Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Back to the Egg: the Beginnings of a Food Critic
Long before I dreamed of being a food critic, I wanted to be a magician. Crazy, huh? No, it's magical. I was obsessed with magic. The embryonic food critic was a little boy in a tuxedo and a magic set. From the public library I checked out a book, no doubt some instant-bargain reprint (on cheap newsprint) of a book from the 1930's (I imagine) by somebody named Duninger (sp?) all about how to perform magic tricks. I'll google it later (google it later--isn't that everybody's motto now? Unless it's "google it now.") I remember my wand, black with white tips at both ends. I remember the black bowls, the coins, the rings, the scarves. All in a package for Christmas. I was going to be a magician. I was obsessed with Houdini. I watched a TV Movie called "The Great Houdinis" (plural--it was about his wife as well). I read paperback books about Houdini. I remember the local mall/indoor amusement park had a magic history exhibit. I saw Houdini's straitjacket! That mall also had a magic shop. I'd go there and buy tricks--for a while, but soon I started buying the gags and novelties instead, until at last I bought only the coverless (!) comics they sold there (I found a copy of The Great Gazoo). That mall is out of business now. I wanted so bad to be a magician. I was everything T.S. Eliot said about Edgar Allan Poe, except I really was a nine-year-old boy (or whatever age Eliot claimed Poe was stuck in). I think I bought Blue Oyster Cult's (umlaut to be provided later if never, I'm feeling lazy--can't you tell?) Agents of Fortune LP (on vinyl!) because of the mysterious picture of the magician on the cover. The strange glyph. The intriguing cards (I didn't know they were Tarot cards then. In my early twenties I became obsessed with the Tarot). And so I thought I would become a magician in later life, little dreaming (little dreaming!) that I would become instead the world's foremost food critic. What a twisted, misted labyrinth that led from that midwestern magic shop to my place at the forefront of culinary theory. Back to the egg, indeed!But--you must be asking--show us the thread and how it leads from one dream to another, please! I'd say I probably always was a food critic. Because I indeed was that child who people stated "ate like a bird." Ate like a bird! What kind of bird? A vulture? A hawk? No, I know what they meant, they meant some tiny pipsqueak of a feathered friend, chirping and chirruping, pecking and picking, eating crumbs, ah, not a ravenous lion tearing great chunks of meatloaf from his plate. That's what they wanted to see. But I, alas, had a bird's beak, not a lion's fang. Looking back, now, I see that what I possessed was greater than both of those things, for I was endowed with a little thing called "taste." Because I was able to make disinctions, even back then. I knew that King Vitaman (note the spelling--not "Vitamin" but "Vita-Man" in other words "VITAL MAN"--what crazed fantasies of virility were being packaged in these cereal boxes??) was much more interesting than Cheerio's. What could be less "cheery, oh!" than a bowl of Cheerio's, I thought as a child. Those sad, round oat rings floating pitifully in a milk bowl, the milk usually over-sweetened with grains of sugar since the stuff was inedible without adding at least seven lumps to it, and the sogginess of the rings as they became saturated with warming, sickeningly sweet milk. Where's my King Vitaman? Don't give me these nihilistic, life-despising circles of pathos! Give me my King Vitaman! And when that happened, when I decided that I preferred KV to Cheerio's, that was a mind-blowing, earth-tilting epiphanic moment that decided it for me. I put down my wand and picked up my food-critic's notepad. And I never looked back!As a food critic, I must make judgements. I must use the sword of criticism to divide the good from the bad, cuisine-wise. And most of all I must preserve your trust in me, as I promise not to lead you astray. I pledge that if a meal, no matter how trendy, tastes like chalk tablets to my tastebuds, I will report that to you. I recall walking up to shoppers in the supermarket as a child and warning them about products they were intent on buying. "No!" I howled. "Don't make the mistake of purchasing those jars of peanut butter already mixed with jelly! I had some last month and it's horrific! Please don't do that to yourselves!" And with crazed gestures like some insane symphony conductor I pulled boxes of Chicken-in-a-Biscuit off the shelves and threw them into their shopping carts. "Eat this stuff instead! I promise, you won't be sorry. Aw, you gotta listen to me. That stuff is just no darn good!" Soon I was tossing jars of canned heart-of-palm into the carts as well, as I stood there windmilling my arms, racked with frustrated, altruistic sobs. And so, a food critic was born. If there's a hero in this story, it's that little boy that I was, howling as he tosses bottles of Squirt and boxes of Quisp into the shopping carts of clueless consumers. Soon, of course, I began to speak up not just in supermarkets but in restaurants, and here my career as a food critic begins in earnest. If I saw somebody pouring ketchup on their fries at McDonald's, it was all I could do as a youngster not to flap my hands in their face and ask them if they'd never heard of vinegar. "Sour? Available in bottles? Good on French fries?" I began typing little reviews of restaurants on index cards and thumb-tacking them to telephone poles. I graduated to borrowing the school mimeograph machine to turn out purple copies of my restaurant criticism. Soon, as you know, I was given the Food Critic Prodigy Award . I was well on my way to greatness as a food critic. But of course, it's a "Long and Winding Road" from here to there.In between those early days and now there were many periods of transition as my tastebuds evolved. (For example, as a child I couldn't abide calamari, whereas now it's practically all I eat--or at least that's what some people would tell you!) I won't pretend that I haven't made a few food faux pas on my road to greatness. I was one of the first critics to predict that aerosol lard would soon be a tableside staple--what was I thinking?! But all in all, I think I've hit more bullseyes and stuck fewer bystanders with my opinions. And now with the Internet, I have a way of instantly seed-casting my insights across the entire solar system--even to colonized Mars!I want to thank you for joining me on this journey from the embryonic magician that spellbound his schoolmates and teachers, to the courageous food-reformer taking a stand in the grocery aisles, all the way to the successful, complacent food guru who rules the cyber waves! Remember, it's not how the chef stirs the food, it's how the food stirs you!