but I love it because there usually are six or seven teenagers draped over the living room couch. I have a talent for writing and for tasting and if I don’t quite have Zimmern’s globe-trotting flair, I think of myself as serving a different constituency altogether: people like myself and my husband, hardworking professionals and parents for whom a night out at Restaurant Alma (the one place where my list and Zimmern’s overlapped) is a profound and rare treat.
The way I think of it is this: When Andrew’s followers go out to eat, they talk about the food. But mine? I’m hoping that you, like I, enjoy the meal but discuss more important things. Whether there is a God. What your 16-year-old’s curfew should be. Philip Roth’s latest Zuckerman novel and whether he is the last great Jewish male writer extant.
Here’s one more thing you should know: I’m not, depite the way I may posture, a cynic. And neither is my colleague, Jeremy Iggers, which is one of the many things I love about working with him. Both of us bring a strong ethical approach to food, and a reverence, if you will, for the fact that we’re surrounded by riches. Restaurants needn’t be brand-new or lushly carpeted or habituated by the so-called "beautiful people" and visiting starlets to impress the two of us.
We’re big fans of the long-standing Minnesota restaurateurs who’ve been in operation for years, chefs who care about the provenance of the food they prepare, and establishments — both haute cuisine and casual — where diners receive exactly the same high level of service no matter what their color, dress, or station in life.
Which reminds me: I forgot to add Milda’s Cafe on Glenwood Avenue to my original top ten list. It’s not going to appear on anyone else’s, I guarantee you. But I had one of the most pleasant and inspiring lunches of my life in this little box of a place. I watched people walk in and be greeted by name: black, white, elderly singles, and families with small children. It was as happy and warm and welcoming as anywhere I’ve been. And more to the point of this blog, I had an entire plate of American Fries — diced, golden, grilled potatoes mixed with crisp shards of green pepper and perfect little curls of fried onion — for about three bucks.
It may not be Morton’s, Andrew. But the company at Milda’s was wonderful. The conversation was uplifting. And the food? Amazing.